The second episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell introduces much of the core narrative, drawing together all the elements that will propel the story forward. Acquaintances will be made, parties will be attended, and aid will be given to the British government (though perhaps not from their intended source).
The episode does an excellent job at creating the stakes by which everyone will operate for the foreseeable future. We quickly come to realize that something is amiss for Lady Pole following her resurrection by Mr Norrell—that she has something to say, but seems to babble nonsense every time she tries to say it. Jonathan Strange encounters Mr Segundus during a summoning, and is advised to head on over to London to meet Mr Norrell. Strange does so and quickly becomes Norrell’s apprentice, seeing as he’s the only other practical magician who seems to be around. (We don’t count Childermass because Norrell doesn’t count Childermass for reasons which are not addressed in the series anymore than they were in the novel.)
Strange is an apt pupil, but Norrell is reluctant to give him full access to his impressive magical library, particularly whenever Strange asks about the mysterious Raven King and his influence on magic in general. It would seem that Norrell would prefer that all mention of the Raven King be erased from magic entirely, and we come to understand why in his encounters with the gentleman with the thistle-down hair; true to his bargain with Norrell in episode one, he has taken half of Lady Pole’s life… the half that occurs while she sleeps. Every night when she goes to bed, Lady Pole awakens in the Faerie kingdom Lost-hope, part of a never-ending ball where the Gentleman is her constant partner. There, too, is the Poles’ household butler Stephen Black, who has inadvertently caught the eye of the gentleman. The faerie means to make Stephen a king and keeps him at Lost-hope every night as well, though both are powerless to explain this to the waking world.
Eventually it becomes apparent that Jonathan Strange is far easier to work with than his mentor, and that he seems to have a knack for magic that is far more instinctual, doing the work often without understanding how he has done it. Sir Walter suggests that Strange head out to war and assist British troops. Norrell is completely against the idea until Drawlight and Lascelles point out that a large assortment of magical books are about to be auctioned off, and Strange’s absence from the country would mean that no one of import would be available to bid against him. Strange sets off to war, and his wife Arabella goes to bid on the books on his behalf—which is where Norrell comes to learn that Mrs Strange has caught the eye of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.
The design of this episode is mesmerizing. No longer restricted to such a shadowy color scheme, it’s much easier to make out the work being done by the special effects department, and the magic rendered is beautiful and eerie by turns, particularly the work that Strange does to save the ship that has run aground in Portsmouth. The kingdom of Lost-hope (though clearly created on a limited sound stage) is dressed with all the spooky grandeur that one could hope for, even if the scale is a bit smaller than one might have expected. While the appearances of the those attending the Gentleman’s ball aren’t given too much detail on a first pass—we see them mostly from a distance and they are creepy—the ball itself has a chilling atmosphere that the soundtrack perfectly attends.
We get to know several of the characters better, such as Stephen Black and Arabella, even Strange himself. Drawlight and Lascelles seem to have been drawn together as a lump sum moreso than they are in the novel, which is unfortunate only because they are both such fun character studies. There are certain changes to motivation that are likely intended to serve the plot; Norrell, for instance, seems to make many of his more unbecoming choices due to fear over the gentleman with the thistle-down hair’s presence rather than deliberate negligence in favor of furthering his own work. (His attitude toward Lady Pole’s affliction in particular seems to suggest this.)
The only thing that truly niggles in this episode are bits that have been shaved down from the book by streamlining character relationships. This is particularly relevant as it applies to the relationship the between the title characters. While the lack of trust and superiority is clear coming from Norrell’s direction, it’s not quite so established that Norrell can’t help his drift toward Strange, even at the start of their acquaintance. Granted, this tale contains a hefty order of subtleties, but the complex nature of Strange and Norrell’s relationship is literally the core of the story. In this episode we can see that Norrell is thrilled by Strange’s innate ability, that the prospect of such a pupil excites him, but it’s harder to grasp Norrell’s loneliness and want of another mind similarly gifted to his own (in his perception, at least). It’s also hard to suss out Strange’s interest in Norrell, to the extent that it barely comes off at all. This could simply be an issue of time; they spend very little of it together in this episode, for how important it is to the building of their dynamic.
I do object to the current narrowing of Stephen Black’s storyline, though he receives far more attention than in the previous episode; the great lengths that the Gentleman goes to inject himself into Stephen’s day-to-day existence are a large part of what communicates Stephen’s importance in this story. His role in the larger tapestry that’s being built here is essential, particularly when he is not about his work in Sir Walter’s household; Stephen offers some of the few glimpses we get of people operating in a lower class bracket, central to the themes that bloom down the line in JS&MN. And the Gentleman’s attempts to curry favor with him also offers us a window into faerie temperament and bargaining, the ways in which they differ from us as a people and a species.
This seeming shrinking of Stephen’s place in the plot also creates a moment that is roughly at odds with the novel at first glance; when Lady Pole attempts to tell Arabella about where she spends her nights and is unable, it is Stephen (rather that Sir Water) who comes and explains that Lady Pole is prone to these strange nonsense speeches, and requests that Arabella keep silent. Making it Stephen who delivers this message is confusing because he, like Lady Pole, is supposed to be unable to speak about his time at Lost-hope due to the Gentleman’s influence. Both he and Lady Pole are suffering through this together. It makes sense for Walter Pole to try and pass off his wife’s “illness” to others and request their discretion, but having Stephen speak on her behalf without explicitly making it clear that he cannot talk of their evenings either makes it seem as though he is only adding to Lady Pole’s distress when she’s in contact with our world.
We will see if these small lapses are cleared up going forward, as the show still has plenty of time to clear up the fuzzier areas of the narrative. It will be exciting to see Strange’s first forays on the warfront, as well that what happens to Arabella now that she is the subject of magical attention. There is plenty to enjoy here—the only question that remains is whether or not it will stand up to the world that Clarke built by the end.