JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL: “The Black Tower”

Strange goes to Venice, and gets some really weird souvenirs.

Who are we to say madness is a curse? For many people — poets, for instance — madness is a gift. Perhaps that’s how those wild magicians thought of it.

–Flora Greysteel

I’ll say this, now that Strange & Norrell is firing on all cylinders: if we had to rush through the first half of the series to make sure we left enough space to stick the landing, it was worth it.

“The Black Tower” is everything at its best: the pacing is propulsive, but easy to follow; the interlocking stories are in perfect harmony; Bertie Cavel has the meatiest pages yet as Strange, and he digs into them with relish. It’s interesting to note that as the series has gotten better as it’s gone along, it comes with Strange steadily taking away more of Norrell’s screen time. The latter may have been our gateway into this world, but Norrell is now second fiddle in the narrative, as he is in the title. It’s all about Strange now.

That’s no fault of Eddie Marsan, who continues to make the most of what he’s been given: when he opens up his copy of Strange’s (beautifully bound) book and reads, he’s overcome with emotion — why? Have Strange’s words gotten through? Of course not: Norrell despairs over what will become of the “reputable” English magic that he has so carefully cultivated. So it’s with “no choice,” as he says later, that he magicks every existing copy of Strange’s book out of the air. Of course, now that he’s stooped to petty theft, the public — long hungry for a taste of the Raven King’s world — finally turns on him. Even the government doesn’t know whose side to take, as talk of a “king reclaiming his throne” is making the Prime Minister and the others deeply paranoid.

Norrel can’t bear the idea of being wrong. He’s studied in solitude for most of his life, and his notions about magic have calcified. Strange not only represents a danger to the country (and to “Christianity,” as Norrell throws out there for the first time), but to Norrell’s certainty about how the world works. Strange is too unpredictable, too unstable, and Norrell is determined to strike the final blow — if he can find him. If directly attacking his book won’t draw him out of hiding, what will? Lascelles is no help, as he still (still!) scoffs at the idea of faeries. So after some prodding from still-loyal Childermass, Norrell releases the only tool he has left: poor, wigless Christopher Drawlight, who has a chance to redeem himself, but doesn’t know it yet. (“Behave… differently,” Dr. Greysteel later warns him, hilariously.)

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And just what is Strange up to? His quest to generate madness has brought him to Venice, and appropriately at his wits’ end. The local apothecaries won’t sell him the concoctions he needs, so he has hit a wall — until he meets Flora Greysteel and her father. She’s interested in magic, and wants to help Strange despite her father’s discomfort. (She seems to have a crush on him, too, which Drawlight is happy to incorrectly report.) As it happens, Dr. Greysteel just made a house call on a Mrs. Delgado, a woman who takes “crazy cat lady” to the extreme —  actually, she believes she is a cat. That immediately grabs Strange’s attention.

So after a visit, some experimentation, and — shudder — mouse eating of his own, Strange finally creates a tincture that, in small doses, makes him “mad” enough to make the Gentleman visible. Cavel is clearly having a ball here, thrashing around and giggling maniacally as crazy violins slash on the soundtrack. And it works: suddenly the Gentleman is there, nearly stunned into silence when Strange addresses him for the first time. In their initial meeting, Strange is in control, pitching how they might work together and bring “fire and energy” back to English magic. When he blows out the candle, he’s positively giddy. His plan might actually succeed, and all it took was getting a little bit mad. Well, more mad.

Madness is relative, of course. As nuts as Strange has become, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Gentleman, who is seething about being discovered, or to Vinculus, who has been locked up at Segundus & Honeyfoot’s sanitarium. The vagabond street magician leers at Stephen from his cell, and claims that he can free Stephen from the faerie if he’ll let him out. He has a book of powerful magic, he says, written in the Raven King’s own letters. And after the Gentleman pledges anew to utterly destroy Strange (get in line, buddy), Stephen takes Vinculus up on his offer. More on that in a moment.

The second meeting between the Gentleman and Strange is the linchpin on which the series’s final act turns. The Gentleman claims he can’t bring Arabella back to life, which devastates Strange — “I have sacrificed a great many things,” he pleads. “Well, that is a shame,” the Gentleman says, disingenuously. And then, like a bolt of lightning, the realization hits: this isn’t a faerie — it’s the faerie, the one Norrell summoned, and who set this whole thing in motion. Suddenly, Strange’s mission got a whole lot bigger. His despair turns to rage, as he demands the “token” the Gentleman received for “saving” Lady Pole: her missing pinkie finger.

After he dismisses the Gentleman, and the small box appears, Strange is able to magically trace it back to Lost Hope, where he discovers Arabella is not dead; she’s just been enchanted, and doesn’t recognize him. But others do (“You’ve come here to save us?” one partygoer asks him), and Strange has quickly put all the pieces together. Norrell was right all along to fear the faeries, he realizes, but if he wasn’t so ashamed and stubborn to share the whole truth with Strange, this all could have been avoided. In any case, he has two enemies now. The Gentleman is so enraged by Strange’s sudden appearance in his world, he shuts down the ball and throws all his magic at Strange in a storm of fury, encasing him in a “tower of eternal night,” a black funnel cloud that follows him wherever he goes. It takes all of the Gentleman’s strength to create it: “I have dealt him such a blow,” he tells Stephen, who is still praying for an escape of his own.

Programme Name: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep6 (No. 6) - Picture Shows: (L-R) Vinculus (PAUL KAYE), The Gentleman (MARC WARREN) - (C) JSMN Ltd - Photographer: Matt Squire

Drawlight is mostly wrong about all of this, except for the two critical pieces of information: Strange is in Venice, and within a rotating storm of dark magic. Norrell is finally able to get a glimpse of it in his bowl, and staggers back in terror: “It’s not my doing,” he whimpers to Childermass and Lascelles. (It basically is, though.) Worse, there are sounds coming from behind every mirror in the house; Strange is “opening all the doors,” about to let real magic back into England, full stop. Vinculus knows this, too; it’s written in his book — well, on his body. Vinculus is the book. “Our meaning is written on our skin, nameless slave,” he tells Stephen, who as a black man knows painfully well what that means. What kingdom can Stephen possibly claim? Vinculus promises that Stephen’s enemies will be destroyed, but he also claims to be notoriously hard to kill, and there’s the Gentleman — utterly repulsed by this “little pig person” — stringing him up in a tree. So is Vinculus as mad as he seemed, or more powerful than we know?

The Gentleman interprets the Raven King’s prophecy as an ultimate failure for the magicians, but he only counts two — Strange counts everyone, as he tells a terrified Drawlight, who he sucks into the black vortex and threatens into turning against his former masters. “England is full of magicians,” proclaims Strange: Childermass, Segundus, Honeyfoot, everyone who has ever claimed or wanted to be a pupil. Strange may be trapped, but he’s still hard at work (“why was I made a magician, if not for this?”), giving Drawlight messages to carry and Flora secret instructions, and appealing directly to the one man powerful enough to set things right: the Raven King himself. The birds are breaking through the mirrors of the world. He’s coming, and so is Strange. Game on.

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