The second episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is full of gorgeous spectacle and unbelievable displays of magic. But it also does a great job of showing that even the most fabulous magic has a dark side: a darkness than can bring out the worst in people, or even deliver great tragedies.
Warning: Although the series has begun in the U.K, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell won’t air in the U.S 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.
The first episode of Strange & Norrell spent a lot of necessary screen time setting up a Britain that had forgotten magic . But “How is Lady Pole?” instantly transports us to a country where magic is not only in existence once more, but grand and whimsical. With the set-up out of the way, the show gets much more time (time that it uses far better here, given the improved pace) to not only dig into its titular pairing more, but to offer an excellent examination of the real human price that Norrell has paid to bring magic back to prominence.
Although the second episode is much more character-driven than exposition-driven like the first, its biggest moments easily come in two triumphant displays of magic: a beautiful cold opening that sees Norrell project a fleet of English warships to trick the French, and the spectacular scene above where Strange, beginning to get a real grip on his magical power, conjures a pack of sand horses to push a stranded ship off the ground its run upon.
Aside from looking absolutely incredible, these acts of magic are much more than just pleasant visual splendor for the audience. They go a long way to establishing some key differences in thinking between Norrell, who is now cherishing his role as the man who returned magic to England, and his upstart new apprentice Strange. Norrell’s illusion is a grand display of the power he seeks to show that magic is not just capable of great things, but also respectable. The illusion is not to harm England’s opponents — the warships are conjured from rainwater — and Norrell limits his spells for the government to merely allow them to see where their generals are, rather than to harm the French in any way. Throughout the episode Norrell treads a fine line between trying to prove magic’s deserved place in England, but also trying to keep magic from doing harm. Or at least, as we’ll discover later, more harm than it already has.
Strange’s spell on the other hand, has the same element of grandeur, but is much more active and dangerous. Still coming to terms with the vast magical prowess he has (contrasted by the rather meager amount of magical books he has to in the libraries Norrell desperately tries to expand), Strange’s summoned horses aren’t just beautiful, they’re born of a moment of frustration and recklessness, sending onlookers scurrying out of harm’s way as the charge across the beach. But although Strange doesn’t actually hurt anyone with his spell — he saves the crew of the beached ship — its power is so tempting that the British Government requests that he be sent to Portugal to practice magic on the front lines of the war, much to Norrell’s chagrin.
The two gentlemen’s differing approaches to magic forces the two magicians apart almost as soon as they had come together. But it’s not just their approaches that create a wedge — it’s also driven by Strange’s growing frustration with Norrell refusing to let him study the fairy magics of the mysterious Raven King, a refusal born out of the fallout from Norrell’s use of such magic to revive Lady Pole. At first, it’s played for laughs, as Norrell fussily bemoans that there is now someone else who wants to buy all of England’s magical books, but as the two begin to drift apart it turns sinister, culminating in Norrell hugely outbidding Strange’s wife, Arabella, for an auction of magic books from a deceased lord’s estate — and seeing The Gentleman, the specter of Norrell’s dark secret, over Arabella’s shoulder. For all its spectacle (and no matter how splendid the VFX looks), magic couldn’t keep Strange & Norrell from coming to odds with each other. But their burgeoning friendship isn’t the only sad cost of magic’s return.
But as the title of the episode suggests, the B-plot of “How is Lady Pole” deals with the tragic ramifications of Norrell’s pact with the fairies at the end of the previous episode. By allowing the mysterious Gentleman to bring Lady Pole to life, Norrell has opened a whole can of worms that he can’t readily seal back up, no matter how hard he tries.
Over the course of the episode, Lady Pole, who is being forced by the Gentleman to endlessly dance in the fairy realm during her sleep, is slowly driven insane from being under the fairy’s thrall. Unable to articulate her peril to those around her (every attempt comes out as an obscure tale that hastens her husband and those around her to believe that she has gone mad), it’s not just Lady Pole who descends down a dark, maddening path. The Poles’ estate is gradually driven into disrepute — bells are no long rung due to the fear the elicit in Lady Pole, mirrors are smashed and several of the household’s staff flee after seeing haunting apparitions of the Gentleman — and Lord and Lady Pole’s marriage gradually breaks down, culminating in a heartbreaking scene where, close to tears, Walter Pole meekly asks Strange if there’s a way to undo his wife’s resurrection.
It’s this tragedy that drives Norrell to keep what he’s done under wraps from his new peers as well as Strange himself, a fear of people discovering the destruction he’s brought to the Poles’ life could damage the “respectable” reputation of his magic. It’s an incredibly dark sacrifice that Norrell makes.
But it’s not just the Poles that become entangled in Norrell’s deal with the Gentleman. The Pole’s butler, Stephen Black, also runs afoul of The Gentleman’s meddling — who makes the tempting offer to a black servant in Regency England of becoming a king in the fairy world. Like Lady Pole, Stephen is doomed to dance his sleeping hours away in the fairy world (another sumptuous piece of set design, a nightmarish mirror of the lavish Regency decor the show usually offers up), but the ramifications of his deal are more sinister than they are tragic: The Gentleman now has an agent in the real world, one who could become a major spanner in the works for both magicians and nobles alike.
It may have taken an episode of world-building to set up (and a lavishly detailed world it is, Britain’s penchant for detailed costume drama wonderfully paired with amazing moments of CGI spectacle) but now that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has had the chance to delve into its characters a little more, had the chance to set up the sinister forces at play in the background, it’s become a thrillingly dark piece of television. For all the trailers filled with the whimsical strings of In the Hall of the Mountain King, the show is already proving that magic can be far more than just a pretty fantasy — and its sinister side can be just as intriguing.