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After elevating its storytelling, His Dark Materials has a bit of a letdown in the season's penultimate hour

Illustration for article titled After elevating its storytelling, iHis Dark Materials/i has a bit of a letdown in the seasons penultimate hour
Photo: HBO
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The last two episodes of His Dark Materials have been the strongest thus far because they have isolated story components, narrowing the scope of the narrative to the show’s strongest characters and hurtling forward in their respective journeys with a fair deal of momentum. We spent minimal time on the Magisterium and the Witches at different points across the two episodes, which are two storylines that the show has never entirely gotten a handle on. And, as you read over the past two weeks, I can’t pretend that I missed them when they were gone.

And so it’s a bit deflating to settle in for “Malice” and find that it’s operating much as penultimate episodes of serialized dramas often do, converging the various storylines in anticipation for a rollicking climax. The truth is that while His Dark Materials contains many of the component parts of such an action-packed finale, that is not the show’s strength, as these past two episodes have demonstrated. And so while there is nothing in this episode that betrays the show’s improvements in its second season, it’s still not hard to feel like the show is moving further away from what it does best when it ramps up all the pieces of its story to build suspense for whatever is still to come next week.

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The episode’s opening scene is foreboding in this sense, as it returns the witches to their place as the story’s expositional crutch. Having traveled into Cittàgazze two episodes previous, we land on the Witches plotting their next move before it is presented to them in the sky: angels, flying overhead. We get some clunky details about how they haven’t made themselves visible in thousands of years, and before you know it Ruta Skadi is flying off to join them at Asriel’s side—because she instinctively knows they’re traveling to join Asriel’s war against the Magisterium—while Serafina and her traveling companions are off to try to find Lyra and Will. The way the witches are positioned relative to the show’s narrative has just never made sense: they have too much agency and yet simultaneously too little, all-knowing forces that register as minor parties once we actually spend any time with them. They’re useful but ultimately uncompelling, and the show needed to square that circle sometime this season if it was supposed to be thrilling to see Lyra and Serafina meet face-to-face in the same way it seemed significant that Coulter interacted with Lee and Mary in previous episodes this season.

Illustration for article titled After elevating its storytelling, iHis Dark Materials/i has a bit of a letdown in the seasons penultimate hour
Photo: HBO

To be clear, Serafina’s role in Lyra’s story mostly continues the positive development of her relationship with Will, and with the task at hand. The episode narrows in on the idea of trust, and how Serafina’s desire to protect Lyra by hiding her away complicates her desire to help Will on his quest, which by all accounts does not involve any hiding given that the father he’s searching for is on his way to inform the bearer of the Subtle Knife of the task ahead of them. Lyra trusts the witches implicitly, but Will doesn’t, and so there’s tension around the transitive properties that are necessary for them to chart a path forward. The alethiometer is marching them toward an encounter with Jopari up the mountain, and the presence of Serafina is both a protection—first from the kids in Cittàgazze, then from the magical infection of Will’s wound—and a threat to whatever path is ahead. But whereas there’s a version of this story where we’re equally invested in Serafina in the witches and their place in this, the show struggled to reconcile that, making this an exercise of thematic rumination that delays the inevitable climax for the finale.

The one story that feels like it reaches more of a climax here is Marisa Coulter’s, as she convinces Boreal to waltz into the city with only her resolve as protection from the specters. Last week, the show worked to reframe Coulter’s story as one of the sacrifices she made in order to succeed in a sexist world, and so being able to see her “taming” the specters—this happens off-page in the books—is a crowning achievement of her ability to destroy her own humanity in the search for power. She tells Boreal that the specters simply want to feed on the part of humans that is alive, and so all she needed to do was “shut that off,” which I’m reading as a story about the price of assimilation for marginalized individuals like herself. It’s horrifying to think that Marisa would ever give up her humanity, especially in order to command a group of specters to travel into the jungle to attack those traveling with her daughter, but she has spent her entire life suppressing herself at the behest of the men in charge around her, and so this is old hat by this point. She’s not repressing her humanity to prove something to them: she’s doing it to defeat them, although at the risk of losing her humanity entirely in the end. It’s satisfying to see her reject Boreal’s claim that they are “equals” as she poisons him, but it’s also a reminder that while there is righteous rage in her actions, the directionality is chaotic, and presents a grave danger to Lyra and anyone in her orbit. The image of her “conducting” the Specters is chilling, and Ruth Wilson again whispers and bites her way through another strong performance that keeps the momentum going in her side of the story.

