Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 3: The Education of a Magician

(33 comments)

There we go.

It’s perhaps ironic that, having spent two episodes building up the Jonathan Strange/Mr. Norrell dualism that’s the core engine of the series, it’s the act of splitting them back up that drives it to its most emphatic heights thus far. 

In strict dramatic terms, this works because of Lady Pole. Even though Strange and Norrell are in different locations and pursuing entirely divergent interests through most of the episode, the dynamic of Arabella trying to uncover what is wrong with Lady Pole and Norrell working to keep the matter secret links events up well. It’s in some ways surprising this works so well - the plots really are quite separate in terms of what happens, with Strange entirely insulated from events in London, and vice versa. 

The linking moment is instead entirely symbolic - Strange being pushed to attempt ancient magic, and learns of the ways in which this magic is tacitly dangerous. On rawly symbolic terms, of course, it’s significant that Strange’s spell is a lesser version of Norrell’s original sin - both spells involve undoing death. 

But there’s curious nuance underlying this - up to this point the danger of ancient magic had largely been expressed in terms of the Gentleman as an essentially Faustian danger. Old magic involved trafficking with faeries, and faeries are dangerous and untrustworthy. But Strange’s spell to make the dead speak does require any such deals. And yet it is nevertheless clearly dangerous magic, with Strange unable to get the dead to stop speaking again. The danger, in other words, is not merely something that can be tied to the peculiarities of the Gentleman, but rather to something more primal within that sort of magic, having to do with the way in which the magic involves traversing between worlds. 

This is, obviously, unsurprising ground for a story of British fantasy. It seems all but inevitable that we’ll be getting an actual portal to faerie before this tale is done. And it’s striking that Strange’s horror at the consequences of his magic is fundamentally a horror of the uncanny - the fact that the consequences of his magic are monstrous.

The key cut, then, is from Strange cowering from the speaking dead to Norrell’s appalling callousness as he visits Lady Pole, in which he bluntly informs her that she is an innocent casualty of war and of the development of magic, and simply informs her that she will suffer for seventy-five years without respite. The cruelty of it, especially coming after nearly two straight episodes of consciously building sympathy for Lady Pole’s plight, is genuinely shocking, and it is only Marsan’s performance, which emphasizes the extent to which Norrell is aware of how monstrous his actions are, that keeps him from simply becoming an outright villain of the piece. (Note also, of course, the cut back to Strange, unable to extricate himself from the consequences of his own spell.)

The sense of ancient magic as an object of uncanny horror finds resonance in the scenes featuring the Gentleman himself, which begin to make textually explicit the way in which his character is drawn to the marginalized members of society. There’s the makings of a fascinating critique here, with the primal forces of ancient magic serving as a sort of bad social justice based primarily on the fetishization of the marginalized populations, with the Gentleman expressing a desire to love and cherish women and black people the way they “deserve,” a notion visibly separate from what they want, except inasmuch as their desires are tools to possess them. This comes to a head in the scene, late in the episode, in which Stephen is shown the tragic circumstances of his birth, the first properly brilliant scene Stephen has gotten thus far.

All told, then, the sort of thing you really want this show to be and to do. I could probably spend a paragraph or two praising everyone’s performance and direction, but at this point it’s clear that this is just going to be a reliably impeccable show. Although as I look at this episode’s reactions from the UK airing a few weeks ago, I do see that Peter Harness made the interesting decision to dramatically accelerate Lady Pole’s plot with the cliffhanger, pulling an event from the final third of the book back for the third episode cliffhanger. All I can say is that it works impressively well, not least because Enzo Calenti’s Childermass has been an utter scene-stealer, so his peril makes a magnificent cliffhanger.

Harness has suggested that this episode is where the show gets up to speed. If this is going to be the level of quality is sustains over its last four… wow.

Ranking Thus Far
  1. The Education of a Magician
  2. How is Lady Pole?
  3. The Friends of English Magic

Comments

alwaysaquietone 1 year, 9 months ago

It seems that you have not yet read the novel? I highly recommend it. This miniseries is a pale (although fun!) shadow.

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homunculette 1 year, 9 months ago

I'd say Harness is right - this is where the show really gets going. Assuming Harness sticks the landing, this is going to go down as an all-time classic in terms of BBC adaptations.

Harness deserves a lot of plaudits for managing to make the first two episodes, which are almost entirely exposition, feel largely like compelling drama and not like a flat waste of time, although it really is noticeable how different the show feels from this point on after the first two episodes.

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David Anderson 1 year, 9 months ago

It may be worth noting that Strange's big triumph in this (maybe his only uncomplicated triumph in the series) - the roads - arises from asking the rank and file soldiers what they need and is a thoroughly material contribution.

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Matthew Blanchette 1 year, 9 months ago

Not sure if this news has been covered here, but... Big Finish now apparently has access to all new series characters. Including a certain Professor Song, who will be appearing in their range shortly... ;-)

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Aylwin 1 year, 9 months ago

Horsesands is a pretty straightforward triumph too, isn't it, albeit on a smaller scale? Very material again, but I don't know how significant that is - aren't uncomplicated triumphs usually material? I don't remember the exact words, but I vaguely recall a Churchill quotation regarding his bricklaying, about how political achievements tend to be ambiguous and ephemeral, but when you build a wall it's built.

I agree about the significance of it coming from the rank and file though.

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David Anderson 1 year, 9 months ago

Horsesands I think lays the first crack in the relationship between Strange and Norrell.
Maybe material is the wrong word. I mean to contrast the creation of decent quality roads with doing spectacular things in the middle of battle or similar things that would show up in names and dates history.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 9 months ago

I took David's "material" as a tacit invocation of good old "material social progress," personally, and grinned at it.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 9 months ago

I've not; I wiped out on the book itself a chapter or two in (the style, though clever, was making it very hard to get enough of a foothold to stay interested), and the audiobook towards the start of Part Two (I just needed a break and to listen to something else, and the break is currently on year seven).

I may go back to the book, but not until after the miniseries.

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David Anderson 1 year, 9 months ago

It was indeed intended as an allusion thereto.

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Aylwin 1 year, 9 months ago

All good points!

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Aylwin 1 year, 9 months ago

Footnote: mind you, sorting out the roads would actually be a rather Wellingtonian thing to do - he's famous for his assiduous attention to logistics.

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Daru 1 year, 9 months ago

"There’s the makings of a fascinating critique here, with the primal forces of ancient magic serving as a sort of bad social justice based primarily on the fetishization of the marginalized populations"

This is one of the things I absolutely adored about the book and the show.

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