JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL: “All the Mirrors of the World”

Come out to the King’s Roads; have a few laughs.

Surely magic is to be magical. Surely magic is to dream.

–Strange

After three episodes of fireworks, “All the Mirrors of the World” is a bit of a reset. The characters take stock of their situations and are forced to make some difficult choices, and in several cases, relationships are irrevocably damaged. It may be the least “exciting” installment of Strange and Norrell so far, but it packs in just as much plot.

And again, that’s a bit to its detriment — how can we fully feel the weight of Strange so dramatically severing his relationship with Norrell, with only the handful of scenes they’ve shared together? The limitations of its seven-episode run are really showing now; hundreds of pages are covered just in a couple of conversations, so the big moments don’t quite land as they should. It’s certainly no fault of the performers — Eddie Marsan, Bertie Cavel, and Charlotte Riley are consistently good — but the dialogue is expository more often than not, which gives off the feeling of a narrator rushing get his story over with as quickly as possible.

Nevertheless, there are strong thematic ideas in this week’s episode. The most interesting is the question of what makes “respectable” magic; by Norrell’s definition, it must further the glory of England, but also fit snugly within his increasingly narrow window of academic research. He has a library of hundreds upon hundreds of books, but to him most of them are rubbish. Untrustworthy agents such as faeries are out of the question, as well as any magic done by anyone who associated with them — John Uskglass, the Raven King, most of all. It’s perhaps because Norrell has done such magic, and guiltily dodged the consequences, that he all the more fanatically denounces it to anyone who will listen. Walter Pole counsels him that it’s more the “English way” to face down criticism, but Norrell prefers to hide behind his pen and his sycophants. He’s like a family values politician who is desperate to keep his mistress secret.

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Strange, by contrast, is unendingly curious. The conservative Norrell believes he already knows all that’s worth knowing, but Strange is eager to explore, this week diving into mirrors to discover the “King’s Roads”: dreary and dilapidated passageways in the land of Faerie that connect — well — “all the mirrors of the world.” He’s also seen firsthand what the Raven King’s magic can do, and is haunted by it, but it only spurs him to try to understand it more. “Everything Norrell and I have done is nothing” compared to this, Strange tells Arabella, but Norrell doesn’t want Strange doing any unusual magic without consulting him. It’s a fundamental difference that just can’t be bridged between the two men, and Lascelles essentially reducing Strange to a footnote in Norrell’s book is the final straw.

We don’t get near enough of the war that plays out in print — Strange writing a scathing review of the book he is supposed to have “co-written” is a huge deal, and has massive repercussions for both magicians. The academics and politicians are now either “Norrellites” or “Strangeites,” depending on which camp they fall into; even Arabella, who has given up so much already, can’t help but be impressed: “I did not consider that you would become one of the greatest men of the age,” she tells her husband in one of their warmer moments. But their marriage is already on the rocks; Arabella could cope with the Peninsula because that was Strange doing his duty, but braving the dangerous King’s Roads is another matter entirely. He could disappear for weeks or longer and be entirely alone, only to reappear in someone’s mirror on the other side of the world. For him, the unknown is what makes it irresistible, but he eventually decides he’s “had enough of these battles,” and is willing to give up magic entirely if that’s what it takes to be a good husband. Unfortunately, before he and Arabella can go home, Napoleon — and the British government — intervene once again.

The mirror trick is cool, without a doubt; Strange first gets a glimpse of it while working on the Mad King George III, who currently spends his days dinking on a harpsichord and speaking to no one who enters his room. But after trying a bit of Raven King magic, the King snaps to attention, says something about the “King of Lost Hope,” and walks into the nearby mirror, leaving his shoe behind. Strange manages to summon him back before the Gentleman can have Stephen run the King through with a sword (that he thinks that would give Stephen the throne proves how little he knows about humans), but the seed is planted. And the Gentleman is enraged, stepping up the next phase of his plan to destroy Strange — digging up an artifact called a “moss oak” that seems like it will take the form of Arabella. (Creepy!) For what purpose, only he knows, but Strange is beset on all sides and doesn’t have a clue.

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It even takes him far too long to discover what Drawlight has been up to: claiming to represent Strange in acquiring “clients” and “pupils,” happily taking their money but never following through. The episode’s best scene is when a punch-drunk Strange barges into one of Drawlight’s clandestine meetings via mirror (“the way was a little more meandering than I anticipated”), and sets a surprisingly bloodthirsty housewife straight. Even Norrell can see the scandal in that, and has Drawlight, who was just trying to pay off his debts, effectively banished. Lascelles, who this week seizes his opportunity for the spotlight and for power, threatens to kill Drawlight if he ever sees him again. You almost feel bad for the guy.

One more relationship in trouble is Norrell’s with his man Childermass, who recovers from being shot by Lady Pole only to have to defend his own use of magic to his master. Childermass continues to investigate Lady Pole behind Norrell’s back, returning to visit her at her new home, Segundus & Honeyfoot’s asylum (yep, apparently it’s an asylum now — thank Norrell for that, too), but is turned away by an adorably irate Segundus. Segundus’s own meager magical skills are improving, too — he knows there’s something off about Lady Pole and Stephen, but he doesn’t understand it yet. All he can see is a vision of a rose around their mouths. (Double creepy!) As Norrell and Strange become increasingly self-involved, we can begin to sense that it’s these three men on the fringes — Childermass, Segundus, and Stephen — who may yet make the biggest impact.

Norrell sadly tells Strange that in leaving their partnership, he will now be “quite alone,” but he’s speaking just as much of himself as of Strange. The fun and thrill of magic is in collaboration and mutual discovery; without that, they’ll both go mad. Maybe they already are.

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