Welcome to The A.V. Club’s “Experts” reviews of HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is written from the perspective of someone who has read all three books in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and intended for an audience of viewers who have also read these books. While the main review will not actively spoil details from future books, there will be a spoiler-specific section at the end of the review, and the conversation in the comments will feature spoilers from all books in the series. For those who wish to avoid these spoilers, please visit our “Newbies” reviews.
“I don’t know why, but I need to go.”
Lyra Belacqua is being led by a force larger than herself. After the alethiometer helped her bring an aeronaut and an armored bear into the Gyptian forces marching north to Bolvangar, Lyra is beginning to trust the device, despite not knowing where its power comes from or where it could be leading her next. Her challenge is convincing others—John Faa and then Ma Costa, who is laser-focused on finding Billy—that she should stray from the set path on her own, because she instinctively feels that is the right path for her.
“The Lost Boy” is a story about Lyra’s discovery of a tragedy: Billy Costa, separated from his daemon at Bolvangar, a cold and lonely “ghost” dying in an abandoned fishing village. In the books, this was another character entirely, but the movie was the first to make this particular change, and it’s a dramatically effective one. The reveal of what the Gobblers are doing with the children they’re capturing is meaningful in its own right, but it lands harder when we’re able to see Billy’s mother and brother comforting him in the moments before his death. Ma Costa didn’t make the trip north in the books, but Billy’s death gives Anne-Marie Duff an opportunity to flesh out a character who has been more important to the show. While there were times when the character lacked dimension beyond her concern over Billy, the material with Lyra provided more depth, and the ability to give the Gyptians a clear, emotional launching pad into their final push to Bolvangar helps flesh out their piece of this narrative after being introduced as a more substantial presence in the pilot. Lyra’s trust in the alethiometer is important, but her “fetch quest” of sorts serves a purpose beyond her character or the exposition about Bolvangar, and that’s a productive development for the show as a whole.
However, “The Lost Boy” doesn’t only refer to Billy. As we had expected when a young man’s photo turned up in an earlier episode, Jack Thorne has made the decision to flesh out the story of Will Parry, son of John Parry/Stanis Grumman, by introducing him mid-way through the first season. It was really one of the only reasons to justify revealing the existence of “our” world so early—Lord Boreal is not unimportant, but he isn’t a character who could carry a whole piece of the narrative himself, and so we were always heading to the point where this became Will’s story. It’s a choice that once again destroys the “experience” of discovering Pullman’s story, albeit one that has the potential to create new experiences with equal weight if handled correctly.
The way Will Parry is introduced in the books is perhaps best compared to the beginning of Lost’s second season, where we are introduced to an entirely new character who has really been key to the story the whole time. It’s meant to be disorienting: we’re pushed to wonder how this is connected to the characters we’ve been spending time with, our unanswered questions about the cliffhanger from the previous season forced to share space with new questions about this revelation. Although Will Parry is on the cover of the copy of The Subtle Knife that I first read over a decade ago, I still spent that opening chapter in that productive space of anxiety over the unresolved cliffhanger and intrigue at this whole new story being introduced.
That’s not going to happen in the series. Part of the thrill of Will’s introduction was that we had to learn everything in a moment of crisis: there is a lot of backstory to Will’s life, but it all had to happen swiftly, raising questions without necessarily immediately answering them. But what Thorne has done is take that backstory and laid it out over the back half of the season, such that when we eventually get to the moments that open The Subtle Knife we will have all of the answers to those questions. Even just in “The Lost Boy,” we get a full accounting of his mother’s mental illness, perspective on his relationship with his father, the establishment of Col. Parry’s letters in a hidden compartment, and the looming threat of Boreal’s men searching for pivotal information on how Will’s father crossed into Lyra’s world. These are—without outright spoiling what happens—all of the pieces that Pullman used to disorient us, stripped of their mystery and presented as exposition to sell the moments to come.
So why do this? The answer, I think, comes from where Will’s story serves the most utility. “The Lost Boy” is primarily invested in thinking about how Lyra and Will’s respective journeys compare to one another, as established by narration from Serafina Pekkala’s daemon that’s basically like “Whoops, forgot to mention there’s this other kid who’s important too, we should see what he’s up to.” It’s deeply unsubtle, and the episode as a whole has a problem with using Kaisa as an exposition tool, but it does mean that Thorne’s script can start focusing on how the two children approach their situation differently.
Lyra has come to embrace her call to adventure: although the show has made this more of a transformation than a part of her existing character, Lyra is more curious about the world around her now, peppering Iorek for information and willing to let the alethiometer take her wherever it needs to. As we discussed in the comments last week, the choice seems to have been to downplay Lyra’s personality early on so that it can become a clear marker of growth: she becomes Lyra Silvertongue, as opposed to simply claiming the title, if that distinction makes sense.
Will, however, doesn’t believe in destiny. His mother talks about how he is all set to follow in his father’s footsteps—much as Lyra thinks about herself relative to her own parents—but Will can only see his immediate position, caring for an ill mother and facing bullying from his classmates. He has no reason to believe he lives in a world of heroes because he never knew his father, and has only known a life defined by his mother’s condition. Whereas Lyra has reason to trust the alethiometer, Will has every reason to distrust his mother’s claims, especially as her paranoia—while justified to us, who know someone is watching them—reaches a breaking point. Lyra might not know about the prophecy around her, but she is embracing the ramifications of it, because the idea of being part of a legacy frees her. By comparison, Will is effectively being told that he’s destined for something, but he refuses to embrace it, because the idea goes against what he’s learned about how to survive.
