NOTE: While The A.V. Club’s coverage of His Dark Materials looked at the first season from both Expert and Newbie perspectives, we’ve moved to one review for the show’s second season. Be forewarned that there may be light spoilers for the books toward the end of the review and the potential for significant spoilers in the comments.
In the world of professional wrestling, each storyline is building toward a final showdown where two unstoppable forces meet in the ring to settle their differences. This is similar to all forms of media, of course, but there’s one challenge: Whereas most fictional narratives are able to build anticipation by keeping those forces naturally separated from one another to build anticipation, the conceit of professional wrestling is that it is a sport, and every wrestler is traveling from city-to-city and sharing locker rooms. It is only natural that they will come into contact before they eventually meet in the ring, and so wrestling has created conceits—live in-ring promos, diegetic interview programs hosted by wrestlers, contract signings—where combatants face one another without giving audiences the showdown they’re anticipating.
No, you haven’t accidentally stumbled into the wrong review of His Dark Materials, and I promise I won’t go down a rabbit hole about how limited contracts for stars like Brock Lesnar disrupted these types of narrative development (although those in this Venn diagram are welcome to discuss further in the comments). But I was reminded of these forms of narrative development when it became clear that “Theft” was contriving a situation where Lee Scoresby and Marisa Coulter would find themselves in the same town as they each searched for Lyra. It’s not as though their natural narratives led them to this point: Coulter’s zeppelin stops there unexpectedly, while a mysterious figure magically shifts the winds so that Lee makes a stop at the Samirsky Hotel looking for information. Of all the northern towns in all of this universe, they both happened to land in this one, and it delivers a confrontation that’s exciting—because the characters have never interacted before, and they’re two major characters in the show—but also a tease, knowing they will surely meet again along their journey.
This “contract signing”—here’s a wrestling example from a few weeks ago, if you’re curious—is meant to be revealing about both characters, and it certainly clarifies Coulter’s position in the story after her assertion of independence from the new Cardinal and the Magisterium last week. We’re meant to be skeptical about Coulter’s motives for Lyra after knowing what she willingly did to other children in the search of answers about dust, but we know that she loves her daughter, and the show has been doing more work than the books in clarifying that Coulter is a split-decision away from heroism when push comes to shove through a collection of small shifts in how the character’s point-of-view is articulated. And so while we don’t want Coulter to be the one to find Lyra, the story doesn’t want us to see her as an absolute villain, and her confrontation with Lee is about softening her edges: she is still willing to enact pain to get what she wants, but the conversation leans into the pain she suffered at the hands of her own parents, and her decision to set Lee free in the interest of knowing there’s someone out there looking for Lyra who cares about her is the clearest signal yet that her love for her daughter is more powerful than whatever else drives her.
I’ve long accepted that the show is committed to amplifying the duality of Coulter: They want to let Ruth Wilson loose to torture and manipulate, but they don’t want her to be a straight villain, and so they’re also heightening her love with Lyra. I would argue that a subtler approach to the character might have been more interesting, but Wilson plays both sides well, and I understand that the choice to adapt the book as a four-quadrant, all ages series may have dictated this choice. And I will say that I really appreciate the moment where, after Hester shared an intimate moment comforting Lee after the two characters had gone through the emotional wringer, the Golden Monkey offered its paw to Coulter in the closest thing they have to intimacy. While the expanded daemon budget has mostly been helpful for just making the daemons a visualized part of this world—the spider on the barkeep’s arm, for example—here we see one of the strongest scenes yet for the connection between human and daemon, and a nice bit of character development in the process. Although Coulter’s actual plot is unchanged by this detour to stumble into Lee—she’s still looking for Lyra, and still represents a threat—I ultimately liked what came out of it for her character.
I wish I could say the same about Lee. As I noted in the premiere, the motivation behind his quest to find Lyra has been pretty paper thin, and lacks the pathos of the book given that we’re seeing a much younger version of Lee, rather than a grizzled veteran foregoing retirement to protect a young charge. After a clunkily-choreographed encounter with a religious zealot at the observatory where Lee fires in self-defense and kills a man, his arrest pushes him to self-reflection, and when Coulter interrogates him he starts digging deep into his past. And frankly, I just don’t find the idea that Lee’s driven by “Daddy Issues” interesting or really that convincing. I realize that it pushes the surrogate father dynamic with Lyra, but Lyra already has actual complex relationships with parents, and I don’t think a rote “my father beat me up when I was little” does much to make Lee’s journey more interesting. It’s another piece of evidence that while Lin Manuel-Miranda’s casting may have been the clearest signal the show’s version of Lee was headed in a different direction, the real issues have rested on simply not calculating how to translate the Once Upon A Time In The North version of Lee into the narrative fabric of the main books.