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Illustration for article titled After elevating its storytelling, iHis Dark Materials/i has a bit of a letdown in the seasons penultimate hour
Photo: HBO

One of the challenges of “Malice” is that stories seem to be moving at different paces: for example, it’s jarring to go from the horror movie urgency of the kids storming Lyra and Will’s abode trying to kill them to the peaceful Mary Malone conferring with the I Ching and running into the same children just looking for an adult to hug them. The action movie urgency of Lee and Jopari’s balloon trip being interrupted by the Magisterium airships brings the episode to an uncertain climax as the balloon hurtles to the ground, but we never return to check on Mary and the kids to see how the ramping up of other stories—the specters attacking one of the witches, Coulter’s assassination of Boreal—is playing out there. When the episode ends, it feels abrupt: as much as I appreciate a show that doesn’t arbitrarily extend episodes to 58 minutes just because it’s possible, this did feel like it was maybe missing a scene for Mary to show us a bit more about what exactly is protecting her from the specters—those sure looked like angels’ wings—and what she decided to do with the kids as they pulled at her heart strings and reminded her of her nieces.

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In part for this reason, the episode does feel unfinished, making it hard to gauge its effectiveness until we see the second half (which, as always, I am aware that those of you reading this from the U.K. have already seen). The show doesn’t find as much value in bringing all of the stories into Cittàgazze as it might have, given that the Witches never really registered, and the Magisterium’s interference is mostly just more tiptoeing around the religious allegory that surrounds Lyra’s “other name” and the role she’s set to play in a larger conflict. The show has set up Will and his father’s reunion as a parallel to Lyra’s reunion with Asriel in the first season, but I don’t know if Will’s visions of his father and the path ahead have really added much to make this delay of that reunion register as momentum of any kind. Everything in “Malice” mostly stays the course of the season, but the “moving pieces into place” function of the episode reminds us that not all of those pieces are equal, and this makes an episode privileging journey over destination feel like a bit of a letdown after two strong outings.

Stray observations

  • A reminder as always that although I know these reviews originated as being for book readers, I am consciously playing a little dumb with some things that I do understand better, so if you read something and said “Myles, you know what that meant” I probably did.
  • Andrew Scott captures the “man somewhat broken by his quest for enlightenment and his inability to return to his family” vibe of Jopari/John Parry, but I appreciate that he’s still got some humor, and so his reveal of the matches was a nice bit of levity in a set of scenes that was mostly “Lee’s concern vs. Jopari’s crypticism.”
  • This is explicitly a coming of age story, so I appreciate that they took the time to let Lyra and Will have a conversation about how growing up has shaped their understanding of the world, as in Will’s story about imagining a world with his father as a kid but losing glimpse of it as he aged. A nice little scene that I sort of wish had been the end of the story as opposed to “Bad Smoke Monster vs. Good Smoke Monster who for some reason doesn’t turn into a smoke monster to battle the other Smoke Monster.”
  • Whenever Pan appears in a form other than Red Panda Pan, all the other characters should be asking “Where is Red Panda Pan?”
  • Another one of those episodes where getting more daemons really makes all the difference: something as big as the snake choking alongside Boreal or as small as the Cardinal’s daemon answering for him as Fra Pavel struggles to spit out what he’s learned about Lyra adds a lot to this world and those scenes. We’ve talked about what changed between seasons, and it is really the “x factor” that’s providing a baseline improvement on the show’s worldbuilding that, unfortunately, did little to help with the witches.
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Through The Amber Spyglass (Possible Spoilers for the Entire Series)

The most significant change we see here is that Mary is spending time in Cittàgazze instead of just passing through to her next destination. I like the choice, insofar as it allows her a bit more agency over the next stage of her journey, but I’m curious how they intend to pivot her out of that situation. There’s still this part of me that’s like “What if they invent something for Mary out of whole cloth instead of actually depicting the world she’s meant to occupy?” I try to push it out of my head, but it’s hard not to see that as the biggest challenge of any adaptation of this story.

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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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