Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 6: The Black Tower

(26 comments)

FUCKING RAVENS EVERYWHERE
My favorite episode to date, and I suspect it will remain so. I also suspect I’ll end up out of sync with the bulk of other reviews here. Much as I found “Arabella” to be a bit blandly straightforward compared to the (in almost everyone else’s eyes overly) expository and theme-heavy  “All the Mirrors of the World,” I will end up in the minority for my love of “The Black Tower.” In turn, I suspect I’m going to be a bit let down by the denouement, simply because it’s going to revert more towards plot than theme and not provide anything quite like the giddy thrill of this episode’s central moment for me. No matter; for my money, this is comparable to “Kill the Moon” in its genius, and it establishes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a genuine classic of What The BBC Is For. 

It is, for what it’s worth, and I think the answer to this is “very little unless you are the sort of person who is seriously considering openly declaring himself a Peter Harness fan and injecting some of his critical capital into the claim that he’s one of the greatest writers in British television right this second,” not quite as good as Kill the Moon. This is, I think, mainly down to direction. Toby Haynes is excellent, but he is very slightly on the wrong side of a stylistic evolution. You can see it in the conclusion - the Restoration of English Magic itself - which is ever so slightly too naturalist. To my mind, what’s Very Interesting In Prestige Television right now is the the sort of artifice-heavy subjective trickery that people like Nick Hurran and Paul Wilmshurst have been bringing to the style - the sort of thing that’s even more embraced by Hannibal and Mr. Robot right now. And the big “ravens explode everywhere” moment, I can’t help but feel, needed a bit more of the uncanniness that style brings. Haynes broke ground with this televisual style five years ago with “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” and those episodes remain classics, but there have been aesthetic developments since that would have been helpful here. 

Anyway, there’s my utterly minor nitpick for the die-hards. Now for the fun bits. 

One of the dualisms central to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been the Enlightenment rationality of Mr. Norrell and the Romanticism of Jonathan Strange. But the actual content of Strange’s Romanticism has not really been explored much. Here that changes with wondrous decisiveness, with an episode that immediately focuses on Strange as a Romantic figure (indeed, he’s, hilariously, someone’s rebound after Lord Byron), foregrounding the act of visionary madness.

Meanwhile, the mythology of the Raven King starts to flesh out in earnest. This began to be alluded to last episode, with its suggestion of the Raven King as a figure of populist uprising, but here it moves center stage as the Raven King’s restoration (entextualized within the body by Vinculus) moves back into the foreground. On the one hand we have Stephen positioned as a figure of destiny by the Raven King. An even remotely attentive viewer at this point sees that he’s positioned to be the actual figure who overthrows the Gentleman, although the particulars of this and how it’s going to intersect with the restoration of English Magic are a matter for the conclusion. All the same, when taken with his monologue about his subaltern status (and the marvelous parallel along the idea of having things “written on your skin” to Vinculus) it becomes a clear statement of allegiance between the Raven King and the disenfranchised. (“All of his old alliances are still in place.”) 

On the other we have the explicit democratization of English magic - the declaration on Strange’s part that everyone who ever wanted to be will be a magician. Which becomes a sort of dialectical synthesis of the two forms of individual subjectivity offered by the Enlightenment/Romantic dualism - the rational subject and the visionary mystic - that moves explicitly from theoretical magic to practical magic. 

This all trucks along merrily, getting its ducks in a row, when, at roughly the two-thirds mark in the episode, we suddenly switch gears. The instigation is, inevitably, the collapse of the house of cards that’s been being built since the end of the first episode, as Jonathan Strange finally figures everything out and confronts the Gentleman. Harness, in terms of plotting has been very clever here; there hasn’t been any large scale magic depicted in the series since the opening minutes of “Arabella” - essentially an episode and a half. This means that the eponymous big magical set piece of this episode has lots of room to breathe.

Which makes it a fantastic place for the sudden swerve into the Weird. Strange does a deal with the Gentleman and gets cursed, as one does, but the nature of his curse is unexpected to say the least: he becomes the center of a moving pillar of whirling darkness that towers above whatever locale he’s in. It’s not that this is particularly against the rules of a show that’s gone to considerable lengths to not have many of them, but it’s a wonderfully out of left field creative decision on par with “the moon’s an egg.” It’s earned and set up; the move from Faerie to the Weird is an easy one. But it’s still a wonderful moment of changing the stakes plot-wise at the exact same time that you change the tone of the story.

But in some ways more impressive is the way in which Strange’s plunge into the Weird echoes back towards Norrell. It was easy to think that Norrell’s behavior has been motivated purely by his desire to hide his hypocrisy over Lady Pole. And it was. But what has been cleverly obscured is the fact that Norrell’s rejection of the Raven King is based out of a genuine fear, of which the fact of his complicity is only a small portion. And so as everybody around him finally sides decisively with him over Strange in their actual dispute about magic, he does not take his own side, instead essentially admitting defeat in the face of what Strange has accomplished. (Lascelles’ blind and ignorant dismissal of the seriousness of it is a clever further damning of him as well.)

