Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Season 1, Episode 2: How is Lady Pole?

Brest, Northern France and the French guards of the fortress port are horrified to see an English fleet appear – apparently from nowhere and in vast, impossible numbers. But they look odd – spectral. The French admiral has himself taken to them by oar boat to see they are made of water – out of rain. The English magician has fooled them – so he knows there is an English magician then

In Parliament everyone applauds Norrell, considering him a hero and they love his ability to show them images of their commanders in the field. Of course, they’d rather like to have Mr. Norrell in the field as well – something he’s not a fan of. They also start competing for more resurrections of great British generals – Norrell does come up with good reasons not to do this (zombie generals) and some other suggestions that are more appropriate.

Mr. Norrell has another focus – he wants to ensure magic remains “respectable.” He’s still irked by the bad name magic gets from charlatans and street magicians – and wants Parliament to crack down on them.

Norrell attends an important dinner (with Lord and Lady Pole – the latter newly resurrected) when we hear that charlatans claiming to be magicians are not uncommon and, from Stephen Black their butler (you’ve called the Black character Black? Well… how subtle of you) that there are rumours of the house being haunted. Annoying when servants believe such superstition, it gets in the way

Of course, Norrell is more concerned about such rumours. Concern which seems to increase when Lady Pole interrupts dinner to decide she wants to dance.

Yes all the superstitions – bells et all – are related to the fairy magic resurrection of Lady Pole. Norrell bargained away half of her life, but that doesn’t mean she’ll disappear after so many years. The fairy claims his due when she sleeps, dancing in her dreams

She wakes out of sorts, startled by bells and no longer wanting to dance.

Lord Pole calls in Mr. Norrell to speak to Lady Emma Pole, and Emma is confused, speaking fairy stories and nonsense whenever she tries to describe what is happening to her. Norrell tells Sir Walter he can do nothing for her – her ailment is “spiritual” whatever that means; either way outside the purview of magic and medicine. “Magic cannot cure madness”

Norrell summons the fae, (known only as The Gentleman) angry and claiming to be cheated (and, tellingly, saying very clearly he cares nothing for Emma’s happiness – just that Sir Walter is the champion of English magic). More, The Gentleman continues to push for Norrell to rely on him, while simultaneously scolding him for his improper summoning etiquette – which of course he’d be happy to teach. Norrell refuses – he won’t let English magic be controlled by the fae.

But The Gentleman has a foothold now and goes to a long abandoned room in Sir Walter’s estate, calling Stephen the Butler to help him get all gussied up for the ball (Stephen, an impeccable butler, is phased only for a second by an unknown and very strange guest). In exchange for superlative service, The Gentleman invites Stephen to the ball and he joins them in his sleep (The Gentleman also wants Lady Pole to wear a severed finger for extra ickiness).

All the haunting bells are also driving away the staff.

To our two amateurs, Honeyfoot and Segundus, who are apparently, by what they’re saying, looking to set up a school of magic, examining an old ruin for the setting when Secundus collapses gasping that someone is performing magic. He has an odd spectral vision of a woman in a flowing dress and a crown before waking up to find Mr Jonathan Strange (and his now wife Arabella) heckling him for invading his dream which is so terribly rude! They woman was apparently an enchantress back in the day and Jonathan has no doubt they shared the same vision. And he’s frustrated that Segundus meddled in his spell which he didn’t really know how to do in the first place.

Segundus and Honeyfoot are awed that Jonathan even managed a spell – especially one they were sure no-one could make work. They exchange stories and Jonathan has heard of Norrell – because he’s bought all the books he was looking for (which further impresses Segundus and Honeyfoot because it means Jonathan has managed his magic without any books at all). All Jonathan has are stories of the fairy Raven King back in the times of yore. Jonathan is frustrated by the lack of control he has over his magic and Honeyfoot suggests he go ask to become Mr. Norrell’s apprentice.

