The gangbusters final chapter has it all: death and resurrection, revenge and forgiveness, and a grumpy Raven King.
You’re in the North now. Our laws were made by the Raven King. And he’s coming back.
Well, that was fantastic.
The critical scene comes early on, after Strange has cut straight through Norrell’s impenetrable labyrinth and trapped him in his own library. The elder magician is at first terrified because he believes Strange has come to kill him, and uses the curse Strange is under to maintain his superiority: “Disreputable magic, sir! This is its consequence!” he shouts. But he would know a thing or two about that, wouldn’t he?
It takes a long time, but Strange finally gets Norrell to admit the truth, and it serves to make Norrell seem more human than ever before. Eddie Marsan is magnificent all throughout the finale, as his fear turns back into his trademark stubborn indignation, and then — finally — to the excitement of discovery as Norrell fully buys in. It’s obvious to both that Strange’s powers have long surpassed Norrell’s, and the latter is almost childlike in how he quivers against one of his bookshelves, capable of only summoning… rain. All this time, and Norrell just isn’t imaginative or daring enough to hang as England’s magic has swiftly evolved.
“It is cruel to laugh,” he tells Strange, pitifully. And yet, Strange has brought his black tower to Hurtfew because he needs Norrell’s help. The Gentleman’s curse might kill him before he can save Arabella, and it has forcibly reunited the former friends, just in time for them to realize that they might still be friends. It’s touching, and provides an emotional anchor right when the series needs it most.
Much of the final episode takes place in a single night, which does wonders for the show’s pacing; the quick cutting across the different plot strands is propulsive, often thrilling. It feels like the extended climax of a seven-hour film, and no character is truly working independently: everyone has the ability, and the opportunity, to change the narrative for everyone else. Strange has laid his plans well, but he didn’t count on Childermass misreading the situation and Segundus actually having the right spell handy, so Lady Pole is restored to health before she can get Arabella out of Lost Hope. That throws Strange into even more of a frenzy, leading to the playing of the series’s final card: the summoning of the Raven King himself, John Uskglass.
Norrell, who has fought tooth and nail against the idea of the Raven King as long as we’ve known him, is nevertheless bound by his promise to help. But he wants to help — he’s fully seen now what damage he has caused, and cares more about what Strange thinks of him than making any larger point about faerie magic. He couldn’t even bring himself to destroy Strange’s book, calling it now “the most beautiful book of magic I’ve ever read.” So those tears last week were genuine, yet it was his own selfishness that made him act the way he did. It’s a huge deal that Norrell is willing to do the right thing and get involved, and an even bigger payoff that he soon finds himself enjoying it.
Yet, once the Raven King appears in all his death metal glory in Norrell’s library, he only sneers at them contemptuously before he is gone again. He has much bigger things to do, it seems, like bringing Vinculus back to life — after changing the text on his body. “Books cannot read themselves,” Vinculus shrugs to Childermass, who unknowingly became only the third man in a century to catch a glimpse of the Raven King. Childermass might be the hour’s biggest winner, getting to humiliate Lascelles, tell off Norrell (“You made the wrong choice sir, as usual”), and have his long, secret obsession with the Raven King rewarded.
The next biggest would undoubtedly be Stephen: one moment he’s tossed in a cell at Segundus’s sanitarium (after Walter Pole uncomfortably calls him a “savage”), the next he’s been handed the power of all of England’s magic. Strange and Norrell make one major miscalculation in assuming “the nameless slave” still meant Uskglass, but in giving that entity command of the trees, stones, and rivers, they bring about that section of the prophecy anyway: the King to be dethroned isn’t England’s king, but Lost Hope’s. “I am the nameless slave, and I answer to no master now,” he tells the Gentleman in fury. YES. First Lady Pole finally says what we’re all thinking and insults the Gentleman’s hair, now Stephen is encasing him inside the tree at the center of his ballroom (shades of Old Man Willow), wiping him off the board.
All throughout the finale, selfishness and short-sightedness is brutally punished. Lascelles gets his just desserts as well, after coldly murdering poor Drawlight (who, in his anxiety, finally pronounces Norrell’s name correctly) and shooting Stephen just to protect his own standing. The Gentleman turns him into porcelain and breaks him into pieces, a cruel fate for a cruel man. Everything about that series of events takes Norrell and Strange by surprise, Stephen’s appearance and disappearance most of all: “We have channelled all of English magic into a butler, and he shot him?” stammers Norrell. But now that they’ve traded his entire library to give Stephen those superpowers, they must make sure he gets a chance to use them.