And all of this - a social justice-oriented revision of the interplay between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras as Weird Historical Fantasy - is bound up in a vision of what Britain’s heritage is. It’s a story about portals to Faerie, and the buried, secret history of Albion - a patriotic myth. It is a story for the British Isles, built out of a carefully woven braid of its material history and the stories it likes to tell about itself, and one that paints a picture of Britain that is fantastic and real and ancient and new. 

Comments

jane 1 year, 7 months ago

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came...

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David Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

Saying that Jonathan Strange finally figures out what is going on and confronts the Gentleman rather overstates the degree to which Strange has caught up with events. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Byron (who thought Pope far better than any of his contemporaries) would have told him. Emma Pole almost immediately upon his appearance exclaims that he doesn't have any idea what's going on.

I said in response to an earlier post that the Gentleman is a parody rival to the established order rather than an alternative: here we see how he deals with Vinculus who is utterly marginalised within English society. The position of Stephen and the women is that of status symbols who can be discarded as soon as they cease to accept the bargains offered them. Vinculus' only value is to be moved on when the powers that be notice him.
I'm afraid I can't admire Marc Warren's reading of the part. The Gentleman in the book is really a scenery-eating role, defined largely by the Gentleman's cheerful inability to appreciate that other characters think him malignant. Marc Warren is doing a standard issue evil villain.

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

Indeed. Fairies are entertainment-seeking aristocrats by nature, and the Gentleman's motivations are aesthetic, sexual, humorous and sadistic. Vinculus isn't pretty, so...

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

On which topic, the Raven King's close association with the fairies, though its character is ambivalent and left open to interpretation, complicates the notion of him as a radical force (or at least a force which is appealing to radical sentiments because of its disruptive character).

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prandeamus 1 year, 7 months ago

"A story for the British Isles" might equally be replaced with "a story for England". The North, after all is a shorthand for the North of England here. I can't think of any major character who isn't English as portrayed in the TV version with the exception of John Sessions as the Scottish publisher. Wellington as i recall was from the Irish nobility but there's no trace of that in his portrayal.

No one ever talks about Scots magic, or Irish, or Welsh, do they? Why do the French have no magic?

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John 1 year, 7 months ago

I think a key fact of the Raven King, though, is that he is *not* a fairy. He is, if anything, a fellow victim of the fairies, along with Stephen, Lady Pole, and Arabella. The Raven King is certainly not aligned in any way with the Gentleman

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

It is very much a feature of the story, and one that I have also puzzled over, that the issue of magic anywhere else is so systematically and conspicuously ignored. Right from the start, the question that opens the story, "Why magic is no longer done in England", inevitably invites one to ask if it is done anywhere else, but that question is studiously and deliberately never asked, let alone answered. It's clearly a significant choice, but other than the usual default stuff about insularity, and the fact that That's Not What This Story Is About, I don't have a good explanation.

Wellington as i recall was from the Irish nobility

Don't let him hear you say that!

Given that Wellington here has a bit of a superficial Celebrity Historical air about him, a stock figure being wheeled on to play some hits before being wheeled off again, and that they fit in an allusion to "the scum of the earth", it's almost a surprise that they don't find room for a "being born in a stable does not make one a horse" (or a "hard pounding, gentlemen!", or a "nothing but a battle lost can be* half so melancholy as a battle won"; "Sparrowhawks, ma'am!" would require more writerly ingenuity).

Aside: there is a strange omission of Ireland in Arabella which almost seems to imply an association between Ireland and Faerie. Strange does the vision spell, dividing the bowl of water into quarters, and says "She's not in England, Scotland, Wales...", striking a quarter of the bowl for each name. The implied fourth member of that quartet is not mentioned. Odd.

*The significance of that "can be" (as opposed to "is") had never quite occurred to me before typing this. Of course, he never lost a battle, so it was a hypothetical for him.

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

As I say, it's ambivalent. Both open conflict and exploitation in both directions are indicated. But while he started off as a victim, what he learned from the fairies was evidently the original basis of his exceptional power, and the character of his relationship with his "fairy servants" is unclear. At any rate, he certainly employed fairies and their methods to exercise power over the human world. Norrell's is a hostile portrayal, but his bracketing together of the fairies and the Raven King is not contested by the more sympathetic Strange, merely the significance of it.

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

And yes, I realise that's a wildly unfair description of the portrayal. Going off on a riff there.

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JohnP 1 year, 7 months ago

A little baffled why you appear to be according so much (such as the Pillar of Darkness) to Peter Harness when it's in Susanna Clarke's source materal?

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 7 months ago

It's less the pillar of darkness itself that I'm crediting as the construction of it as a televisual moment, given ninety minutes of space from the previous Big Act Of Magic, and the way it marks a tonal shift towards Weird Fiction.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 7 months ago

On a purely practical "rules of magic" interpretation, it could be that Strange's scrying simply can't cross the sea.

