Many fans of the book expected Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to skip, or greatly condense, Strange’s escapades in Venice—but instead the show gave us a whole episode dealing with the consequences of Strange’s madness. Unfortunately, it also tried to do a lot of finale setup, and it made the episode a bit of a mess.
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.
“The Black Tower,” broken down into its component parts, still stands as some of the best material in Strange & Norrell—especially in the way it finally goes into actually establishing Strange of less of a hero next to Norrell’s petty squabbles over magic books. But at the same time, as the sixth episode in a series of seven, it also has to do a lot of sudden moving of characters and stories into certain positions, to get ready to knock them all over for the finale. It doesn’t all quite come together, and for the first time since its first episode, the show feels like it fell back into some pacing issues that made for a confusing episode (it also makes the news that the show allegedly was originally planned for six before being extended to seven episodes make a lot more sense in hindsight). But let’s break it down and focus on the bits that actually worked:
The Madness Of Jonathan Strange
Now a fugitive (and also, apparently, a best-selling author) following his escape from prison, Strange has fled to Venice to pursue his new goal: to become mad enough to communicate with a fairy and use it to restore Arabella to life. Little does Strange know that his spells attempting to draw out a fairy have actually already worked, at least in the basic sense: he continuously manages to draw out The Gentleman, a testament to his innate magical ability. But now he strives to take on the affectations of madness: dressing in a dishevelled manner, visiting a senile old woman in an attempt to adopt her madness (and turn her into a cat as a reward, which in and of itself seems like a bit of a low thing to do, even for this new, more sinister Strange), drinking bizarre concoctions and twitching to himself. At first, this is very much a reflection of some of Strange’s less-than-noble traits, traits he has exhibited throughout the series: an arrogance in his abilities and his own self that he can merely adopt the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” persona that was all the rage with the poets of the time, rather than become them — as he believes himself to be above that. We see a Strange that believes himself to still be driven by a noble cause (to resurrect his wife), but it becomes clearer that what Strange is really obsessed with is still proving Norrell wrong. When he actually does finally interact with The Gentleman, Strange is quick to flaunt his magical skill and his desire to control a fairy, rather than get his wife return to him — as if he believes that this makes him a better magician than Norrell.
While it’s interesting to see aside of Strange that can be just as petty and silly as Norrell has been, even more so after the tragedy he has gone through, it’s almost sad we didn’t see it sooner. Up until now, it feels like the show has been setting up Strange as the “good” opposition to Norrell’s almost-villainy, as he tries to cover up his own mistakes regarding Lady Pole. We’ve had hints of moral ambiguity showing up, but it’s only now that we’ve seen that magic has driven both magicians down dark paths.
But even then, it’s still tragic to see that what actually spirals Strange into madness isn’t his own affectations, or his own attempts to go mad, but it’s learning the truth: that the fairy he seeks to control is the one who controlled him, who took Arabella and turned her into a trapped, seemingly amnesiac denizen of Lost Hope. Finding Arabella, only to discover that the same magic he sought to free her is what took her in the first place drives Strange even further into his dark magic (almost literally, thanks to the fairy curse of “Eternal Night” enshrouding Strange in an ominous black typhoon, a final insult from The Gentleman). But it’s also a realisation that this is what Norrell was hiding from him in the first place — setting Strange on the warpath against his mentor well and truly.
And The Storm It Brings With It
Strange’s Venetian escapade takes up the bulk of the episode, but mixed between (and what unfortunately makes“The Black Tower” quite messy) that we also check in to see how London is doing in his absence. The answer? Not all that well.
In Parliament, Walter Pole is harangued by his opponents for his trust of Strange and Norrell, their squabbling (and Strange’s disappearance) now a major embarrassment politically. Norrell himself, still as petty as ever — but tinged by grief, given his tears as he first reads Strange’s magic book — makes every copy of Strange’s book disappear, and is still desperate to hunt down his former pupil and attempt to silence his magical practices. Even Steven finds himself in troubled times as the resurgence of Vinculus and his prophecies causes him to question his already-laboured relationship with The Gentleman. Despite the over-stuffing of the plot giving the episode a haphazard vibe, in one way it almost works as a mirror for Strange’s madness in Venice: as he gets progressively worse, the situation for the characters back in England gets more and more out of hand. Steven finds himself back well and truly under the thumb of The Gentleman as Vinculus is hanged, his purpose served after delivering his prophecies. The Gentleman himself is incensed at the magician’s growing powers and plans to stop Strange and Norrell altogether. Norrell himself even begins preparing for the return of the Raven King following Strange’s calls to return magic to England in his book. Rushed this set up might be, but it creates a picture of an England, and our cast of characters, in crisis.
Which makes Strange’s emboldened, maniacal statement declaring to Drawlight that he is ready to return to England all the more dangerous — a literal storm is on its way to disrupt the already fragile balance back in London. And this time, it feels like Strange isn’t really Jonathan Strange any more. Having sacrificed some, if not all of his faculties to bargain with The Gentleman, and with his message through the mirrors being a mystical murder of crows, it seems like Strange has decided that to oppose Norrell so openly, he has to embody everything his fellow magician is against: The Raven King himself.
With everything now hastily set up for the finale, let’s hope Strange & Norrell can deliver a satisfying conclusion, even if it meant having to sacrifice some of the quality of its penultimate episode to do so.