Last week’s episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was all about showing the dark side of fantasy. This week however, the darkness on display is very much in the realm of reality, as Strange finds himself on the front lines of war, and poor Lady Pole descends further into madness.
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.
The third episode may be called “The Education of a Magician”, but the education Strange goes through is less of an education in magic — that still comes relatively naturally to him, as he begins conjuring roads for the British Army and mists to conceal troops pretty rapidly, neither of which quite match the CG spectacle of last week’s sand horses — and more of one in the harsh realities of life on the front lines in war. Upon his arrival in Portugal, Strange expects the real fight to be to gain respect from his fellow soldiers, as he finds himself relatively alone in the hubbub of encampments, but he quickly realises that there’s actual fighting going on as well, and when reality strikes, it almost breaks him.
While attempting to locate some stolen British cannons, Strange finds himself in the firing line as combat inadvertently breaks out between the British and the French — almost literally, when he’s almost hit by cannon fire. But Jeremy, his trusted servant, sacrifices himself to protect Strange, and his death rattles the fledgling magician. The same cannon shot also mostly destroys the magical books Strange had with him, a close friend and his only weapon on the battlefield removed in one swift stroke. Without the safety net of familiarity in Jeremy, or the knowledge found in his books, Strange finds himself pushed to desperation in his darkest moment, turning to the Raven King magic Norrell had forbidden him from utilising.
But somehow, it gets even worse for him. Strange raises the decaying corpses of three enemy soldiers back to life in an attempt to gain information about the location of the stolen cannons, turning them into zombie-esque creatures. It’s telling that despite watching a man raise the dead, the soldiers around him aren’t really horrified by the act — they’re men at war, they’ve seen worse than a few roaming corpses — but the use of such old and dark magic sends Strange spiralling even further after realising just what he’s done. The sight of the Neapolitan zombies shakes Jonathan so much, he spends the night attempting to use the same magic to send them back, but it doesn’t work.
Strange returns to England a changed man — a quieter one, given his reaction to seeing his wife again — but he has learned important lessons. Not just about the awfulness of war, and what men have to do to put that behind them but most importantly about his magic. Strange learns that he has the power to do both great and terrible things, but that there is also a limit to what he can (and arguably should) do with that power.
As we see back in London, however, this is very much a lesson that Norrell hasn’t learned, or perhaps has choosed to ignore. It’s ridiculously difficult to make you feel a sense of loathing for an actor like Eddie Marsan, but Strange and Norrell went a long way in making you feel like that this week. It’s kind of amazing in such a short space of time how the show has managed to make you feel for Norrell’s plight to restore magic to England, to suddenly very much wondering if that was really a good idea.
Norrell starts the episode in a bad way, and steadily gets worse and worse as he tries to keep the secrets of what he did to Lady Pole under wraps. It begins with the interception of the Stranges’ letters, an act that even Childermass is uncomfortable with (and if Childermass is uncomfortable with doing something for Strange, it’s clearly not a good thing), in an attempt to see if Arabelle is discussing Lady Pole’s health with anyone. Before this episode the idea of Norrell finding it confusing that they would merely write about their love of each other would be almost playful to the audience, but here there’s a sinister bent to it: Norrell has been all but consumed in trying to keep his secret from getting out, to the point that he doesn’t care about the love of his seeming friend. Even when he realises that Arabelle isn’t discussing Lady Pole with Strange, he continues to intercept their mail anyway.
But his desperation doesn’t end there. Arabelle’s visits to see Lady Pole have become more frequent, as Lady Pole attempts to communicate her strife not through words, but through needlework. Norrell at first seemingly uses Drawlight to try and discover what Arabelle is discussing with Lady Pole, but when he fails he just goes full pelt: not only does he order Childermass to break in and destroy Lady Pole’s tapestry, but he even goes behind Arabelle’s back by convincing Sir Walter that her frequent visits are enacting too much of a toll of Lady Pole’s health. The loss of Arabelle as a friend and confidant drives Lady Pole to near suicide, as Norrell sees her strapped to a bed, unable to tell people what he has done and unable to even react with anyone. His relative ease at leaving her in such a state, as she screams his name in equal parts anger and terror, is an incredibly haunting moment — unlike Strange, who learns the important lesson of finding a limit to what you can do with your powers, Norrell believes there is no limit to what he can do. As long as it’s for the good of English Magic, he’s perfectly willing to keep his darkest secrets by any means necessary.
For the amount of terrible things that Norrell does this episode, you almost expect him to face a comeuppance, to mirror Strange’s lesson that there has to be a limit to what magic can do. And for a brief moment, you think he will, as Lady Pole managed to break free of her bondage and attempt to assassinate him, in turn for his “murder” of her, as she sees her current predicament. It’s a testament to how good a job Marsan has done in making Norrell look so turgid that you almost actually want to see her succeed in gunning down one of the show’s titular characters, but it’s not to be.
Childermass takes the shot for his master, as did Jeremy for Strange in Portugal. But whereas we get to see the impact of Jeremy’s sacrifice on strange, we’re left to wonder how Childermass taking the bullet for his master — a bullet that you might feel Norrell actually deserved — will affect Norrell. Will the potential loss of his true confidant cause him to rethink what he’s done? Or will it drive him to keep his secrets even tighter? In its darkest hour so far, Strange & Norrell has started asking if the price of bringing magic back is already too much — and the fallout of answering that question is already making for some gripping television.