The BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series is now complete, revealing the endgame to those who may not have known it before. So what worked about this series and what didn’t? Well, the final episode maybe should have been stretched out—for starters.
(Spoilers for the book’s finale in addition to the series finale.)
We begin with an appeal from Sir Walter; mirrors of England are broken and the paths to other lands are now open. England is full of magic and it is all Jonathan Strange’s fault. Drawlight sends Strange’s letter to Lady Pole, which instructs her to remain asleep so she can keep an eye on Arabella in Lost-hope. He then meets with Lascelles to tells him what Strange said, and Lascelles demands all of Strange’s correspondence. He wrestles the box containing Lady Pole’s finger from Drawlight, destroys his letter, then shoots Drawlight. He goes to Norrell to tell him that Strange is returning, and Childermass discovers (through his cards) that Lascelles is keeping something that Strange intended for him. He gets the box from Lascelles, who cuts his face in retaliation and forces Norrell to make a choice between them. Childermass tell Norrell he’s made a mistake and leaves.
Strange comes to Hurtfew Abbey, locking Lacselles away and demanding that Norrell help him find the spells he needs to call on the Raven King and return Arabella to him. Meanwhile, Childermass goes to Mr Segundus with Lady Pole’s finger. They lock Stephen away when Sir Walter reads the letter from Strange to his wife that explains that Stephen has been helping the Gentleman. Mr Segundus attaches Lady Pole’s finger too early (since Lacelles destroyed the letter from Strange to Childermass giving those instructions), waking her and bringing the Gentleman for revenge. He releases Stephen and plans to kill Lady Pole using him as the means.
Strange and Norrell do a spell that does indeed call the Raven King to them, but he quickly disappears, reappearing where Vinculus was hanged. Childermass has cut the man down and the Raven King revives him, writing a new book on Vinculus’ skin. He then erases Childermass’ memory of the event and heals the cut on his face, leaving Childermass to herd Vinculus onto his horse and head back to Hurtfew. Having lost the Raven King, Norrell and Strange work to bring him back, calling for “the nameless slave” as the prophecy calls him. They offer him Norrell’s library, planning to infuse him with all the magic in England, but instead the spell calls Stephen and he receives the power. Lascelles breaks free of his confinement and shoots Stephen; the Gentleman sees this and kills him, then brings Stephen back to Lost-hope. Strange and Norrell follow, finding that the Darkness that has been following Strange does not follow them into Fairie. Norrell tells Stephen to use the magic he has been infused with, and Strange finds Arabella and tells her how to get back to their world. Stephen uses the magic at his disposal to kill the Gentleman and become the king. Arabella goes through a mirror and find herself in Venice with the Greysteels.
Strange tries to leave Hurtfew and go to Arabella, but finds he cannot leave and that the Darkness has not been reversed following the Gentleman’s death. Childermass arrives at Hurtfew just in time to see both men swept away to parts unknown. Vinculus tells him that they were the Raven King’s spell all along. Arabella goes to the place where Jonathan stayed in Venice and sees him reflected in a pool of water. He tells her that he is happy to see her safe and that he loves her, but that he can’t come back to her. He tells her that one day he’ll figure out a way to end the Darkness so he can return to her, and she tells him that she’ll find him herself if that doesn’t happen. Then he bids her goodbye, telling her that he doesn’t want her to be a widow, that he’d like her to be happy and to think of her that way. Childermass calls the Yorkshire Society of Magicians together and tell them that their contract with Norrell is void and that they may practice magic again—and so may anyone. He brings in Vinculus and tells them that translating the new book on his skin will be their task.
This all happens… very very quickly. To say the least.
Most of the deviations from the narrative in this series led to just the problems I was hoping it would avoid; the cause-and-effect of John Uskglass’ spell are fairly flimsy on explanation because they were not properly built up over the course of the past six episodes. Vinculus says that Strange and Norrell are the spell that the Raven King is working, but that is never paired down for our consumption. Anyone who hasn’t read the book will never understand that John Uskglass was overcome by the Gentleman With the Thistle-down Hair long ago, and this prophecy was basically his Get Out of Jail Free card. That Strange and Norrell are being manipulated to do things on his behalf, even though they think they are acting for themselves.
