So, because I’ve read the book, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on everything that happens in this last episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I think that people who haven’t read the book might feel a little let down by it. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that they didn’t dumb things down for the television audience, and I was very excited that the book’s ending was translated almost exactly for the show. On the other hand, I feel like there was a good deal of nuance and many shades of meaning lost in that translation, and I found myself filling in some blanks with information from the novel.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” begins in Parliament, where Sir Walter is resigning amid a flurry of reports of new magic being performed all over England. It’s clear that something is happening, and it’s clear that Sir Walter is being blamed for it. The word “revolution” is even used, which is exactly the sort of thing the government would have liked to avoid. After walking out of Parliament, Sir Walter heads to Starecross to visit with his wife. Meanwhile, Mr. Norrell has returned to Hurtfew Abbey, and Jonathan Strange has departed from Venice.
Drawlight has also left Venice and has returned to England with Jonathan Strange’s messages. However, he is waylaid and murdered by Lascelles. I’m not really sure exactly how this could have been done better on the show, but I didn’t like it. Lascelles here seems almost cartoonishly evil, and I don’t think the show did as good a job as Susanna Clarke did in the book of showing the escalation of Lascelles’s violent behavior and rhetoric, so his decision to murder Drawlight here feels somewhat out of character. Basically, Lascelles in the show has been an asshole, but not a particularly murderous one before now. I was also disappointed that Drawlight wasn’t absorbed into the earth like he was in the book. It was such a beautifully gruesome scene the way Clarke wrote it, and wonderfully symbolic with the land, full of reawakened magic, swallowing Drawlight up entirely.
When Lascelles makes it to Hurtfew, things between he and Childermass rather quickly come to a head. While reading his cards, Childermass discovers Lascelles’ murder of Drawlight and misappropriation of Jonathan Strange’s messages. Childermass’s accusation of thievery prompts Lascelles to attack him. While Lascelles does slice Childermass’s cheek, Childermass is able to retrieve the box with Lady Pole’s finger in it. This, he questions Norrell about, but when Childermass asks Norrell’s leave to take the finger back to Lady Pole, Norrell refuses. Finally, Childermass leaves his master, saying goodbye with the sad statement, “You have made the wrong choice, sir, as usual.”
This is another scene that is changed from the book only slightly, but I think it’s significant. There, the conflict between Lascelles and Childermass occurs similarly, but it ends not with Childermass asking to leave on a mission. In the book, Norrell is forced to choose between Childermass, his servant for some eighteen years, and Lascelles, a recent friend but one who is closer to Norrell in wealth and social status. In the show, Childermass is quitting rather than being sent away, and it matters. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an exploration of differences, between genders, races, and social classes, and this scene ought to be the climax of the class drama that has been playing out over the previous six episodes. Instead of having Norrell choosing–the worthy Childermass or the wicked Lascelles–the real choice is Childermass’s–to obey Norrell or to finally go his own way–and it doesn’t matter that Childermass says it’s Norrell’s choice.
A scene that ought to be an indictment of Norrell’s class consciousness and stubborn elitism instead ends up making Norrell seem fairly sympathetic–after all, he’s been duped by Lascelles and now Childermass is abandoning him when Norrell is most in need of a wise companion. It feels to me as if this scene is trying to have things both ways–we’re intended to cheer for Childermass’s emancipation, but we’re also supposed to feel bad for Mr. Norrell. It’s as if the show wants us to believe that Norrell is somehow just a victim of circumstance in this situation, even though that is demonstrably not the case.
With Childermass off on his way to Starecross and Lascelles lost in the labyrinth, Mr. Norrell is left alone to face Jonathan Strange, who has finally arrived. While Norrell has been preparing (sort of) for a fight, it turns out that Strange hasn’t come for revenge at all; he wants Mr. Norrell’s help, to defeat the Gentleman and free Arabella. Their reunion is everything I could ever have wanted, to be honest. It’s sweet and funny and awkward, and while it’s not exactly as it was in the book (in particular, there’s a sort of weird bit of magic that Jonathan Strange does that I didn’t really care for) it captures the spirit of it very well.
By the time Childermass arrives at Starecross, Sir Walter is there and has already been informed by Segundus that Lady Pole is not mad but enchanted. What these men don’t know (because they apparently didn’t bother to really read Jonathan Strange’s letter to her) is that Lady Pole is busy staying at Lost-Hope on purpose in order to watch over Arabella and guide her out of faerie when the time comes.
