Having carefully built the storytelling machine that is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell over three episodes, Harness and Haynes here start to explore some of the less obvious things that it can do. The result is yet another step up for the series.
Two sequences strike me as particularly highlighting this sense of a show that is reveling in the basic fact of its own flexibility. The first are the sequences involving Lady Pole under the care of John Secundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, which juxtapose the acutely brutal portrayal of Lady Pole’s suffering with the awkward comedy of Secundus and Honeyfoot. A highlight is the scene where Secundus awkwardly escorts Stephen out of Lady Pole’s room and closes the door, leaning against it with a pained and awkward expression on his face. It’s set up and played as a gag - part and parcel of Secundus’s general cheery ineptitude. Edward Hogg gives a beleaguered sigh of “well that’s over with” as he leans against the door. It’s funny. As is the awkward question about how much experience they actually have in running an asylum. And then, from behind the door, comes Lady Pole’s anguished scream, completely and utterly unfunny.
It’s an impressive juxtaposition, paid off well when Secundus and Honeyfoot prove themselves to be genuinely invested in helping Lady Pole by fending off Childermass. But the reason it works is that both Lady Pole and the Secundus/Honeyfoot double act have been well established by the series. (Indeed, the entire sequence in “The Education of a Magician” in which Childermass randomly shows up to forbid the two from opening a school of magic is basically the setup for a gag in which the punchline is “so instead they run an asylum.”) And because they’ve been kept relatively separate, they’ve been allowed to develop their own narrative gravity, which is then spectacularly maintained as they cross paths.
In many ways even more jaw-dropping is the sequence of scenes when Jonathan Strange finally goes through the mirror out onto the King’s Roads. First of all, these are just a lovely bit of visual weirdness, and the image of Jonathan Strange, dressed the perfect Romantic, striding up the stone staircase, strewn with moss and withered vines, up to the impossible vista is simply a perfect image that captures everything that the show promises. (Also lovely, the small callback to Strange and Norrell’s first meeting as Norrell looks briefly into the mirror early on, the document Strange sent through it still hanging suspended within.)
But equally great is the way in which the show transitions in and out of this. The cut into it, from Strange confronting his supposed student during the billiards game, is obvious enough, and what the King’s Road intro needed. The transition into Faerie has to be jarring. That’s the point. What didn’t have to happen, and what is thus brilliant for happening, is the transition out of Faerie into the confrontation with Drawlight, including the wonderfully ridiculous list of vendettas handed to Strange. To juxtapose the pettily mundane with Faerie as a way into an eccentric and magical space is standard. To have Strange then thunder back out of the mirror to confront a hilariously spiteful old woman and a conniving fraudster, however, is thoroughly unexpected, and a demonstration of the complexity of what this show can do.
Other highlights abound, however, in what really is an absolutely masterful hour of television. The sequence with Strange and King George is wonderful, with the decision not to actually put Marc Warren in the scene and to play it entirely from Strange’s perspective giving it a truly unsettling tinge. (Also great, Cavell’s reaction to the king vanishing, which is perfectly understated.) And the final confrontation between Norrell and Strange, where Norrell finally makes a desperate attempt at compromise (which Strange, touchingly, notes the significance of even as he declines it) is fantastically done.
Indeed, given this scene, it’s worth revisiting the nature of the Strange/Norrell dualism, which started as a simple chaos/order dichotomy in the classic sense, but has by now evolved into something altogether more complex, not least because of the way in which it connects tacitly with the relationship between faerie and the marginal. Norrell’s position - which the narrative has at this point made aggressively unsympathetic (Marsan’s herculean task in maintaining the least bit of sympathy for his character this episode comes in the scenes at Childermass’s bedside) - is rapidly becoming understandable as a stand-in for both the Enlightenment and Victorian projects that the story is carefully set between, with the modernizing urge to bulldoze the past and create an entirely new structure being inextricable from the way in which this also bulldozes oppressed populations.
Strange’s position, on the other hand, is firmly a Romanticist one. At this point in the narrative it is tempting to call it sympathetic - certainly Strange has been the protagonist of the last two episodes where Norrell has been the antagonist, at least in a structural sense - but there’s an acute sense that this is being set up to subsequently be knocked down. Strange may be the sympathetic figure, after all, but the episode takes pains to show the degree to which his romanticism is entirely useless. He continues not to poke at the matter of Lady Pole, for instance, and the audience is put on Arabella’s side when she calls him out on his desire to explore the King’s Roads. It is, ultimately, being set up as a sort of sympathetic egotism - he is, in the end, conceived of in terms of his greatness, a decidedly dangerous concept in a story so invested in the plight of the little people.
So all in all, a fantastic episode of television that finds new things to do with its premise while continuing to hone a thorough and insightful critique of the usual rhetoric of fantasy. Basically, this is the Evil of the Daleks of our age.
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