A satisfying and well-constructed end, although as predicted not my favorite of the series. In terms of what the episode does, it is largely in keeping with what has gone before; its only significant thematic addition is the actual Raven King, who, continuing in the weird fiction theme introduced last episode, is a non-speaking character who simply strolls across the landscape of the story, makes a few alterations for reasons that are entirely his own, and exits. It’s striking and bold, a jarringly small and uncanny role for something that’s been built since the series’s start, but in a way that feels deliberate and earned.
Similarly bracing in scope is the opening scene, in which, in a very real sense, England falls to the magicians. The Parliamentary proceedings do a good job of expressing the scale of transformation sweeping across England in the wake of Strange’s unleashing of English magic, although I wonder if the series as a whole wouldn’t have been improved by finding time (and more importantly money) to show some of the Northern uprisings directly instead of reading about them off of telegrams, just to give the story a sense of scale. There’s something odd about seeing the Battle of Waterloo but not the uprisings that destabilize the entire socio-political structure of England.
There’s also some decisions I quibble about in terms of pacing and structuring the ending, most obviously the sudden reappearance of Lascelles during the denouement proper, which feels like a somewhat awkward solution to the problem of figuring out how to give the character a climactic comeuppance whereby he appears much later in the climax than is actually warranted. As loathsome a toad as Lascelles is – and his murder of Drawlight and confrontation with Childermass are both wonderful scenes – having him drop back into the plot at the moment the attempt to summon the Raven King under the name “nameless slave” goes awry and summons Stephen Black instead feels clumsy. (Harness tries to lampshade this by having him then be casually and cruelly dispatched by the Gentleman, and it helps by making the story at least mindful of Lascelle’s profound irrelevance at this point, but it doesn’t solve the problem.)
But despite occasional missteps, there’s a wealth of masterpiece sequences here. The Strange/Norrell confrontation, with Norrell finally, pathetically begging Strange not to laugh at him is a particular highlight, at once surprising and firmly rooted in the characters. Similarly adept is the final scene, with Childermass delivering a near direct address to camera as he explains that Strange and Norrell have ascended to a mythic status within the material landscape of England, having already been revealed not as magicians but as a spell woven by the Raven King.
It’s worth noting that much of this ending is original to Harness; the broad strokes of Norrell and Strange rescuing Arabella but remaining trapped in the Black Tower are all from the book, but there are major changes. Perhaps the biggest change is the destruction of all magical books in England, including the last remaining copy of Strange’s, so that the rewritten (and unreadable) Vinculus is the only book of magic left. This is a massive contrast to the book, where the entire footnote-heavy format is based on the existence of a number of magical works that can be cited and quoted to accomplish worldbuilding. Instead Harness engineers a situation of individual freedom – everybody who wants to be is now a magician, and there’s no rulebook beyond a cryptic and unknowable book that is itself a human actor.
There’s a nice stylistic similarity to Kill the Moon – the use of television and narrative to explore and shift around some vast thematic terrain in a way that, at a crucial moment, implicates the viewer in the thematic landscape. Here the rhetoric of magic that I used in discussing Kill the Moon is explicit, but it’s the same underlying trick and structure, only here the history is vast and sprawling, given room to build up and implicate a huge portion of English history. The size of the thematic edifice is impressive, as is its coherence. (All of which said, I really do adore the explicitness of the main characters being described as “the spell,” which, of course, they in practice are, especially when the overall show is considered as an act of magic to bring about a new era of English magic by aggressively reconceptualizing its history in terms of the subaltern.)
All told, then, a stone cold classic of British fantasy and British television. If this isn’t up for a Hugo (I’ll be nominating it in its entirety in Long Form, personally), it’ll be an absolute crime.
- The Black Tower
- All the Mirrors of the World
- The Education of a Magician
- Jonathan Strage & Mr. Norrell
- How is Lady Pole?
- The Friends of English Magic
Also, if you want more top quality Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell analysis, I highly recommend John Reppion (aka Alan Moore’s son-in-law) five-part overview of the historical antecedents to the magic within the series. The fifth part, with links to parts 1-4, is here.