This review contains spoilers.
Forget BARB meters drily totting up television ratings, the true measure of a TV episode should be judged by the volume of a viewer’s involuntary wail when the end credits appear. By that system, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell registers off the scale. When the screen turned black at the close of tonight’s instalment, my neighbour knocked on the party wall to check I hadn’t done myself an injury.
As an adult, watching this series is the closest I’ve come to the childhood experience of being read a new and spell-binding bedtime book. In the joy of the anticipation, in the telling, and in the frustration of realising a chapter’s end has snuck up on you mid-tale; that’s just how it feels.
Not that there’s anything much childish about this marvellous and disquieting story. The opening minutes of the episode, depicting Strange’s role in the Battle of Waterloo, yanked us right in to the dirt of war. Director Toby Haynes flew us impressively in over the Belgian battlefield, past mud, musket and cannon blasts, to the heart of the battle where a Romantically dishevelled man—Strange—raised his arms to the sky like a mad prophet.
There followed a repertoire of wonders from ‘Merlin’, who charmed a well of water to dance like a snake, animated a tangle of vines into a vegetal Hydra, and sculpted a bone-crushing Golem’s fist out of the very mud. Spectacular as it was, the scene wasn’t simply a showcase for Strange and the VFX’s team’s impressive talents, but served a real narrative purpose. In it, we witnessed the death of Strange the affable gentleman, and the birth of Strange the magician (“a magician might [kill a man by magic] but a gentleman never could”). War forced him to renege on his ethical contract, and he emerged from it a traumatised and different man.
By the end of episode five, that man was much closer to madness. The formerly mild tenderfoot had been radicalised by circumstance and transformed by grief into a staunch opponent of the cowardly, insecure Norrell. Last week saw the battle lines drawn, and this week saw Strange polarised into enmity with his former mentor. His final resolution before disappearing through that puddle was to “become the magician [he] was destined to be”. Fighting talk.
It’s testament in large part to Bertie Carvel’s performance that such talk inspired in me not gleeful anticipation of a spectacular confrontation to come, but dismay. Like the rest of this cast, Jonathan Strange is so well drawn and affectingly performed that I find myself not wanting fireworks from him, but sharing in his and Arabella’s wish for a life of simple happiness, gardening and children. Fat chance of that, now that he’s unwittingly bargained away her life and buried a piece of wood in her coffin.
Thus Arabella becomes the drama’s second Regency lady whose ‘ownership’ has passed not only from one man to another, but from one realm to another. Tricked by a reluctant Stephen and borne away in a faerie carriage, we left Bella dressed in finery, spinning around the ballroom under the Gentleman’s enchantment. Any complaints of one of the story’s few women having been ‘fridged’ solely to motivate the hero simply haven’t been paying attention to its inherent interest in civil and gender rights. At any rate, she’s still alive in Lost-Hope. Arabella’s story, one feels, is far from over.
Elsewhere, Segundus and Honeyfoot’s alliance with Lady Pole was making progress as the pair began to decipher her enchanted nonsense. (Is it Susanna Clarke we have to thank for the idea of fairy tales told from the fairies’ perspective? What a brilliant notion.) That wasn’t the only news from Starecross though, which welcomed a new inmate in the form of Vinculus, still ranting and raving about the Raven King. “How does one work up a little madness in oneself?” Strange asked this episode. Clearly there’s the man to ask.
The object of Strange’s pursuit, Marc Warren’s Gentleman, revealed a more infantile and mischievous than a sinister side this week. With no comprehension of or remorse for the pain he has caused both Bella and “the stupid magician”, he was like a schoolboy enjoying himself by burning ants with a magnifying glass, wishing yet more personal amusement by urging Stephen to pinch and flick at the grieving husband.
Norrell appeared to behave with a similar level of callousness in his refusal to acknowledge Strange’s request for help, but unlike The Gentleman, he isn’t driven by juvenile egotism. Loneliness, fear and insecurity are the engines of Norrell’s cowardice. He may hide it all under a supercilious front, but Eddie Marsan’s performance lets us in on the secret.
As does Peter Harness’ script, which highlighted this week Lascelles’ promise to withdraw his friendship should Norrell help Strange, threatening a lonely man with yet more loneliness. “If I do not have Mr Lascelles then I will be quite alone”, Norrell told Childermass, repeating the mistake he made with his former pupil of seeing a difference of opinion as betrayal, as the insecure are wont to do.
As no doubt he knew, Strange calling Norrell “a charlatan” was the most cutting of all possible insults to a man obsessed with respectability. (My only regret for this episode, incidentally, is not having seen Marsan’s face as Norrell heard that word aimed at him.)
Considering that Norrell’s “silly sea beacons” remain unfinished, and the mysterious Childermass (now in possession of the instructions for passing through mirrors) has displayed more magic than his master of late, Strange appears to have a point. Norrell’s desire for autocracy is rooted in his comparable lack of talent. He knows he can’t compete on a magical playing field, so he attempts to erect an impenetrable defence of legislation and respectability around him as protection.
Judging by the Strange we met in that prison cell though—one resolved to drive himself insane in pursuit of his goal—legislation and respectability aren’t quite going to cut it.
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