Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell recap: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell
It's the end of the series--but is it the end of English magic?
Don’t go looking for secrets in this series-finale title; it won’t give you anything but repetition — we’re in Malkovich Malkovich territory here. As the last first scene of these seven episodes opens, Sir Walter Pole is delivering news that clearly worries England’s ruling class: County lieutenants are reporting “disruptive” happenings from every corner. Why? Because “Mr. Strange has opened the doors between England and the other realms and in doing so, he has brought magic flooding back in,” Pole reluctantly explains. “We do not know his reasons. It is said he has gone mad. It is said he is returning from Venice and bringing his Black Tower with him. We can only assume he is coming here and that he means to do us harm.” And with that, he regretfully tenders his resignation as Minister of the Crown and member of the House.
These men don’t know, of course, that Strange is still single-mindedly pursuing the only thing he cares about: Not a roomful of wiggy old aristocrats but his beloved Arabella, still trapped in Thistle Down’s grim ballroom netherworld. It’s not helping that a panicky, fully PTSD’ed Drawlight tells Norell’s squirrelly ally/acolyte Henry Lascelles that Strange is bent on revenge, and then shows him everything that Strange made him promise to deliver, including Lady Pole’s talisman finger. For that, poor Drawlight gets a very short chase through the forest and two shots from a musket: “Do you honestly believe I would allow you to destroy Norrell? “Which is to say, destroy me?” Henry sneers, before delivering the last fatal bullet and snatching up the finger box. Drawlight may have been a sneak and a sniveler, but he deserved a better end then that, didn’t he?
At least one of Strange’s notes did get through, though — in the ordinary world, Lady Pole is unwakeable in her bed; in Thistle Down’s ballroom, she’s urgently telling Arabella that she’s there to protect her, per her husband’s instruction. Thisis amnesiaArabella, of course, who has no idea who Jonathan is or that he’s her husband. Ignorance is bliss for now, or at least blankness. And their talk is quickly interrupted anyway by Thistle Down anyway who sidles up, cooing how pleased he is to see “my two rarest and finest flowers entwined so happily. You know, it is said that in the lands on the far side of Hell they dance a dance of three partners. I was taught it once 4,000 years ago but sadly I have forgotten the steps.” So basically, he’s proposing a threesome but can’t remember how to do it. (Try Craigslist, Downy.)
Lascelles delivers the partial news to Norrell that Strange is coming for him, but Childermass smartly and immediately calls him out for not bringing Drawlight with him. And where might Drawlight be? Home, Lascelles stammers, or maybe to visit an uncle. He’s a terrible liar, and Childermass knows it. But all Lascelles can think about is destroying Strange for good. Norrell can come up with a spell, can’t he? One that would be fatal? Childermass is busy checking his Tarot cards while all this goes on, and they let him know exactly what Lascelles has withheld from him: “They say you are a liar and a thief. They say that you have been given something, an object of great value. It is meant for me and yet you retain it.” Lascelles calls him a whore’s son and sputters for an apology but it’s too late; Childermass has found Lady Pole’s finger on him, and he knows Drawlight is dead too. He asks Norrell for permission to take the finger back to its rightful owner as Strange intended, and when Norrell denies it Childermass’s decision is made: “Goodbye, Sir. You have made the wrong choice, as usual,” he declares, and rides off on horseback. Lascelle goes after him and Norrell, now on his own, finds Strange waiting for him. But how did he find his way into the supposedly impenetrable labyrinth Norrell had secured himself inside? “I did what I usually do,” Strange says drily. “Copy you and added some refinements.” Norrell orders him to leave, and Strange shazams him with Strange-faced fireballs; all Norrell can conjure in return after a lot of squint-faced straining is a few fat raindrops. But finally, he’s able to learn that Strange isn’t there to destroy him or humiliate him; he’s there because his wife is stolen and he is dying and he can’t do it alone. So what does he want from Norrell? “What I’ve always wanted, Sir. Your help.”
The confrontations continue over Lady Pole’s bed, where Sir Pole learns that Stephan is in Thistle Down’s service, not his own. Stephan is dying to explain but all that comes out when he tries to speak are more nonsense fairytales, which gets him roughly dragged away and locked in a cell. Norrell and Strange are on the same team again, at least, and looking to see what they can do to break Arabella’s curse. The options are slim, and grim: Basically, the only way is to kill Thistle Down, who Norrell finally (finally!) admits to summoning and unleashing upon the world in the first place. And the only magician who has ever killed a fairy is the Raven King, John Uskglass.
