The fifth episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might be the place where the series has parted ways with the novel in a more obvious fashion. There’s a lot of emotion in this episode, most of it bound up in betrayal and heartbreak, as it will when someone beloved disappears.
(Spoilers for the book, including points that take place after this episode.)
The episode starts at the Battle of Waterloo, where Strange is desperately trying to put out a chateau house fire and keeps the French soldiers at bay. When they finally break through the gate, Strange watches English soldiers die. When a French soldier approaches to kill him, Strange lifts the man into the air with a great mud hand and crushes him. He leaves the war, and goes home.
Strange proceeds to write his book in Shropshire with Arabella by his side. They discuss their thought for the future now that Jonathan will no longer be a practical magician, and plan to start a family. A neighbor is disturbed to see Arabella wandering the moors in the bitter cold, not realizing that this is the moss oak version brought to life by the Gentleman with the Thistle-down Hair. He talks to Strange about it, who is utterly perplexed by the man’s insistence. In the meanwhile, Norrell panics over the damage that his former pupil’s book will do, and tries to get the government to intervene, pointing out that his praise of the Raven King will only further upset rebellious workers (who are using the king’s name in their protests).
Arabella is lured out of the house at night by Stephen, who takes her to Lost-hope, where she meets the Gentleman. Strange and his neighbors search the countryside for Arabella to no avail. Eventually, the moss oak version of Arabella arrives at the house, and asks if Strange renounces all other wives. He agrees, not realizing that he’s just made a fairie bargain for the true Arabella’s life, who is now brainwashed into residing at Lost-hope forever. Lady Pole is besides herself and tries to tell Honeyfoot and Segundus. They cannot help her, but Honeyfoot recognizes some of the “babbling” that Lady Pole does whenever she tries to explain her situation actually aligns with fairie stories that his mother told him when he was a boy. They decide to try and translate her meaning once they receive her permission to do it, though Stephen tells them to leave it be.
Strange attempts to bring Arabella back to life, to summon a fairie to do his bidding, but he cannot do it (he summons the Gentleman and Stephen, but still cannot see them). He writes letter after letter to Norrell, enlisting his help. Childermass encourages Norrell to aid his friend, but Lascelles’ influence wins out in the end. Eventually, Arabella’s brother, Henry, persuades Jonathan to put his sister to rest. When Strange arrives back in London, he hears from Sir Walter and then Childermass. The two men have a talk about Norrell and his current situation. Strange volunteers to take Childermass on as a student, and treat him as an equal. Childermass decline, insisting that he and Norrell are not done with each other yet. He promises that whichever one of them wins this English magic feud, he we take up the position of the fallen so that there will always be two opinions on magic in England.
When he tells Strange that Norrell is working to prevent his book from being published, Strange travels by mirror to break into Norrell’s home and scream at him. Norrell won’t speak with him, Lascelles is awful as usual, and Strange is thrown from the house. When he throws a rock through Norrell’s window, he’s taken to prison. One of his friends from the war comes to have Strange released, and while they’re talking, Strange thinks that perhaps he should go mad as King George to try and perceive fairies. Before he is released from prison, he vanishes through a pool of water to parts unknown.
The love between Jonathan and Arabella has indeed been expanded and made central to the show. On the one hand, I’m a sap, and I like romantical things, so this appeals to me on a completely emotional level. The actors are selling it, and that makes it even more enjoyable, how they fret and fuss over one another. And it makes Strange a more likable character, to be sure, but… I’m not sure that’s necessary. More than anything, it seems to fulfill a very Hollywood sensibility that I’d just as soon this series avoided. I appreciate that they want to give Bertie Carvel the chance to stretch his acting chops, and he’s done brilliantly with everything they’ve given him. But I miss the aspects of Strange that are careless and peculiar, and the way that he withdraws in his grief. There’s also the major alteration of having Strange make the choice to kill a man in the Battle of Waterloo. (In the novel, he considers it before another solider does the job for him.) It’s an interesting departure for the sake of drama, but it seems as though it was added to make the magician’s onset of PTSD easier to comprehend for the audience. Witnessing war can have many of the same affects, in all truth.
On the other hand, Strange’s anger allows for another meeting between he and Norrell, which is a welcome moment of drama in an episode that actually moves very little. The confrontation is an impressive and heartbreaking scene, made worse by Lascelles’ presence. Childermass’ discussion with Strange is another high point of the episode, making his motivations clear in the push-and-pull he is privy two between the two magicians. Can’t stop gushing, Enzo Cilenti could not be more perfect in the role. His quiet plea to Norrell to be kind to his friend, the way he ignores Lascelles, how he manages to blend in perfectly with foliage… let’s just have a Childermass episode, called “Childermass’ Day Out.” Departure from canon, fine, but I want it.
I’m not sure how I feel about the need for Strange to specifically renounce his wife in order for the Gentleman to be able to keep her. I suppose it makes sense from a narrative perspective, but it a bit too wink-wink to involve him in the process from my perspective. More importantly, I dislike Stephen’s part in essentially kidnapping Arabella. Again, his inaction or action on behalf of the Gentleman causes him to do direct harm to both Arabella and Lady Pole—as he tries to forbid Segundus and Honeyfoot to question Lady Pole, a permission she later has to give for herself. There’s no reason why we needed to see Arabella whisked away by a carriage Stephen was driving; Lady Pole gets to Lost-hope well enough without one. (It occurred to me that Arabella’s introduction to Lost-hope reminds me a bit too much of the ballroom scene in Labyrinth, which can’t help but make me wonder if that wasn’t intentional.)
In addition, this series seems to remove every direct instance of racism that Stephen is subjected to in the novel, which is continues to be a massive misstep. That is not to make light of how the addition of such prejudices would affect the overall tone of the show, but the refusal to acknowledge Stephen’s position in this society fails to bring home some of the most intelligent commentary that Clarke’s story has to offer. It also reduces his role in the tale to “the guy who’s doing the fairies’ bidding,” preventing him from being rendered as three-dimensionally as, say, Lady Pole. At this point, I’m doubtful that we’ll get much more development for Stephen until his endgame comes clear, and that’s a true shame.
It’s a clever move to push some of the book’s most entertaining and informative footnotes into Lady Pole’s “mad” ramblings. It allows the richness of the world Clarke created to step forward while preventing the audience from having to pay attention to awkward voiceovers or odd side scenes that render the tales as flashbacks. It also gives Lady Pole a certain amount of power over these proceedings, and that is fascinating to watch—it helps that Segundus and Honeyfoot have been totally endearing from the start.
I expect we will find ourselves in the very different setting next episode, and one that I’m greatly anticipating. So I’ll say no more and wait patiently for episode six.