This is more aggravating where Stephen’s story is concerned. To me, it feels as though he was reduced to a plot device in this telling, the man who was handily part of the prophecy so that he could be in the right place at the right time to kill the Gentleman. When he does so, it’s in a flurry of magical rage (with Strange and Norrell awkwardly about to slip him useless advice—seriously, their presence there is pointless, and clearly only added so that Jonathan could have a final moment with Arabella and essentially “kiss her goodbye”) that shows him laying waist to Lost-hope. This robs Stephen of his literal “crowing moment” in the story, the point where he returns to Lost-hope (since he was meant to kill the Gentleman in England, an act he performs to keep Lady Pole safe from the fairy) and takes his place on the throne, showing the people there that he will be a compassionate, wise ruler. He spends the first half of the episode helpless and locked away, then the second half full of magic juice, and the poignancy of his journey is utterly abandoned. I’m sad about it. Stephen deserves better.
Childermass and Vinculus play out as they’re supposed to, and Lady Pole is done right by for the most part. (If anything, she is afforded more power in this version, which I’m for generally, but they seem to have traded Stephen’s development for hers in places, which is less happy-making.) Lascelles’ story works out as it should until the very end—I understand that his endgame is perhaps too much extra information to shove in at the end of the television series, but shooting Stephen is a poor shorthand of his descent into murder that makes very little logical sense. In addition, Drawlight’s death is made far too plain without the interference of English magic. It’s a broader complaint I have with how this final episode treated magic in general. At the start, Sir Walter talks about how the mirrors of England are broken and the paths to fairie are open to everyone, but we never see any examples of that bleed through. Fine, they only had an hour—but then that’s a problem. A two-hour finale would have served their needs better, given them a real chance to flesh out the changes that have occurred as the result of this magical banter that Norrell and Strange have engaged in since their acquaintance.
The show moves quick to do all the emotional work between the titular magicians in this last episode. And the work they do is wonderful, particularly on Eddie Marsan’s end—Norrell’s promise that he will continue to search for Arabella even if Strange dies, his tearful insistence that he’s not afraid about what lies ahead for them—it’s endearing, absolutely. But both of these guys are being diminished for the sake of TV likability. Here, Norrell’s library vanishing becomes a choice he has to make, a moment where he has to decide not to be a miser and give up what he cherishes. That makes him more sympathetic. In addition, this idea of the Darkness being a draining sort of curse that is killing them both—but then vanishes when they enter Fairie—absolves Jonathan of his responsibility where Arabella is concerned. Oh, he can’t come back! He’d die! I love how they filmed their final meeting in the reflection of water, but it’s meant to be a tearful, romantic departure. This devoted couple is being torn apart. What a woeful shame.
But that isn’t the point. For me as a fan of the book, Strange’s goodbye to Arabella was pretty much my favorite point of the novel. Sure, he could make his way back to her, live in the Darkness, try to work out a way of ending it the curse, try to be a good husband. (Or at least an available one.) But he basically runs off with his pal Norrell to explore other worlds and do all the magic he’s ever dreamed of. That is who these men are. It’s not nice, it’s not responsible, it’s not noble. It’s bittersweet. It’s exciting. Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell don’t have to be good, that is not their purpose as the leading men of this tale. They have to be magicians—the Raven King pretty much designed them that way.
So the ending of this series was altogether abrupt and unsatisfying for my tastes. But there are parts of it that I loved, and moments that it beautifully brought to life. The actors in particular get a tip of the hat, and John Childermass should still have his own series. (When Clarke puts out a sequel some day?) I’m still pleased that the BBC made a go of it, and that some version of this story exists on film. But maybe next time, let the finale take it slow and really go out with the wallop this story deserves.