It’s Norrell who can get some credit for that too, as its his idea to take to the King’s Roads to save Arabella. Norrell, his wig hilariously disheveled, is as endearingly giddy as we’ve ever seen him, so eager to explore that Strange must paternally call on him to “come along, we have work to do.” When they reach the ball, the over-caffeinated Norrell tries to “blend in” by dancing alone, before he can call out to Stephen to “destroy this beast!” Which he does. Meanwhile, Strange gets Arabella out of the enchantment (via true love’s kiss) and through a mirror just in time.
“I’m not sure how we did it, but it was done,” titters Norrell back at Hurtfew, exhilarated. Yet the curse continues, and Strange grows weaker. Simply killing the faerie didn’t undo it. But Norrell commits to stay at Strange’s side and work to figure it out: “I am not afraid,” he repeats, cradling his former pupil’s head in his lap, as much for Strange’s benefit as for his own, before they and their dark cyclone leave England. On the outside, Childermass wonders if they’ll be trapped forever. Vinculus believes it may be so: “They are the spell the Raven King has spun, and that is all they have ever been.” Now that the prophecy has been fulfilled, Strange and Norrell’s work is done. They were only the tools the master used to bring magic back to England, and he doesn’t care what happens to them now… or does he?
Do Vinculus’s new tattoos hold the key to breaking the spell (with the help of the newly re-sanctioned York Society)? Will Arabella and Strange ever be reunited? The series, like the novel before it, doesn’t leave things that tidy. Which is bold, and ultimately more satisfying in its ambiguousness than by giving us a traditional “happily ever after.” We can guess that the answer to those questions will be “yes,” and not lose anything by the finale not spelling it out for us. It also ends the series on the right note of melancholy — at his former residence in Venice, in the reflection of a pool, Strange asks his wife not to wait for him or be a widow. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever come back, and wants her to live a happy life. Magic has a cost, but I expect he and Norrell will return — in my imagination, if not in a sequel. A beautiful ending to a beautiful series.
Finale Grade: A
Series Grade: A-
Odds and Ends:
- All I want to do here is rave about the cast, exceptional across the board. Eddie Marsan and Bertie Cavel embodied the title characters better than I had pictured them in my head. Marc Warren is getting quite good at charismatic evil, and often pulled black comedy out of nowhere (“Why are you firing walnuts at me?”). Enzo Cilenti and Paul Kaye were magnetically enigmatic as Childermass & Vinculus; Charlotte Riley and Alice Englert were fierce, capable, root-able women; Ariyon Bakare imbued the tricky role of Stephen with grace and dignity; Edward Hogg was adorable as Segundus (my favorite character in the books); Vincent Franklin’s Drawlight was ultimately sympathetic, a great accomplishment. An embarrassment of riches.
- So Childermass is the narrator, and the use of him in the series’s opening scene makes sense now. I wonder if there was ever a plan to incorporate more voiceover throughout, to squeeze in more of the details of Susanna Clarke’s world, but they realized it would have been too much.
- Walter Pole not only resigns his position but ends up losing his wife after all, as she is so irrevocably changed by her experience she leaves for the continent (presumably to keep Arabella company). Poor fellow — in the wrong place at the wrong time from the very beginning.
- Why didn’t Segundus and Honeyfoot stick up for Stephen when they realized he was under the same enchantment as Lady Pole? Because he had been getting in their way of curing her, or was there the same latent racism that Walter revealed in himself? Fortunately the goofy “see/hear/speak no evil” punishment the Gentleman brought on them was temporary, but it may have been deserved.
- The Raven King looked like he was just plucked off the stage of Megadeath concert, didn’t he? I was surprised not to see a bass in his hand.
- Toby Haynes’s direction was appropriately moody throughout (I loved the color palette, all greens and greys and blues), and judiciously deployed the special effects: limiting Stephen’s powers to the ballroom scene, for example, was efficient storytelling even if was much “cooler” in the book. The “stretching” effects in Norrell’s labyrinth were simple, but they worked. Next, Haynes is tackling a new version of Oliver! the musical, which could really use some dark magic.
- “I do not know… wherever magicians used to go, perhaps. Beyond the sky, on the other side of the rain.”