Jonathan isn’t sure about that because Norrell is so scathing about other wizards – theoretical wizards – but, as Segundus points out, Jonathan is an equal to Norrell.

Jonathan and Arabella move to London where they attend for tea in Norrell’s little circle of admirers who are quite scathing of Jonathon claiming to be a magician when there is only one magician in England! But Norrell wants to get down to the nitty gritty along with Childermas (his servant with peculiar authority) and wishes to see what Jonathan can do – and Jonathan, much to Norrell’s delight, shows him a spell he’s never seen before nor seen recorded and is slightly stunned when Jonathan describes his instinctive (but uncontrolled and gapped) understanding of magic.

Norrell takes him on as a student – and presents a 10 year plan of study (which Norrell, academic, finds fascinating and delightful while Jonathan, rather less of a scholar, is less enthused). Norrell is all gleeful about study while still taking time to emphasise the all-important RESPECTABILITY. And when Jonathan makes a reference to fairy magic (his main interest) Norrell is quick to claim he has no such books – a complete lie

Emma Pole continues to degrade, being horrified by bells and shattering mirrors and fighting not to sleep. The Gentleman also lures Stephen back into the fairy land through a mirror, praising his manners and bearing and saying she should be a king, though treated like a slave. He dances with the guests, as he has every night – and sees Lady Pole dancing with The Gentleman and desperately calls her name

Over tea Arabella encourages Jonathan to secure his own library, noting that the owner of such a one has died – and Sir Walter hurries in asking Jonathan’s help in securing the blockade since 3 French ships have slipped through and Mr. Norrell isn’t present. They go to his house while Arabella speaks to Emma (who says she would rather be dead – and, again, every time she tries to tell what happened to her she tells odd, nonsensical stories instead). Stephen asks Arabella not to tell anyone about Emma’s condition – we get the impression Stephen is her only comfort. And Jonathan tracks the ships while Sir Walter desperately seeks answers about his wife – and whether her resurrection can be undone.

Norrell is a little put out that Jonathan was called rather than waiting for him – and also a little put out that Jonathan was able to perform the magic. They have their mini-debate about fairy magic vs respectable magic. Though Jonathan still speaks for the Raven King who founded English magic after living with the fairies – but Norrell has nothing but hatred and contempt for him.

Norrell’s sycophants also appear to be plotting against Jonathan.

Jonathan attempts to summon The Gentleman, but he remains hidden (and brings Stephen and makes him invisible as well – but Jonathan surprises him by overhearing some of what The Gentleman says). Arabella also reminds Jonathan when he cast a “show me my enemy” spell, he saw Norrell.

To the beach where Norrell works his magic and Sir Walter explains to Arabella how utterly terrible the Napoleonic wars are going. Norrell puts magical sea defences in place – but they are invisible and they have to take his word for it. Sir Walter would prefer something flashier – and Norrell’s sycophants note how well he is getting on with Jonathan.

And the next day Jonathan is called because it seems a ship has run aground on the invisible beacon. Oops. Norrell has a headache, leaving Jonathan. After brainstorming several possible solutions, Jonathan can’t use tide or wind because he knows absolutely nothing about either, or of sailing.

So instead he conjures an absolutely awesome and powerful and flashy and terrifying and dangerous (people run screaming out of its path) horses-of-sand-spell (which looks AMAZING, good CGI) and is pretty much the opposite of everything Norrell does. The horses right the ship

Norrell looks on, looking stunned. Sir Walter thinks they should send Jonathan to the Peninsula (Iberia) to fight Napolean. Norrell disapproves fiercely of, well just about everything. He forbids it

Back to the estate sale of magical books Arabella noticed – and Norrell is worried because now people WANT magical books he has competition – and there are books in the collection he wants and doesn’t want anyone else to have. His sycophants point out that Jonathan has every right to bid on the books himself – and don’t accept Norrell’s claim that Jonathan would surely acknowledge his right (even while they accept that the minister could ensure the books don’t fall into any hands but a magicians).

