Peter Harness has said that he thinks this episode is the best thing he’s ever written. It’s not an unreasonable assertion. This is a precision-engineered piece of television. It starts impossibly big and careens at unrelenting speed towards an equally grandiose conclusion. On each end is a different version of the same event: the cracking of Jonathan Strange. At the outset is the Battle of Waterloo, a sequence one imagines gave Harness his most thorough grounding to date in what writing Doctor Who is like (“What can I have to do the Battle of Waterloo?” “Thirty extras, a courtyard, and a half-dozen CGI shots.”), and one that culminates in Strange breaking his previous assertion that a gentleman could never kill another man. At the end is Strange finally figuring out the secret that Norrell has been keeping from him, and plunging into dangerous obsessions.
In between, meanwhile, is a very carefully subverted fridging. That it is a fridging is difficult to dispute. Arabella is killed in order to give Strange some angst. The entire plot of the episode is literally “Strange goes a bit mad because his wife dies.” It’s as classic a fridging as you can do. Except, of course, that Arabella’s not dead, and all of the scenes of Strange’s angst are necessarily weighed up against this fact. As has been the case since the end of “The Friends of English Magic,” this is a show in which we frequently know more than the characters. And here the nature of the big secret shifts – where it had been the question of what actually happened to Lady Pole, now, as Strange, Secundus, and Honeyfoot all figure out key parts of that, the big secret becomes Arabella’s captivity.
It’s notable, then, just how straight all of Strange’s scenes of angst are played. Nothing in how they are shot or written betrays the secret. Instead, “Arabella” plays out as a normative fridging, except that the audience knows more. This has an interesting effect – it creates a sense of estrangement from the scenes, making the tropes more visible. As, of course, they are meant to be – in a story that has made as much of marginalized populations as Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has, the fridging of a character cannot be read straightforwardly. (Although man, I wish Harness had avoided the temptation to have the last conversation the Stranges have prior to Arabella’s disappearance be about having children, a thuddingly cliche note.)
It also has to be said, it’s very well done. The sense of dread that hangs over the episode’s start, running through to when the Gentleman finally captures Arabella, is a magnificent thing. There’s a lovely twist pulled in naming the episode “Arabella” and then quickly establishing the inevitability of her demise, then having it actually happen early on. One expects Arabella’s “death” to be the cliffhanger (a move that would have made the fridging much less of an object of critique), so the point when it happens becomes, instead, a point where the episode goes weirdly off the rails into something altogether more unsettling.
But the directness comes at the expense of the thematic depth of the episode. This is, in the end, still mostly a well-done fridging, and while it largely avoids the ethical critique involved in that, I have to confess that I don’t actually find the episode nearly as interesting as the two before it. This is, to be clear, almost entirely a matter of preference – I like sprawling thematic density, and the sharp focus of this, while something I respect and appreciate the craft that entails, doesn’t make up for the fact that the thrillingly bookish debate over the nature of English magic takes something of a backseat here.
With, it must be said, the exception of a pair of consciously paralleled scenes – the discussion between Strange and Walter Pole and the subsequent scene with Lady Pole and Stephen, in which the line “he has poisoned your mind” is repeated. This serves to make up an interesting parallel structure, as the “he” of the two sentences is, in the first instance, Mr. Norrell, and in the second the Gentleman. These characters are, obviously, linked, but it’s nevertheless an odd parallel. But more significant is the nature of the poisons: both Pole and Stephen refuse to question the nature of the world. Pole declines to interrogate what Norrell might have actually done to his wife, while Stephen’s claim that “we should accept our position and be thankful for it” speaks for itself.
Also interesting is the shift in Lascelles as a character, becoming, in the near-total absence of Drawlight from this episode, an even more cravenly wretched figure. His manipulation of Norrell is a profoundly vicious thing, and clearly marks the point where Lascelles emerges as one of the primary antagonists of the series, which is an impressive feat, given that he initially comes off as Drawlight’s less interesting and important hanger-on. So that’s effective, even if one is, from this point on, left hoping that every scene he’s in will be his last.
But by and large, this installment is more a triumph of execution than concept. It works to kick the series towards its (hopefully) triumphant climax, and I’m thrilled to see what happens next, but there’s something ever so slightly hollow about this episode on its own merits.