Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy mystery series Carnival Row hits on August 30, and I had a chance to chat with three cast members about their role in the show and the various perspectives of the characters. As is the case in real life, there are varying shades of gray, and nothing all good or all evil. This certainly bodes well even for the rich citizens of the Burgue, which is the fictional city-state in which Carnival Row takes place.
In one storyline, we follow a brother and sister — Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose, played by Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant, respectively — aristocrats in this society who have lived comfortably off of their father’s fortune. However, the years have not been kind to them, and the duo have slowly squandered the money he left behind after his passing.
In this fantasy world, humans live alongside the Fae, magical creatures, including faeries, centaurs, and the like, all of which are pretty much second-class citizens. So you can only imagine how the Spurnroses feel when a puck named Agreus (played by David Gyasi) moves in next door.
Merchant: Yeah, well we all live in the same neighborhood. One of us lives in a slightly better house that the other two. And my character, Imogen is very annoyed that Agreus lives in the best house. It is deeply distressing for her.
Merchant: However, our geographical place on the show is very much centered around where we live, and our kind of emotional, more social place on the show is like we’re upper classes, two of us. The Spurnroses are very much upper class and Agreus is in a class all of his own, really.
Gyasi: I think Agreus is very happy to be living in the house that he lives in. And very happy to be causing the stir that he causes initially. I think he really goes for that, because talking about him within this society, within the context of Carnival Row there is a very clear hierarchy. At the top of it lies the humans, and then underneath the humans are all the different faeries and right at the bottom, you get fauns. So, it’s quite incredible that this being is able to rise above the limitations that society puts on him. And buy the finest house in the finest area, is one of the things that actually attracted me to him (laughs).
Gower: So, Ezra Spurnrose is one of the first humans you meet who you quite soon into episode one will realize he is a human who, what’s the better word, is taking advantage of the fay, but keeping face as a Victorian gentleman. Yeah, I’d say he represents a class of human who wants to be perceived at the top end of society and also as we discussed, you meet a brother and sister who live together with ample amount of money, and that money itself proves somewhat of a burden for them both. Because their father was this successful watchmaker and I can’t follow the footsteps of my father, I’d rather be in his shadow. I think he is a character who is dealing with that kind of demon.
I then asked about the squandered fortune. While it is clear both Ezra and Imogen have somehow lost the money, I was surprised that it didn’t exactly play up Ezra as a bumbling, money-illiterate buffoon. So I had to ask how it was that they had lost their money, and th answer was quite simple.
Gower: Believing beyond their means, I think that there is ample amount of money there and he-
Merchant: Squandered it.
Gower: He squandered it basically.
Merchant: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Gower: Yeah, but also my sister squandered it.
Merchant: I was just living in the manner to which I had become accustomed (laughs). That’s the thing I think about the Spurnroses is that they’re kind of the leftovers of their parents’ generation that did something and were quite important and they could have got the literal inheritance of wealth, that they didn’t quite know what to do with. Or they didn’t find out how to continue how to make money.
Gower: As you said before that is a very, Kudos to [showrunner Travis Beacham]. That is a very Dickensian theme that happens in the likes of Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby. He is squandering his money and inherited wealth in a way that can make a person.
Merchant: Yeah. But, I also wonder, how much money they would have had if Imogen was allowed to actually have a say in what happened with it. ‘Cause maybe Ezra would definitely sort of claimed that he’s not incompetent or that he hasn’t squandered it. But, I think that maybe who knows, we don’t delve deeper into the facts of the finances, of that they had money and now they don’t and Imogen doesn’t realize that until Episode 2. So…
Gower: And the shame of disgracing the family name and the famous name of my father, who is one of the most beloved figures of Burgue, is forever a burden, and in my head well nobody’s ever really given Ezra the means of how to actually be man, and how to actually behave as a respectable gentleman. I think he’s been improvising.
Merchant: And also I think that Ezra and Imogen, especially Imogen, definitely, don’t want to speak for Ezra, but their worst fear is being publicly deemed to be disgraced by their lots of fortune. Like the worst that Imogen can imagine is being in a cot, sitting in a cot outside, while all of their home and their possession things sold because they can’t afford to live there anymore. That, to her, I think, it would be a scandal. The type of scandal that she’d love to gossip about if it happened to somebody else, but if it happened to her it would be awful.
So then in comes Agreus who is in a position who could actually potentially help the Spurnroses. He requests a foothold in their social circles in exchange for his investment in their business to help raise their lot back to “respectable” circumstances. Now, the show could very well paint this as black-and-white: Faes are oppressed, humans are all evil, etc, but the show doesn’t.
In fact, in order for him to have reached such a status, Agreus had to do some horrific things. I asked Gyasi whether or not he had to have a conversation with the writers and directors once he found out the dark history surrounding his character.
Gyasi: Yeah, I actually did. When I read about that part in Agreus’ history I called a meeting because I just found the idea of playing someone who had that background…I found it so challenging and disgusting, because I likened it to someone in the slave trade who would find runaway slaves, having been a slave, and return them to their masters. And that, you know, if I had a list of a hundred characters that I would’ve wanted to play, that wouldn’t even have made it to 101. So, I found that really disturbing. But here’s the thing, and here is how they sort of switched it around for me. They just said look in this Carnival Row world, which has a very clear hierarchy, how could one move from the bottom rung of society to the highest? How is someone able to do that? And, that really made me think and actually having that aspect exist in our show kinda says more about the world that it exists in that someone from the deepest, darkest, poorest background, and what they would have to do to get themselves out of that situation. To change the situation.
Gyasi: The show offers more questions than it does answers, so if you were someone who looked at Carnival Row, and say, “Well what does this say about our society?” Well, that’s the question. What do we ask ourselves, what does it take for someone to be able to… how easy have we made it? How accessible have we made that? And then, who are we to judge? So it became something that I hated to something that I thought was an important aspect of him.
Carnival Row is available on Amazon Prime Video on August 30, 2019!
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