It turns out that no one can ever be happy on Strange & Norrell. While we’ve spent the past few weeks seeing the emotional damage Norrell’s past decisions have wrought upon himself (but mainly others), this time it’s Strange’s turn to go through one hell of an emotional coaster.
Warning: This Recap is for the most recently aired episode in the U.K. Looking for the recap out the episode that aired in America over the weekend? Check it out here. As always, there are Spoilers ahead.
Despite being the title of the episode, Arabella Strange isn’t actually in much of this episode — but she drives the entire emotional core of it. The Gentleman sets his plans to get revenge on Strange & Norrell from the get go, convincing Stephen to capture Arabella and bring her to Lost Hope, while she is replaced by a short lived alternate.
Even though the audience knows that the Arabella that dies isn’t the “real” Arabella — although arguably her being trapped in Lost Hope might as well be death, given the impact that spending part of their time there has had on Stephen and Lady Pole — it’s still completely heartbreaking to watch, solely because of Bertie Carvel’s performance as Jonathan Strange.
Arabella’s death has huge impact on Strange, not just through his grief at losing his wife, but what that grief does to his magical ability. It’s agonizing to watch Strange attempt any sort of magic to bring Arabella back — even going as far to attempt the blood magic that he used in Spain — but nothing works. And each attempt pushes Strange into darker and darker territory.
But even in his slip into darkness, we get to see a side to Strange that reminds how truly different from Norrell he is: not just through his overwhelming love for Arabella, something that we’ve already seen is a mostly alien concept to Norrell (there’s a particularly telling moment when Norrell discovers Arabella’s passing, and flatly, without a twinge of regret in his voice, says that “Mr. Strange will be most affected), but what the desperation of losing someone does to his approach to magic. Even when Strange turns to blood magic, it’s with great hesitation, as he tries to do it several times before finally giving in — and he only turns to it as a final resort, instead of a first attempt as Norrell did for Lady Pole at the very beginning of the series. But perhaps most importantly is what comes after his magical attempts: his decision to let go, and merely grieve. A lot of Strange’s story has been about establishing him as a person first, and a magician second. It’s what makes his emotional heartbreak so tragic to watch, and once again what separates him from Norrell, to whom magic is everything.
And we see that in the show’s other half, which sees Norrell continue to childishly potter about London decrying Strange’s new book about magic. It’s almost hilarious, in a twisted way, to see Norrell decrying treachery and betrayal over a theoretical book, contrasted with the actual tragedy of Strange losing his wife. For all the sympathy you felt for Norrell when he and Strange parted in the last episode, you can’t help but feel like it evaporates over the course of this episode, as he ignores letter after letter from Strange begging for help about Arabella, as he goes first to Strange’s publisher to seek the book being barred from printing, and then even to the government in an attempt to silence the other magician.
But, as it builds and builds, you begin to realise that Norrell it’s really the bad guy in this sad scenario — the loneliness that made Strange’s departure from his side is still there, but this time it’s controlled by something almost as heinous as the Gentleman himself: the manipulation of his slimy associate Lascalle. It’s Lascalle who consistently pokes Norrell further and further, even when Norrell’s trusted friend Childermass calls for him to help Strange, Lascalle cries betrayal and treason, encourages Norrell to not just leave Strange be in his grief, but to destroy him. Lascalle constantly preys on Norrell’s loneliness, threatening to make Norrell truly alone, or to remind him that he is only friend he has left. The theme of control has played a major role in Strange & Norrell, but so far it’s been control of a magical sense: The Gentleman’s desire to control Stephen and Lady Pole, Norrell’s attempts to control the reputation and respectability of magic. But Lascalle is the ultimate reminder that real control preys on the most human emotions, rather than any sort of magic: it’s a very human trait, one just as terrible as anything that The Gentleman has done so far.
It’s Lascalle’s attempt to control Norrell, though, that makes the damage that The Gentleman’s plans have caused spiral even further out of control. By telling Norrell to remain distant from his “enemy” Strange, Jonathan becomes more and more desperate to discover why his former friend refuses to respond — and heads to London to find out, which makes matters between the magicians even more hostile. Incensed that Norrell, instead of helping him save Arabella, has spent his time trying to block Strange’s magic book from being printed, Jonathan flies into a rage, getting himself arrested as he magically teleports to Norrell’s estate and causes a fracas. If last week was the end of their “period of collaboration”, this is that collaboration being set on fire and burned into ash — and it’s pretty much because of Lascalle and the Gentleman, two sides of a terrible coin. Who could’ve thought a Regency Noble could be just as evil as a sinister fairy king?
But it’s here that we see just how dark Strange can go without Arabella to keep his human side in check. While in jail he is left to ruminate on all that he has left, now that Arabella is gone and Norrell has completely abandoned him: exploring the old magic of England. From beginning the episode ready to give up magic and live his life with Arabella, Strange ends the episode desperate to become the magician he “was always destined to be” — a desperation driven, apparently, by madness, to seek out the Raven King’s magic and use it to prove Norrell wrong once and for all. And with that madness, Strange & Norrell has lost its most human character: perhaps the saddest sacrifice the return of magic has made in the series so far.