The final chapter of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s sprawling novel, demonstrates the strength of both the story and the surprisingly successful reimagining of that story for the screen. There’s no doubt that this book does not lend itself to easy adaptation; it meanders (charmingly so) across hundreds of pages, several years, in and out of a fairy world, and dips into footnotes scattered across the pages, presented like side notes but imbuing the story with details and nuance that make the book remarkable. The final episode opens with Sir Walter Pole neatly condensing a lot of plot into a tidy expositional voice-over, describing the broken mirrors and return of magic across England, Strange’s descent into madness, and his plan to return to England, bringing his Black Tower with him.
“It is not treason, exactly, what Mr. Strange has done,” says Pole. “I suppose it is a species of revolution.” There is a sharp critique of gender, race, and class buried in Clarke’s text that hasn’t been explored much in the show, but this episode at least makes an attempt to bring those themes into focus. The return of magic to England threatens those wealthy white men in wigs; magic simultaneously pits them against the unknown and upsets the order that allows them to maintain power. Magic made available to everyone in England, including the poor, nonwhite, and women? There’s a revolutionary story there.
But the story at hand is more interested in the magicians responsible for returning magic to England, and those in their orbit who bear the brunt of the consequences. Lady Pole descends into sleep her caretakers can’t awaken her from; Drawlight is confronted by the increasingly hostile Lascelles; and Childermass takes matters into his own hands, helped by his (beautifully drawn) tarot cards.
The slow-burning rivalry between Childermass and Lascelles explodes deliciously, as sycophant Lascelles has become unbearably annoying and Childermass has grown from a resourceful servant to badass magician with a better sense of right and wrong than his employer. Defying both Lascelles and Norrell, Childermass is poised to help Strange’s plot and Lady Pole, and he becomes almost as compelling as the titular characters as his role transforms. Enzo Cilenti playing Childermass spits venom in these scenes, his presence crucial as a moral compass and as someone to root for.
But the real apex comes as Strange and Norrell work together at last; there’s plenty of baggage to get over, but writer Peter Harness wisely gets through their issues fairly quickly, as there is too much action to get to after they’ve made up. Their reunion even manages to injects some humor (remember those funny early episodes?) when Strange laughs at Norrell’s rain. “Don’t laugh at me, please,” says Norrell defeatedly, and Eddie Marsan delivers the line with such heartbreaking sincerity that all of Norrell’s previous faults and self-centered actions melt away. He feels belittled by Strange, unable to perform his fantastic magic, outclassed by his one-time student. Strange needs his help, though, and it becomes clear that although Norrell lacks Strange’s imagination with magic, he has his own skill set that proves invaluable for Strange’s mission to save his wife from the clutches of the fairy Gentleman.
Is there a better image for the entire show than the one above? Hands entwined, Strange and Norrell light a candle in a desperate attempt to summon the Raven King. His long hair covering his face, the Raven King gives them one contemptuous look before disappearing; they then attempt to call him by the name “the nameless slave,” and all the moving pieces of plot begin to clunk into place. Vinculus gets a new story imprinted on his skin, and then Childermass, Lady Pole, and Stephen are all in the same place. Lady Pole finally has her voice, using it to tell off the Gentleman: “I’ve had my fill of you, Gentleman, taking what you want of me. I have my voice now.” Stephen, too, is able at last to rebuke the fairy, gasping that Sir Walter Pole has “made me as much a slave as you have.”
Their storylines come together as the magicians cast a spell to put all of English magic into the nameless slave; a swirl of crows drops Stephen in front of Strange and Norrell, much to their shock. Speaking of crows: One might think that a TV show about magicians would be full of CGI, and of course there is some, especially in this episode. But director Toby Haynes and writer Peter Harness use it so sparingly that the impact hits harder than were it choke-full of it. The Dark Tower enveloping Strange isn’t described as a swirling cyclone of black clouds in the book, but here’s an example of creative interpretation used for beautiful visual spectacle, as in the scenes of Childermass riding away from Norrell’s Yorkshire estate.
But I want to call out the quieter practical effects as the ones that make the magic in this show really come to life. The use of candles throughout, for instance, has become a crucial plot device: Candles are lit to call the fairy, blown out to return him to Lost Hope, and when Strange arrives in Norrell’s library, it’s Norrell’s candle flame disappearing in a puff of smoke that signals magic, letting Norrell and the viewer know what’s about to happen. Flames and candlewicks create a sense of foreboding, a creeping portending of what’s to come.
Likewise, the use of broken mirrors has come to signal eerie magic gone wrong. The crows—CGI, sure, but used to create nothing more than a flock of birds—in this episode create a swirling sense of chaotic magic. It’s a brilliantly simple device that shows the frenzied recklessness of the magicians and the tumultuous results of their spell casting. As Strange and Norrell enter Lost Hope (and Norrell is almost excruciatingly adorable, trumpeting the virtue of good, English rain), the plot unfolds with dizzying spectacle, as Strange finds Arabella and Stephen fulfills his destiny at last.
The ending is affectingly sad, though not without hope. If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the consequences of their magic means they’re stuck in some other place. Things don’t end quite the same in the book as they do in the show—the characters are made more likable, their decisions more sound—but I wasn’t too fussed about it. The soul of the book can be found in this version, and the whole main cast—especially Cilenti and Alice Englert playing Lady Pole—did a fabulous job embodying their characters, and Carvel and Marsan deserve solid recognition for their work. This much abridged version may not have the depth of Clarke’s world, but it definitely has its magical spirit.
- “I can tell you your name,” the Gentleman tells Stephen.
- “I am the nameless slave, and I answer to no master now,” he answers. Marvelous.
- Norrell gets some moments to shine in this episode, and I found myself moved when he ran after Lascelles as Strange descends on the house, crying for him to return to the library where he’ll be safe. It’s surprising and not a little humanizing how much he cared about that douchy guy.
- Lascelles’ true colors are terrifying to behold, so it’s a truly sweet moment of schadenfreude to see him turned to porcelain and stepped on.
- The fairy Gentleman getting his due is nice, as well, though my favorite moment of his is when Lady Pole hurls insults at him, and her last, “your hair like… thistledown,” is what really seems to get to him.
- “We will both soon be dead. There will be no leisure for reading,” Strange snaps at Norrell, whose persnickety attitude regarding his books comes full circle.
- Childermass is the shit in this episode. “Goodbye, Mr. Norrell. You’ve made the wrong choice, sir, as usual.” That long-ago hinted at sequel Clarke mentioned featuring Childermass needs to happen.
- If it didn’t seem like more trouble than it’s worth, I’d made a gif of Mr. Honeyfoot’s ears flapping toward the ceiling.
- Hey commenters, thanks for sticking with me to the end of this show; my first TV Club beat has been a lot of fun, and I’ve enjoyed reading your comments.