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His Dark Materials brings two reveals forward, but takes two steps back in the process (experts)

Photo: HBO
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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.

When I wrote my review of the first episode of His Dark Materials, I hadn’t watched the additional screeners that HBO had made available. And so I wrote in that review—which generated some really thoughtful discussion, so thanks to everyone who took the time to comment—that this story didn’t lend itself to being the next Game Of Thrones, because the first book limits the story to a single quest narrative before subsequent books begin (slowly) looking at the bigger picture.

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And then, right after I finished writing that review, I put on “The Idea Of North” and watched as Jack Thorne blew open the entire structure of the story by revealing a door to another world that looks a whole lot like our own.

As noted above, these reviews are meant to be friendly to—if not intended for—non-readers, and therefore I will wait until the spoiler section under the stray observations to discuss more directly. But on a basic level, a reveal that was once experienced by the reader and Lyra at precisely the same time has become a simple fact of the series only two episodes in. It’s treated as a significant moment, with a booming score from Lorne Balfe, but it’s still a moment that’s happening to a character we barely know (Lord Boreal) and tied to plot developments that thus far carry little meaning. I find it hard to believe an average viewer who watched the first episode really cared that much about the frozen head that Asriel presented to the scholars, and so to see Boreal’s detective routine become so crucial here is a bit baffling even if I understand the utility of his “crossings” to the big picture. And, on some level, it’s the show reaching for the kind of “wow” moment the premiere was missing, and which could drive audience interest in the possibilities of this fantasy world that now has a convenient window to our own.

But I must lament another moment where Lyra’s perspective is being decentered, both in terms of the balance of story within the episode itself and in terms of a future moment that will now be less impactful. It’s something that the show seems to be really inconsistent with. Boreal’s crossing means that a future moment will carry less meaning because the audience knows too much, but in “The Idea Of North” there’s a moment that’s the precise opposite. When Lyra sees the golden monkey in Coulter’s office, far from its human, she knows—as we do—that such power is unnatural. But the episode has done nothing to inform an average viewer of this, and so Lyra’s stunned reaction makes no sense to a non-reader until she explains it, and any effect the “reveal” of the monkey should have had is lost in the process.

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As much as it’s important to be careful about delivering too much exposition in a show like this, the script’s instincts on when exposition is necessary and when it’s not seem wonky at this early stage. While we technically need to wait and see how the decision to reveal Boreal’s straddling of two worlds will impact future story developments, my immediate feeling was that Thorne chose to prioritize a more palatable way to tell the story over the most evocative one. However, in the context of an ongoing television series where there’s concern about viewers bailing out of disinterest, I understand the logic used to make this decision. Anecdotally, I’m more likely to commit to finishing a book that I’ve purchased—or borrowed—than I am a TV show, especially in an era of Peak TV where there are so many other options a click away. And so maybe they had to make a gesture to the fact there’s a bigger story happening here that’s more akin to a standard complex television series, but the fact that it comes at the expense of what I imagined to have been the defining moment of the show’s first season undeniably gives me pause.

It’s been interesting to observe the discourse among book readers over the past week as His Dark Materials has been out in the world. The premiere’s faithfulness to the basics of Pullman’s novels was a gesture that can be taken one of two ways: either it was a signal that the writers respect his story and will do it justice, or it was a shield they’re using to hide subtle but nonetheless significant adjustments to the story and its characters. To be honest, I was fairly content with the premiere upon first viewing, but the more we’ve discussed the first episode the more I’ve found myself leaning toward the latter position. Nothing in the first episode destroyed the very fabric of this story, but the tapestry doesn’t feel as rich as it should, and that unfortunately continued here even beyond the choice to jump the “other worlds” reveal forward.

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This is especially true of the character of Lyra, who I have to admit I just don’t find that interesting as a character in this television show through two episodes. In the premiere, this was an issue that we could look past: it’s a pilot, and it’s a fantasy show, and there’s a lot to get done. But even removed from that burden, I am struggling to understand who Lyra is exactly. There’s dialogue with Pantalaimon about how Lyra shouldn’t change herself to meet Mrs. Coulter’s expectations, but such a notion is predicated on actually knowing Lyra’s personality to begin with, and the premiere didn’t spend enough time on that for us to understand what is at stake for her as a person. In the books, there is the sense that Lyra is a force of nature: she follows her whims, her passions, and her sense of adventure. But here, she seems wholly fixated on finding Roger, but she’s barely rattling the gilded cage she’s been put into, and as to what she intends to do after finding Roger the show seems to have nothing to say. The episode touches on other passions—like her interest in the north—but there’s never really the feeling that they add up to a complete set of character motivations. As she starts digging deeper into the truth about Mrs. Coulter, she seems weirdly hesitant, consistently pushed by Pan as though it isn’t her instinct to push the bounds of the rules set before her.

Photo: HBO
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Now, as a book reader, two notes here. First, obviously Pan is Lyra, technically speaking, and so I understand we’re seeing the push-and-pull of her thought process in real time. However, in the books it’s far more often Lyra pushing Pantalaimon and not the other way around (including in their escape from Coulter’s apartment), and I don’t like the inversion. It’s difficult to ignore the feeling Lyra is getting pulled along in this situation as opposed to taking control of her own fate. Second, I’m not objecting to the fact Lyra isn’t exactly the character that’s in the book: rather, this version of Lyra just lacks the spark needed to carry this story. What makes Lyra work as a character is that while she may have no idea how important she is to a conflict far bigger than her world, she sees her world as rich and beautiful and its own adventure. There were bits and pieces of that in the premiere, but “The Idea Of North” makes Lyra’s only goal to respond to her immediate situation, and there’s never the sense that she’s trying to turn Mrs. Coulter’s world into an extension of her own. When she finds out that Mrs. Coulter is the head of the Oblation Board, and that the Oblation Board is the Gobblers, she’s rightfully devastated; however, because she has nothing else to work toward, she just ends up crying on the street, aimless at a time when in the books she was taking action to head north on her own accord.

