The penultimate chapter of the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is perhaps their most thrilling offer yet. That can hardly be surprising when it features a tincture of madness, a tower of darkness, and mentions of Lord Byron. That’s right, Jonathan Strange is in Venice—and this is the city where everything seems to come clear at last.
(Spoilers through to the end of the book, beyond what occurs in this episode.)
Strange’s book is published, but every copy is magically destroyed by Norrell, who is intent that the world not read a word. The fugitive former-apprentice has holed up in Venice where he attempts to get himself a faerie servant, but finds he cannot induce madness in himself. He comes upon Mr Greysteel and his daughter Flora, who have been to see the relative of a friend—an old woman named Mrs Delgado, who is quite mad and surrounded by furry feline companions. Strange visits her and gives her what she wishes in exchange for something he needs; he turns her into a cat, and takes her madness for himself. He turns it to a liquid that he can dispense in drops when needed.
Back in England, the government is growing restless over Norrell’s actions concerning the book and Strange’s escape. Sir Walter implores Mr Norrell to fix these messes, which results in a visit to Drawlight’s prison cell (he’s been incarcerated for debts). Norrell and Lascelles tell Drawlight to find Strange and learn what he’s up to. Strange finally manages to summon the Gentleman while in the throes of madness and finally can perceive him. He makes plans to entice him to an alliance—not knowing that the Gentleman knows him well enough and hates him. The Gentleman whines to Stephen about the irritation of it all, not knowing that Stephen has been given his own offer. The street magician Vinculus has been brought to Mr Segundus’ house and promises to give Stephen the way out of the Gentleman’s hold if he frees him.
Strange calls the Gentleman again to him and asks him to bring Arabella back from the dead. The Gentleman refuses, insisting that he cannot do it, and it Strange realizes that this was the same faerie who made the bargain Norrell for Lady Pole. He tells the Gentleman to give him the last thing he received in a deal with a magician and gets Lady Pole’s finger in return. Then he swallows a whole mouthful of liquid madness and backtracks the location of the finger’s owner, finding himself at Lost-hope and meeting Stephen, Lady Pole, and Arabella… who does not recognize him. When he tries to demand his wife back, and Gentleman forces his half of the bargain—he encases Strange in eternal night, a tower of darkness that follows him wherever he goes and drains life from him. Flora Greysteel goes into the tower to talk to him, but he insists that she leave him be, and that he will call for her help when he needs it. Then he brings Drawlight to him, telling him the whole story, and advising him to pass it on to Childermass along with Lady Pole’s finger. He also gives him a letter for Lady Pole, and a message for Norrell: that he is coming.
Vinculus tells Stephen of his destiny; to be the “nameless slave who becomes king” from the Raven King’s prophecy. Stephen has a hard time believing him, but Vinculus explains how he knows the prophecy; his father had the book on the Raven King and was obliged to eat the thing. Four years later, Vinculus was born with the words written into his skin. He is the book. He has Stephen bring him to a special tree (the same one Childermass saw in his vision) and waits there. The Gentleman comes upon them and is surprised to find that Vinculus can see him. He decides to hang the vagabond, assuring a tearful Stephen that the magicians will fail.
There is so much to love about this episode. The show has been dipping its toes into the darker parts of magic this whole time, but it feels as though it has all merely been building to this chapter. Bertie Carvel pulls out all the stops for Strange’s descent into madness. He plays the highs and lows of it to perfection, rather than making the mistake of setting the whole thing at one volume, one type of delivery. He manages to be humorous and heartbroken and terrifying, and do it all in the space of minutes. Also, I like his new coat. It’s more magician-y. (New words, hooray.)
Some of the story’s most important moment come across in this chapter, particularly in Strange’s conversation with Drawlight. He tells the man that every person who ever wanted to be a magician in England is one, Segundus and Childermass included, and that Norrell is denying a generation of magic users. Previous to that conversation, he tells Arabella that he would teach poor men and women magic too, and will once he has settled his own affairs. (The series kindly leaves out the bit where Strange thinks that, on second thought, he couldn’t train women because their chaperones would be tiresome to handle.) And there is nothing quite so delicious as waiting for the moment when Drawlight asks for Strange’s third message, and the ecstatic/horrific/utterly malicious expression on his face when he instructs the man to tell Norrell that he is returning.
There are certain divergences from the book’s plot that don’t seem to matter, and some that I worry might change the story entirely. Flora’s aunt is absent from this series, meaning that the Greysteels are simply Flora and her father. It would bother me less, but Mr Greysteel is rendered a very dour man indeed, which is a change-up from the agreeable people we know from the book. The look and feel of Venice is impressive for such a small set, particularly Strange’s rooms (which really look as though they kept off the page and into reality). The changes to Stephen and Vinculus’ meeting are pronounced, but work well for dramatic effect, so I mind it less. It is vindicating to hear Stephen finally say something about the prejudice he endures, even if it is a moment of “tell” that the book did better “showing.”
Again, the place where the story seems to be altered a bit too much is in focusing on the romantic plot where Strange and Arabella are concerned. When he calls on the Gentleman, he thinks only of getting his wife back; in the book, he asks for knowledge, which the Gentleman is unwilling to exchange. Making Jonathan’s journey all about restoring his wife certainly ups the dramatic tension at key points—his breakdown at Lost-hope is well-written and lands emotionally—but I’m not convinced that it will stick the landing when the final episode is upon us. It’s easy to make things all about love, but just because it ups the ante where emotional investment is concerned doesn’t mean it’s the right decision.
This concern comes back when Strange mentions that the “Black Tower” engulfing him is draining the life from him somehow. If this is something that Strange manages to throw off in the end, the life-draining aspect an added aside to give reason for freeing him from the Gentleman’s curse… that will be disappointing. Living with the consequences of actions is part of what makes the darkness in JS&MN really stick to your ribs. I hope the series doesn’t lose that when it’s already done so many thrilling and gorgeous things.