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‘Carnival Row’ Doesn’t Hold Back Depicting the Ramifications of Xenophobia

The show is fantasy, but ...

Carnival Row Philo Orlando Bloom

Season one of Carnival Row took us to a historical fantasy world. Set mainly in a Victorian-era London-inspired capital city called the Burgue, the show created a fantastical version of conflicts we face in real-life. The Burgue is inhabited mainly by humans. However, there is also a large population of fae immigrants from Tirnanoc and other war-torn countries. The fae comprises many creatures, but we mostly see the winged faeries and horned fauns interacting with humans.

Humans often treat the fae as less than people, based solely on their physical attributes. Some humans are alright, but many hold suspicious or hostile views on the fae who have “invaded” their country. Most of the fae live on Carnival Row, a neighborhood of the Burgue where they try to live without human interference. At the end of the first season, racial tensions between the humans and fae reached a boiling point. The fae were caged into remaining only on the Row. After almost a four-year hiatus, Amazon finally brought back the series for one last season, and they didn’t hold back on depicting the ramifications of xenophobia that they built up to in the first season.

The horrors of xenophobia

In season two of Carnival Row, there is a murderous creature hunting down people. Yes, it is scary. But the genuine horror of Carnival Row is how awful xenophobia and racism affect people in the show and in real life. The conditions on the Row go quickly from bad to worse.

***Warning Spoilers for Season 2 of Carnival Row***

With the Row locked down, fresh food is scarce and everything coming in from the Burgue looks like it was someone else’s garbage. In addition to the guarded fence, the Burgue police install a barbed wire ceiling across the rooftops, so the faeries couldn’t fly. The close quarters and lack of flying result in a horrible disease that causes only the Faeries to fall sick and die painfully.

Burgue politicians leave the Faeries to rot (even though they could have supplied medicine) because it isn’t an illness that humans have to worry about. One key politician visits the Row and finally sees the devastation of the disease when someone hands her a faery baby who wails in pain while their wings dissolve. Yet when she heads back to the Burgue, others convince her just to forget what she saw. It’s gut-wrenching to see people suffer, even in a fantasy world, while others have the power to help and do nothing.

Philo and the police problem

Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) was a Burgue soldier turned police inspector. Philo dedicated his career to getting justice for victims, regardless if they were human or fae. Not all the police shared his views about the fae deserving their help. Many felt that it didn’t matter if someone victimized or even murdered the fae because the fae weren’t human.

Philo did his best to keep up the good fight. But at the end of the first season, he reveals his secret to his racist co-workers. As an infant, a doctor cut off Philo’s wings so he could live as a human, even though he’s actually half fae. During season two, Philo’s story arc goes through the stages of grief as he comes to terms with how he furthered a racist agenda within the police force, even as he thought he was subverting it. Philo’s friend and politician, Runyan Millworthy, tells Philo that the vast majority of the people in charge of the Burgue are cowardly bigots with delusions of supremacy and world domination.

Problems between the police and the fae only get worse during the second season. After a disastrous attempt at shipping the fae immigrants “back home,” the police have had enough. All pretense of civility vanishes. Both in and out of uniform, the police say hateful things to the fae and chant, “Filthy critch, murderous vermin.” In the end, the real threat to the fae are the police and politicians. People who are supposed to protect them burst into the Row and start assaulting the fae. From beatings to cutting off the parts of the body that made them fae, the police act like monsters.

The show is fantasy, yet it still reflects problems in our own society. However, real-life problems won’t resolve themselves when immigrants can magically go back to their countries of origin. A giant-toothed fae won’t eat hateful politicians and police who further racist agendas. It is so easy to see how appalling this behavior is when it is against the fae. Maybe it will help wake some people up to real atrocities happening around us.

(Featured image: Amazon Studios)

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D.R. Medlen (she/her) is a freelance pop culture writer. After finishing her BA in History, she finally pursued her lifelong dream of being a full-time writer. She fangirls over the X-Men, folklore podcasts, and historical fantasy. When she's not writing or reading, she lives that hobbit-core life in California with her spouse and offspring.