Anticipation is both a curse and a blessing for a series like His Dark Materials. As I discussed in the premiere recap, it’s a heavy burden to adapt something so beloved, let alone something with its uniquely complicated, anti-establishment ideology. The fandom holds its collective breath; the religious groups have pre-written their FCC complaint letters. Maybe not everyone is waiting for you to fail, but no one expects you to succeed, either. But that anticipation does give you, the adapter, an emotional head start with major plot points. The people who love the story you’re translating are already preparing to be wrecked anew by the tragic watershed moments they’ve already cried over a few times before.
So I admit, I’ve been steeling myself for this episode since the moment we laid eyes on Tyler Howitt, the angelic little boy with Coke-bottle glasses playing Billy Costa. Knowing there would be no Tony Makarios, knowing Ratter had become Billy’s daemon instead of Tony’s, knowing that Ma Costa (named “Maggie” by this series) was now personally traveling north with the campaign — each another weight added to that inevitable drop when Lyra, Pantalaimon, and Iorek must deliver the tiny, vacant body of a Gyptian child separated from his daemon to his family to die. Anne-Marie Duff delivers a crushing performance as Maggie that carries most, if not all, of this unbearable scene; it certainly sent me over the edge.
But on rewatching, I was able to pull back and consider some concerning details. Where is John Faa — who all but confirmed his paternity a couple of weeks back — when Billy dies? Why doesn’t Ma even touch Tony, let alone desperately cling to her eldest, now only living son, yet she’ll fully embrace Lyra, who effectively just delivered her the death of her baby? And what in the hell is going on with this bizarre exchange between Lyra and Lee Scoresby?
“This must be what they do,” Lee laments, in a tone that does not convey, in any way, shape, or form, the gravity of what he is saying. What kind of devil-may-care con artist sees a 6-year-old with his soul cut away and isn’t temporarily undone by the horror? This guy — “not an easy man to like,” a guy who just flatly told another kid they probably won’t rescue her friends — is not going to suddenly wax paternal with her in that moment. (He also banters with Lyra and Iorek for maybe ten seconds, but that’s it.) Never mind the Lee Scoresby of the books; if you’re reshaping this character in the image of Han Solo, he cannot suddenly find the lovingly Zen, Lin-Manuel Miranda dad within, not at the same time he’s being hit with an existential bomb that changes the course of the rest of his life. Offhandedly explain to me that the armored bear “doesn’t do well with emotions,” fine, but don’t expect me to believe Lee Scoresby does.
Speaking of emotions.
While Lyra is busy ghost hunting, the witch queen Serafina Pekkala finally makes an appearance, catching Farder Coram when he’s alone because witches are spooky like that. They also apparently fly standing up with no broom, which is a fun development, as are the cool-as-hell scars (or … vines?) she has all over her neck. You can tell they never went to couples therapy (let alone individual), because she made Coram cry within minutes of her arrival.
They immediately settle into what feels like a very familiar script: He’s embarrassed about how old he looks; she reminds him that she’s 300 “or more.” (Do witches just … stop counting at 300?) He urges her to stay, this time to help rescue children from evil. She explains that Asriel is right and of course the witches have known about the multiverse for millennia; surely we talked about this when our son died and we were both ravaged by our conflicting griefs? I’m all in favor of boundaries, and intellectually I do love this archetypal dynamic — the stoic, quasi-immortal witch and the aging, unabashedly heartbroken man — but in the moment, I just want to yell at Serafina Pekkala for giving such an emotionally unavailable response to Coram’s entreaty and then bouncing.
Meanwhile, her daemon Kaisa will remain, at least — the witch equivalent of always texting back but never initiating the conversation. Kaisa tells Lyra and Ma Costa that Iofur Raknison, the king of the Svalbard bears, is holding Asriel as Mrs. Coulter requested, but because he is duplicitous and hedging his bets, he’s also allowing the man to continue his research under house arrest instead of destroying his equipment.
This is specifically relevant later, when Iorek and Lyra take a snack break on their ghost errand. They’ve been bonding (far more than anything Lee and Lyra have shared, I would add), so Iorek shares part of his story: He was once a Svalbard prince of “wealth and rank” before he killed another bear and was exiled for his crime. While he accepts his sentence, he tells her the correct question is not who but why he killed — but then he conspicuously does not answer her when she reframes her query. She doesn’t seem to notice and suggests her father will escape Iofur’s imprisonment. Iorek explains why this idea is looney tunes: “Bears see tricks and deceit as plain as arms and legs. We can see in a way humans have forgotten. You cannot trick a bear.” Bears do not suffer human intrigue, in other words. Yet the king, Iofur Raknison — the one who wants so badly to be baptized — is currently engaging in just that by complying with only half of Mrs. Coulter’s and the Magisterium’s bidding.
