“The Black Tower” might be the single best episode of television I’ve watched so far in 2015. It’s superbly written on its own, and it shines as an adaptation of a much-beloved novel. What (remarkably little, actually) is lost in the translation from page to screen is more than made up for by the incredible performances of Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange), Marc Warren (The Gentleman), and Ariyon Bakare (Stephen Black). This is definitely the best episode yet for all of these characters.
We begin the episode with breaking of two bits of Jonathan Strange news: his escape from jail and the publication of his book, The History and Practice of English Magic. The publisher is delighted, although he does point out that the one problem with having a fugitive author is that he doesn’t know where to send all the money they are raking in from the book sales.
At his house in Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell opens his copy of Strange’s book, which is beautiful (a nice detail kept from the novel, where Strange insisted that part of his goal with the book was for it to be a work of art). The shot of Norrell weeping as he reads it is, I think, the most human and sympathetic we’ve seen him since his final tea with Strange, and it’s definitely the best we see of him in this episode.
It’s clear that Norrell has mixed feelings about the book, but he truly believes it to be dangerous enough that he puts down his copy at least long enough to magick all the other copies of it out of existence. The way they show this spell is kind of uncharacteristically (for this show, anyway) silly, as the books just start disappearing–each with an audible pop–but it’s a welcome bit of levity in an otherwise very dark episode. And, honestly, I suppose that for many bibliophiles, this tiny bit of comedy isn’t going to distract from what an enormous crime it is for anyone to censor any book as completely as Norrell does Strange’s.
In Venice, and completely unaware of Norrell’s destruction of the book, Jonathan Strange is hard at work trying to summon a fairy, and he’s looking much the worse for wear. He’s also, frustratingly, consistently successful at summoning the Gentleman. He just can’t see him. My favorite thing about these first scenes of Strange is how perfectly realized his Venice workshop is. It looks like exactly the sort of place that a wealthy and slightly mad and extremely single-minded fugitive magician on a mission might be hanging out. My only criticism is that it looks like he’s been there for years rather than for only a couple of months, and so it becomes another sort of example of the show’s struggles with conveying the passage of time.
I was super excited to see that they managed to squeeze in the Greysteels, and it turns out that Flora is at least as delightful in the show as she ever was in the book. Jonathan Strange’s first meeting with Flora and her father is excellently done, if a little rushed. They managed to get Clive Mantle to play Dr. Greysteel, and literally every look on his face is my favorite. He is so fed up with Flora’s shenanigans, but she’s clearly a force of nature he can’t control even a little bit. The Greysteels have been visiting with Mrs. Delgado, the crazy cat lady from the book, and have I mentioned how happy I am that they didn’t cut Venice and the Greysteels from the show?
At Starecross, Vinculus is trying to convince Stephen Black to let him out of his cell, and Lady Pole is just fucking done. She’s exhausted with trying to communicate with people about her situation, and she’s disheartened (though not particularly surprised) to learn that Jonathan Strange has fled the country. It seems that she has finally given up on their ability to be of any help to her at all, and she intends to sleep so that she may keep watch over Arabella at Lost-Hope.
In Parliament, we get to see a great shouting match, as Sir Walter Pole and Lord Liverpool have become pretty unpopular these days. Basically everyone is pissed off about the magicians, and they blame Sir Walter particularly for promoting them.
At Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell is desperate to learn what Jonathan Strange is doing, and this precipitates a trip to the prison to ask Drawlight about it. Poor Drawlight is looking even more poorly than Jonathan Strange these days, but he’s still managed to glean some gossip about the magician and his doings in Venice. To learn more, Norrell sends Drawlight to Venice to spy on Strange in person. While this is basically what happened in the book, I felt like it was out of character for Norrell to threaten Drawlight in person the way he did here. In the book, it’s Lascelles who retrieves Drawlight and sends him on his way alone, because Norrell doesn’t get his hands dirty with that sort of thing. I suppose I understand why it might be easier to film it the way they did in the show, especially in an episode where Norrell has relatively little screentime when compared to Jonathan Strange, but still. It’s a small departure that actually makes a fairly big difference in the way we understand Norrell’s character during this part of the story, and I don’t care for it.
Returning to Venice, Jonathan Strange has decided to pay his own visit to Mrs. Delgado. He offers to give her her heart’s desire if she will teach him to be mad. The deal is quickly struck; Mrs. Delgado is turned into a cat, and Jonathan Strange has concentrated all of the old widow’s madness into one dead mouse. He tries to eat the mouse whole, but finds that Mrs. Delgado’s madness was even stronger than he expected it to be, so he returns to his laboratory to try using it a different way.
After steeping the dead mouse in some water (and I’m not sure if this is more or less disgusting than the way he ground up the dried mouse and mixed it with water in the book), Jonathan Strange drinks a few drops of the mouse liquid and continues on with trying to summon a fairy. Sure enough, Jonathan finds himself able to see the Gentleman on his very next summoning attempt, for all that he is nearly too mad to realize at first what he’s done.
For his part, the Gentleman is just absolutely furious, although quietly so, and as soon as Strange releases him from the summoning he goes to complain to Stephen Black about it. Still at Starecross, Stephen Black decides after this visit from the Gentleman to listen to Vinculus, who promises that he knows how to free Stephen from the fairy. When Stephen leaves Starecross, he has Vinculus hidden in the back of his cart.
