Friday, July 3, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Finale Review

My review of last week's episode

Obviously, there will be spoilers. There will be drama. There will be blood.

The previous episode did a terrific job establishing Strange as a potential villain. He abandoned all sense of propriety and hygiene, stumbled about Italy trying to go mad, did go mad after eating a rotten mouse, and perfected an evil villain laugh, promising his nemesis Mr. Norrell: “I am coming.” In the finale, an emotional prelude by Sir Walter Pole brings Strange's fury crashing back and underlines the hopelessness of the situation.

Miraculously, Christopher Drawlight manages to deliver one of Strange's messages before being brutally murdered by his former pal, Henry Lascelles. Lascelles then joins Mr. Norrell, who has retreated to Hurtfell Abbey and gotten lost in his own library.

Technically, that last bit isn't his fault, because Strange has turned the Abbey into an enchanted maze where he plans to face his former tutor. The confrontation will find Mr. Norrell alone, for Childermass, discovering Lascelles' treachery, confronts him and is subsequently thrown out on his ear. Joab-like, Childermass delivers a harsh rebuke: "You've made the wrong choice, sir, as usual," before departing with a final warning to Lascelles: "You are in the North now. Our laws were made by the Raven King. Our towns and abbeys were founded by him. Mr Norrell's house was built by him. He's in our minds and hearts and speech. And he's coming back."

Also coming back is Jonathan Strange, and you've got admit, the man knows how to make an entrance. Descending amidst a flurry of ravens and a huge black tornado, it seems Mr. Norrell may, for the first time ever, be right to be afraid. And yet no! For when Jonathan appears, ragged and wild eyed and vengeful, he offers nothing but exhausted forgiveness. The shock and grace of it, coming from the only person Norrell loves (and yet the one whom he has harmed the most) is the stroke which finally spurs him to heroism.

It also elicits a flood of sentimental confessions from both men: Strange's tome is the best book of magic ever, Norrell is a great magician, Strange is a better magician, it's been an honor working with Norrell...there are so many I-can't-carry-it-for-you-but-I-can-carry-you man-bonding moments that they begin to grow a little stale. But Marsan and Carvel pack so much talent, emotion, and even humor into their tense shared screen-time that it's hard to mind.

Overdoing it does become more of a problem as the episode progresses. Both of the marginalized, voiceless characters blatantly reference their freedom, in scenes which are obviously designed for cheers from a modern audience, but which feel a bit unsubtle (hey! look! themes!). I'm more than willing to cut the showrunners some slack - after all, their restraint so far has bordered on the superhuman - but the adoption of the Hollywood tendency to intensify and extend a finale (I'm looking at you, Peter Jackson) is disappointing.

When the Raven King appears, he's almost lost in the sound and fury. Physically, he looks like a cross between Durza in that 2006 Eragon movie and a lost member of Black Sabbath. (I'd have preferred someone more ruggedly Aragornish, a la Childermass, but okay.) He has a brief cameo, facing the two magicians then whisking off to write a new prophecy and reanimate Vinculus. (Note: he doesn't rewrite the old prophecy, it still comes to pass. After all, if prophecies can lie, what's the point anyway? If that's the case, then nothing is written, and we know that's not true.)

We get no time to digest the epicness of this because Strange and Norrell are back at work, feeling that their first attempt failed. For Take 2, they plan to use the Raven King's other moniker, "the nameless slave." The spell will channel all of English magic into this one person.

As it happens, the conditions they set apply far more to Stephen Black (shocker!), who's currently cooling his heels in the madhouse cellar. Thanks to Childermass's pickpocketing skills, Sir Walter now knows the truth, but Stephen is still unable to fight the Gentleman's silencing enchantment. Sir Walter immediately throws his butler under the bus, or in this case, into the cellar. All of this means that Stephen's warning comes too late: Segundus reattaches Lady Pole's missing finger and releases her from Lost-Hope before she can help Jonathan Strange rescue his wife.

