Amazon's 'Carnival Row' uses magical 'critch' and fairies to tell a very human story about bigotry

“Carnival Row” is something rarely found in Hollywood — a genre story about racism and prejudice that takes the perspective of the marginalized.
Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom star in "Carnival Row."
Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom star in "Carnival Row."Jan Thijs / Amazon
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By Noah Berlatsky

"Carnival Row" wants you to think it's a white savior story, at least to start. The series is set in a fantasy world where mythical creatures like pixies (pix) and fauns (pucks) co-exist with humans. The fairy creatures (or critch) are discriminated against in an alternate version of Britain called the Burgue.

One lone police inspector treats the critch with dignity. Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is the Oskar Schindler of the fairie — the fantasy steampunk Atticus Finch. “I can see you're a good man," one of the critch tells him, signaling to viewers that Philo is the hero and the man we should imitate. He's on the trail of a Jack the Ripper type killer who haunts the neighborhood of Carnival Row, where the critch are segregated, and beats fairie to death with a hammer. You can be sure that by the end of the eight-episode Amazon series, he will have brought the killer to justice, and healed the scars of hate.

“Carnival Row” isn't a white savior story at all. Instead, it's something much more thoughtful, and much rarer in Hollywood.

Except, all of that is a feint. “Carnival Row” isn't a white savior story at all. Instead, it's something much more thoughtful, and much rarer in Hollywood — a genre story about racism and bigotry which takes the perspective of the marginalized. By doing so, it eschews glib answers and easy uplift. The result is a story which is remorselessly clear-eyed, and often remorselessly sad. The few moments of joy or triumph feel unusually honest and hard won.

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(Spoilers below.)

The early twist in "Carnival Row" is that Philo is half-pyx. His wings were sheared off in an orphanage when he was a baby, to allow him to pass. To the extent that he is a "good man," it is because he is not fully a man at all.

Philo identifies with the critch not because he is unusually beneficent and kind, but because he is one of them. When he refuses to discuss the scars on is back with his human lover, it's not because he's a typical tough male taciturn hero. It's because he is terrified that she'll figure out that those are the marks where his wings used to be and he will lose her, his job and possibly his life.

Philo tries to help his friends and even strangers. But his power — his humanity, his police uniform — is illusory. He's not in a position to swoop in and rescue the marginalized in white savior fashion. . Nor is he in a position to reassure white viewers that they, or someone like them, can prevail over hate through sheer nobility. He does find the murderer, but another killer quickly pops up to take their place. This antagonist threatens to expose Philo's secret, and the bulk of the series is devoted to his efforts to hide it, and to reconcile with his true love Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a pyx Philo met and abandoned when he was in the army.

But “Carnival Row” isn't satisfied with toppling one white savior. Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) leads a kind of anti-Brexit party in Parliament, but he ultimately, and unwittingly, does more to harm the cause of critch rights than to help it. The wealthy Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) forms an attachment with her neighbor, a puck named Mr. Agreus. But the two are quickly absorbed in saving themselves. Her repudiation of her former bigotry doesn't give her the wherewithal to heal anyone else's harms, or change her world.

Often fantasy or science-fiction analogies about bigotry place white people in the position of the oppressed. The hatred of mutants in the “X-Men” films, for example, allows the series to focus on narratives in which (mostly) white people play the part of the persecuted. Mr. Agreus, though is played by David Gyasi, a black British actor. As a result, wealthy Burgueish society's contempt for the upstart puck and wealthy British society's contempt for black people are painfully intertwined.

Gyasi's performance is easily the most powerful in the series. Agreus' stiff pride in his success and wealth is occasionally shattered by volcanic anger, resentment and contempt for the people whose approval he needs and loathes. "I will not be condescended to," he tells Imogen with a cold, bitter fury. And the series, almost miraculously, does not condescend to him. It never censures his rage or suggests he should be grateful for the kindness of the occasional human who stoops to offer him political salvation.

Still, while Gyasi is not the only actor of color in the series, the big marquee names — Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne — are both white. The Burgue is a place of bigotry and prejudice, in which the marginalized scramble for a living as sex workers or criminals or servants, and humans occupy all positions of power. And our own world is also a place of bigotry and prejudice, in which white actors get the plum roles even in stories about the experiences of the oppressed.

It's unfortunate that “Carnival Row” couldn't quite throw off the cultural default of white protagonists. Even so, its rejection of white savior narratives, and of an easy, feel-good catharsis for viewers, is impressive and admirable. Even when Philo and Vignette win, they don't win, because when the state and society hate you, there aren’t many victories.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," one character observes towards the end of the series. Progress isn't inevitable; sometimes — often even — hate gets stronger rather than weaker. There are precious few human saviors in the Burgue. But critch can stand in solidarity with critch. That's the hope of Carnival Row.