Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell recap: Arabella
Jonathan Strange's life—and wife—are about to get a lot stranger.
Episode 5 opens in the thick of battle at Waterloo (couldn’t escape if we wanted to): death, destruction, and our own Mr. Strange at the center — twirling water from a well to put out a fire, whipping vines into soldier-stranglers, conjuring a massive mud fist to squeeze the life out of a rampaging ax wielder. This isn’t doing parlour tricks from the sidelines; Strange has now seen and done ugly things, and it seems obvious that he won’t be the same man going forward.
With that in mind, his recent split with Norrell seems relatively low on his current list of priorities (when his wife asks about it, he dismisses their feud as a “dull academic controversy”). But the feeling isn’t mutual: Norrell is doing everything he can to stop the dissemination of Strange’s opposing views on magic, spluttering to the very blasé publisher of Strange’s upcoming book that his writings are “dangerous and seditious.” His cohort Mr. Lascelle delivers what he thinks will be the trump card: “Publish, and you shall have no more editions of The Friends Of English Magic Sir!” which basically gets a shrug, a chuckle, and a big fat whatever from Mr. Publisher.
Clearly, though, Norrell is not letting this one go: “Why on earth does he insist on punishing me in this manner?” he asks Lascelle moments later in their carriage, referring to the mostly-oblivious Strange. “Whatever wrong did I do him? There is a danger both in what he will say and in the very fabric of the books themselves. Really, it would be most agreeable to me to never see or hear from that man again.” Are we looking at the possible beginnings of a murder plot? Or will he just unfriend Strange on LinkedIn?
If you’re wondering what happened to the peat-bog Arabella doppleganger Thistle Down hatched at the end of the last episode, the answer appears to be that she is wandering the moors blank-eyed and shoeless, while the real Arabella talks babies and beech trees in the bedroom with her husband. Which is bittersweet of course, because this cozy little scene is basically here to remind us how unlikely it is that they’ll ever get the chance to live the blissfully boring domestic life they had planned before magic came in the picture. And indeed, in the very next scene Arabella is roused by a midnight knock on the door and a summons from Stephen the Butler, who says that Lady Pole needs her — but as we know now, he has gone fully over to the Thistle Down dark side. It’s a trap, Arabella! Lady Pole knows it too, even if she’s not quite sure what she knows; she begs a servant to warn Strange that his wife is not safe. Too late.
A search party is pretty much useless when your wife has been taken to another dimension, though poor Jonathan can’t know that. Just like he can’t know that the “Arabella” who eventually shows up clammy and disoriented is not the real one. The real one is trapped in Lost Hope with Thistle Down, who helpfully informs her, “Your husband has bargained you away, madam. He has sold you to me in exchange for a piece of wood. You are to be mine for all time and never leave.” (Ah yes, the old wood-for-wife switcheroo. Classic!) And then Thistle does something to Real Arabella’s face with his super creepy Barbra Streisand fingernails that apparently hypnotizes her into submission.
Back at the Strange home, Jonathan wakes up at his fake-beloved’s bedside to find her grey-skinned and staring blankly at the ceiling. She is clearly dead, but he doesn’t have much time for grieving; he’s going to bring her back to life, he decides almost immediately — which as we know from past experience with Lady Pole and the Italian soldiers is 100% a terrible idea. He can’t do it alone though, so he reaches out to Norrell, asking for his help in bringing her back and promising in exchange that he’ll never practice magic again. Childermass and Lascelle have very opposing views on how to handle this, which leads to some golden moments of passive-aggressive bitchery between the two (“Could we talk without the servants present, Sir? It is most vexing.” [slowly, sarcastically] “No, let’s not speak without the servants present.”)
NEXT: Arabella’s goodbye
Fake Arabella’s corpse is not exactly getting fresher, so Strange summons Thistle Down, who brings Stephen along but mostly just hangs around to mock poor Jonathan — “Really, watching this fellow try to do magic is like seeing a man sit down to eat dinner with his coat on backwards” — and mess with him like a hazing frat boy. But Strange won’t stop trying, and failing, to bring her back. Thank god for Arabella’s brother, who finally reaches him with a heartfelt speech: “Do you honestly believe this is what Arabella would wish? Do you think she would be pleased with you? I wish her to be alive! But she’s dead.The corpse lying upstairs is no longer your wife or my sister. What would it be if you brought it back now? Please, stop. Please respect her and respect yourself. It breaks my heart to say this, Jonathan. She’s the only family I will ever have. She’s my most beloved sister. But she must be let go.” Jonathan knows he’s right, and real grief hits him for the first time. Having finally accepted that she’s really gone, he gives her a sweet private goodbye and gives her a proper burial.
Meanwhile, Lady Pole’s new caretakers believe they’re starting to make sense of the seemingly random old fairytales that come out of her mouth whenever she tries to explain what’s happening to her. They want her to tell them more — which of course Stephen, for his own reasons, does not want to happen. He tries to tell her the idea is madness and that none of it will help Arabella, but she won’t be swayed. But what will she gain, he asks? “My liberty, Stephen. Mine and hers.” As she begins to tell another story — something about foot-sized beans and rabbit holes — the men have an epiphany: “I think what you are telling, my lady, are faerie tales — but told, in some way, from the point of view of the faerie himself.” There is a knock at the madhouse door, and who has returned? Vinculus, our scampering, cackling little Rumplestiltskin street magician, babbling again about the Raven King.
Strange is still grieving miles away, and seems unsurprised to receive a visit from Childermass. He shows him Arabella’s drawings of the King’s Roads built by the Raven King himself, and even offers him a job: “Is it not time, Childermass, that you left Gilbert Norrell’s service and came to me? There need be none of this ‘servant’ nonsense.You would be my pupil and assistant.” Childermass demurs: “Thank you, sir, but Mr Norrell and I are not done with each other yet. And besides, I think I would make a very bad pupil — worse, even, than you.”
Am I the only one who thinks they would be a very dynamic duo? I want to see this happen. At least Childermass does make Strange a promise: “If you fail and Norrell wins, I shall leave his service. I’ll take up your cause, and then there will still be two magicians in England and two opinions upon magic. But, if he should fail and you win, I’ll do the same against you. Good enough?” Yes, yes it is! Mano a mano, they shake hands, and Childermass gives Strange fair warning that they’re trying to stop the publication of his book, which enrages him so much that he flies through the mirror straight to Norrell’s house and comes on like a hurricane, berating him for not even replying to his plea for help with Arabella when he begged for it. This supernatural breaking-and-entering stunt gets him promptly thrown in jail, and that’s not the only bad news: He’s also being accused of murdering his wife with black magic, and if they can work out exactly what the charge should be, they plan to bring it against him.
“How does one work up a little madness in oneself?” Strange asks. “Perhaps I should go wandering. Perhaps the wilderness will make me mad… My book is finished. London is set against me. It is time for me to become the magician I am destined to become.” And boom he is gone, disappeared through a helpful jailhouse puddle. (It was a little silly to think a cell could hold a magician, no?). Strange is now a man who thinks he has lost everything: his wife, his book, his reputation. And a man with nothing left to lose — and only two remaining episodes in this miniseries — is capable of almost anything.