His Dark Materials
Lyra Belacqua is a liar. This may seem like a harsh judgment to make on an 11-year-old girl, but it’s the core truth that powers the engine of His Dark Materials. “Lying and betraying and cheating,” Pullman writes at one point in the series, “all came to [Lyra] as naturally as breathing.” One can’t help the talents one is born with, and, as we now know, she’s the daughter of a singularly iron-willed explorer and the most powerfully treacherous woman in the world; of course, the powers of persuasion and manipulation come naturally to our protagonist, regardless of how she uses those gifts. When she’s young, she uses them to selfish ends; we see a glimpse of it in this adaptation’s pilot episode when she tricks the librarian to escape her lessons. But, of course, she evolves. As much as His Dark Materials is a parable, it’s also a hero’s journey, charting the evolution of an immature child who could grow up to be as cruel and arrogant as her parents but who ultimately makes a better choice.
In this adaptation, we haven’t seen much of Lyra the Liar. In fact, we’ve witnessed some moments when the opposite is true. When the master gives her the alethiometer in the premiere, entreating her to keep it hidden, she at first refuses, announcing that she “doesn’t want secrets.” (I laughed out loud at this. Lyra? Not wanting in on a secret? Let alone this secret?) I didn’t want to read too much into these lines at first; I assumed her deceptive nature was so core to the character that it was bound to shake out over time. After this week’s episode, though — particularly after, in arguing with Ma Costa, she shouts, “How am I supposed to trust you when no one tells me the truth?!” — I’m not so sure.
Dafne Keen’s Lyra is obsessed with lies but only because her entire world has been built on one. Both her parents abandoned her. One has been deceiving her her whole life, the other for an intensive few weeks, as though catching up with all the lying her “co-parent” has been banking over the years. Worse still, Lyra’s guardians, the scholars — the supposed champions of truth and “original thinking” — supported the charade. She’s desperate to escape lies.
When the Gyptians rescue her from the Gobblers, there’s a weird disconnect at first: Lyra appears to know Tony Costa and his mother, perhaps by name only; we never see her roughhousing with the Gyptian children, which she does extensively in the book. But she also doesn’t know them enough to trust them. In speaking to Farder Coram and John Faa, she suggests they’re holding her prisoner. They assure her that not only do they owe her father for his support in government matters, but she’s also “special in her own right.” Ultimately, she stays because their goal (to rescue the children) dovetails with her own (to find Roger).
In the meantime, she’s advised to stay out of sight, as the Gobblers and Mrs. Coulter will be on the hunt for her. (Despite this, she and the latter have an extended conversation about how a daemon’s settled form reflects your nature in broad daylight immediately afterward?) To pass the time, Ma Costa recruits Lyra to help with the cooking, showing her how to make sparks on the stove and telling her she’ll “be a Gyptian woman yet” (or “whatever [she wants] to be”). It’s in keeping with this version of the Gyptians that they would welcome her as one of their own, but this odd scene — presumably meant to enhance Ma as the stark maternal contrast to Mrs. Coulter’s iron grasp — also belies the fact that, even if Lyra stays with them forever, she’ll always be a highborn girl playing vagabond. Raymond van Gerrit does make a good point later at the roping, that her presence will always put them at risk, however unconscionable his alternative that they give her up to the Magisterium may be.
In rescuing Lyra, the Gyptians also manage to capture one of the Gobblers, and Benjamin interrogates him. It’s unclear whether torture is involved, but eventually he divulges that they’re taking the children north, where they can do what they like with them, undisturbed.
Shortly thereafter, the Magisterium’s Consistorial police, fresh off going full Fahrenheit 451 on Jordan College with Mrs. Coulter (who spends some of her dwindling capital with the Magisterium to do so), descend on the Gyptians, continuing their flagrant disregard for the sovereignty of non-Church groups by raiding the boats in search of Lyra. They come just short of discovering her in the walls where Ma Costa has hidden her, but she’s so shaken afterward that she and Pan run off with Ma Costa trailing behind them.
On a marsh nearby, they have the aforementioned standoff, and Ma, weirdly desperate for Lyra’s love and approval, finally divulges the girl’s whole backstory. Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel fell in love and got pregnant while the former was still married to Edward Coulter, another rich dude; they were going to pass Lyra off as Edward’s child, but “there was no hiding the Asriel” in her (a weird explanation for a newborn infant, now that I think about it, unless Coulter wasn’t white). So Asriel paid the Gyptians — Ma Costa, as it turns out — to hide Lyra, but Edward found out and tracked them down, intent upon killing the baby. Asriel ultimately fought and killed him, but the authorities couldn’t decide who was in the right, the rich man defending the sanctity of his marriage, or the other rich man defending himself and the child he had with his assailant’s wife. They split the difference, stripping Asriel of his wealth and stashing Lyra in a nunnery; then, during the Great Flood, Asriel stole her back and re-stashed her at Jordan, where he was a member and could keep tabs on her. The scandal, meanwhile, made Mrs. Coulter a pariah. “The shame of it all,” Ma Costa explains, is “why she’s like she is.” (I can see how it would motivate her to regain power and respect at any cost, but the sadistic kidnapper bits? Not buying it.)
