In the opening scene of Amazon’s new Game of Thrones-style fantasy series Carnival Row — set in a kind of steampunk, alternate universe version of Victorian London that’s populated by humans as well as magical creatures — we see a persecuted group of fairies running for their lives. Shots ring out in a forest as the humans who populate the fictional city of The Burgue literally hunt them down, setting up a kind of Make The Burgue Great Again dynamic that casts a shadow over the storyline that we eventually come to learn also involves a serial killer preying on the fairies.
One by one, the fairies are cut down as bullets mercilessly rip through the forest fog. Direwolf-style four-legged killers on leashes are let loose to run down the survivors. An Irish fairy named Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne) looks to be the sole survivor from among the pursued, and she eventually reaches the edge of a cliff and leaps off, her hummingbird-like wings carrying her to safety.
BGR caught up with half a dozen cast members of the eight-episode series, which debuted for members of Amazon Prime on Friday and which Amazon has already green-lit for a second season. That faith in the series is a result of the directive from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for the company’s streaming arm to start placing a number of bets in the form of shows like Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings series as well as Carnival Row, to fill the Game of Thrones-sized hole in the TV landscape.
That’s not to say Carnival Row represents an attempt by Amazon to “make its own Game of Thrones,” despite some of the early reviews of the series that seemed to suggest as much. Rather, this new series (shot entirely in Prague) is meant to appeal to fans of the fantasy genre in general, who want a visually stunning, new and expansive world and story to get swept up in.
And, as the opening scene with Delevingne’s character alludes to, it doesn’t hurt that there’s a real-world element to exist alongside the fantasy, with the fairies relegated to the status of basically second-class citizens and vulnerable, outcast immigrants
Jared Harris, who plays a politician named Absalom Breakspear, agreed that the latter is a ripped-from-the-headlines plot device that gives the series relevance to complement the magical creatures and more fantastical elements.
“Because this is the fantasy genre, it means you’re allowed to explore your imagination to a greater degree,” says Harris, who is something of a journeyman actor viewers have seen across services like HBO, AMC and Netflix (in Chernobyl, Mad Men, and The Crown, respectively). “You can break rules. And in that way, you get into that child-like part of people’s minds and excitement about storytelling. And through that, you can try and … well, you’ve got to get peoples’ attention, haven’t you?”
About the theme of outcasts and the vulnerable, Harris continues: “That’s one of the hooks the writers came up with, sort of imagining what would happen if …? It’s sad, how quickly you can end up at the same problems we’re seeing in the real world, as well.”
Caroline Ford, who plays a noblewoman in the series named Sophie Longerbane, knows that a streamer attempting a fantasy like this will inevitably draw comparisons to something like Thrones — which does a disservice to this series. But she thinks Carnival Row also actually benefits from something that ended up hampering GoT, which had George R.R. Martin’s source material that it needed to be faithful to until the series ran ahead of that source material, at which point the showrunners’ choices began to cause controversy.
Carnival Row, meanwhile, is something entirely new.
“What we’ve got here is a completely new world that audiences will discover for the first time watching the show,” says Tamzin Merchant, who plays the aristocratic Imogen Spurnrose. (And who, fun fact, was originally cast as Daenerys in Game of Thrones before a late switch brought in Emilia Clarke, so there’s a GoT comparison for you. Likewise, GoT’s Indira Varma — who played Ellaria Sand — also appears in Carnival Row as the wife of Jared Harris’ politician, but we digress.)
Continues Merchant: “Audiences will come to this with a few expectations, maybe, but no preconceptions hopefully about what it is. And I think that’s actually very exciting for audiences, who can be quite jaded quite quickly if something doesn’t live up to their expectations.”
She describes the show as “fantasy after the fairy tale ends,” which is certainly on point considering the grimy, dark and foreboding aura that hangs over the show’s world. At the heart of the show, meanwhile, is also the nascent romance between Orlando Bloom’s character (police detective Rycroft Philostrate) and Delevingne’s fairy, in addition to the uneasy coexistence of both humans and fairies.
“When I read the script, it was within a month of seeing the images of the images of the Syrian refugee who’d turned up on the shore,” says David Gyasi, who plays a faun named Agreus Astrayon in Carnival Row. “It made me think, gosh, this storyline sadly is an indictment of us as humans and sadly relevant throughout our history. You know? You could place it in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in Germany, in Bethlehem — 2,000 years ago.”