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Daibhid C 1 year, 7 months ago

One of the dualisms central to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been the Enlightenment rationality of Mr. Norrell and the Romanticism of Jonathan Strange

I think someone may have already said something along these lines, but I've never seen it as that simple; to my mind Strange, who wants to discover things and actually compares magicians to scientists, is much more of an Enlightenment figure than the hidebound and superstitious[1] Norrell, with his fetishism of old books.

Even his madness here doesn't change my view; testing odd concoctions on himself regardless of what effects they might have beyond the ones he's interested in would be exactly the actions of an obsessive 18th century natural philosopher.

And IMO, the democratisation of magic fits this as well; we're but ten years away from Faraday (one of the scientists Strange cites) setting up the Christmas Lectures because everybody deserves to learn about science if they want. Maybe I have an overly romantic(!) view of the Enlightenment, but Norrell hoarding knowledge because he's the only person who can be trusted with it doesn't strike me as being in that vein at all.

[1]Yes, superstitious. Strange learns about potentially dangerous magic and decides that if it's that dangerous, we need to understand it. Norrell decides that we need to pretend it isn't there so it can't get us. That's superstition, which is after all generally more about avoiding spirits than attracting them.

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Iain Coleman 1 year, 7 months ago

And Strange's book being published by an Edinburgh publisher connects him to the Scottish Enlightenment.

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Prandeamus 1 year, 7 months ago

The King describes himself as King of Great Britain, as I recall, which geographically excludes Ireland. Mind you, since at this point he's as mad as a teapot it might be asking a lot to expect him to remember the details of the Act of Union 1801.

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David Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

Murray was a historical figure, who in real history published among others Austen, Scott, Crabbe, and Byron (according to wikipedia).

The reference to testing odd concoctions on himself makes me think of the chemist Humphrey Davy, a friend of Coleridge, who nearly killed himself several times experimenting with various oxygen-nitrogen compounds and carbon monoxide.

Norrell in the novel, while he's taught himself from books, is highly dismissive of the contents of most of them. Of course there's a lot going on in the eighteenth century beyond the philosophical Enlightenment. It was one of the great ages of classical scholarship: in its own estimation the golden age, being dismissive of the achievements of the Renaissance humanists.

The opposition between 18th century and Romanticism is I think more dialectical than a straight opposition anyway: the continuities between Romanticism and strands of 18th century thought set the nature of the discontinuities.

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John 1 year, 7 months ago

The Pillar of Darkness in the book is much different from the one in the show.

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John 1 year, 7 months ago

There's a whole ton of real historical figures who make appearances in the book. In the show these are drawn down to Wellington, George III, the Earl of Liverpool, Colquhoun Grant, and John Murray. Which is an interesting set. It's too bad they didn't have time to put in Lord Byron's cameo, which is hilarious.

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David Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

As an addendum to the last line, this may be one of the things the BBC is for. But it's also for Strictly Come Dancing.
It's for both this and Strictly.

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David Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

The Pillar of Darkness in the book is the occasion of one of the best lines about Norrell's character.

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Iain Coleman 1 year, 7 months ago

In this alternate history, perhaps Ireland is an independent nation?

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

On a purely practical "rules of magic" interpretation, it could be that Strange's scrying simply can't cross the sea.

But doesn't Norrell use the same sort of magic to show the parliamentarians what's going on in Spain, and Strange to find the French (ahem) "destroyers"?

I wouldn't think anything of it from the dialogue alone, since the island is the obvious physical unit. It's the choice to have him strike out the quarters of the bowl, covering three members of a set of four, which makes me feel something may be going on there.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"And all of this - a social justice-oriented revision of the interplay between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras as Weird Historical Fantasy - is bound up in a vision of what Britain’s heritage is. It’s a story about portals to Faerie, and the buried, secret history of Albion - a patriotic myth. It is a story for the British Isles, built out of a carefully woven braid of its material history and the stories it likes to tell about itself, and one that paints a picture of Britain that is fantastic and real and ancient and new."

This I love.

And this: "On the other we have the explicit democratization of English magic - the declaration on Strange’s part that everyone who ever wanted to be will be a magician. Which becomes a sort of dialectical synthesis of the two forms of individual subjectivity offered by the Enlightenment/Romantic dualism - the rational subject and the visionary mystic - that moves explicitly from theoretical magic to practical magic."

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phuzz 1 year, 7 months ago

I think our gracious host would be upset if you didn't at least add Dr Who to that short list.

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David Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

If I understand Phil's position correctly, he thinks Doctor Who is what you get if you cross-fertilise Strictly and JS&MN. In a timey-wimey manner.

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prandeamus 1 year, 7 months ago

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe it is time to start a continuity/canon war concerning the mechanics of magic in Jonathan Str... wait! come back! where did you all go?

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