Later, at the roping, Lord Faa and Farder Coram make the case to go north to the port of Trollesund to entreat witches for help in pursuit of the children. They argue a bit, but then Lyra — who, in addition to not being a liar anymore, has apparently shed all her remaining immaturity — steps up to monologue about hope. It feels a little off for a group of social outcasts to be rallied by a privileged, preteen landloper, but there it is. “We shall strike the strength out of them,” Faa then bellows from the tabletop, as they all stomp and chant “Gyptians!” in unison. “Leave them ruined and wasted, broken and shattered, torn to a thousand pieces and scattered to the four winds.”
That night, against Farder Coram’s explicit instructions, Benjamin — big Enjolras energy on that one — steals away with Tony Costa in tow to break into Mrs. Coulter’s flat to steal some paperwork. Lyra is awake, toying with the alethiometer, when the latter sneaks out; she agrees not to snitch on him (though she immediately comes clean when Ma awakens) and tips them off to the papers in Mrs. Coulter’s study. She forgets, however, to mention the air ducts, and the plan falls apart when the monkey discovers them and sounds the alarm. Mrs. Coulter has a pistol and shoots Benjamin as Tony escapes out the window. She does some weird karate and sits on Benjamin, intent on torturing him for information, but he manages to break free long enough to free-fall backward down the elevator shaft they entered through, and his daemon vanishes from the monkey’s grasp.
One additional note re: Mrs. Coulter this week: Now this might just be my overthinking things — I was certain, for example, that Kendall Roy’s wistful gazing off the rooftop of Waystar Royco headquarters was foreshadowing for his own demise in the Succession season-two finale — but her obsession with the ledge is beginning to feel pointed. “How are you with heights?,” she asked Lyra last week. “I’ve never been sure about them. I can never get away from the occasional urge to jump.” Now she’s losing her shit, destroying Lyra’s bed and getting drunk and tightrope-walking the ledge of her balcony before sending two very illegal spy-flies to find her, all while the monkey looks on worriedly. (As much as I love Ruth Wilson’s performance, the shifting of her savagery away from the monkey, who in the books is often the only indication of her evil intent, makes her feel less dangerous somehow?)
Meanwhile, Ma has called Farder Coram about Tony, and Lyra is overcome with shame; she acknowledges that the old man forbade them from going to protect her and, deciding to trust him, shows him the alethiometer. Awestruck, he tells her how it works: You use the three manual arms to point at three symbols to form a question; then when you clear your mind, the free arm spins to a series of symbols to form a response. The symbols each have a nearly infinite number of meanings — it usually takes years of study to understand the answers — but by some miracle, Lyra can read them naturally. She asks about the spies and learns of their fate just as the spy-flies descend; she and Coram capture one, while the other escapes back to Mrs. Coulter. Moments later, Tony arrives to confirm Benjamin’s demise, and the Gyptians learn that Lyra can read the alethiometer instinctively.
All the while, Lord Boreal is a-schemin’. Crossing into our world again, he discovers his car has been booted — funny until, in the next scene, he’s driving up to his hacker’s lakeside cabin as though it wouldn’t take forever to get the boot removed (not to mention an amount of money he probably doesn’t have on hand). Anyway, Thomas has used facial-recognition software to identify “Stanislaus Grumman” as John Parry, a 14-year veteran of the Royal Marines who disappeared 13 years ago on an environmental-science expedition in Alaska. He’s from this world, not Boreal’s, despite the fact that he has a daemon in the photogram. (Boreal scoffs at the daemon-obsessed Thomas’s suggestion that they emerge on that side regardless of what universe they’re from.) Boreal later hands off hard copies of this information to another shadowy guy, whose men he hires to surveil Parry’s family: his wife, who seems to have a history of mental illness, and his son — a boy about Lyra’s age.
• I hate to say it, given that this episode is the only one of eight that has a female director, but I absolutely could not stand the way it was filmed. The two sides of Lyra’s conversations with John Faa and Ma Costa could easily have been filmed on separate days; she and Faa are never even in frame together. On top of this, we’re constantly stuck in these shallow-depth-of-field shots, which I know are supposed to represent Lyra’s getting into the mind-set required to read the alethiometer, but instead they just feel oppressive, as if we’re being forced to focus on the moment rather than being enticed into it.
• As much as I see Raymond’s point, I am a little disappointed that John Faa doesn’t rip into him the way he does in the book: “Now spell it out, Raymond, don’t be shy. You want us to give this child up to them she’s a-fleeing from, is that right?,” he says, before launching into an impassioned itemization of every way Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, has defended them over the years. “And this is his little daughter in our care, and Raymond van Gerrit would hand her over to the authorities for a bit of peace and quiet. Is that right, Raymond? Stand up and answer, man.” Which, of course, he doesn’t.
• A fun aside: Farder Coram’s daemon, Sophonax, is basically described in the books as the most beautiful, lustrous cat in the world. There’s no other type of daemon that Pullman gets this intense about. Dude just loves cats so much.
• Pretty rich of Mrs. Coulter to wax on about the “bloated privilege” of scholastic sanctuary as her Church thugs destroy a college’s entire library on a baseless hunch regarding the whereabouts of her daughter!
• Also, weren’t we to infer (as in the books) that Mrs. Coulter found out about the alethiometer earlier, when her monkey was spying on Lyra and Pan, long before interrogating the Master? Wasn’t that the whole subtext of the argument over the purse?
• Mrs. Coulter’s karate. Can someone explain the karate to me? What is happening there?