Back in Venice again, Drawlight has arrived and is rather conspicuously lurking about in the background as Flora Greysteel helps Jonathan Strange shop for a dress for his wife. Clearly in high spirits following his first successful contact with a fairy, Jonathan is practically effervescent as he fills Flora in on his plans to revive Arabella and restore magic to England. Flora asks if he will teach her, and Strange affirms that he will teach “all the women and the poor men,” and this affirmation is an important piece of the characterization of Jonathan Strange as having a much more egalitarian philosophy than the very class-conscious and chauvinistic Mr. Norrell.
Jonathan Strange’s second meeting with the Gentleman doesn’t go nearly so well as he’d hoped. Strange is prepared to negotiate for Arabella’s resurrection, but the Gentleman’s reply is a flat no. He cannot resurrect Arabella because of “certain circumstances”–obviously, to the viewer, the fact that Arabella is not, in fact, dead at all. Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange knows nothing of this, and his pain is palpable. However, this leads Strange to question the Gentleman about his previous interactions with English magicians, and this is how Jonathan Strange discovers the secret of how Mr. Norrell resurrected Lady Pole.
Denied his wife, Strange demands that the fairy bring him a token from his last dealing with an English magician, and he receives Lady Pole’s finger in a box. Using the finger, Strange is able to travel through a mirror to reach Lost-Hope, where he finds himself at one of the Gentleman’s balls. Strange is greeted first by Stephen Black, who is aghast at the magician’s appearance there. Then he is met by Lady Pole who at first, hopefully, asks if Strange has come to rescue them, but quickly becomes deflated when she realizes that he had no idea that she or Stephen or Arabella were even there.
When Jonathan sees Arabella, he becomes distraught and yells for the Gentleman to release her, but the fairy instead dispels all of the revelers except Stephen Black. All of the fairy Gentleman’s anger at the magicians is released in one terrific spell. Though it drains much of his strength to do it, the Gentleman curses Jonathan Strange with eternal darkness and deports the magician from Lost-Hope.
Before we see what happens to Jonathan Strange, Stephen Black wakes up back in the English countryside, where he is still traveling with Vinculus. As they prepare to continue on their journey, Stephen confronts Vinculus about the prophecy and demands to see the book that Vinculus claims to have, at which point Vinculus strips off his shirt to show that he is the Book of the Raven King.
“Our meaning is written in our skin,” Vinculus intones, to which Stephen Black says that his skin means that he will always face racism and oppression. Vinculus replies that his skin says the opposite, and that Stephen Black “will be raised on high” and become a king. It’s a powerful scene, and Ariyon Bakare’s performance is note perfect. The show has often struggled with doing justice to the character of Stephen Black, but I think they really nailed it here. It also helps that in this episode they finally shot some Stephen Black scenes outside of poorly lit English houses so we can see a bit more of Ariyon Bakare’s face, which is highly expressive when not in shadows.
In Venice, an enormous, swirling tower of darkness has appeared over the city. While most of the city’s denizens are fleeing, Flora Greysteel runs towards it–because of course she’s the sort of woman who runs to the danger instead of away from it. She finds Jonathan, who tries to send her away, but Flora is desperate to help her friend. Strange tells her that she will know what to do when the time comes for her to help him, but she is only persuaded to go when her father comes to escort her to safety. They pass Drawlight on their way out, and when they get back to their own apartments, there is a mirror waiting there under a blanket.
Unable to learn anything from the Greysteels, Drawlight tries to leave town, but finds himself being chased by the tower of darkness, which is calling his name. The poor man finds himself pulled to the center of the darkness, where he comes upon Jonathan Strange, who promises not to harm him if Drawlight will take three messages to England. First, the box with Lady Pole’s finger and the explanation for it must be given to Childermass. Second, there is a letter for Lady Pole herself. And the third message, as it was in the book, is for Mr. Norrell and is simply, “I am coming.”
Once more at Hanover Square, Mr. Norrell is preparing to leave for his home and library at Hurtfew Abbey when Sir Walter and the Lord Liverpool arrive with a final commission from the government: stop Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell upbraids the Ministers for encouraging Strange in the first place, and then says that he doesn’t even know if he can stop Jonathan Strange or even what Strange is capable of doing.
While Mr. Norrell’s household is finishing packing up his belongings, Childermass notices strange sounds coming from the mirrors in the house–like faint scratching or the pecking of birds. After the Ministers have left, Norrell is examining a large mirror more closely, when it smashes open and a flood of ravens bursts out of it, which is terribly dramatic and a striking visual effect.
The episode ends with Vinculus’s meeting with the tree. As soon as they arrive at the out of the way place–a sort of canyon, with just one tree in the center of it–Stephen Black points out that this is not a friendly looking place, but the camp out to wait anyway.
Soon enough, the Gentleman arrives, visiting Stephen for the first time since he cursed Jonathan Strange and still in a peculiar mood. When he realizes that Vinculus can see him, the Gentleman seems to turn his residual malice on this new target, suggesting that they kill Vinculus and then go do something else. Vinculus informs the fairy that he will find that Vinculus is “a hard man to kill,” but, while Stephen Black weeps helplessly, the Gentleman hangs Vinculus anyway. Keeping with the tarot card symbolism that was so common in the book, “The Black Tower” has as its final image a hanged man in a tree rather ominously covered with ravens.