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.
After Lyra Belacqua finds her way into the care of the Gyptians, who had followed a similar path to London in search of the missing children as she did, she finds herself amongst friends who are willing to talk to her honestly about her situation. Although the Master of Jordan College gave Lyra the alethiometer, he spoke of its purpose in riddles, and she was forced to hide it from Mrs. Coulter, who in general seemed more interested in controlling Lyra than letting her in on her work. It is only when she reaches Farder Coram (James Cosmo) that she learns the truth of what it is: it is a device meant to answer any question she asked, but with a complicated set of meanings that requires thick tomes and years of study to master. But without the pressure of Mrs. Coulter over her shoulder, Lyra has enough free time to finally show some curiosity about the device in her hands, and this little scrap of information is enough to set her mind on the task at hand: to use the device to help free the children stolen by the Gobblers.
I’ve been thinking this week about a comment on my review of the previous episode, which noted that one book reader was struggling to get the uninitiated to start watching the series. And while we can debate how successful the adaptation has been thus far, I think it’s objectively true that it has failed to generate a real sense of momentum, in terms of hooking the audience. It’s interesting to think of how differently it would have played as a streaming series that released all at once, or a streaming model like Hulu’s where the first three episodes were released at once. Because on some level, the end of “The Spies” is the real point at which this story begins, as the most pivotal pieces of information have been established: Lyra Belacqua is important to a greater conflict, Lyra Belacqua is the daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and Lyra Belacqua is in possession of and able to read an alethiometer.
And while I have some quibbles with the way Lyra has been displaced from the center of this story, I found myself more or less satisfied with the general attention paid to these three issues by the time we get to the end of this hour. Sure, it was weird that Lyra wasn’t curious about the alethiometer before this episode, but I loved the way Dawn Shadforth (taking over from Tom Hooper) shoots her first successful effort at reading it, all glints in eyes and hushed realization. In general, writer Jack Thorne’s approach is to make Lyra’s partnership with the Gyptians as the moment everything starts to click into place. Would it have been better if we had gotten some flashbacks to understand Lyra’s existing relationship with the Gyptians, instead of Tony Costa randomly recognizing her? Absolutely. But I liked the hint of Lyra’s tempestuousness when she catches him leaving for the raid on Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, and the sense of purpose she has when she’s standing up for herself and the Gyptians’ mission to save the children during Lord Faa’s meeting. I’m still waiting for a better sense of Lyra’s personality, but her presence in the story feels more assured after this hour, even with the show continuing to split focus in some interesting ways.
Some of this is because of the show’s interest in showing more of Mrs. Coulter’s complexity at an earlier point in the story. I get the impulse: she’s a compelling character, and in the books she’s positioned as a fairly direct antagonist at this point, without any real sense that she truly cares for Lyra. The same is not the case here: we see her drunken, near-suicidal spiral when she realizes that Lyra is lost and in possession of an alethiometer, and the show frames the spy flies as a violation of even the Magisterium’s code of conduct. If the books surprised us by showing that Mrs. Coulter was emotionally invested in Lyra’s safety at a later point in the narrative, the show is defining the character by the fact that she cares about her daughter while simultaneously being capable of destroying the principle of scholastic sanctuary or shooting the Gyptian intruders in her home. I would argue the books eventually give us an image of Mrs. Coulter that is truly unpredictable based on her deeply questionable actions mixed with her undeniable love for her daughter, but I’m curious how the story is going to play differently when we know this from day one, and have seen more of her vulnerabilities where her daughter is concerned.
Those vulnerabilities are intercut with Lyra learning the truth about her mother. While Lord Faa is the one who gets to tell the story of Lyra’s conception and birth in the books, it’s Ma Costa who gets the privilege of filling in the rest of the story here, and I appreciate the way it centers that story on the two women who helped bring Lyra into the world and now find themselves trying to protect her (albeit in very different ways). It’s still unavoidably a giant scene of exposition, and as much as it’s Dafne Keen’s strength I don’t love Lyra when she’s this dramatic, but the open-air staging is dynamic (all the Gyptian scenes on the river are really effectively grounded, aesthetically), and I left the scene feeling like the show had finally gotten the mythology on the table enough that it can move forward with a solid foundation. I’m not convinced that this foundation was as energizing to an average viewer as it needed to be, but the cross-cutting with Mrs. Coulter was effective at linking together the show’s most important character (Lyra) with the one it’s done the best job of handling (Coulter), and that’s a place to start. The episode then doubles down with this by turning the Gyptian raid into one on Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, reiterating her centrality to this story even as this “climax” to the first act of the season is mostly about pushing the Gyptians and Lyra into (finally) heading north for a meeting with a certain pair of critical characters.
