Welcome back to the 18th century, magic fans: We open in the Port of Brest in Northern France on rain and misery and very French soldiers in very French hats, peering perplexedly through their spyglasses at a phalanx of ships advancing on the horizon. Where did they come from? Why do they seem so odd and ghost-y? C’est une mystere! Which apparently will not be solved now, because we are immediately back in England, where our favorite undersized magician, Mr. Norrell, is collecting accolades from a crew of political grandees for his good works (bringing important dead fiancées back to life, summoning ghost ships, conjuring faraway battlefield scenes in a bowl of water like a human DirecTV dish). Meanwhile, young Mr. Segundus, the magic seeker we met in the first few minutes of the opening episode, is back to seeking again. Which brings him to the house of one “Miss Absalom, the enchantress”—a place that Jonathan Strange and the newly-minted Mrs. Strange, Arabella, happen to be. Segundus wants to start a school for magicians; Strange thinks that’s not such a bad idea: “I could do with a school of magic. I cannot make it do as I wish, you see —‘tis a continuous leak, an accident.” Nobody likes a leaky accident!
They’ll write Mr. Norrell and ask for his guidance, they decide; he’ll want to help, won’t he? We’ll see, kiddos. Back at a dinner party with the Secretary of War, Sir Walter Pole, his undeaded fiancée, and assorted men in lace collars, magic is again the topic: They all agree that only Norrell is the real thing. A servant suddenly catches sight of The Gentleman with the Thistle-Down Hair in a mirror in the dining room and nearly drops his dish; is Thistle keeping an eye on the Lady Pole, whom he put a claim on at the end of the last episode? You bet your blue wig he is; she’s having nightmarish visions of him, and that pinky finger has gone AWOL again. Also, she can’t stop talking nonsense about Christian geese and Julius Caesar. Not good news for Norrell, because Sir Pole is really getting freaked out. So Norrell brings Thistle-Down in, so to speak, for questioning. Thistle-Down does not appreciate being a beck-and-call boy; he will come and go as he pleases, and visit Lady Pole when she sleeps if he wants to, and Norrell can’t stop him. Oh, but he can! At least for the moment, with some saucy words—“You can steal English men and women from their homes and you can trap them in a world of your degenerate race. Well, I forbid it, sir. I forbid it!”—and a snuffed-out candelabra. Poof, Thistle be gone. Though clearly not for long: Almost immediately, he drops in on the house butler, Stephen, for a shave and a freshening up for the ball later that evening. The butler does what he’s told and even gets an invite to the ball, but he’s no fool; things are not normal when a pompadoured albino is in your house breathing ice crystals and keeping a human finger in a snuff box. This ball is going to be a situation.
Back to Strange, who goes to make his case to Norrell and shows him that he can in fact do magic. If you were expecting Norrell to feel threatened or competitive, you were pleasantly surprised: He marvels that Strange can do a trick he’s never seen: Make a document appear in a mirror, and somehow turn the real thing into the reflection. It’s only half a trick though, because Strange can’t get it back, and doesn’t actually even know how he did it. But what does he mean, Norrell asks? “To own the truth, I have only the haziest notion of what I did… It’s like music playing at the back of one’s head.You understand what I mean, Mr Norrell? Hearing it for the very first time and yet one, somehow, simply knows what the following note will be.” He does understand! And he has drawn up a 10-year plan! They have a lot to study up on. Fairies and things.
The name of this episode is “How Is Lady Pole?” and the answer is: not good. Back at the Pole manse, she is rightfully losing her mind after spending night after night dream-dancing against her will with Thistle Down: “These bells, they summon me.They call me to the dance and I must go through the mirrors!” she moans. Thistle Down is really taking this thing into overdrive: He follows Stephen into the woods (which are apparently 40 percent trees, 60 percent dry ice) and makes him all kinds of promises: “I know you are truly destined to be a king. The nameless slave shall be a king in a strange land.” Stephen, ever loyal, asks him to release the Lady Pole, but Thistle refuses: “That is impossible, the bargain was made.”
Sir Pole needs help with a war issue so he comes to call on Strange, leaving Arabella to wander the Pole home while they plan, and she finds the Lady languishing; she wishes she were dead (again). She tries to convey to Arabella why nothing is right anymore, but she can only speak nonsense about silversmiths and tiny people in rugs and Stephen pulls her away. Then more talk between Norrell and Strange about the Raven King, and how he abandoned English magic. What does this mean? Is he enjoying German magic now?
Thistle Down brings his new best friend Stephen to drop in on Strange (invisibly, of course) and mocks him to his face for being “just as stupid and nearly as ugly as the other one” (a.k.a. Norrell). But the joke is on him; Strange hears what he says, even if it’s indirect. Thistle eyebrows go up! Stupid? Maybe not. But Strange is not the one who sets up invisible defenses against the French in a beach-side ceremony; Norrell does, or at least says he has. But then a packet ship runs aground and Norrell has a headache, so Strange is summoned to come fix it, and delivers the first real whiz-bang moment of the series: An army of sand horses (because the ship has run aground on a shoal called Horse Sand, apparently?) that rise from the shore and gallop out to sea to right the ship. Shazam! Serious magic. And Norrell no likey.
The powers that be decide to send Strange, their new favorite magic maker, out to the battlefields. So he needs books, and Norrell is grumpy once again: “I wish I had never come to London. I wish I had never undertaken to restore English magic. I should have stayed at Hurtfew, reading and doing spells for my own pleasure. None of it is worth the loss of 40 books!” The man is a bibliophile.
Strange goes off to war, and Arabella goes to auction to bring home some magic books for him, which is yet another annoying thing that Norrell has to deal with that day. He won’t be outbid! And he isn’t, for a while. Then suddenly, who appears next to Bella? Our erstwhile Thistle Down, with a thousand-yard stare pointed directly at Norrell. He offers a handkerchief to Arabella, which she refuses—which means that he is fully manifest in the daylight now? That is not good news, and Norrell knows it. He wins the books he wanted, but he’s clearly losing ground.