(Some very light spoilers for early episodes of Amazon’s “Carnival Row.” But don’t worry, there are no any major plot twists here)
I love “Carnival Row” on Amazon Prime Video, but I’ll admit it took me, a professional nerd, a couple episodes to actually absorb the basics of this fantasy world. The show just kinda drops you in and expects you to catch up, and it can be a bit of a struggle to do that when the only primer you’re given is these title cards at the beginning of the first episode:
“For ages, the homeland of the Fae was a place of myth and legend. Until the many empires of man arrived and warred for control of its riches. Seven years ago, this great war ended when The Republic of the Burgue withdrew, abandoning the Fae to the iron fist of their rivals, The Pact. Now the Fae’s homeland is the hell from which they yearn to escape.”
It’s not a lot to go on, and it can be tough for those proper nouns to stick in your brain just from reading that. So if you’re having a bit of a hard time keeping up, it’s not necessarily because you weren’t paying attention.
But the universe of “Carnival Row” was pretty well fleshed by creator Travis Beacham while he spent more than a decade trying to bring it to fruition. “Carnival Row” isn’t based on a book or comic or anything, so all this is original content. But the downside of that lack of an external source material is that we don’t have books that go into more detail about the world than the show does that could help us understand all the context of the story we’re experiencing. This ain’t “Game of Thrones,” with all those lengthy novels and encyclopedias that explain just about everything.
Right now we have two main sources for info about the world of “Carnival Row”: the show itself, and Amazon’s X-Ray feature, which allows you to read little tidbits about the scene you’re watching when you pause it. Because of this, there remain some big gaps in our knowledge, but those gaps will eventually be filled in — “Carnival Row” has already been renewed for a second season.
All right, let’s get into it. As you probably know, the bulk of “Carnival Row” takes place in a city called the Burgue, which is the capital of a country called the Republic of the Burgue. The Burgue is on the northern end of a continent called Mesogeo. To the east of the Burgue, on the other side of the sea known as the Great Main, is the continent of Tirnanoc. And beyond Tirnanoc is another continent called Ignota.
Okay, so now that I’ve given a not-at-all-adequate physical description, you should probably just take a long and close look at this map of the world that Amazon has provided. You can click on the image for a high res version.
There is a lot of stuff on that map that we don’t know anything about. Like the Bay of Monsters or the country called Witchveldt. Lots of things here that tease some very interesting potential future storylines. But the main thing for now that you need to glean from this is that the land in the west is the territory of humans, and the land in the east is the territory of the magic people known as the Fae.
As the series begins, the text on the title cards talks about how the Burgue and The Pact are fighting over Tirnanoc until the Burgue decides to bail. The Pact, which is mentioned many times but never explained, is just another human nation from Mesogeo, to the south of the Burgue. It’s an alliance between the countries Quivira and Cibola, so it’s the Quiviro-Cibolan Pact. That’s all we know, and we wouldn’t even have known that much without that map.
“Fae,” by the way, is a catch-all term for the non-human folks. These include the Faeries, the Centaurs, the half-goat Fauns, the Trow and the tiny goblin-esque Kobolds. Not all the Fae are from Tirnanoc — the Centaurs are native to Mesogeo and were the dominant race on the territory held by the Burgue before the humans took over. The Fae are just like humans in that they have nations and all that. When “Carnival Row” begins, Vignette (Cara Delevingne) is in Anoun, which you can see on the map there.
OK, let’s talk about The Burgue now. This country, which is the major power in the north of Mesogeo, has what is functionally a two-party parliament, the Commonwealth party on one side and the Hardtackers on the other, with a chancellor at the top who has almost dictatorial powers.
Chancellor Breakspear (Jared Harris) is a member of the Commonwealth Party. The Hardtackers were formed from a merger of various nationalist parties in order to form the major opposition party in the Burguish parliament. The Hardtackers are racists who would prefer to have all the Fae expelled from the Burgue. The Burgue had been an imperial monarchy until 150 years prior to the events of “Carnival Row,” when an uprising installed the parliament as the chief governmental power in the land.
Now the titular Carnival Row, originally a neighborhood called Gloamingside, is a sort of ghetto for the Fae immigrants in the Burgue. Finistere Crossing, by contrast, is the high-end neighborhood where the Spurnrose siblings (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower) and the faun Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) live.
There is a major religion in the Burgue, as you’ll see as you watch the show. It’s the Martyrite Faith — basically it’s a Catholicism analogue, like the Faith of the Seven in “Game of Thrones.” We don’t know much about the particulars beyond that obvious parallel, but you’ll get a brief education in its doctrine over the course of the season.
The last big aspect of the world we need to talk about is magic. As with “Game of Thrones,” magic is not prevalent in everyday life in the Burgue for most people. But magical happenings are important to the events of “Carnival Row.” One prominent character is a Haruspex, who is able to see the future. This wasn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon, at least for this specific character — she received that power by killing a previous Haruspex when she was young.
The prophecies of this Haruspex motivate everything Lady Breakspear (Indira Varma) does over the course of the season. And they also play a big part in the story of the main character Philo (Orlando Bloom).
Other prominent magical things we encounter: the mysterious creature known as a Darkasher, which is created from the corpses of other creatures; and the Wolf’s Curse, which basically turns people into werewolves. It’s also implied that the Fae just kinda casually use magic in mundane ways. Perhaps that explains some of the cool anachronisms of the Victorian setting of “Carnival Row,” like the elevated trains that run through the Burgue.
As we explore more of the world in future seasons, there will be more that needs explaining, but for now, this is pretty much all the primer you need for this cool new fantasy world.