Sir Walter did manage to catch the part of the letter where it’s mentioned that Stephen Black has been serving the Gentleman, although not the part where Stephen Black was also enchanted against his will. So instead of recognizing Stephen Black’s enchantment, four white dudes lock him into a cell in an asylum. This would be easier to watch if the show was better at dealing with Stephen Black as a character, but it’s not. You would think that possibly Childermass, who is normally so insightful, might speak up for a fellow servant, but he doesn’t (although he’s perfectly willing later to pump Stephen for information). You might think that Segundus and Honeyfoot might recognize Stephen’s affliction as being the same as Lady Pole’s when Stephen is similarly unable to speak of it, but they don’t. You might even think that Sir Walter, who has known Stephen his whole life, might just not be such a dick, but no such luck. It’s truly appalling.
However, what I find more appalling is how little time we really get to spend with Stephen Black in this episode and how little of that time is focused on Stephen Black himself. Just as the show bungles its handling of class dynamics, it also pulls its punches when it comes to dealing with Stephen Black’s experiences of racism as a black man in early 19th century England. We get to see the racism he experiences, but the show neglects to really explore how Stephen feels about it and how it affects his decisions and what it means for his relationship with the Gentleman. A perceptive viewer of the show who is familiar with the book might be able to make something out of what we’re shown, but the examination of racism that characterizes Stephen Black’s narrative is still garbled at best.
Back at Hurtfew, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are trying to figure out how best to summon the Raven King. The trouble is that none of the names anyone ever called him were really his own. The Raven King is a title, and John Uskglass is just the name of some Norman nobleman who might have been his father. The idea occurs to them that they could just use the abbey–built by the Raven King, after all–to find him, and all they have to do now is figure out what summoning spell to use. This is when Mr. Norrell brings out his copy (the last copy!) of Jonathan Strange’s book, and it’s wonderful because this is it. This is the moment when it’s obvious that these guys are meant to be together forever. Because they need each other and they understand each other and they are stronger together than apart.
At Starecross, Segundus has succeeded in rejoining Lady Pole and her finger, and she wakes up spitting mad. Sir Walter seems oblivious to the fact that when his wife says that she “was bargained away for a wicked man’s career” she’s talking about him at least as much as she’s talking about Mr. Norrell. Meanwhile, Childermass goes searching for Vinculus after speaking to Stephen Black. Poor Stephen, of course, is still stuck in his prison when the Gentleman shows up in a rage over his loss of Lady Pole.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell succeed in summoning the Raven King, but they are quickly disappointed as he immediately leaves the room. He hasn’t come to help them at all; he’s got to go resurrect and rewrite Vinculus instead. While I have been generally pleased with the casting for this adaptation, I actually hate the way they portrayed the Raven King. All that long, stringy looking hair? Ugh. I suppose it could be worse, but this isn’t at all how I imagined him. I did like how they shot the resurrection of Vinculus, even though Paul Kaye hammed it up perhaps a tad too much.
At Starecross, the Gentleman has arrived and freed Stephen Black from his cell when he is confronted by Lady Pole. This is perhaps my favorite scene in the whole show. Lady Pole is amazing, and it’s incredibly gratifying to see her finally get to use her words after spending so long being unable to speak her mind. It doesn’t hurt that the Gentleman’s reaction is so great. Marc Warren really makes the best faces.
Things get even better when Stephen Black gets summoned to Hurtfew by the magicians, who are trying to get the Raven King to come back and kill the fairy. They sacrifice Norrell’s library in order to put all of English magic at the disposal of “the nameless slave,” who is, currently anyway, Stephen. This would be all well and good if Lascelles didn’t choose just this moment to escape from the labyrinth and shoot Stephen in the black–just in time for the Gentleman to show up and see what has happened to his favorite. The distraught Gentleman turns Lascelles into ceramic (or something) and shatters him, then returns to Lost-Hope with Stephen’s body.
Lascelles’ fate is perhaps the one that is most obviously changed from what happened to him in the book, and it’s pretty disappointing. It’s not that it isn’t nice to see Lascelles sort of get what’s coming to him, but this end, at the hands of the Gentleman, just doesn’t have the same kind of more poetic justice as what happens in the novel. That said, doing the Castle of the Plucked Eye and Heart would probably have added several more minutes to an already packed episode, and not everyone would love it as much as I would. That said, I also felt like Lascelles’ shooting Stephen Black felt gratuitous, a somewhat cheap way to add another tiny bit of drama and, I guess, to give Lascelles something to do so he could be brought back on screen just long enough to die.