There is a lot of talk about what to call the King and which pears from the orchard to use to summon him, while Lady Pole is very unfortunately being reunited with her severed finger, which pulls her from Thistle Down’s world and makes Thistle angrier than we’ve ever seen him, which is saying a lot. Childermass tries to stop it all and fails, but at least he knows now thanks to Stephan that Vinculus wears the Raven King’s book on his body, and he gallops off to find him still hanging by a noose in the ravine. But there is someone else who joins him there, a man who looks like he could easily name his 10 favorite Norwegian metal bands. He freezes Childermass on the spot and brings Vinculus back to life with some kind of acorn-type nut and when Vinculus rises he realizes that the text of his body-book has changed, though he can’t say exactly how. (“Books cannot read themselves.”)
Thistle Down has come to reclaim Lady Pole, promising he has a fate “so exquisite” in mind for her. Oh, but Lady Pole does not abide: “I have my voice now and I say you are a bore, sir. An uncivilized, unsightly, filthy bore, with your tasteless clothes and with your hair like thistledown.” Boom! Her words are almost as insulting as being shot at by the Lady’s protectors (though it does lead to the season’s best callback so far: “Why..are you firing… walnuts at me?”). An insulted Thistle Down is a dangerous one, and his revenge is a nasty play on “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil”: First smiting one protector’s mouth, then another one’s ears, which fly off his head, join together and flap away like a fleshy butterfly, and lastly Sir Pole’s eyes, because “for years you have been quite happy to see your beloved endure her trial. You have sold her and blinded yourself to the consequence.” (I mean, he’s not wrong, but that is a harsh toke.)
Thistle Down commands Stephan to kill the Poles, because they have treated him “like a servant” — to which Stephan, struggling mightily to hold back the sword Thistle has magicked into his hands, very smartly replies of Sir Pole, “He has made me as much a slave as you have.” Norrell and Strange are still working hard to summon the Raven King, which suddenly brings Stephan instead, and it seems like the whole Stephan-will-be-king storyline is about to come to fruition when there is an awful crack; Lascelles has turned up and torn a shotgun blast through Stephan from behind. This turn of events is not pleasing to Thistle Down, who promptly turns Lascelles into a pile of broken crockery, because karma is a pretty quick bitch. Looking on, a stunned Norrell sums up the situation: “We have channeled all of English magic into a butler. And he shot him.”
Thistle Down has already whisked Stephan away to Lost Hope, but can he revive him? Well, something does, and now all the magic is in Stephan at last. Norrell and Strange have made their way to Lost Hope too, and Norrell, his wig getting more and more Warhol-y every minute, is positively giddy: “This recalls me to my youth! Oh, I once pictured myself a dashing magician travelling to Faerie Come.” He’s even dancing into the ballroom. (Well, more sort of scampering.) Stephan is feeling his new power, and he realizes his destiny as king is to kill Thistle Down. In the midst of a swirling, magic-made lightning storm, Strange finds Arabella on the dancefloor and kisses her like a Disney prince, which finally breaks the spell of enchantment. She wants to stay with him, but Jonathan sends her back to Venice to be safe—smartly, because Stephan is busy crushing Thistle Down in a boa-constrictor vise of murderous tree branches, and taking Lost Hope down with him. Ding dong the fairy’s dead, and Norrell and Strange make it back in England, but they aren’t safe. The Raven King’s black hurricane is still spinning, and the spell is draining Strange’s life away. Norrell cradles him, promising he won’t leave, while Childermass rides up and frets that they are too late. Vinculus corrects him: “Do you still not understand John Childermass? They are the spell the Raven King has spun, and that’s all they have ever been.”
Sir and Lady Pole are apparently fully recovered from Thistle Down’s eyeball curse, but the Lady won’t keep up appearances anymore; she tells her husband that she is going to the Continent to help her friend Arabella, and will not be returning. Arabella isn’t actually alone, though. Jonathan visits her via an urn full of water in the Venetian palazzo, and gently tells her that he doesn’t know where he is or how he’ll ever get back. She swears she’ll wait for him until he finds the spell that brings him home, but he replies “Do not wait. Do not be a widow. Be happy — remember the happiness before the magic.”
Back in York, Childermass makes a full-circle return to the Society of Magicians to tell them that their agreement with his former master Norrell is void; they can practice magic however they want. But where are Strange and Norrell and all the books, they want to know? The books are gone, except for one (enter Vinculus, still swaggery). It’s the Raven King’s, and it may hold the secret to their fate, if they can all work together. In the meantime, Norrell and Strange are “beyond the sky, on the other side of the rain.”
And with that extraterrestrial weather report we are done, dear readers.Are you satisfied? Did this final episode justify your last six weeks of commitment? If you loved the book, did the series live up to Susanna Clark’s source material, or do you feel like a dancer dragged through a seven-hour do-si-do in the Lost Hope ballroom?