But we must acknowledge that buried in “The Spies” is another critical character’s introduction. Lord Boreal’s trips to our world continue here, and the exposition dump comes fast and furious: it turns out Grumman actually came from that world, not Lyra’s, and that he left behind a family. Much as we only get photos of Andrew Scott’s Col. John Parry, there’s only a photo—and not even a name—for his son Will, but it’s clear the show felt it was important the audience knows there’s another kid out there who is about to get wrapped up in something far bigger than themselves. As with Boreal’s storyline last week, it feels like the show is creating breadcrumbs because it thinks it has to, in order to gesture to a mythology big enough to convince people that there’s more to this story. The difference, though, is that whereas the reveal about multiple universes is more likely to take away from the power of certain reveals, I’m of the mind that seeding Will’s existence will actually do a fair amount of good to integrating his character into the story in this context as compared to the book’s approach. That instinct could be wrong, but at this point I’m open to the idea of using the back half of this season to get those gears turning and let the convergence, as it were, to be understood by the audience from the beginning.
I spoke to Rolling Stone critic Alan Sepinwall after he had finished these episodes, and I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t feel like they had collectively invested him in this world or its characters. And it seems likely that if you don’t have an attachment to the alethiometer and its place in this story, the scene that felt so alive to me in this episode might still feel a bit inert. I definitely share some of his concerns about how Jack Thorne’s script went about starting this tale, but my best summary of His Dark Materials thus far is that nothing has been damaged beyond repair. “The Spies” demonstrated to me that the pieces are more or less all here, and we’re finally at the point where it feels like every part of the show is ready to truly start moving and see if things might fall into place in the process. I’m personally sitting at “cautiously optimistic,” but we’ll see how everyone else feels when the cowboy and the armored bear enter stage right.
- We were talking a bit in the comments about how the true function of the daemons was something Pullman revealed subtly, but the show is definitely wanting to make sure we understand the coming-of-age metaphor, both in the ceremony in the first episode and especially in Farder Coram’s chat with Lyra and Pantalaimon here. While I wish it could be more subtle, I do think that everyone should understand daemons after that speech, even if they don’t understand why so many characters seem to be missing them (we saw, what, maybe a handful among the Magisterium men who stormed the boats?)
- On that note, if anyone wants to start doing a Daemon Count of each episode in terms of what percentage of background characters appear to have daemons, I’ll mail you some cookies. (This is a real offer).
- The single most-striking bit in this episode is the way they modeled Mrs. Coulter’s hand-to-hand combat style after her daemon’s. The animalistic quality she takes on in her (probably drunken) rage is a sight to behold, and a great bit of physicality from Ruth Wilson.
- I thought it was weird how long into the episode it took before we got real interaction between Lyra and Pan, and the absence of that dialogue is definitely something that stands out to me if we compare to the books. When Pan does speak—like when he notes he trusts the Gyptians in a way he didn’t trust Coulter—it’s a good dynamic, but it doesn’t fully feel like a dynamic yet.
- It’s interesting how the show is articulating Coulter’s feminism as part of her objection to the Master of Jordan College: she’s not wrong about the “bloated old men” running things, so I’m curious if this is another effort to suggest the character might be more benevolent than we think or just a case of her self-justifications for her malevolence.
- One thing I would say is that the show is missing a sense of humor given how dour everything has been to this point, and...well, let’s just say the show seems to agree, based on how next week’s episode (the last I saw via screeners) plays out. We’ll discuss more then.
Obviously, the big news here is that we will not be thrown into Will’s side of this story without warning. I’m really curious whether they intend to synchronize Lyra and Will’s crossings into Cittàgazze—it’s clear they’re laying the groundwork on the invasion of his house and the search for Grumman’s letters, but will we see the raid before or after we get more of Will’s backstory beyond the exposition provided here? The way Pullman just pulls the rug out from under you in the second book by starting with a second protagonist is certainly possible in a television context, but they’ve given themselves some considerable flexibility in terms of cross-cutting stories.
The other thing is that it’s very clear the show is of the mind that we need to understand the Mrs. Coulter that emerges after she hides Lyra from the Magisterium as soon as possible. Ultimately, the character that Will observes when he goes to rescue Lyra is who we’re seeing from the beginning: a woman whose motives are unclear, but whose actions betray a real love for her daughter, even if she doesn’t trust that this love is enough in circumstances where duty weighs heavily. I’m curious if they try to pivot to a stronger “villain” look as we move into the rest of the season leading up to Bolvangar, or whether they want to keep exploring her private vulnerabilities as the plot picks up pace.