In the meantime, Strange and Norrell have assembled the magic and successfully made Sir Walter Pole's butler the greatest magician in England. Another confrontation results in the death of both Lascelles and Stephen's earthly self - but then the dynamic duo discover their new king is still living in Faerie. Seeing that their original intent has failed, they try and make the best of the situation by spiriting themselves to Lost-Hope and instructing Stephen Black on his new abilities. At the same time, Strange frees Arabella with True Love's Kiss (you called that one, Darrell) and sends her home before Stephen Black lays down the law and kills the Gentleman.

There are tons of loose-ends to tie up, but the episode gamely attempts it in the final ten minutes. Lady Pole rejects Sir Walter and goes abroad. Stephen Black (a fact implied but not demonstrated) becomes King of Lost-Hope. Arabella Strange is safe, but both of our titular characters are lost in the chasm, presumably forever. Childermass and Vinculus (a match made in heaven - edit: apparently Susanna Clarke agrees with me) establish the new, wild, democratic, unrespectable form of magic in Yorkshire.


Phew. That was a wild ride, but it was a good one. The finale invented too many hoops for its heroes to jump through, and shifted the focus from a semi-deific intervention to human ingenuity, yet there's still just tons of quality here. Both Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel throw themselves into towering performances, running the gamut from terror to hatred to reconciliation to humor and exhilaration...they do everything. The first half of the episode is pretty much perfect television. And while I have my quibbles about the second half, it's a solid, if rushed, conclusion to the best fantasy adaptation we've seen since The Lord of the Rings.

I really can't wait to get the chance to rewatch it in full (and figure out a way to shape up the tons of extra thoughts I had about the ending). As it is, once I get back from Guatemala (I wrote most of this review in the back of a pickup truck rocketing about the mountains, pausing occasionally to glance at Volcan Fuego erupting), I'm definitely rewatching the finale, hoping to understand the convoluted storyline a bit more. Also, to revisit these characters, who have become such good friends over the last seven weeks. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m totally up for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Ride Again.



  1. I got the distinct impression that the Raven King's prophecy is more like a spell--casting his wishes for a future time. Accordingly, Norrell and Strange were just pawns in the Raven King's long game to destroy The Gentleman and faerie magic, and keep magic from humans by binding it with Stephen Black in the remains of Lost Hope. The "new, wild, democratic, unrespectable" magic in Yorkshire is strictly theoretical and impotent with all magic in England safely bound. At least that's what I took away from all of this.

    I would have offered the Raven King all the magic in France, Germany, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia myself--assuming I had any choice, of course.

    1. I think that's a pretty good summary of what happens in the book. It's difficult to tell the Raven King's exact purpose, but it's certain that Norrell and Strange are not actually as crucial as they seemed. In the novel, they're even *less* important.

  2. For all those that are unaware, that lovely "rose" in our dear Lady Pole's lips above is her tongue. She is the "Speak No Evil" monkey of the Gentleman's trio.

    1. Lady Pole is played by Alice Englert and she is the daughter of Jane Campion, the New Zealand film industry. Well, I thought that was interesting when I saw it seven weeks ago.

    2. I was curious why everyone said the name Alice Englert like we should know who that was.

      And an interesting point about the rose. The rose was the symbol of the Gentleman's curse on both Stephen and Lady Pole in the book, so I hadn't thought more deeply about it. Why, then, was Segundus' curse to also be prevented from speaking? Or am I reading too much into this?

    3. You are right, monkey-wise. Lord Pole is definitely "See No Evil." Segundus, "Speak No Evil," and Honeyfoot, "Hear No Evil" with his ears that went a-flapping off. Lady Pole got the rose tongue treatment because she called the Gentleman a boor. And more--“I have had my fill of you, Gentleman, taking what you want of me. But I have my voice now. And I say, you are a boor, Sir. An uncivilised, unsightly, filthy boor. With your tasteless clothes, and your hair like … thistledown!”

    4. "You are right, monkey-wise." <--I think this should be my new motto.


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