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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: “The Black Tower”

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“How does one work a little madness in oneself?”

Formerly charming, devil-may-care Jonathan Strange has been stricken by grief; he only cares about bringing Arabella back from the dead. He may appear mad—his long hair is disheveled, and his magical experimenting gives him the air of a mad scientist—but he’s perfectly sane. And that’s the problem. He knows how to summon a fairy, but not how to see and hear him. A fugitive in England, Strange takes up residency in Venice, where he takes a cue from the king and seeks to induce madness into himself that he might speak with the fairy to bring his wife back. Luckily, he runs into two English citizens: Flora Greysteel, who followed Lord Byron across Europe and was “saved” by her father, a doctor who checks in on a colleague’s patient who is, to put it politely, totally batshit crazy. Taking the trope of the crazy cat lady to the extreme, this old lady apparently survives by eating the dead birds and mice her many cats leave her—an effective use of that annoying cat habit if there ever was one.


It’s a disgusting, visceral couple of scenes with the woman and her cats and her eating small animals, but it contains some excellent black humor. Humor is a rarity in the show these days, as things are dark both plot-wise and lighting-wise; the sunlit scenes of Venice and Flora are the only bright spots amid the show’s increasing bleakness. Strange is in a very bad place, but he at least succeeds in inducing madness after an inspiring conversation with Flora.

Her capering with Byron helps explain her insight, as she tells Strange, “Who are we to say madness is a curse? For many people—poets, for instance—madness is a gift. Perhaps that’s how those wild magicians thought of it.” I’m not sure how poets would feel about this assessment, but it’s just the sort of thinking Strange needs at the moment. The character of Flora also provides a nice, human dynamic for Strange, as she’s enamored with the ideas of magic and Strange’s involvement with it. It’s a shame we don’t get more time with her, because she’s an engaging and appropriate foil.

Back to the crazy cat lady: Strange is working a kind of magic we haven’t seen before, and no doubt Norrell hasn’t seen it, either. He’s venturing farther and farther into the unknown, away from what Norrell calls “respectable magic” and into the realm that involves turning old ladies into cats and capturing essence of crazy into the small corpse of a mouse. Making a sort of extract from the mouse, Strange can now drink madness to summon the fairy; for whatever reason, being a little mad enables you to see fairies. With his, Strange has fully transformed from the happy man he was to the tortured, desperately determined, and little bit mad magician who will do literally anything to bring Arabella back from the dead. And it’s good to see him on this side of it, fighting to return Arabella, rather than drowning in sadness over losing her.

Bertie Carvel is absolutely mesmerizing as the increasingly crazy Strange; this episode alone should see his star rising to great heights. It’s only a shame that the equally talented Eddie Marsan doesn’t have the same opportunities to demonstrate his acting chops. Norrell, already cast into role of villain by refusing to help Strange when he needed it most, has become practically a supporting character. What little we see of him in this episode, like last episode, is to watch as he’s a jackass to Strange, first making his books disappear, then sending Drawlight to Venice to spy on him. Marsan is always perfect, using a restrained dexterity to show Norrell’s conflicting feelings and singularly damaging actions. I wish we had more time with him.


At last succeeding in becoming just mad enough to see and hear the Gentleman when he’s summoned, Strange is devastated with the Gentleman informs him he cannot help to bring his wife back. He lets slip, however, a hint of the previous time he brought a woman back from the dead, and Strange puts the dots together, at last understanding what Norrell did to gain both his foothold among the respected English politicians and how he brought Lady Pole back to life. He doesn’t get his wife back, but he gets something else from the Gentleman: Lady Pole’s finger, the token of the arrangement between the fairy and Norrell. Drinking more of the crazy extract, Strange uses the finger to enter the mirror, which sucks him into Lost Hope.

It’s here at last that Strange discovers the fate of Arabella (and of Lady Pole), enchanted and trapped in Lost Hope. The Gentleman is understandably angry—Strange’s discovery threatens Arabella’s and Lady Pole’s status in Lost Hope—and forces Stephen back to Venice surrounded by a black tower of night, appearing as a black cyclone over him to the terrorized Italians.


Back in England, Stephen, perpetually darkly lit, converses with Vinculus, imprisoned in the countryside home of Lady Pole and her caretakers, Segundus and Honeyfoot. Vinculus hints that he knows the answer to Stephen’s nightly imprisonment; for the first time, we see hope for Stephen. With the promise that Vinculus will free Stephen if Stephen frees him, they journey the countryside together, and Stephen’s otherness—discussed before, when the Gentleman shows him his heritage—is brought explicitly into focus. “The meaning is written in our skin, nameless slave,” Vinculus says, revealing that the book of the Raven King is written on his skin, containing a message just as Stephen’s black skin contains a message. “My skin means that anyone may strike me in a public place and not fear a consequence,” Stephen tells Vinculus. “It means no matter how many books I read, how many languages I master, no matter how diligently I work, I will never be anything but a curiously. It means that I am nothing.”

Vinculus assures him that his own skin, with the words of the Raven King on it, say the opposite: that he shall be raised up on high, that his enemies shall be destroyed. In England Stephen is imprisoned by the color of his skin, the point the Gentleman tries to make again and again. Yet Stephen doesn’t wish to be freed from the confines dictated by his skin; he wishes to be free from the Gentleman, who forces him to dance every night and participate in his evil doings. It’s the fairy imprisoning Stephen, and in that light, the prophecy Vinculus speaks of takes on a very different hue.


Stray Observations:

  • I’d pay to get a copy of Strange’s The History of English Magic, Vol. 1. Just the cover with the little insignia on it is all I want—maybe BBC could make it as a journal or something. Anyone have a connection with BBC’s marketing department to get this fabulous idea off the ground?
  • How many cats would it take for a person to live off the birds and mice brought by them?
  • My favorite scene of magic is not all the crows and mirrors and noise in Venice, but the quieter scene of scattered little “pops!” as each of Strange’s book disappears, one by one, in its publisher’s gloriously lit and painted office. Oh, the dangerous world of book publishing.
  • A simpering Drawlight: “They are all of the fashion amongst the poets. The kind of thing to provoke visions of palaces in Xanadu or Christ stuck up a tree. And suchlike.” Perfect.
  • There’s quite a bit more in the book on Lord Byron; while in Venice, Strange and Byron becomes friends. At one point, Strange becomes so Byronic that Byron takes notes. The Gentleman hates Byron.

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