TV Review: Madness Reigns on ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ in “The Black Tower”

Marc Warren and Bertie Carvel

The Gentleman (Marc Warren) watches Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) at work. Photo: JSMN Ltd, Matt Squire / BBC America.

Following “The Black Tower,” there’s only one more episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a BBC series that depicts a Napoleonic Europe beset by magic. The penultimate installment is a jarring descent into madness. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), the older magician, is frustrated that he can’t locate Strange (Bertie Carvel), his former apprentice. He reluctantly pulls Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) out of jail to handle the search.

Strange is hiding in Venice, trying to “catch” madness, a mental state that enables one to see fairies. He meets the lovely Flora (Lucinda Dryzek), from whom he learns about an old lady that lives with cats and eats dead rodents. Yes, she’s mad. I would have preferred a less stomach-turning method for demonstrating his obsession with getting Arabella (Charlotte Riley) back. Strange succeeds and meets the Gentleman, a fairy king (Marc Warren) with a penchant for deals. His happiness fades upon realizing that Belle is alive, turning quickly to rage when he discovers the Gentleman’s involvement with Lady Pole’s (Alice Englert) resurrection.

Both Bertie Carvel and Marc Warren deserve praise for the way they play the long overdue confrontation in Strange’s rooms and the fairy kingdom of Lost-Hope. When they cast aside their measured politeness, the visible tension in their stances and faces almost makes you believe that invisible waves of magic are radiating from them. The Gentleman’s antagonism drips through his conversation with the Pole family’s butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare). It’s beautifully shot with strong light and shadow as the fairy king stands behind Stephen, who tries to dine with the oblivious Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer).

“The Black Tower” is certainly the most entertaining and exhilarating chapter thus far. Developing plot threads are starting to converge, tied to the prophecy of the Raven King, another longtime adversary of the Gentleman. That story, as told by the street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), has hinted at disaster for Norrell and Strange.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell also addresses with maximum damage the question of John Segundus, an aspiring (but not practicing) magician: “Why is there no more magic done in England?” Strange and Norrell predict correctly that a revival of magic would bring about factions. It threatens to leave devastation in its wake, as shown by the Gentleman’s conjuring of a pillar of darkness around Strange.

Norrell is convinced that Strange’s “mad magic” can only lead to “catastrophe.” He’s equally at fault for employing the very dark magic that he regarded as disreputable in the first place. In addition, he succeeded at stirring the ire of Strange, culminating in a threat that the younger magician sends through the mirrors as a horde of ravens. Fluttering and pecking sounds create an eerie atmosphere before the ravens break Norrell’s mirrors, heightened by Eddie Marsan’s looks of perplexity and horror. Will the rift between Norrell and Strange continue or will they put aside their differences to take down the Gentleman together? Catch the finale on BBC America July 25 at 10 p.m. ET.

Article first published as ‘TV Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ – “The Black Tower”‘ on Blogcritics.org.

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