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His Dark Materials builds on Lyra's sense of adventure, but trips up on its plotting (newbies)

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The perpetual problem with this show seems to be a sacrifice of character development in favor of forward momentum. There’s so much that works so well in this episode, but it’s hamstrung by the need to shift pieces around.

The death of Billy Costa is very affecting. We’ve spent the last five episodes getting to know sweet Ma Costa, and there’s no way for the death of a child not to be incredibly tragic. And Lyra’s bravery in the scene where she goes to retrieve him is filmed in a way that makes it clear how courageous she’s being. We’re being told that this person is extraordinary, and watching her go forward when every instinct tells her not to is one of a few signs this episode that she’s worthy of all the fuss. 

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But the thing that trips up the scene from really landing is that the show is still struggling to make daemons seem as meaningful as we are repeatedly told they are. The notion that it’s incredibly upsetting to see a little boy without his daemon would work a lot better if we could see more people react to its absence. And I’m not totally sure it’s possible for the show to demonstrate how meaningful the presence of every daemon is in every single scene. There isn’t a real world amalgam to what we’re supposed to believe about these animals, and half the time I don’t even notice if the animal is in the scene or not. There’s an unnerving dread we should experience when Lyra finds poor Billy without Ratter that just isn’t there. It’s a scary moment, but the scene ends very abruptly, and beyond Pantalaimon’s panicky response, we don’t really get a sense of how creepy this is for Lyra. It’s scarier to watch her approach him than it is once we find out what’s happened. How did she get him out to Iorek? Did Iorek have a response to seeing a human without a daemon? We get nothing until the gyptians respond to their return, and even then, the tragedy of his obvious ill health is more impactful than the absence of a daemon. 

And then, strangely, the episode doesn’t end? The decision to end it in the moment where Lyra, kidnapped AGAIN, realizes the same thing is about to happen to her makes it seem like the entire preceding storyline of the episode was created to make us afraid for Lyra. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful to let the episode end before then? Scary bad things are important enough without underlining them by pointing out that they’re about to happen to our protagonist. We know she’s going to make it out—she’s the hero. It’s a totally unnecessary cliffhanger that proves a distraction from the emotional intensity of the prior scenes.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Will, John Parry’s son. Wouldn’t Will’s mother’s paranoia seem more concerning if we didn’t already know a bad guy has been contacting her? Aren’t you supposed to build up the suspense of whether the unwell person is making it all up before confirming that she’s not? She’s right! People are following them!

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The episode also suffers from the absence of Mrs. Coulter, who has a habit of making the proceedings zip by a lot more effectively. Lord Boreal’s slow burn rage just isn’t quite as compelling in a villain, somehow, and his actions in our world are so meandering and odd that it’s hard to care that much about him. It’s not the actor’s performance that is the problem. He’s written so opaquely that there isn’t a lot to go on there, and right now, he’s a more present villain than Mrs. Coulter. Because so much of what he’s doing is a mystery to us, it’s that much harder to be invested in him threatening various people in our world.

It all adds up to a bit of a mess, a prioritization of mechanics over meaning. Why couldn’t these things have unspooled more naturally than this? There’s a lot that really, really works in this episode, like Lyra charming Iorek, or her bravery, or the pained reunion between Serafina and Coram, but it all makes the parts that land flat all the more notable.

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Stray observations

  • “You’re not an easy man to like,” says Lyra to one of the most beloved pop culture figures in America.
  • Is it just me, or did Boreal scowl extra hard when his companion said “seems like a good kid”?
  • Tony is every teen asked to help with a chore, when he absurdly tells his mother he’ll just burn dinner.
  • The show’s creative choice to show us what everyone sees when Lyra works with the alethiometer is a mixed blessing. It makes their acceptance of what she’s saying more meaningful, since we can see how little they have to go on, but there’s not a lot of drama to the moment.
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About the author

Lisa Weidenfeld

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.