There are productive moments in the psychodrama that plays out in Mrs. Coulter’s apartment. The choice to move the reveal of Asriel being Lyra’s father slightly earlier, and placing it in the mouth of Coulter herself rather than the Gyptians, means that this is a much bigger showcase for Ruth Wilson than it would have been otherwise. It’s a hard episode to watch as a book reader in terms of putting yourself in a non-reader’s shoes: technically, the reveal that Mrs. Coulter is the head of the Gobblers is meant to be a shocking betrayal, but those dots are already connected for us. Marisa Coulter is the most interesting part of the episode because we get to see her try to strike a balance between care and control, palace and prison. As noted last week, the energy of Wilson’s performance has a base malevolence that makes it hard to imagine anyone believing she has pure intentions, but I appreciated how the script digs into her moments of longing and loss. Lyra at one point tells Pan—after a messy series of plot questions that sounded like the equivalent of the voiceover at the end of a Batman ‘66 episode—that she doesn’t understand grownups, but perhaps the biggest issue right now is that I understand more about Mrs. Coulter than I do about the character we’re meant to be rooting for. I’m all for exploring the tragedy underpinning her villainy, truly, but doing so at the expense of Lyra herself strikes me as a miscalculation.

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“The Idea Of North” ends on a cliffhanger, the escaped Lyra seeming to fall prey to the same Gobblers who grabbed Billy Costa, but narratively it’s almost a relief that the plot threads that have thus far been separated seem to be converging even if it means Lyra is in danger. While the worldbuilding around the Gyptians last week was interesting, it didn’t amount to much here, and there wasn’t a lot gleaned from Roger and Billy’s experience in captivity either. Perhaps that best explains my skepticism about building out Lord Boreal’s search for the allegedly dead Stanislaus Grumman: so far, none of the ways the script has expanded the scope of the story beyond Lyra’s point-of-view have borne much fruit, and it’s hard not to imagine how much more solid the foundational piece of the show would be if they had used that time differently. I think there’s an argument for this kind of broadening of the narrative to plant seeds for the future, but I have concerns about both the short-term and long-term impacts of that decision that I’ll be carrying with me into the rest of the season.

Stray observations

  • Mrs. Coulter’s apartment really does feel like a marble prison, so some great production design work there. It’s the one part of the show that feels absolutely right, and it does admittedly carry a lot of weight at times.
  • The closest the episode got to what I see as Lyra’s energy was when she was at lunch at the Arctic Institute, distracted by the celebrities and polar bear skulls. I wish we saw more of that energy all the time, and am really perplexed by the direction pushing Keen away from a version of the character she’s clearly capable of channeling.
  • Along similar lines, the direction on Lyra’s lie to Mrs. Coulter about her and Roger using her hair as a rope was...bizarre. It didn’t even seem like Lyra was lying, but given how critical her ability to lie is to the story, everything about that scene just didn’t make sense to me.
  • I had to rewatch a couple of times to confirm, but it felt like the show was using Boreal’s explanation of his snake daemon’s shyness to his informant as a reason why we don’t see more random strangers’ daemons in Lyra’s world? I don’t know if I buy that, and it admittedly is distracting once you start “daemon hunting” in crowd shots and find almost nothing. I noted that in the Gyptian raid, the daemons are missing as the “action” scenes that start the raid, but we see them as they go to enter the room, so they seem to be picking-and-choosing moments to show the daemons in order to disrupt any feeling of absence. How’s it working for everyone else?
  • Not shocked we got a failed first attempt at reading the alethiometer, but I sure wish we had gotten a scene of Lyra trying to figure it out before she was in a position of emotional distress. She just seems so uncurious about it, and so many other things.
  • The moment when Roger’s dictating his letter to Lyra and nods to the fact he recognizes Mrs. Coulter was a weird one. Does he understand that a bad thing is happening to them, and she’s behind the Gobblers? Or is he soothed by her presence, and just making conversation with Lyra? I felt like we were missing a scene between Rogers and Coulter exploring their past meeting in more detail.
  • The fight between Coulter’s daemon and Pan was suitably terrifying in terms of the monkey itself, but I sort of wish the direction had done more to try to stylize the specific kind of pain Lyra was feeling instead of just her writhing around on the ground.
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Through The Amber Spyglass [Warning: Explicit Book Spoilers]

They really don’t want there to be a true adaptation of the end of The Golden Compass, huh? After the movie copped out from including the scene at all, the show has gone and spoiled a key part of the reveal. Yes, it will still be meaningful when Asriel kills Roger in order to open his gateway to other worlds, and I understand why the show wants to lay more groundwork for Will’s side of the story for when the two meet in Cittàgazze, but the idea that you spend the entire first book not knowing if Asriel is right about his city in the sky and waiting alongside Lyra to discover the truth is just so central to the impact of that ending for me. Lyra is literally stepping into the unknown, and while technically there’s still a “surprise” for the audience that she’s stepping into another world entirely and not the one Boreal is visiting, it just feels like the show is abandoning the moment that would have been its equivalent to Ned Stark’s death on Game Of Thrones and replaced it with an episode two reveal involving a character most viewers couldn’t have named before this episode (and might still not be able to).

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The big question is how much more work they intend to do as it relates to Will and his father leading up to the character’s introduction (which could even be this season). I won’t say how much we see in the next two episodes (which I’ve seen), but I do think that the impact this will have on Will’s introduction is a fascinating bit of adaptation if not one that I’m necessarily thrilled with.

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About the author

Myles McNutt

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