ANDREW GARVEY looks at the sixth episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell titled The Black Tower
Having escaped from prison, where he was awaiting punishment for his fracas in the street and breaking into Norrell’s house and well aware of the widespread whispering that he killed his wife, our grief-stricken hero Jonathan Strange is a fugitive abroad.
Clearly not enjoying his stolen freedom, despite the Venetian sunshine, he’s starting to look like Edgar Allan Poe on a particularly destructive, unhinged bender and is actively trying to send himself bonkers.
Desperate to “secure myself a Fairy servant” and yelling in the street that he must have stronger henbane (a flower which at least one influential nineteenth century ‘mad doctor’ believed had the stench of madness) and that he’s magician to the British army is hardly the best way to remain hidden.
Back home, and saddened (does he have any other emotion?) by the publication of his former friend and pupil’s book, and what it might do to his precious English magic, Mr Norrell uses his powers to disappear each copy, even from the pockets of eager buyers like our two bumbling friends from ‘Nothinghamshire’.
In Venice, Strange (perhaps he thinks he’s hiding in plain sight) finds himself chatting about magic to a pair of English travellers, a father (British TV veteran Clive Mantle in towering, suspiciously beady-eyed form) and his disgraced daughter who fled to the continent with Lord Byron in one of those sub-plots it’d be nice to see a little of rather than just have it referenced in a throwaway line.
In the English countryside, aspiring ‘mad doctors’ Segundas and Honeyfoot have a new patient – raving magical tramp, Vinculus. He offers Stephen (seemingly resident there to keep an eye on the troublesome Lady Pole) a way to free himself from the increasingly tight clutches of the Gentleman.
Childermass, who seems to get more menacingly Northern by the week (in his best moment of the episode he growls “if you know summat, spit it out” at the imprisoned Christopher Drawlight, himself making a welcome return to the story) has a plan to find out what Strange is up to and brings his employer Norrell some valuable information about the prophecy of the Raven King.
Speaking of Childermass, he shows incredible weekly restraint in not grabbing Norrell’s sneering hanger-on / biographer Lascelles (the brilliantly sneering, snobbish John Heffernan) by the ears and headbutting him into the middle of next week. Their mutual sniping has provided some great exchanges in the last couple of weeks.
Finally succeeding in summoning a Fairy, Strange has his first real encounter with the Gentleman. Offering an alliance to the always dapper villain, the grottier-by-the-minute Strange would be an odd partner for him even if said Fairy wasn’t the one to blame for Strange’s torment.
By his second meeting with the Gentleman, Strange is starting to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the darker side of magic and once more steps into that other Kingdom where he finds more of the truth and faces the Gentleman on his own territory.
Almost from the beginning of their association, the series has surely been leading to a showdown between Strange and his former tutor but that issue is continually delayed and sidestepped. If the Gentleman weren’t such a brilliant antagonist, and the wider story so richly detailed and tightly plotted, that would be annoying. Thankfully, we’re clearly heading that way, we’re just taking the picturesque route.
With a surprising revealing of the true nature of the Book of the Raven King and Strange’s belated discovery of just how dangerous and vicious Fairy magic can be, Norrell prediction of impending catastrophe and some (mostly) top quality CGI, there’s barely a wasted moment in the darkest installment so far and a fantastic penultimate episode.
Waiting a whole week for the story’s conclusion and, of course, that final Strange-Norrell confrontation seems far, far too long.