It’s usually good news for a series when its second episode trumps the first, especially when its premiere was pretty spectacular on its own. For BBC’s new historical fantasy drama, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” the second installment of the seven-part series serves as a promise that the show is only getting better, and stranger, with each passing week. Sunday’s “How Is Lady Pole?” gave “Strange” fans a taste of mystery, intrigue, stunning visuals, and a whole lot of magic. All this wrapped up in a plot that’s just picking up steam – over the next five weeks, we are certainly in for a ride.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” is an enchanting tale of two bona fide magicians, tentatively learning to practice their craft in a 19th century England where magic has been “extinct” for centuries. Together, they weave together their contrasting personalities and approaches to magic to create wonder and tragedy in the world they’ve begun to take by storm.
This week’s episode picks up where the pilot left off, smack dab in the middle of Mr. Norrell’s eccentric office drowning in spellbooks, where he’s finally met fellow magician, Jonathan Strange. Norrell has just officially dedicated his next ten years to teaching wizard pupil Strange the “rewarding” craft of magic. The first interaction between the two men gives us a taste of their tumultuous dynamic. At the outset of their meeting, Jonathan Strange casts a spell on a mirror, to switch its reflection of a piece of paper with the real thing. Norrell asks how exactly Strange did it, to which he only replies, “I don’t know…it’s just like listening to music.” Norrell is concrete, Strange is as abstract as they come – yet, they realize that they must put their personality clashes aside if they want to learn to harness magic together. Dramatic and entertaining, if nothing else.
However, titular characters aside, the main premise of the episode revolves around the loaded ethical dilemma of the magical resurrection of Lady Pole in the previous episode. Upon bringing her back from the dead, Mr. Norrell was promised that she could live, but only “half her life.” Norrell eagerly resurrects the girl, interpreting the warning to suggest that she would only live to half her normal age. However, in the second episode, Lady Pole is clearly half-dead in her waking life – depressed, haunted by morbid nightmares even in her waking hours, and utterly cloaked in despair. Lady Pole’s state of madness and dejection is the first time viewers experience the moral perils of someone like Norrell practicing magic – finally, we start to wonder whether putting such supernatural powers in the hands of someone so arrogant could ever result in good.
Episode 2, aside from its compelling new plot points and character development, was impressive in its set and costume design. The story was haunting, and the visuals were stunning. All in all, it was a success, and if the rest of the series looks anything like it, “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” might just have struck some magic gold.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” airs Sunday nights on BBC America, 10 p.m. PST.