This week’s episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is concerned with the appropriate use of magic, the affects of war, and importance of silence and speaking amongst many other things.
(There are spoilers for the novel in this review, for the record, even past the point where the episode ends. So if you haven’t read the book, this might not be for you?)
This was an episode of communication breakdowns. Jonathan Strange heads out to Portugal, where he finds that the Duke of Wellington is not at all excited to have his help on the warfront. Arabella spends more time with Lady Pole, who tries desperately to explain to her new friend where she is spending her lost nights. The Gentleman spends more time with Arabella, trying to figure out how he might best sweep her away to Lost-hope, attempting to involve Stephen in his shenanigans. Childermass does more work for Norrell, discouraging Mr Segundus from establishing his magic school and intercepting Arabella’s letters to Jonathan to make certain she’s not telling him anything of import. (Mrs Lennox’s role in Mr Segundus’ undertaking have notably been cut from the story entirely, thus far.)
Lady Pole cuts up her gowns to make a tapestry that shows Arabella the nature of her imprisonment (how this is not direct enough for the enchantment to prevent her from getting the information across, I cannot understand). Arabella asks Sir Walter about this project, and he insists that she keep it from everyone, including her husband—he believes Norrell’s judgement in this situation, that his wife is mad and cannot be helped. Stephen sees the Gentleman becoming mesmerized by Arabella; he tells Stephen that they must watch her closely and figure out the one thing that she will bargain away for a life at Lost-hope.
Jonathan arrives at Lisbon and eagerly offers his help to Lord Wellington, but he’s met with derision and irritation over the lack of magic’s practical uses on the battlefront. Still, he is determined to assist, and eventually realizes that he can create smoother roads for the army after spending time amongst the soldiers and hearing them complain about their torn up boots. From there, he manages many other feats that aid in the war effort, leading Wellington to call him Merlin (to Strange’s dismay). He is eventually instructed to move a forest, but finds that he cannot do it, managing only to create a mist that saves lives of some of the men—but his servant Jeremy dies, and Norrell’s books are destroyed. Then Strange reanimates a few corpses to find the location of a canon, but he cannot figure out how to make them dead again, which is deeply disturbing to him. Eventually, Napoleon flees and Strange is able to return home. Norrell calls on him immediately, asking him to return to his tutelage once more.
While Strange was away, Norrell had gone to visit Lady Pole and explained to her the nature of her predicament, including the length of her life under this unending enchantment. He advised Sir Walter to prevent others from visiting her, which led to Arabella being turned away at their door by Stephen. The episode ends with Childermass realizing that someone is performing magic in the vicinity of Norrell’s home—he runs out into the street to figure out who it is. He is just in time to stop an attempt on Norrell’s life by Lady Pole, who managed to get her hands on a pistol, furious at Norrell for ruining her life. She shoots Childermass by accident, who gets between his master and the bullet intended for him.
We see in this episode where cuts are being made in the story for more expedient impact; in war, Jonathan Strange changes because he sees a great many men die (even in this first outing), but in order to make these changes happen more quickly, his servant Jeremy is killed in battle, something which does not occur in the book. The undead Neopolitans are used very effectively to communicate Strange’s distress as well; we see how his inability to send them back to the grave unhinges him, and how there are difficulties and barriers that come with his primarily instinctual way of attacking magical learning. It gets the point across, but it’s easy to miss the slow burn that the original text provided and the larger scale.
Again to the oddities with how Stephen and Lady Pole’s narratives are being handled; we do finally see Stephen unable to articulate his thoughts about Lost-hope to Arabella, but that confirms that prior to the moment where he starts babbling nonsense at Sir Walter’s door, he had been silencing Lady Pole of his own accord. And that tastes pretty sour on the tongue when there’s not a good enough reason given for it. It’s suggested that perhaps he finds the Gentleman dangerous, but the threat is not explicit enough. We get another glimpse into Stephen’s role in the prophecy and impending “kingship,” but it comes only in the form of a flashback to his birth, which we see through a mirror in the faerie world. It has the odd effect of making the moment look over-staged, as though Stephen and the Gentleman are watching a play, and that sits uncomfortably when we’re witnessing something as horrific as the treatment of human beings aboard slave ships. And still, Stephen’s life apart from the Gentleman and Sir Walter is nowhere to be seen.
The Gentleman’s character is beginning to coalesce, and he’s sadly one-dimensional in all of this. I don’t think I’d blame this on Marc Warren’s portrayal as much as I would on how the character is being written; from the lines he’s given, you’d think that the Gentleman’s only real desire in life is to be surrounded by pretty ladies at his ball. This is misleading because part of the reason he is so interested in Arabella in the book is that she is a means of messing with Strange and redirecting his focus. That could not be less apparent at the moment, which makes me curious as to how her story will be handled going forward.
There is also issue with how the book is constructed in terms of providing equal screen time in an adaptation. In the book, there are large chunks of narrative where we do not spend time with one title character or the other, but out of a clear desire to prevent that, aspects of the tale have been misplaced. This is why Lady Pole attempts to shoot Mr Norrell at the end of this episode when, in fact, she is supposed to do so in response to Arabella’s upcoming “death.” It means that her desire to murder Norrell comes from despair over her situation rather than Arabella’s, and while that is easy to understand from an audience perspective, it has the unfortunate side effect of undermining her friendship with Mrs Strange. This wouldn’t be such a marked adjustment but for the fact that this is one of the few solid, developed relationships that we see between two women in the story, and it’s disheartening to have it ghosted over.
Passage of time is befuddling as well, and I do think that perhaps the show could have been helped even by listing the month and year on screen as the story progresses, the same way the book did. Without understanding that Strange has been gone from England a full two years, the whole thing comes off too timelessly and it’s odd trying to place everyone’s emotional development. That pace also has the unfortunate effect of blurring the alternate history aspect of JS&MN, spending very little time on the war and it’s actual place in British history—unfortunate because much of its audience would likely enjoy that tie into real history.
There are moments here between the characters where we can see what might occur were the story given time to breathe; Strange’s reunion with Arabella, Drawlight’s appeals to Mrs Strange and Lascelles, the Duke of Wellington’s irascible favor toward his magician, Jeremy’s death and the subsequent fallout. All of these points deserve expansion, or at least a brighter spotlight in the midst of such a layered tale.
Perfect example: I kinda died a little on the inside with Strange helping Norrell tie his cloak toward the end because little touches like that = the whole point of making a television adaptation in the first place. Which makes me more concerned for how short this series is because I feel like we’re missing out on such a large swath of connectedness between this odd knit of people. Just… give me more of that. Come on, show. I want more than a novel supplement, I want you to dazzle me.