Never ever ever make a deal with a faerie.
I believe Mr. Strange will do very well in the war. He’s already outmaneuvered you.
–Childermass, to Mr. Norrell
About the only criticism I can make of Strange & Norrell at this early stage is how blindingly fast it seems to be moving. The narrative skips along almost in a perpetual dream state; weeks pass between commercial breaks, and it is only able to hint at the depth the more minor characters and subplots possess in the novel. For someone who hasn’t read it, it must feel not unlike attending the Gentleman’s eternal ball at Lost Hope, spinning round and round, looking for something to hold onto.
Fortunately, the show’s greatest strength is the two title characters, whose goals and worldviews have been clear from the beginning. This week, they meet for the first time, and it’s simultaneously joyous and fraught with tension; the academic side of Norrell is giddy (we even see him smile for the first time), until his jealousy begins to take over. Where he has to take deep breaths and produce magic under great strain, the loose-limbed Strange’s style is absurdly casual. He can make up his own magic, and can’t even explain how it he does it — he just does it. “Like music playing in the back of one’s head,” he tells Norrell, who says he understands, but he clearly does not. The Salieri/Mozart parallels are very strong here.
But first, we see the aftermath of Norrell’s great miracle, which has won him renown and the attention of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. It gets him into the war. He creates a ghostly armada made of rain to baffle the French at the Port of Brest (a very cool scene!). With a swipe of his finger, the officials can peer into Norrell’s bowl and see how their generals are faring. But he stubbornly refuses to go to the front line, where his magic could do the most good; instead, he offers to set up a series of “sea beacons” along the coast as a defense.
Meanwhile, Mssrs. Segundus and Honeyfoot, who are in the market for a building to set up a “school for magic,” stumble across Strange, working dream magic to connect with a spirit from the past. (In Segundus’s case, he literally stumbles into the dream. Perhaps there’s hope for him yet?) The pair are gobsmacked to meet another practical magician: “Onskirk’s spells never worked for anyone! Even Onskirk!” They suggest that Strange offer himself to be Norrell’s apprentice, like magicians did centuries ago. Strange knows all about Mr. Norrell, who has bought nearly every book of magic in all of England. He scoffs at Norrell’s official periodical, “The Friends of English Magic,” an elitist rag that takes all the fun out of magic. “But you are his equal!” begs Segundus, so Strange heads to Hanover Square.
Peter Harness’s scripts have the difficult job of presenting a TON of information as economically as possible. I can’t help but feel like this miniseries needed 8 or 10 episodes instead of 7, as here we don’t even have room to breathe. The performances are sharp and the direction is sure-handed — the depiction of the faerie world is as gothic and ghastly as I imagined — but in attempting to pack in all it can of Susanna Clarke’s world, it will demand repeat viewings to soak it all in and connect all the dots. It’s not my preference to just do a straight summary of an episode’s events, but that’s kind of what it needs. I’ll do more analysis later.
The only book in Strange’s possession is a biography of the Raven King, who was once a man named John Uskglass; he consorted with faeries and lived in both worlds, until he eventually just stopped returning to this one. To Norrell, he’s the epitome of disreputable magic, but his knee-jerk stubbornness about the man is also borne out of guilt, as Norrell has also consorted with a faerie, and something has gone terribly wrong. It turns out the bargain for “half” of Lady Pole’s life didn’t mean she would die before her time, but that every night, the Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair would summon her to his mansion, the appropriately-named Lost Hope, to dance at a ball. Every night. All night. You’ve got to close all the loopholes next time, Norrell. “No one will ever know where she is when she sleeps,” hisses the Gentleman. Partly because whenever she attempts to explain it, only babble comes out.
But one man does come to know: Stephen Black, Sir Pole’s butler, who (in what seems to be a dream-like state) comes across the Gentleman in an unused room of the house, and, having no clue who or what he is, accepts an offer to attend the Gentleman’s ball. (“Our bargain is done,” he replies, which is not something you ever want to hear.) But the faerie has more in mind for Stephen than just dancing; he recalls the prophecy “the nameless slave shall be a king in a strange land,” and gives Stephen a vision of himself with a crown and scepter. The Gentleman’s motives are unclear: he seems to have chosen Stephen, but why? It’s worth noting that in the book, the Gentleman is much more oblivious to the suffering he’s causing — balls are fun! Who wouldn’t want to come? — but here, he’s malevolent from the get-go. It’s an adaptation choice likely made for simplicity’s sake, but it takes some of the fun out of it.
