What The Heck Is Carnival Row About?

Photo: courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Carnival Row, an expansive (and expensive) new fantasy show from Amazon Prime, should come with a dictionary. Hesperex? Marroks? Tirnanoc, the ancient fae homeland? Centaurs — oh, wait, Hagrid taught us about those.
Premiering on August 30, the eight-episode fantasy drama is set in an impressively intricate world. Expect to be dropped straight into the cobblestones of the Burgue, a Victorian-era city populated by humans and mythical creatures displaced from their homelands.
But all that world-building means there's quite a lot to piece together. Here's the Carnival Row guide we wish we had when we first started watching.
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So, what’s Carnival Row about?

Don’t get caught up in all the fantasy jargon. At its core, Carnival Row is a story about xenophobia and the refugee crisis, disguised in fantasy clothing. Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom lead as star-crossed, inter-species lovers. The story unfolds from their characters' perspectives.
Meet Rycroft Philosrate (Bloom), a police inspector for the Burgue. He's one of the few humans sympathetic to the displaced fae (short for 'faeries' but representative of all magical creatures) around him. When a murderer starts preying on faeries who live in Carnival Row, an area of the Burgue, Philo is on the case — even if the rest of the squad is apathetic.
Meanwhile, Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne) is a winged faerie who just fled her home in Tirnanoc. Of the all the refugees on the ship sailing for the Burgue, only Vignette survives. She works as a handmaid for the wealthy Spurnrose family. Her employer, Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant, the original Daenerys Targaryen), wrinkles her nose at the sight of a creature. So imagine her horror when a faun, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi), moves in to the mansion across the street.
A reunion is in order. Vignette and Philo haven't seen each other since their traumatic parting during the war. In fact, Vignette thinks her lover is dead.

To understand Carnival Row, you need to know Carnival Row's backstory.

Pay attention to the start of the first episode, which offers the Sparknotes version of Burgish history.
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For ages, fae lived in a land called the Tirnanoc. Then, the human colonizers from the far-off continent Mesogea came and mined their land for resources, because of course they did. War ensued as human empires battled for control over Tiranoc’s riches.
The war ended when the Republic of the Burgue — where Carnival Row is set — withdrew from Tirnanoc. The fae were left to the Pact, the enemies of the Burgue. It’s the equivalent of Europe being left to the Axis Powers during WWII. For the fae, the end of the war means more massacre.
So, many fae are now crossing the ocean for the Burgue. Should they survive the rough passage, the fae exchange one hardship for another. Sure, they’re free from the Pact, but they’re dirt-poor and treated as second-class citizens in the Burgue. “The critch are swarming our city and changing the very fabric of our society,” an angry politicians spews, his rhetoric echoing the kind of words using in xenophobic speeches today.
At the time of Carnival Row, the Burgue’s government is divided by two parties. Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris, king of prestige TV) is adamant the Burgue has a responsibility to shelter the fae because they created these awful circumstances. Breakspear’s party also started the war, so there’s extra guilt involved. The opposition party perceives the “critch” as threats. Whose influences will win out?

Level with me: How many creatures do I need to know?

Carnival Row is the kind of fantasy show that spells "fairy" as "faerie." That should be a dead giveaway that this show takes its mythological creature classification very seriously, and there is going to be a lot of keep track of. Get your flashcards ready, people.
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Quick overview: There are faeries like Vignette and her friend, Tourmaline (Karla Crome). There are Trow, strong creatures who become laborers in the Burgue. Introverts, listen up: Kobold have the envious power of being able to roll into an armored ball. Sadly, the fauns of Carnival Row are not nearly as jaunty as Mr. Tumnus.

Who has the weirdest name in Carnival Row?

This is a tough competition, since the writers of Carnival Row are clearly into extra names. "Portia Fyfe" could be a character on Real Housewives of Carnival Row. "Piety Breakspear" sounds like an Inquisition-era torture device you'd ogle in a museum during a school trip. And I'm pretty sure I saw someone named "Tourmaline Larou" in Town and Country.
For obvious reasons, though, the strangest name in Carnival Row is "Nigel Winetrout." What is a winetrout?

Is Carnival Row based on a book?

Surprisingly, no. Carnival Row was adapted from a film script called A Killing on Carnival Row, written by Travis Beachem. Originally, A Killing on Carnival Row was going to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, but del Toro had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts. In 2013, del Toro directed a movie using one of Beacham's scripts: Pacific Rim.

Is Carnival Row the next Game of Thrones?

The comparison between Carnival Row and Game of Thrones is understandable: Both are fantasy shows with intense world-building and high production quality though. Aside from those similarities, though, Carnival Row is a beast of its own, with beasts of its own.
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Expect more genre content from Amazon Prime Video in the months to come. Amazon ordered a The Lord of the Rings prequel series and an adaptation of The Wheel of Time fantasy books.
There might be more fantasy shows arriving to Amazon Prime Video — but there will only be one Nigel Winetrout. Carnival Row has already been renewed for a second season, so catch up.
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