Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: All the Mirrors of the World   Show Only 
June 7, 2015 11:58 PM - Season 1, Episode 4 - Subscribe

Returned from war, Jonathan Strange joins Mr Norrell to try to cure England's mad king, George III, but is frustrated at Norrell's refusal to discuss the magic and legends of old times. Meanwhile, unbeknown to the magicians, the Gentleman embarks on a scheme to capture Arabella.

This post is for those of a practical nature, who find the theoretical study of magic to be dull and dreary, or who have perhaps lost their books in an ill-timed artillery attack.
posted by infinitewindow (9 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I feel oh so alone in these threads.
posted by coriolisdave at 3:09 PM on June 8, 2015

I really liked the part with the king and the faerie gentleman, also the king and Stephen. Poor Stephen. I read the book when it first came out and I don't remember much. I hope he comes out ok. I doubt Lady Pole will.
posted by irisclara at 6:58 PM on June 8, 2015

I feel oh so alone in these threads.

At least someone is seeing my attempts at period show-only levity in the "more inside" part.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:03 PM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

I thought that was some great levity. (Though of an inferior nature to modern English levity, sir.) My thoughts on this episode -

- Quite my favourite of the series so far - I loved the feel of it up to this point but this episode was the first that really engaged me
- It functions very nicely as the middle of the series; lots of change pointing the way towards the remainder
- However I wish we'd seen more of the road behind the mirrors - presumably we will over the coming weeks?
- We already knew that Eddie Marsan is great but it strikes me we'll be seeing a lot more of Bertie Carvel in the future
posted by thoughtless at 6:56 AM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Aww, thanks for the ego boost!

I fear that the road behind the mirrors fell victim to BBC-budget-itis, that malady which afflicted classic Dr. Who and other SFF BBC programs. Remember Neverwhere's Beast of London? It was a sound effect and a skip-printed, poorly lit shot of a confused cow.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:31 AM on June 10, 2015

"... lots of change pointing the way towards the remainder"

Yeah, that's what I liked most about this episode.

What I don't like -- what I hate and continue to hate -- is the time compression. They film and edit everything in such a way that you could think that only a few days are covered, but it's actually weeks and months. And this is a big problem because what we're seeing, then, is a sequence of only the most important events over the course of these long periods. So, the show continues to feel to me like I'm watching the Cliff Notes version of this story. I hate that aspect of it. Hate it. It makes me really hungry to see these events and characters given the space that they so clearly deserve.

I'm left feeling dissatisfied each episode, but I continue to watch because some of the characters and numerous aspects of the story are pretty interesting. And some of the acting is top-notch.

I really enjoyed the final scene between Strange and Norrell. I really liked the subtleties of Norrell making all those compromises and how that, and what he said, revealed how truly lonely he is for a peer. And I loved how Strange explicitly acknowledged this -- that was a really good scene.

And then immediately we get a scene where Strange tells Arabella that instead of pursuing his own studies in the old, intuitive magic that he insisted to Norrell was just the necessary path he needed to walk, he'd decided to just become a theoretical magician. I mean, okay, we can fill in the blanks -- Arabella's impassioned argument and his love for her. It makes sense that he'd turn aside from that one thing that means so much to him because of his love for her -- after all, he became a magician as a means of securing her marriage. But we really oughtn't have to fanwank this change of heart on his part that occurs literally between two adjacent scenes that are actually fairly distant in time. In the show, as filmed, it's discordant, it's weird. We need these connecting details.

Put differently, good characterization is very much not being shown the signposts, the moments that crystalize a choice or a way an character understands the world, in a series and call that character development. Rather, it's showing us all the little steps along the way that make those moments inevitable. We need to see the characters grow and change in small ways, in daily life, so that their big decisions that represent those changes feel organic. We're missing almost all of the little things in this show -- it's very heavily plot-driven. Often, that means that the characterization is pretty non-existent. That's not really the case with this show because these characters very much do make sense -- we can see how they are very much like real people and we can infer what is driving them and complicating them, where they came from and the things they want. So the characters are very well-conceived. I can only imagine that Susanna Clarke either does fill in all thee details in the books, or she just has a strong conception of character and she, like the show, gets by on that. Either way, it only works because the characters have a lot of depth as conceived and we can see the results of that in the writing. But we're not actually being given much, the show is expecting us to do most of the work. We're expected to provide all the connecting elements of both plot and character. It's really good when we imagine this work in our heads, with everything filled-in. But that's not really good enough for me, it frustrates me.

