NB: I know Snowpiercer season 2 is currently going up on Netflix so I’m going to limit discussion of it to season 1 alone.
Carnival Row on Amazon Prime and Snowpiercer on Netflix are two vastly different TV shows. True, they have some big name actors (Jennifer Connolly and Sean Bean in Snowpiercer, and Orlando Bloom, Indira Varma, and Cara Delevingne in Carnival Row) with high product values and slick effects. They’re grand in scope and set design. Yet they have so much in common, particularly in how they explore social privilege.
What Are They? The Breakdown
Carnival Row: An alternate universe, noirish dark fantasy with some fascinating parallels of our world. The titular Carnival Row is a seedy corner of a city known as The Burgue. See it as a kind of Whitechapel, a run down area of a Victorian London at the height of the empire. As this is seedy Whitechapel, it is full of ne’er-do-wells, the down on their luck and the desperate. It’s also home to a large section of the non-human population of The Burgue.
Snowpiercer: A train 1,001 cars long, a state of the art train housing the final 3,000 humans in a perpetual motion machine racing around a Snowball Earth world. It’s head is the mysterious Mister Wilford, owner of Wilford Industries. His public face is Head of Hospitality Melanie Cavill. She oversees a microcosmic society in which the train is divided into paying 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class, and the non-paying “tailies.”
How Each Handles Class, Society, and Privilege
I’ve felt that many TV series and films have shied away from looking at class privilege. In the drive to highlight others such as race, religion, gender, sexuality, and disability, there has been far less of a focus on class and the social strata of the family lines into which we are born. We know there is class division both in Europe and the US. It may not be as obvious in the US as it is in the UK, and some outright deny that the US even has a class system, but poverty and wealth is a huge divider of people.
Anyway, before I digress too much…
Crime and Punishment
Carnival Row: I alluded above to The Burgue feeling like an alternate London. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination, although it could be any bustling 19th century city in any wealthy western nation. Parts of it feel a bit New York too, but the fact that most characters have British accents, I’m sticking with London. The main plot point of season 1 is a series of murders by a creature known as a Darkasher, a type of golem conjured by a necromancer. Because the early victims are so-called “down and outs”, nobody takes the crimes seriously and they certainly don’t believe it’s a Darkasher. But then the creature starts attacking more well to do citizens of The Burgue, reflecting an unpalatable truth – crimes only become more urgent when the respectable and wealthy become victims.
Snowpiercer: A crime is also the central premise of most of season 1 of Snowpiercer. Andre, a former detective living in the tail, is taken to third class carriage where he is essentially bribed with food and asked to use his detective skills to solve a murder of a first class passenger. They have a suspect, a third class passenger, but not sure they have the right person. I’m not revealing that here, but I will say that the punishment for crimes is much higher the lower down the pecking order you are. Tailies who commit minor crimes suffer the cruel fate of losing a limb (which they are forced to put outside the train until it literally freezes off). Yet for higher class passengers, even a far more horrid crime of murder is punished far less severely – put into a drawer (a kind of cryogenic suspension) and even house arrest.
Carnival Row: The Prime series looks at racism in a much more obvious way as well as a literal one. The Row is home to many races – the Fae (fairies, and yes they have elfin ears and wings) who humans call “Pix”, and Fawns – called “Pucks” by humans. Both these alternate names are used as casually racist terms. We meet a brother and sister called Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose who live in the wealthy suburb of The Burgue. Imogen, a 20-something single woman longs for a wealthy husband to accustom her to the life she was born into. When she hears of a single man moving into a nearby house, it sets her heart aflutter… until she sees that the wealthy merchant – Agreus – is a fawn. And therein lies the racism. Humans see fawns as lesser than humans – uncouth and even barbaric, even among high society. Imogen, believing “pucks” as stupid and easily manipulated, attempts to flatter and use Agreus for his money.
While the racism between humans and Fawns is clearly mirroring that of white perception of black people, for the Fae it is slightly different. The Fae once had a pact with humans which the latter soon betrayed when the alliance was no longer convenient. They took their cultural treasures and essentially tried to destroy their entire society. There is a parallel here with the plunder of Africa, but I think the metaphor is far more about how European colonial powers treated other less advanced white nations – for example the British treatment of the Irish. The women are only suitable as prostitutes and housemaids, while the men are only suitable as beasts of burden. They are the hated immigrants used and exploited by the power that hates them.
Snowpiercer: There is no obvious or direct racism in Snowpiercer. Nobody appears to hate people because of the colour of their skin. Non-whites are certainly under-represented in 1st class, but they are not over-represented in the tail or in 3rd class. Indeed, one of the people at the head of the train is non-white. Let’s see if this develops through season 2, but at present, nobody seems to hate anyone for anything other than their class status aboard the train.
Immigration and Asylum
Carnival Row: I touched on this above, but there is more to the anti-immigration sentiment than simply hating the Fae. Political machination is interwoven between the dark fantasy and it is in the debating chamber of The Burgue’s Parliament that the rhetoric hits very close to home. Taking inspiration from Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, Brexit’s “control our borders” and Marine Le Pen’s French nationalism, there is a growing sense of immigrants taking over the city, bringing crime and disease with them and destroying the fabric of society. Much of Carnival Row holds a mirror up to the past but these scenes are taking a cold hard look at nationalism in the here and now.
Snowpiercer: Everyone looks down on everyone below them. The main difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd class, and the tailies is that the first three all paid for tickets. The tailies are essentially refugees, jumping on at the various boarding points where and when they could. They are unwelcome and unwanted and yet without the work that they do – the dirtiest and most dangerous maintenance jobs on board the train – it would have failed years ago. They are at once an annoyance, a low paid workforce willing to do anything for the guarantee of a meal, and seen as a drain on the carefully planned and managed water and food supply.
Just like our world, in both cases it’s far harder to move up than it is to move down.
Carnival Row: Even without race getting in the way, inherited wealth hates the self-made. Most of the prejudice that Agreus experiences is because he is a Fawn. That is not in question. Yet there are some who cannot believe that a Fawn could be self-made. Others feel threatened by his intelligence, his business acumen and even how he made his money. Agreus is a sharp and calculating man of towering intellect. The Fawns who work as housekeepers to the wealthy dislike him because he has risen up and can never be among the inherited wealth that they adore. Philo (Orlando Bloom) is a detective who has his own secret and reason to keep it. He too fears the loss of social mobility if anyone ever found out.
Snowpiercer: Society aboard the train is vertical – it’s a straight up and down. A number of people move upwards a class. For example, Andre is offered a place in 3rd class if he solves the murder case. One of the “breakmen” (essentially the police aboard the train) pulls some strings to get her lover into second class. Each class has a larger amount of space. The tailies are crammed into carriages full of wall to wall bunks. Third class passengers have small cabins, second class larger cabins, and first class get whole carriages to themselves. Those above really dislike those below rising above their station, much like in real life and certainly as also seen in Carnival Row.
Science fiction and fantasy are at their best when holding a mirror to our world. Simile, metaphor and analogy are not better used than in these genres. Both Carnival Row and Snowpiercer have already made such a huge impact on me and they’re only one season old each at this point.
Snowpiercer explores class to the exclusion of other forms of prejudice and privilege but that doesn’t mean it’s simplistic or dumbed down. Far from it. By removing all these other elements, it tells a story of the difference between the haves and the have nots. Carnival Row interweaves so much politics, social commentary, and discussions of class and race privilege, nationalism, colonialism and so many other social issues it’s hard to believe it did it in just eight episodes.
If you’re interesting in social commentary in the genres I strongly recommend checking these out.
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