‘Carnival Row’: Philo and the Politics of Passing

Usually when I watch a show, almost without fault, I relate to one of the female characters. This probably has a lot to do with how male characters are written – emotions, what are those? – and of course, also with the fact that, as a woman, it’s easier to see myself in the experiences of another woman.

The exact opposite happened to me with Carnival Row.

Sure, part of that might have been that the first time I actually felt Vignette was somewhere around episode seven. Before that, her storyline, while not a total bore, just wasn’t hitting any emotional chord with me. And well, despite how much I ended up liking Imogen, it’s fair to say that, for at least half the season, it was impossible to actively like her.

There was Tourmaline, of course, but she was treated a bit like a love interest, even if her relationship with Vignette was never the main focus of Carnival Row; she barely got any storyline on her own.

Yes, these are the justifications I gave myself. The rationalization for what I’m about to say.

Philo is, by far, my favorite character on Carnival Row.

And I swear, that has very little to do with the fact that 2019 Orlando Bloom is hitting pretty much all my buttons, looks-wise. I’m a serious person and these are my serious thoughts and my possible, maybe, perhaps crush on Orlando has absolutely nothing to do with them.

I promise.

To explain my reasoning, I have to get a little bit personal. I’m Latina, and proud of that. I’m also white. This means that my experience as a Latina, even if I have experienced some discrimination, is markedly different from the experience of people who, unlike me, can’t pass as “white.”


I’m not even going to go into the whole “passing as white” thing, because I’m not passing as white, I am white, Latinx is an ethnicity, not a race, – and yes, there are some white Latinos, and some black Latinos and hell, even Asian Latinos, that’s the whole point of ethnicity not race – because this is a Carnival Row piece, and I have a point, I promise.

My point is this: Philo can “pass” as human. In fact, that is basically what he does for most of the time we see him, pass as something he is not: full human. While other creatures are discriminated because of who they are, Philo – both by choice, and as a result of a cruelty done on him as a child – can pass, and by doing so, benefits from the privilege afforded to the people who make the rules.

The humans.

It’s a very common message, though of course, the twist is that in Carnival Row’s case, the discrimination doesn’t have to do with the color of your skin, your religion, or where you were born, it has to do with what you are.

So, basically, yes, there’s discrimination even in a fantasy world filled with actual mythological creatures.

The politics, though, the politics are the same, and I’m intimately familiar with the optics, have benefited from them my entire life, even without realizing it; when you can pass as “normal” your life is infinitely easier.

Let’s take the scene in episode eight where Vignette and Philo are trying to board a train together: she gets stopped, he doesn’t. Mind you, this is after Philo has accepted that he’s half-fae, after he’s stopped hiding. But it doesn’t matter that he isn’t hiding, he just doesn’t look like he’s fae. He never will.

He’s missing the wings.

You know, just like I don’t look Latina because I don’t fit into the stereotype.

Even then, after accepting his heritage, Philo has to make another choice, one he already made: to call himself a critch, to not just accept, but reaffirm to everyone he comes across, that he isn’t a regular human. They will never believe it if he doesn’t tell them, and that they believe it when he does, has a lot to do with how they perceive him.

As one of “them.” Someone to be believed.


Of course, if the show wants to play this straight, they will have to go into the other side of it, which is that Philo doesn’t look fae, either. It’s one thing to accept he is, it’s entirely another for the fae to just accept him as one of their own.

And that’s what makes Philo such an interesting character.

Well, that and the choice.

See, repressed Philo was compelling, yes, but there are so many repressed and broody leading men on TV that I don’t think I’d be here, talking about this, if the season had ended with Philo going back to being a cop, and hiding his fae side. Even if he did so for the good of others, even if he wanted to help.

No, it’s 2019 and I’m more into people who can be proud of what they are, even if the world around them isn’t.

Especially because, who Philo is – what he’s owned up to, well, that’s just the beginning of the story. There are so many ways this can go. Are they going to delve more into what it means for Philo to be able to pass as human? Is he going to go undercover outside of the Row?

I really hope so, because as shocking as it might seem, Philo’s story touched me in a way I didn’t expect. And for it to continue doing so, the show will have to allow this human-passing fae to continue to explore a world where he looks like he belongs, and therefore, benefits from privilege that isn’t actually his.

That’s the aspect of the story I’m most interested about.

Carnival Row is available to stream on Amazon Prime.


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