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 evaluating an adaptation, it’s impossible not to “read ahead” a bit as you’re watching. The very function of these “experts” reviews is to think about the long-term ramifications of changes made by the television version of this story, even if the nature of episodic criticism means that I’m also evaluating each individual episode as a piece of television drama.
Over the past few weeks, the tension between those elements of His Dark Materials has shown a bit. I would—and did!—argue that the past couple of episodes have essentially worked as pieces of television drama, but in the comments there was a significant conversation about the way choices made would impact future developments, and it’s hard to disagree in light of “The Daemon-Cages.” It’s a pivotal moment in the conflict of the season, but one which is rendered inscrutable by a season-wide struggle to depict the human-daemon relationship in a legible way. As a book reader, our brains will subconsciously fill in potential gaps in the story logic being presented, and the show has been “close enough” to getting it right in the big moments in the past few episodes that it’s been able to skate by. But in the case of this episode, the show’s attempts to generate tension and consequence come routinely undone by the cumulative effect of daemons being inconsistently and generally poorly depicted.
I understand that CGI is expensive. It’s clear in this episode alone that the budget really wasn’t enough to depict this show at its proper scale: just look at how the battle at Bolvangar is reimagined in close quarters, and the entire group of witches is trimmed down to just Serafina Pekkala. And so if the show is going to exist at all, then there needs to be sacrifices, and so it makes sense that there isn’t going to be enough money to give every single character a clearly depicted daemon. It’s understandable that shots will often be framed in a way that cuts out the daemons below, and that not every character will have a fully developed daemon of their own.
However, it’s unfortunate that none of the producers seemed to be aware of the problem this would create when they got to Bolvangar. It’s a sequence that depends heavily on understanding the uncanniness of a person without a daemon in this world: it’s about Lyra’s fear of losing a part of herself, and her fear for the other children who could face this fate. But despite being mostly fine with the adjustments to Billy Costa’s fate in last week’s episode, the second Lyra joins the other children in Bolvanga’s cafeteria I realized the whole piece wasn’t going to work. Only a handful of children have daemons, and none of them have any personality or dialogue with their humans. Outside of the poor girl selected to be separated as soon as Lyra arrives, none of the subsequent kids that are introduced are given daemons with any kind of identity. And so when Lyra breaks the news that the kids who disappear are being separated from their daemons, the actual meaning of that is lost because they might as well all be separated from their daemons anyway.
Now, Jack Thorne’s solution to this is to focus on the effect of the procedure on the children themselves. In other words, the threat is not the loss of the daemon and its connection, but rather the loss of awareness of your surroundings, becoming almost zombie-like. We see this with the Bolvangar assistants whose daemons were stripped away to ensure their pliability, and the show veers away from the books to suggest that the children themselves are being kept in Bolvangar along with their daemons, trapped in a separate dormitory and then eventually rescued by the Gyptians. The show’s argument is that seeing these consequences of intercision—beginning with Billy Costa, of course—provides enough of a sense of danger and concern to fuel the episode’s tension. But just because the audience knows that something bad could happen doesn’t mean they truly understand the reasons it’s bad, and those reasons are what make the daemons such a powerful part of this story. Sure, “The Daemon-Cages” articulates that Lyra and these children are in danger, but the very specific idea of separating from your daemon needed to be understood on a deeper level than what’s depicted here.
And there were numerous opportunities to explore it. There’s a brief scene of Pan and Roger’s daemona conversing while their respective humans pretend not to know each other, but why not depict a whisper network of daemons, all spreading the word about the coming threat? Why is that the show never depicts other characters conversing with their daemons, so that they don’t just seem like pets to everyone but Lyra, Serafina, and Lee? Why not give us at LEAST a couple of closeups of daemon-on-daemon fights in the midst of the battle at Bolvangar, instead of just occasionally throwing in a bird flying through the air as though that’s the same thing? When literally no one but Lyra is seen having a close relationship with her daemon, and even that relationship is consistently underplayed (where was Pan during her encounter with Mrs. Coulter?), the very idea of a daemon is mostly irrelevant at the very moment when it was supposed to become absolutely pivotal. Would an average viewer even notice that the Bolvangar assistants don’t have daemons, when so few characters seem to have them?
Lyra’s conversation with Mrs. Coulter is the most the show has actively talked about what daemons represent, but it felt trivializing to me. Marisa describes daemons as “wonderful companions and friends to you when you’re young,” but asserts that they “bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings.” It’s an effort to position the daemon as the source of dust, but the whole point of the story is that Lyra instinctively knows this isn’t true. She knows that the daemon is part of her soul, and that their connection is not defined by sin but rather something far more profound than that, but do we as the audience know that? As Mrs. Coulter makes her argument for intercision as a concept, the show has failed to provide an alternative view of daemons to counter it, beyond simply the fact that we know taking away daemons turns kids into zombies and we instinctively don’t want that to happen. That’s enough to create conflict, yes, but it’s a shallower conflict than the one depicted in the books, and could have been avoided if they had done more work building the human-daemon connection in previous episodes. I understand that budget constraints might have forced their hand, but the fact it wasn’t a priority is disheartening, and fundamentally caught up with the show in this hour.