Norrell now decides he wants Jonathan to go to Portugal. Of course Jonathan will need to take books with him which perturbs Norrell that his precious books won’t be kept in a secure and clean library. Norrell is quite bitter and regrets ever coming to London even as Childermas notes how much Jonathan outmanoeuvred him.

The Pole house continues to fall apart as Emma becomes less rational and Sir Walter lashes out at Stephen as his home becomes unkempt due to lack of staff and his distraction.

At the book auction, Arabella arrives to try and bid for them – but Norrell vastly outbids her which greatly upsets her. And The Gentleman lurks behind her

This show is very very pretty. The imagery, the atmosphere, the often eeriness is really well done. I especially love The Gentleman – so very creepy and ethereal.

The pacing has improved…. Marginally. But it is still a slow show which could be frustrating. But this episode grew on me a lot more because Norrell and Strange are such amazing characters and their relationship has a lot of levels and complexities I love. As a story it’s slow, as a character development it’s excellent and I want to sit down and poke them both and all their differences and viewpoints.

Norrell and Strange have such excellently different approaches to magic and life that they make very interesting contrasts and foils – almost antagonists without either side being directly oppositional or objectionable just so very different. What makes it so powerful is that both sides have very valid points

Norrell has always been a wizard – or has been for a long time. He’s also an older man, more staid and… respectable. I think that underpins Norrell – as, for so long, being the only REAL magician he has ever heard of he has been frustrated by the charlatans. He’s very conscious of his own dignity and, even when it would have helped him, he was adamant that he wouldn’t perform for people’s entertainment, it was beneath him. This is an age where your good name and respectability means a good deal. Ultimately, Norrell does not want to be associated with riff-raff, he wants to be taken seriously he wants both himself and magic to be regarded with the utmost respect and propriety. This is really reflected in his magic as well – useful, but not too showy, restrained and careful – scrying and illusions (even grand ones like the blockade), carefully controlled, practical and as non-theatrical as possible. He doesn’t have any real JOY in his power – that would be unseemly and he’s experienced enough for it not to be novel. Far more important to him is the respect and adulation of those in power: and what risks that more? Fakes claiming to be magicians and bringing the profession into disrepute? Or another genuine talent who prevents Norrell from being the ONLY magician?

Contrast with Jonathan who only really cares about Arabella’s opinion, whose magic is almost self-taught, not educated and is flashy and theatrical and joyful and reckless and unrestrained – but probably more dangerous and foolhardy as well. In some ways he represents everything Norrell fears for the craft and his position, everything he does flies in the face of Norrell’s carefully crafted control.

And you can see as well why Norrell would resent or could grow to resent him: Jonathan – after all, Norrell has had years of study to EARN his magic… what did Jonathan do? Buy some spells (his spells) and read a fairy story? Especially since Jonathan’s flashy magic impresses the people he wants to gain respect from so quickly. But then take that urge for respectability and look at the epic and beautifully acted tragedy that Norrell has wrought on the Pooles – both a great shame for him to conceal, but also proof of how careful and controlled magic has to be! And proof of what happens when you use magic you don’t understand and doubly so when dealing with the fae – and Norrell makes it clear he knows all the darker side of faerie tales that Jonathan clearly doesn’t. If Norrell could do so much damage and risk so much, then how much more could the less educated, less careful Jonathan do?

This is what is really appealing to me – the levels in the characters and their interactions and how this will drive the story

Arabella is interesting seeming more driven and capable in some ways than her husband (and I do like her arch “Arabella is not a three year old.”) But I’m leery that she exists only to drive Jonathan and perhaps be a rudder while Emma exists to fall apart and generally be a consequences of Norrell’s actions. These are the only two women – so I want to see more in future episodes. Similarly, I’m glad that Stephen isn’t just a silent servant (like Sembene) but I want to see more of his storyline (and for it to involve more than worry for Lady Pole).