It's So Compelling To Watch Strange & Norrell's Moral Ambiguity Unfold

io9 ReviewsReviews and critical analyses of fan-favorite movies, TV shows, comics, books, and more.

For a show with an ampersand in its title — the very implicit acknowledgement of unity between two entities — this week’s Strange & Norrell is all about relationships crumbling in spectacular manners. And yet, it’s completely compelling to watch, because even in the aftermath it’s hard to see who is doing the right thing.

Warning: Although the series has begun in the UK, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won’t air in the US until June 13th on BBC America. As such, these recaps will be kept as light on spoilers as possible — but there will still be spoilers ahead and in the comments.


If anything, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has always been about people coming together and coming apart (whether they like it or not) — there’s the union of Strange and Norrell as the only two magicians, the marriages of Strange and Arabella and the Poles (and the ruinous magic that tears Sir Walter and Lady Pole apart), the forced arrangements between the Gentleman, Steven and Lady Pole, and even Yorkshire magicians Segundus and Honeyfoot coming together to start their own school of magic. But “All the Mirrors of the World” takes almost every one of these pairings and dangles them over a knife point, with some falling and splitting apart, and some strengthened by their tribulations. In almost every case, these events are all about seeing the dark side of being careful for what you wish for.

The pairings that do survive the episode aren’t all necessarily a good thing, especially one in particular. The Gentleman and Steven’s relationship is seemingly stronger than ever, much to the butler’s horror, as he finds himself wrapped up more and more in the Gentleman’s plans to interfere with the real world — first, as he finds himself possessed in an attempt to strike the mad King George III down. Even when Lady Pole is sent away for her attempted murder, he finds himself resigned to his fate under the Gentleman’s thrall (there’s a fantastic moment where Segundus, now in charge of the asylum Lady Pole has been sent to, tells Steven that he can tell there’s some sort of magical effect upon him, and as Steven denies it and opens the door to leave, the Gentleman is standing right there, staring back). All the time you see Steven questioning if his decision to help the Gentleman, an act of subservience that was second nature to a man of his position, is worth it, but no matter how bad they get — and it gets pretty bad at the end of the episode, as the Gentleman’s plans for Arabella continue to escalate — he can’t escape, his wish to be a king keeping him a thrall.

Arabella and Jonathan find themselves in a happier place following his return from the Napoleonic war, but even their pairing, arguably the strongest in the show, is tested this week. As troubles with Norrell grow, and as Lady Pole’s deterioration plays out in front of Arabella, the two find themselves almost at odds — all Arabella wanted was for Jonathan to find a respectable job, and now she finds herself losing him as he becomes further and further occupied by his magical studies. After Jonathan discovers a mysterious alternate dimension that allows him to travel between the titular mirrors, Arabella isn’t happy for him but petrified, fearing she could lose him to magic almost as she did to the War. What keeps Arabella and Jonathan together though, is Mr. Strange’s own decision to prioritise his relationship with her over his magic (even though that is tested at the end of the episode again, when he’s ordered to return to the War and battle Napoleon’s resurgence in France). It’s the most human decision in a sea of mystical darkness, and as we’ll see with him and Norrell, the fact that he can put someone else over magic is just one of the many things they find themselves disagreeable on.


Naturally it’s Strange and Norrell’s relationship, and its decline, that we spend the most time with this week. Although the seeds for their differences have been planted throughout the past two episodes, it’s still a drawn out and painful affair, no matter how gentlemanly it goes about — Strange deliberately calls their split the end of their “period of collaboration”, and scathes Lascelles’ book praising Norrell as the sole returner of magic to England the only way a 19th Century gentleman knows how to: An article in the Edinburgh Review — thanks to some stunning performances from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan.


Strange and Norrell find themselves drifting to different approaches to magic. Spurred by his time at War and his discovery of the mirror world, Strange finds himself enchanted by the fantastical magics of fairies and the Raven King. Norrell, still completely fearful of what his deal with the Gentleman has wrought upon the Poles, is instead driven to maintain his sense of “respectable” magic, outright denying the existence or use of fairy magic in modern society. Strange believes in celebrating the magic of old England, while Norrell decidedly wants it to be covered up — and is willing to do a lot of bad things to keep it that way, even if it means unintentionally losing people close to him. He lambastes Childermass for not being there for him (after Childermass took a bullet for him), prompting the manservant to start investigating Lady Pole on his own. Upon learning that Drawlight has been scamming people with the promise of learning magic from him and Strange, he demands to subvert the law and have him hanged in a magical court. Norrell’s desperation to keep his secrets has lead to him doing some terrible things.


But in the fireside scene that sees Strange and Norrell decide to part ways you see why he’s done all this: he’s desperately lonely, only ever wanting to find someone else he can talk to about magic. He lights up when he asks Strange if there’s anyone else he could talk to about magic like they can together, and for a moment, you see the pain flicker across Norrell’s face as he tries to keep Strange in London beside him. He realises too little, too late, that his attempt to find someone to celebrate magic with, to find a true friend, has ended up in creating his ultimate enemy. Marsan plays this pain completely perfectly, and although the audience is inclined to side with Strange given Norrell’s former, horrible action, for a moment you want to understand him. Strange & Norrell hasn’t done the best job of keeping the titular pairing morally ambiguous up to yet as they were in the novel, but here you finally feel like you’re unsure which of the two is doing the right thing.

And yet, despite that tragic realisation, Norrell still can’t really own up to his transgressions and realise the full extent of what he’s done. Before he’s whisked away to the War again, Strange decides to retire and become a “theoretical magician”, out of respect for his former friend and to keep a promise to his wife that she is his highest priority. At the same time, Norrell declares to Lascelles that Strange mustn’t just be disproven in his belief in old magic — he must be destroyed. It’s what really differentiates them: Strange’s willingness to sacrifice magic for the sake of the people he cares for, and Norrell’s willingness to sacrifice people around him for the sake of magic, even if that cost seems like it’s finally starting to get to him.


It’ll take a lot more than Regency gentlemanliness to bring these two back together, a dire thought considering the Gentleman’s slowly expanding plans.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter