Tony Fyler doesn’t want the magic to end.
The casualties of our life are the people we fail to save.
That at least seems to be the theme of episode 5 of the endlessly compelling tale of magical rivalry. With enemies secretly ranged against him, Jonathan Strange writes his own book of practical magic to rival (which is to say obliterate that of his one-time mentor Gilbert Norrell. There’s no doubt that with its winning style and the secrets it intends to unfold, it will obliterate the other – but while Norrell rants about the damage it will cause, events are taken out of his hands by the Gentleman, whose plans to kidnap and substitute Belle Strange come to fruition.
What would you do?
The person you love most in the world is dead, and you have power unlike anyone else - but the worst knowledge you could possibly have: your rival, your enemy, has the power to do what you can’t do and bring them back from the dead.
What would you do?
Strange tries everything he knows, including the dark magic that made the zombies during the war, but something has changed about him – at the Battle of Waterloo, Jonathan Strange did magic in a rage, and broke his own commandment, that a magician might use magic to kill a man, but a gentleman never would. The wildness that has always been in him appears to have frightened him when he uses his power to personally kill a man hands-on, and he had retired from active magic when the Gentleman’s plot engulfed everything he cared about. ‘Just when I thought I was out, the pull me back in,’ the lament of an ageing Michael Corleone in The Godfather III, could just as easily apply to Jonathan Strange here – there’s a sense of him as a character who wants never to do harm, but who collects enemies not so much through his disagreeable nature as by his talent and his convictions, a soul doomed to always make the right choices, and yet suffer for them anyway.
The Gentleman’s court is growing in strength and it seems like the fairies must win whatever prize he has in mind for them. But he’s reckoned without John Segundus and Mr Honeyfoot, the two would-be magicians now charged with the keeping of the ‘mad’ Lady Pole. Honeyfoot recognizes her ramblings as a kind of fairy tale-telling, but from the fairy’s point of view – ‘human tales,’ as Segundus calls them. Could they be the key to defeating the Gentleman, rescuing Lady Pole, Steven and now Belle Strange – and maybe even saving Jonathan Strange from the course of action he’s embarked on: to go a little mad so as to get better access to the fairies. Who knows what a mad, persecuted magician might yet be capable of? Perhaps as much as Vinculus the street magician and the Raven King’s John the Baptist, who also arrives at Segundus and Honeyfoot’s doors in this episode.
Overall, this was a bleak hour of television, but Strange & Norrell has never yet been short of excellent. But at episode 5, that awful sensation of closure is creeping up on us – the knowledge that soon, too soon, the series will be over, and given the scope of the original book, it seems unlikely to offer much in the way of potential for subsequent series. After all, it would be an insanity (though a welcome one) to expect Moll Flanders, Series 2. So with Strange and Norrell, as the shadows lengthen (this episode seemed shot in darker shades and colour colours to match the mood-pallette of the action), the inevitable sense of building to an ending, and of there being nothing on the other side of that ending but the Blu-Ray. Strange & Norrell has so far been one of the most enjoyable new shows in recent years, in a grand tradition of literary storytelling, but written for geeks of the Harry Potter generation. Episode 5 sees no slackening in quality, for all the pace is a little more languid and the tone a little more emo than previous instalments, and the Waterloo magic is certainly the visual high-point of the episode, as Strange lets go of his fear and rage in a devastating personal kill.
Special mention in this episode has to go to Charlotte Riley, who plays both versions of Belle Strange – the genuine article and the Gentleman’s replacement – with a startling difference that makes you wonder if they hired a second actress for her fairy-pawn incarnation. Also, Enzo Cilenti as Childermass deserves wider recognition for being able to carry an atmosphere with him right across the divide of the TV screen. And Jamie Parker (of History Boys and Royal Shakespeare Company fame) has delivered both steady performances and a steadying influence as Grant, the military officer and friend of Jonathan Strange.
Having never read the book, Strange & Norrell also gives many a geek the delight of surprise every week – no leaks, no spoilers, just the pure enjoyment of sitting down and devoting the time to seeing how the story turns next. As we head towards episode 6, darkness is gathering. Where will the intertwined lives of England’s magicians take them next?
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk