The last episode was nearly all exposition, placing developments on a long line of gunpowder so that the right ignition could set them all on fire. The resulting explosion in “Arabella” more than makes up for that boring set-up episode, with magic raining down fresh horrors on our cast of characters. “Now there is more magic in England than either you or I can understand,” Strange tells Childermass, and indeed magic seems to have a will of its own these days, unleashed by the Gentleman and scurrying unchecked through England. Arabella’s moss-oak doppelgänger wanders the snowy countryside in a black dress, Charlotte Riley’s face a creeping blank slate as she looks uncomprehendingly on a man who finds her in the snow. That, combined with her unsteady walk, makes the moss-oak creature effectively eerie, especially as we see the real Arabella inside her home nearby. In a show that’s often over-packed with plot that has to be gotten to quickly, it’s nice to see some time devoted to a particularly creepy development. The Brontë-like setting, with open English countryside, thick snow, and ghosts about, gives these scenes a properly chilling quality, like we’ve stepped into the pages of a British ghost story.
As moss-oak Arabella stumbles into Jonathan Strange’s arms, the real Arabella is taken to Lost Hope and put under an enchantment to make her happy to be there; she laughs as vacantly in Lost Hope as her moss-oak counterpart stares in England. That’s much to the distress of Lady Pole, who sees her in the ball room and later complains to Stephen that she thought it would “at least mean she was given someone to talk to,” but “Arabella is so very far away.”
Honeyfoot, the boring old partner of Segundus who doesn’t seem the least bit practical-magic inclined, shows his wiles by treating Lady Pole’s bizarre stories as some sort of code. So he picks up on what Lady Pole says about Arabella, even if he doesn’t quite understand what it means yet. For the first time there’s a flicker of hope for Lady Pole, the most doomed of all the doomed characters, as she works with Honeyfoot and Segundus to turn her seemingly inane stories into sense. With the explanation that her stories are old fairy tales, but told from the perspective of the fairy, there’s the possibility that Lady Hope will at last be able to share her horrors with someone; the fact that Stephen is nervous about the whole thing makes it seem like she’s onto something.
The show by episode five is a different beast than the first episode; there is none of the lightheartedness and easy humor contained in the earlier episodes, with each progression into the story directing it down a decidedly darker path. It’s good; it demonstrates a showrunner who isn’t afraid to commit to the dark stuff, and for book-readers, it rings true to the ill-fated characters and bewitching aura of the original story.
Strange’s transformation from happy-go-lucky young man to a tortured magician is complete, and most of the episode focuses on this transformation. Not only does he return to war (for some of the coolest magic of the series so far, pulverizing an ax-wielding enemy soldier in a fist of mud), he comes back more damaged than ever, desiring only a quiet life with Arabella, which will quickly be the one thing he can’t have. His face was already more lined and his hair more gray when he returned from war; by the end of the episode, he has deep black rings under his eyes, his hair is liberally streaked with gray (though they’ve got nothing on the thick gray strands in Lady Pole’s hair), and his determination to bring his wife back from the dead turns into a sort of mania. He’s teetering on the edge of sanity, his many frustrated attempts to do and understand magic in earlier episodes transformed into something close to madness after he thinks his wife dies.
Because try as he might, Strange just can’t get the fairy to talk to him: The Gentleman answers his summons, but doesn’t allow himself to be seen or heard. We do get a lot of creaky house noises in this episode; apparently when fairies visit old homes they respond by giving their best creaks and settling noises. Magic is all around England now, conveyed through those noises and the lighting, which throughout the episode looks more and more like the unnatural light of Lost Hope. The shot of Lady Pole asleep in her bed is lit with an unearthly green tinge, as though the light from Lost Hope were shining on her sleeping body in England.
The Raven King hasn’t been seen, but we hear his name mentioned more and more; in Strange’s book that Norrell tries to prevent from being published, and from the mouths of out-of-work people destroying factories and proclaiming themselves followers of the Raven King. There’s a reckoning coming, you can feel it in the air: Norrell’s world of respectability and stodginess is being replaced with Strange’s world of unbridled curiosity and passions. The explosions of this episode will smolder for some time yet, and there’s still shrapnel spinning lethally through the air.
- The original Luddites, the real 19th-century textile workers who destroyed machinery that put them out of work, are aligning themselves with the Raven King here; Raven King as supporter of the working man?
- “After all, the Raven King has always been associated with riot and revolution.”
- We didn’t see a whole lot of Norrell here, which is too bad; Eddie Marsan continues to kill it as Norrell.
- Norrell doesn’t read the newspapers and appears totally unashamed of that fact.
- The sexy, dangerous world of book publishing shown briefly here should get its own spin-off drama.
- Drawlight is a perfect sycophant, spinning everything Norrell does into the good of English magic and going to riduculous lengths to make him feel good about himself. “You are English magic,” he tells Norrell.