Our two magic men are drifting apart.
When we left off last week, the poor, tortured Lady Pole had escaped house arrest to come after Norrell, the man she blames for the waking/dreaming hell her back-from-the-dead life has become—remember how he refused to help her, and basically told her to shut up about it so his reputation wouldn’t be ruined?—but his faithful manservant Childermass leaped in and took the bullet instead.
Maybe (definitely) Childermass’ loyalty is unearned, because as episode 4 opens, Norrell the neurotic human chipmunk is busy fretting over his reputation once again (how many times can one man say “What will this do to English magic?”?) instead of, you know, using some of that goddamn magic to help his poor Childerman, who is writhing on a makeshift exam table in the next room having bloody buckshot removed from his body without even a wooden spoon to bite down on.
Well anyway, he pulls through, no thanks to his boss, and he wants to know what was emanating from Lady Pole in the square before she shot him: “Mr. Norrell, that place just breathed magic and she was at the heart of it.” Norrell tells him he was probably drunk, and there is no such place, and he should just hush up. And also: “I’ve been in the most desperate need of you, but you’ve been useless. You’ve been asleep for days.” Gratitude!
Meanwhile, Strange gets a cute makeout session with his wife, and then heads out to meet Norrell so the two can do “magic by royal appointment,” a.k.a. help the King of England, who is mad (as in loony, not angry), and can’t do much besides grow his Rip Van Winkle beard and bonk blankly at a harpsichord. But they very much don’t agree on what approach to take; Norrell wants only modern magic, Strange is willing to take a crack at the older, darker ways. So Strange returns later on his own and lights a match, and suddenly the rheumy-eyed king comes to life: “I am a king, you are a king. Let’s all be kings together!” He also says, “The last time I was permitted out of these rooms was on a Monday in 1810—946 years ago,” which is not explained any further. And then sizzle, poof! Into the mirror he disappears, leaving only a little royal slipper behind. Now this episode’s title is starting to make sense.
We don’t know why the king reappears on a road in a field facing Stephen the butler, or why a sword materializes in Stephen’s hand and pulls him forward against his will, but Strange casts a spell just in time to bring the king back to his castle, and Stephen’s sword slices through thin air instead of priceless royal flesh, so that’s a relief. But guess who’s not happy about that? Our powdery friend Thistle Down, who has this delightful exchange with a very bewildered Stephen:
Thistle Down: All our wonderful plans have been rudely overturned, and once again it is the stupid magician who thwarts us.
Stephen: Who was that old gentleman, sir?
Thistle Down: Why, the King of England, of course. I had brought him here so that you might fulfill your destiny, by cutting off his head and taking his place.
Stephen: But the King has 13 children, sir. The crown would be passed on to one of them and certainly not to a man such as I!
Thistle Down: No, the King’s children are all fat and stupid. Who would wish to be governed by such frights, when they might instead be governed by you, Stephen, whose noble countenance would look so well upon a coin?
Yes, surely the people of 19th-century England would prefer a black butler with a strong profile to a fat, stupid royal. So the two decide together that the enemy is Strange, and they need to destroy him “utterly—and take his wife.”
NEXT: Someone finally takes pity on Lady Pole
Meanwhile Strange, unaware of their wife-stealing pact, admits to new-magic purist Norrell that he used some old dirty spells in Portugal. Norrell is dismissive, as usual. But there’s good news for one character: Lady Pole might finally be getting the help she needs—or at least, the attentions of people who know magic and want to use it to help her, even if she doesn’t believe them. Stephen has brought her to a house in the country and left her in the care of Mr. Segundus and Honeyfoot, who honestly do seem to want to make her better, even if it’s not clear how they’d try.
A more answerable question: Who is pretending to be Strange, and charging gullible farmers and homicidal housewives for his “magic” services? Well, let’s go through the looking glass and see: Mr. Drawlight! Our favorite useless fop. Strange doesn’t get a chance to throttle him before he runs away, but he’s got a bigger fight at home—Arabella is not happy with the uncharted territory he’s exploring; she thinks it’s dangerous, he thinks it’s exciting, and of course they’re both right. Norrell, weirdly, is the one who’s most hungry for Drawlight’s blood when he hears he’s been impersonating Strange; he wants a special court just for “magic crimes” so he can be punished and preferably hanged (though Drawlight’s mostly just guilty of being an idiot; the man couldn’t even pull off a card trick if he tried).
Strange and Norrell are clearly heading toward a break, even if Arabella is finally coming around to her formerly ambition-free husband’s chosen profession, and admits she was just freaked out. (“I had in mind that you might become a justice of the peace, or a landscape gardener. I did not consider that you might become one of the greatest men of the age!”) It’s Lady Pole, though, who gets the best protofeminist speech of the episode, back at the country house where she’s still not trusted even to feed herself: “I’m sick of men in coats deciding what is best for me. I may very well hurt myself, but I belong to no one but myself. Half my life I am in chains—the other half I deserve to be free. Untie me!” They don’t, but they do chase of Childermass, now fully healed, when he comes to visit.
And then, the gauntlet is finally thrown between our two main protagonists; Strange’s review of the magic book comes out, calling Norrell’s brand of magic “absurd constipated and dull,” and disrespectful and dismissive of the Raven King. Later, Strange tells him (more kindly) to his face: “I believe the period of our collaboration is over. It seems to me that we are too different.” Norrell takes the news calmly, almost sadly (“If you leave this house today, you follow your own course. Who are you going to talk to, as we are talking now?”) and even offers to make him an equal partner. “I’m honored, sir,” Strange replies. “You are not usually a man for compromise, I know. But I think I must follow my own course from now on.” It’s actually the nicest moment they’ve ever shared, even though it’s their goodbye.
Then just when Strange is ready to settle in with his wife and abandon practical magic so they can have some time to just be a young married couple, stupid Napoleon ruins everything: He’s returned from exile and captured Paris and the army demands Strange’s services immediately. There’s no way for him to know that Thistle Down has Stephen wrestling a thing from a swamp that looks like a perfect replica of Arabella and squawks like a lizard-bird and is definitely not there to double Strange’s pleasure. Neither is Norrell; in the final moments of the episode, he acknowledges that Strange is now the enemy: “We must work to destroy him, before he destroys us.” In other words, Strange is about to have 99 problems, and Napoleon is only one.