The rest of “Theft” sticks largely to the books with that main narrative, as Lyra returns to Will’s Oxford to discover that news of her and Will’s adventures are starting to spread: not only is there a mysterious figure—maybe a police officer, maybe not—at Mary Malone’s office looking to ask Lyra some questions, but she escapes his grasp only to fall into the hands of Lord Boreal, who takes advantage of her panic to steal the alethiometer. It’s a sequence of events that depends on the fact that Lyra is still a kid, in a world that isn’t her own, and her stumbles place her and Will in more danger. And while Lyra has been alone before, she’s always been in a world where she had protectors, and the only person from her world who knows where she is is the same man who’s blackmailing her with the alethiometer in hopes they will secure him what he really wants: the knife in the possession of the shadowy figure inside the tower in Cittàgazze. And while I deeply miss the literary device of Latrom being revealed as Boreal to the audience and Lyra at the same time (which, like the Arstan Whitebeard reveal in Game Of Thrones, may just have never been feasible in a visual medium), I do appreciate how much the energy of Will and Lyra’s situation changes: Ariyon Barake does a great job of flipping the switch when he reveals his identity, referring to Will and Lyra by their names and shoving them headlong into a new conflict.
Mary spends the episode trying to tap into whatever Lyra was able to pull out of “The Cave,” and when she consults the I-Ching she discovers that the universe will surrender “to the mind that is still.” And the truth is that this is difficult in this story: there’s a lot going on, and finding the focus necessary to tap into the greater truths of the universe isn’t going to come easily. The principle of “Theft,” ultimately, is His Dark Materials resting for a moment: Coulter and Lee run into each other on a stopover on their respective journeys, and Will and Lyra’s movie date does feel like a breath of sorts, lest we forget that there’s nothing to these characters’ lives between tough scrapes and close escapes. I don’t think the breath accomplished much for Lee, unfortunately, but it mostly worked for the other characters, and the momentum generated feels substantial enough to warrant optimism regarding the rest of the season.
- We got a bit more clarity in terms of what happened with the bombing of the witches last week, although all they really confirmed was that some witches did die: we still don’t really know why they couldn’t just smoke monster away, so I still think that was some shoddy storytelling.
- While the new budget meant that we got a great aerial view of the landscape around the Saminsky Hotel, the show has largely not chosen to explore the frisson among the population of Lyra’s world at how Asriel opening a door to other universes created an aftershock of climate change. We get a bit of exposition from Iorek—there’s not enough ice or seals for his kind of survive—when Serafina’s daemon visits him to learn more of Lyra’s fate that night, but that’s one piece of the puzzle the show is not doing much to articulate.
- That said, I will say that there is a fundamental limit to the number of scenes of other characters talking about Lyra’s prophecy that I can take in a given season. It really doesn’t add much to anything, and just seems like exposition for the sake of keeping the audience primed to the concept. Happy to see Iorek, wish that drop-in felt more meaningful.
- Will takes a really long time to find Lyra’s note, suggesting that he didn’t find time to binge watch Arrested Development before the whole running away from home thing.
- I don’t know why a movie theater was showing Paddington unless this is a period piece, but I can only applaud their choice, and also admonish Will and Lyra for some truly terrible movie theater etiquette. Just because I haven’t been to a movie theater in nine months doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aghast at the blatant talking and phone use during the movie. The disrespect to those other patrons and to Padidngton himself is unconscionable.
- Just as a reminder, I know that the U.K. is a full eight days ahead, so please try to avoid alluding to or outright discussing events from future episodes if you’re watching on that schedule. This is as much for me as it is for everyone else, just to be clear.
Through The Amber Spyglass (More spoilery discussion of the books)
Everything about Lee as a surrogate father does track if they’re going to be expanding his story with John Parry—it’s already significant, of course, but the slightly expanded role for Lee as they try to build out the different narratives and balance the story differently will put more emphasis there, and the idea that you have Will’s actual father and Lyra’s father figure there does sort of track. I just wish it was more interesting to Lee as a character, instead of feeling manufactured to serve Lyra’s story.
The other book-reader thing that struck me here was how differently Will’s narrative plays out when it isn’t being discovered by Lyra and the reader at the same time. When you’re introduced to Will’s story at the start of the second book, it pushes us to think about Will mostly as a lens into Lyra’s own story, thinking about what his experience adds to her own and to the narrative as a whole. Here, however, we’ve experience Will’s narrative concurrently with that, and so as the story shifts into his quests—the knife, finding his father—I will be interested to see how audiences respond to what in the books was an integration of Will into a larger narrative, and here is theoretically the payoff to the time spent on Will in the first season. His acquisition of the knife is going to be a really interesting pivot point between those two audience perspectives.