The final climax of the episode takes place at Lost-Hope, where the Gentleman has retreated to mourn Stephen Black. Following Lascelles’ death, Strange and Norrell waste no time in pursuing the Gentleman, which gives us one last brief journey through Faerie. Norrell is at his most likable when he is doing magic, and I enjoyed how much he enjoyed finally seeing Faerie for himself.
When the magicians finally get to Lost-Hope they split up, with Norrell going to find Stephen Black and Jonathan Strange looking for Arabella. In a sort of cheesy moment that is only necessitated by the rather silly decision to have Arabella brainwashed on the show, Jonathan Strange is able to get Arabella her memories back by kissing her. I still think these two are adorable together, but this was a bit too much. Right before things get really dangerous, Jonathan pushes Arabella through a mirror that takes her to the Greysteels in Venice.
What happens next is much more interesting, anyway. The Gentleman is surprised when Stephen seemingly rises from the dead full of magic. I do think Stephen’s moment of triumph here is a little tainted by the general mishandling of his character, but there’s still something very gratifying about seeing a character who has been so disempowered for so long finally having the power to change his situation. I did find myself feeling a little bad for the Gentleman in the end, but the biggest feeling I had about this sequence was that I wish we got to see something–anything–of what Lost-Hope will look like under Stephen Black’s administration.
After the Gentleman’s death, Strange and Norrell find themselves back at Hurtfew Abbey where they learn that the fairy’s death hasn’t broken the curse on Jonathan Strange after all. What’s more, it seems that he and Norrell are trapped together now. This might not be for very long, since Jonathan Strange is dying, but Norrell won’t leave his friend either way. Norrell holds Strange in his arms as the black tower sucks up the two magicians and Hurtfew Abbey itself. On a nearby vantage point, Childermass and Vinculus are watching, and Vinculus informs Childermass that Strange and Norrell were only a spell the Raven King has been casting this whole time.
The rest of the episode revisits the rest of the characters before returning at last to York, where the story began. Lady Pole is leaving her husband to join Arabella on the continent, which is awesome and makes me want another show that is just all about the adventures of Lady Pole, Arabella Strange, and Flora Greysteel. I might feel bad for Sir Walter, who seems a bit sad and taken aback by his wife’s decision, but Sir Walter is awful and I think leaving him is the best thing Lady Pole could do for herself. Her speech about not wanting to trade one kind of bondage for another is a little heavy-handed, but it could have been worse probably.
Speaking of Arabella and Flora, they are becoming good friends. Flora has brought Arabella to the place where Jonathan Strange once lived in Venice, and Arabella gets to have one last conversation with her husband there. The circumstances are somewhat different, but the conversation is much the same as the one they had at the end of the book where Jonathan tells her to be happy and not mourn too much for him. I was surprised that I didn’t find this scene particularly affecting (I really thought I would be sadder, to be honest), but I was glad that they retained the ambiguity of the book’s ending. I was half worried that the show would try to shoehorn in a happier ending for Jonathan and Arabella. Interestingly, though, this isn’t where the show ends at all.
The show ends, not with Jonathan and Arabella or even Strange and Norrell, but where it began, with the York Society of Magicians. Following the disappearance of Strange and Norrell, Childermass has gathered the group once more to tell them that their agreement with his master is null and void. They are all free to study and practice as much magic as they like. When they point out that they have no books now that Norrell and his library are gone, Childermass brings forward Vinculus, who is still the Book of the Raven King and newly rewritten. They will learn to read it together.
For all that this episode did a good job of collapsing its storylines and focusing the action into just a couple of places, it at times felt frantically rushed, and the final “where are they now?” montage seemed almost tacked on. Certain things seemed glossed over and unclear, although I suppose that, technically, all the ends of the story are tied up. But I would have liked to see just a bit more of everyone, especially Lady Pole, who was recreated so brilliantly in the show by Alice Englert, and Stephen Black, whose fate seems rather uncertain in the show, what with Lost-Hope crumbling and all.
Ultimately, for me, this show has turned out to be just slightly unsatisfying, which is almost worse than if it had just been terrible. There are a lot of things in this adaptation that I would have dont just a little differently, but nothing that I passionately feel needs to have been changed. That said, I’ve now watched it all the way through twice, and I liked it much better the second time. I think this will be a show that I watch over and over again and enjoy differently on each viewing, which is perhaps the best thing I could say about any miniseries.