Mrs. Coulter is at the heart of the episode’s other change, which continues the effort to move a significant part of her character development forward. In the books at this stage, I would argue we’re given no reason to trust her, or believe that she could be “redeemed” in any significant way. And while she’s still the antagonist here, the episode goes out of its way to suggest that she is simply caught up in the doctrine of the church and her own shame over her affair with Lord Asriel, and experiences regret about what went down at Bolvangar when she (weirdly) eavesdrops on the reunion of the Gyptians with the kidnapped children. It’s a choice that I’m struggling with a bit: I understand where it’s coming from, but I dislike the idea that a non-reader would never question whether Marisa would save Lyra from the intercision at this stage in the story. And the fact that she slinks away without the sense that her position on this might have changed now that Lyra tricked her and destroyed her entire operation feels like a missed opportunity to reintroduce a sense of danger to a relationship that feels stripped of it.
As always, though, it’s important to remember that only book readers experience this as a “stripping” of meaning: non-readers wouldn’t know the show is reframing the effects of intercision, or softening Mrs. Coulter’s edges. However, while I can’t say for certain and a glimpse of the Newbies review suggests I may be mistaken, “The Daemon-Cages” feels like the point where the cumulative impact of the show’s various struggles to articulate the central human-daemon relationship turned into something even a non-reader would recognize as being “off,” and takes what was once a climactic moment and turns it into just another stop on Lyra’s journey.
- Jack Thorne really loves using Serafina and her daemon to lay out exposition, and her speech to Lee is extremely on-the-nose about his new role as Lyra’s protector. The turn to “love” in there rankled me a bit for reasons I’ll get into below, but the cliff ghasts interrupted things, so we’ll explore Lee’s position in this more as it progresses.
- There’s no actual story value to cutting to Will beyond reminding us that he exists, but thematically the ability to cut from Lyra directly to Will—each in bed reflecting on their relationship to their parents—does continue to draw a line between them that will prove important moving forward.
- I liked the exterior production design on Bolvangar better than the interiors, which just felt like three different hallways from different angles, and played out too much like a stealth video game level with the guards up above for me to get a real sense of the entire facility.
- Speaking of: I liked the design of the Intercision chamber for the shot of Coulter above Lyra, glass between them, but I didn’t love that the facility as a whole remained standing, and that the entire place wasn’t destroyed. (It also made no sense to me why Lyra didn’t immediately start running as soon as it started exploding?)
- Love how Farder Coram is all “poor things, they can’t even speak anymore” about the intercised daemons when we have literally never heard 99% of daemons speak.
- Another week, another unsatisfying neck snap—they at least kept this one offscreen, but I still think it would have been way more satisfying if Ma Costa had stabbed that Tartar, and I don’t know what kind of content note is pushing them to these neck twists.
- Okay, obviously Billy Costa’s father is of African descent given that Ma Costa is a very pale-skinned white woman, but are we meant to believe that Lord Faa or a member of Lord Faa’s famiy is related to Billy in some way? The way the show framed their relationship as romantic made me wonder if we’re meant to see him as Billy’s father, but it would be weird if the show never explicitly acknowledged this, and just in general I don’t know what the takeaway is supposed to be from that final Gyptian scene as they prepare to march home with the severed children.
- I have more issues with some of the acting choices from a direction standpoint—mostly related to Lyra, whose prodding of the workers at Bolvangar felt too aggressive and not playful/coy enough—but I did like Euros Lyn’s work on the staging of the cliff ghast sequence, which was a nice jolt of horror I’d have gladly skipped in favor of more daemons earlier in the episode.
- Selected All Caps observations from my notes: HOW THE HELL IS THERE ONLY ONE DAEMON. WHERE IS HIS DAEMON. WHERE IS HER DAEMON. SO MANY BIRD DAEMONS. WHERE IS HIS DAEMON. WHERE IS IT. THERE is his daemon. WHERE WAS PAN DURING ALL OF THAT.
So, two notes here. First and foremost, my biggest issues with The Amber Spyglass boil down to my feeling that its on-the-nose pivot to being about “love” doesn’t feel earned, so hearing Lee throw out the word during his chat with Serafina got my back up a bit. I’ll admit it worked better on my recent reread than it did when I was in college and even more jaded than I am now, but back then it really soured me on the thematics of this story, and it’s why I’m worried that the show will REALLY lean into love both for its efficiency and because it lets them sidestep the religious side of things more easily.
Secondly, though, I think it’s a shame that we lost the scene of Lyra letting all of the daemons loose from their cages and setting them free. Not only was it a pivotal scene for establishing the burden on the daemons as well as the humans involved in the intercision process, but it also offered a productive parallel to Lyra’s role in freeing the ghosts in The Amber Spyglass. I would hate to think that the scene doesn’t exist solely because they didn’t have enough money (or the right priorities) to depict it, but it just isn’t the same for the Gyptians to be carrying the daemons back south with them. That was Lyra’s moment!