|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.