Stephen is still trained too well not to be entirely gracious and flattering, but even that begins to crumble when he actually reaches Lost Hope, where specters dance around and round a tree, a sickly-green Moulin Rouge. Lady Pole is there, as shocked to see Stephen as he is to see her. Their nightmare has begun.
Perhaps to get all this off his mind, Norrell is extra eager to throw himself into an apprenticeship with Strange. After Strange demonstrates his skills (reversing a letter with its reflection), Norrell quickly comes up with a plan for ten years(!) of study, but dodges all questions about faeries or the Raven King. “What have I ever done that needed the help of a faerie?” Norrell asks, rhetorically. He rages against that “degenerate race” and the Raven King, saying he abandoned England and English magic, so he doesn’t deserve to be studied. This doesn’t make any sense to Strange — it’s like studying physics but not including Einstein. And out in the hallway, Drawlight and Lascelles are growing jealous of this man sucking up all of Norrell’s attention.
It also isn’t long until government officials call on Strange as well, when Norrell is indisposed (or pretending to be indisposed.) It’s through one of these gigs — locating some lost ships — that he and Arabella meet the Poles, who are becoming increasingly despondent. Walter wonders if whatever Norrell did can be un-done, because this is no way to live; “Mr. Norrell is no friend to me,” Lady Pole tells Arabella in another room. “Mr. Strange should know what kind of man he is dealing with.” But like every other time, Lady Pole is unable to articulate what is happening to her, instead launching into a random historical anecdote before cutting herself off with a meek “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to say.” Stephen asks, for everyone’s sake, that Arabella not tell anyone what she’s just observed. The Pole home is coming apart at the seams; the Lady smashes mirrors, hoping it will keep her from being taken away, and when Walter demands Stephen give an explanation for why he is no longer performing his duties, Stephen as well is too tongue-tied to answer. And still, that infernal bell keeps ringing, casting a pall over everyone in the house.
Stephen and Lady Pole may not entirely understand what is happening to them, but they know that the Gentleman and his ilk are bad news. At home Strange decides to summon a faerie on his own, just to see what all the fuss is about, but is unsuccessful — sort of. The Gentleman is there, with a gobsmacked Stephen, but refuses to appear to him; “He’s just as stupid as the other one,” he says of Strange. The magician can hear far away voices, though, which catches the Gentleman off-guard, as well as the unexpected beauty of Arabella. Uh-oh.
Thanks perhaps to Norrell’s sea defenses, an English ship has run aground, and Strange is brought in to deal with that, too. He can’t use wind or weather, or risk the ship breaking apart, so that leaves him with one option: the sand. It takes some effort, but the result is astonishing: dozens of sand horses, sweeping off the beach, over the waves, propping the ship back up. It’s the kind of fireworks factory that none of them have ever seen before, and that Norrell would never — or can’t? — attempt. Norrell himself arrives just in time to see it, and as the camera pushes in, a dozen emotions play across Eddie Marsan’s face: wonder, fear, and, most importantly, jealousy. Norrell’s magic is invisible. Boring. Strange makes galloping horses out of the sand. Sir Walter forgets all about sending Norrell to Portugal, and suggests the younger, flashier Strange go instead. “Norrell won’t be pleased,” says the Prime Minister. “Norrell never is,” Pole replies.
And sure enough, he’s not. But Strange wants to go, and it only takes minutes for Drawlight and Lascelle to distract Norrell: the Duke of Roxburghe has just passed, and his library of magical books — the second-largest in England — is going up for auction. You don’t really want Strange around to interfere with that, do you? The seeds are planted (as Childermass, who can see exactly what’s going on, rolls his eyes) and Norrell agrees. He even allows Strange to take “about 40” of Norrell’s own library up to the front, which seems highly impractical, but Strange asks how he hopes to do magic without any books to work from.
Even Arabella, primarily thrilled that her husband’s life finally has a direction, is excited for him. But after her meeting with Lady Pole, she doesn’t trust Norrell, either, and attends the book auction in the hopes of acquiring them for Jonathan. Norrell is shocked to see her, but his anger turns into fear when he spots the Gentleman lurking behind her shoulder. Norrell may be selfish, an elitist, and a fool who refuses to face the consequences of his actions, but he’s not quite a villain. So just to get the auction over with, and her out of the room, he bids a whopping 2000 guineas — but when Arabella gets up to leave, the Gentleman follows. Better hope her husband won’t be gone too long.