It’s a productive parallel that has a lot of potential to flesh out both characters. Whether it’s worth the “loss” of the opening to The Subtle Knife will remain unanswered until the end of the season, but “The Lost Boy” is the first time the show’s efforts to diversify the narrative felt like they were generating real thematic value. Whereas Boreal’s trips to our world felt like exposition and not much else, we’ve reached the point of accumulating actual characterization, and I can see why the legwork was deemed necessary when adapting the story in this way. Amir Wilson makes a solid impression as Will Parry, who isn’t meant to be as dynamic as Lyra at first blush, and therefore creates less expectation. Still, it’s comforting to feel like a core relationship of the series is off to a productive start, and nothing we see here raises alarm bells for where this connection can grow in the future.
The rest of the episode is about forms of connection, too—Farder Coram’s reunion with Serafina Pekkala provides an early insight into the bonds of love and grief, and of course the severing of Billy’s connection with Ratter points to the Gobblers’ desire to destroy connection as we know it. The choice to largely eschew other story elements—we only hear of Iofur and Asriel in Kaisa’s exposition, and Mrs. Coulter is nowhere to be found—means that the episode isn’t trying to do too much, perhaps realizing that following too many connections is difficult when we’re still in an expositional phase of the story. It also does mean that there’s a lot of that exposition being laid out in full, as opposed to discovered, which is still clunky but might be better than the show overextending itself. It’s still critical that this feels like Lyra’s journey, and if that means occasionally having to listen to Kaisa rattle off a roll call of characters and what they’re up to, that might just be a necessary evil.
When the Gyptian camp is first invaded by the raiding party, I was worried Thorne was just going to recreate the false cliffhanger from the second episode, but he smartly lets Lyra get carried fully to Bolvangar, giving us our first glimpse at what Billy and Roger would have gone through. It’s a reminder that although the show does start slowly, there’s a point at which the plot of this thing has a very natural sense of momentum, and reaching that stage has the show recapturing the energy of the books more readily. The choice to pull Will into the first season is still creating an arm’s length as I wait to see how the decision pans out, but getting closer to the climax has gotten the show into a groove, which is a positive sign if not an absolute one.
- Okay, look. I get that daemon CGI is expensive. But I have two very specific complaints about this episode. The first is that my copy of The Golden Compass has a cover image of Lyra with Pan as a mouse by her hood riding Iorek, and they did not recreate this shot nor even acknowledge where Pan was during the ride, and that was extremely rude. The second is that when Lyra and Iorek returned with Billy, Ma Costa was immediately like “Where’s Ratter?” as though she immediately knew he was missing, which seems insane to me given how many daemons are apparently playing a constant game of hide and seek. If you know you’re going to create a moment where the absence of a character’s daemon is going to be important, you need to do better work showing daemons as part of this world. Period.
- After a whole episode where Lee Scoresby got a major character reimagining (although with a version pulled from Pullman’s own novella, as we discussed in the comments), he’s a complete nonentity here: a couple of quick jokes, maybe, but you could imagine an older version of the character saying most of them, and he turns into a fairly generic source of comfort for Lyra by episode’s end.
- We got a fair bit more of Iorek in a sober state of mind this week, and I did admittedly have a few moments where I found the voice a little bit too un-bearlike, which is an insane thing to say given I don’t know what bears are supposed to sound like.
- As with my previous discussion of the series’ blindcasting of Lord Boreal, I am hopeful that the choice to give Will a mixed-race heritage might play some role in how he understands his identity moving forward, but I am not hopeful at this point.
- Is boxing a common school sport in Oxford, or did they just decide that it provided a more acceptable way to establish his toughness than the book’s backstory of having fought some kids to intimidate them?
- There’s a bit of dodgy CGI in Lyra’s ride on Iorek, but the scale of the piece and the backdrop sell the joy of the moment, even if I return to the objection about the absence of Pan in her hood.
- “You call me Lord Faa when you want something and John Faa when you don’t, you know?”—this was a cute bit of character building for Lyra as she becomes more confident.
- Ruta Gedmintas has big shoes to fill given that Eva Green sort of defines witchiness, but the design work ensures a very different approach to the witches, which helps to give her space to find a take on the character.
- I know this is ostensibly a PG show, but the neck snap on the Gyptian during the raid was embarrassing.
So at this point, the show’s gambit is that the loss of the conclusion of The Golden Compass and the opening of The Subtle Knife is made up for by the idea that Will and Lyra are likely going to be crossing into Cittàgazze simultaneously as the season concludes. It’s a different kind of climax, fitting with the show’s larger belief that clarity is more powerful than mystery. They don’t want you to be entirely unaware about where Lyra and Will are going: they want you to anticipate them meeting one another.
I’m not actively against this, although I’m curious if they still delay their meeting. Part of the Cittàgazze story is the idea that Lyra has been there for a while alone before Will stumbles onto her, and so my imagined ending of them literally crossing within sight of one another would work against that. But it seems like it would be too tempting to leave the season on the viewer thinking Lyra is about to step into Will’s world, when in reality they’re about to meet in another world entirely. It’s not the same effect the books were aiming for, but it might create a stronger sense of anticipation over what will be a wait for the second season (depending on when the BBC and HBO decide to air it, given it’s already been filmed).