Anyway, now we have to completely shift not just gears but an entire universe because FOLKS, WE HAVE A WILL PARRY. Let’s get this out of the way first: I would kill a man — several men — for this kid. Because the first movie never became a franchise, we never got an adaptation of the second book, The Subtle Knife, which means Amir Wilson is the first to play Will, and he’s doing so brilliantly so far. Will is a complex character, gentle and patient while also boiling underneath with suppressed fury and pain; for years, he has kept social services at bay by convincing them his mother is taking care of him, when in fact it’s the opposite. In the book, it is strongly suggested that Elaine Parry has schizophrenia, or paranoid delusions at least, but this version (played by the wonderful Nina Sosanya, whose recent credits include Killing Eve) is … well, let me wildly speculate for a moment: Is it possible Elaine Parry’s sole issue is a seriously untreated anxiety and/or depressive disorder? Her husband has been missing for 13 years, leaving her to raise her son alone; all we know is that he sometimes has to take charge when she can’t. When Boreal and his goons start creeping around, of course this is going to shatter the calm of someone who’s constantly on the edge anyway. Counting, as she does with bricks, is actually quite a common coping mechanism in mental health. I propose this because she doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge that her illness involves delusions, even at her most lucid; perhaps she’s just a woman whose genius husband figured out how to travel to other dimensions and who’s been continuously gaslit, without treatment, ever since.
Will is already bullied at school, presumably because of his mother, and it’s made worse when she shows up at his boxing practice. She’s in tatters after Boreal, posing as “Charles Latrom,” confronts her on her way to the grocery store, touching her and claiming to have served with her husband and feigning shock when — rightfully suspicious! — she tells him John is dead. After a slur and a sucker punch bring practice to a screeching halt, Will walks Elaine home and glumly prepares dinner. She claims he’s going to take up his father’s “mantle” because “this world is broken” and “it takes extraordinary people to fix it.” Seems to me John Parry told his wife some things about his research — things that could seem like delusions to anyone else.
One final note: In light of the Big Main Event described earlier, I feel the following should be reiterated, if only for the benefit of those who went into this story cold. The General Oblation Board, funded by the Magisterium, cut Billy Costa’s soul away from his body. It dealt a kindergartner a fate worse than death. The parallels Philip Pullman wanted to draw to the real-life ongoing mutilation of children in the name of religion against sin, should not be overshadowed. Especially considering that, in this week’s final scenes, when a band of Tartars ambushes the Gyptian camp and kidnaps Lyra to the Station, we get our first glimpse of what is inevitably going to be an even heavier reference point. This Bolvangar sure does look a lot like a concentration camp.
• I’ve always assumed Tony Makarios died solely because of the intercision, but seeing it happen to Billy makes me wonder: Is it possible he died simply because he was a small child wandering the Arctic for a few days with no food or water? I’m sure having no daemon certainly speeds that process along, but …
• What’s the over-under on the John Faa thing? Was he in fact Billy’s semi-absent father, or does this episode basically disavow that theory? Leave a comment below (or tweet at me) because I need to talk about this.
• Completely inconsequential, I know, but were any of my fellow book dweebs surprised by the relative lack of snow in The North™? Climate change is transdimensional, apparently.
• Loved the understated comedy of Lyra asking to pursue the alethiometer’s bidding and find the “ghost” (Billy) plaguing the nearby fishing town. “It’s okay, Farder Coram, don’t worry! I, a 12-year-old child being hunted by the most powerful organization on earth, will go to this random nightmare village alone!”
• Speaking of the alethiometer’s bidding, another helpful subtext: The books describe it as seeming sentient at times, occasionally adding bonus features to its answers whenever it feels like it. It also seems to Lyra once or twice as though its response includes a low-grade scolding for asking the wrong question.
• All these shots without daemons are starting to feel weirder and weirder, especially given how central this constant companionship is to the plot this week. Was it that much more expensive, financially or narratively, to bring in some real pets for people to hold?
• WILL’S BOXING COACH IS THE HOT MISOGYNIST. I take back every kind word I ever said about this casting department. How dare they make me think, Nine times?, in the middle of my very serious fantasy-feelings drama.