One of the things I find most interesting and watchable about the story is that, as far as I can tell, Norrell is totally correct in his fears and warnings and Strange is recklessly invoking things and forces that he doesn't understand and are likely to hurt others. Norrell understands this better than anyone, having made this mistake himself in his desperate need to demonstrate his credibility in resurrecting Lady Pole.

And yet ... we're quite sympathetic to Strange, we're supposed to be, and it's actually not clear at all whether somehow Strange will be the hero even though he's doing the very sorts of things that invoked the involvement of the Gentleman. Norrell could be completely right, and yet still be wrong.

I mean, I hope that's what the show is doing (and what the book was doing.) Just playing off the dumb stereotype of the intuitive genius who's held back by rigid, book learnin' small-minded academics is really fucking annoying -- I wanted to burn Good Will Hunting in a fire. I mean, I hate this trope because that's me. I learned that faculty at the small, intense and exclusive liberal arts college I attended referred to me as "the crazed genius" which, frankly, was the last thing I needed to hear about myself. It's a self-indulgent mindset and this dumb fantasy about "crazed geniuses" being held back by more disciplined folk is toxic. Intuitive genius is pretty cool, and it can do some amazing things, but most of the valuable stuff in the world comes more from hard work -- and hard, disciplined work -- from people who are usually just as smart, if not smarter in their own way. I was involved and lived with a woman for a while who was my intellectual opposite -- pretty much a Norrell to my Strange. She's an astronomer. She's been very successful, was on national television last year, interviewed about ALMA. That's what she's done. What have I done? Jack shit.

So I hate the idea that Strange really is the hero because he's intuitive and not so beholden to the allure of being "modern" and as contrasted to Norrell's pettiness. That's a well-trod and fundamentally stupid story.

But I do very much like the idea that they're both right and wrong in different ways; and that both of them, in their strengths and weaknesses, and their temperaments, make decisions that have important ethical consequences for themselves and, particularly, for other people. It's important and interesting that Norrell went against his instincts and intellectual training to invoke the Gentleman -- and that he did so because of his pride and vanity. That's his weakness, not his intellectual stance. Meanwhile, Strange actually isn't very vain or prideful. He can be -- his walking through the mirror was provoked by a challenge to his pride. But it's more about a kind of challenge to himself, on his own terms -- he was pricked not in that it really mattered to him that the other guy didn't believe him to be himself, and able to do magic; rather, he was pricked in that he'd been wanting to test his abilities to do new things, to cross the mirror, and this goading pushed him into surmounting that challenge for his own reasons. And in that sense, he really is more than a little prideful. He's sort of infatuated with his own ability. That's his weakness.

So I find the possibility that they'll each make good and bad decisions on the basis of their differing intellectual abilities and personalities pretty interesting.

The tragedy, really, is that they complement each other. If they could see how to not obstruct each other in what each does best, but rather to allow them to complement each other for shared goals, then at least with regard to their intellectual and intuitive abilities with magic, they'd be able to accomplish a great deal. On the other hand, together in this way they might end up reinforcing their similar vices of arrogance.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:13 PM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

The time compression is a common failing of TV. Because the budgets are so small, they can't indicate time passing by dressing Hanover-Square in snow or green leaves, or do other budget-heavy things like that. Showing time passing at all falls victim to the need for characterization and more intricate plotting, and hey! most viewers don't miss it. But most viewers of a show that does that don't miss it because the show, in neglecting the passing of time, drives away more attentive viewers.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:45 PM on June 10, 2015

"The time compression is a common failing of TV."

Adaptations, mostly, though. Don't you think?

If you're writing something original, then you end up isolating shorter periods of time into individual episodes, and the sense of time passing is inherent, as well as this allowing sets to be dressed differently and such, establishing each episode as some specific period of time within the whole narrative.

And you're able to do this because you write the important plot and character points to occur partly spread out over all the episodes, and partly in a more coherent way in this smaller unit of time in an individual episode.

But with an adaptation like this, they are forced to fit numerous events that don't really work as fit together within a shorter period of time into a single episode. When you write it originally, you find ways to avoid this. When you do an adaptation, you end up either needing all the space you can get -- like GoT and quite a few seasons -- or you really pare down the story to something that is made coherent in only ten episodes or whatever. Here they're trying to fit the whole book into seven episodes and the book spans a lot of time and events.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:02 PM on June 10, 2015

Yes, I left out the word adaptations, oops!

Note that the original-to-TV, small-scale Downton Abbey gets by with a once-a-season "June 1921" title and lets the viewer's knowledge of history do the rest (in my limited experience).
posted by infinitewindow at 8:10 PM on June 10, 2015

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