Daemons are the backbone of this whole story. They are the reason His Dark Materials appealed to children, and the reason it continues to resonate with fans into adulthood. They are the X factor that makes the series’ universe a compelling fantasy world. Souls and companions both, living outside our bodies, their presence is what makes a human being whole. To see a person without a daemon — as has been painstakingly established, both in the books and here in the television adaptation — is to see a zombie. That fact is the whole point of why we’re here.
I mentioned last week in passing that the absence of daemons in most shots was starting to feel strange for a story all about the abject horror of cutting them away. This week, with “The Daemon Cages,” that lack evolved into something positively ghoulish. The bond between human and daemon is sacred; the prologue in the premiere told us so. It’s illustrated time and time again in the original material through near-constant physical contact: daemons nuzzling into their humans’ chests, licking their faces, curling around their necks to warm them against cold and fear. Yet Lyra tells the children the truth of what’s happening to them at Bolvangar, and not a single child clutches her daemon against her in terror. They are metaphors, yes, representative of a person’s heart of hearts — the elder doctor at Bolvangar has a fox, for example, a cunning hunter — but they are also just as much a source of comfort, both physical and emotional.
And here, in the coldest reaches of hell, where children are being brutally stripped of their personhood in the name of returning humanity to the Garden of Eden, they are virtually invisible. They remain limp in cages, or on the floor for a split-second cutaway, or lurking in the corner of the frame. Nothing visibly separates severed children from unsevered ones at Bolvangar, save shaved heads (an inexplicable add-on that invokes experimental prison-camp labs but little medical purpose). No child pets a daemon; no child seems to even acknowledge their presence. Even after a second viewing, I realized that I could not remember ever seeing the younger doctor’s daemon at all. How was this, His Dark Materials’ emotional core, the place where the showrunners decided they had no choice but to cut costs? How much could an ASPCA rep and a few dozen well-behaved hamsters and parakeets possibly have set the budget back? Even the Harry Potter films had more animal contact than this, and Harry’s owl lived in a completely separate tower.
Now the daemons merely serve as walkie-talkies between Lyra and Roger when they finally reunite, discreetly, in the mess hall. Roger’s hair has been cut and the light in his eyes has dimmed, but he’s been luckier than Billy and Bridget, the latter a bespectacled girl called during their meal to undergo the “procedure.” During another examination as “Lizzie Brooks,” a routine fire alarm sounds, and “Lizzie” is escorted with the other children out into the courtyard for the drill. Here, Lyra is finally able to talk to Roger, who insists the Gyptians won’t stand a chance against the Tartars and warns her against “sticking out.” But when has Lyra Belacqua ever listened to Roger Parslow? She starts a snowball fight as a diversion, and the pair — Roger visibly heartened by her perennial stubbornness — sneak away to find an exit they can exploit later.
Unfortunately, what they find is the opposite of an exit: It’s a room of cages. Here are the daemons that have been cut away from the children who have survived the procedure; Billy Costa’s Ratter has disappeared, however, and Roger recoils from Lyra when she breaks the news. Lewin Lloyd is a deceptively good actor; while Roger appears a bit dim in earlier episodes, here his eyes well up, sparkling and gently overflowing with tears as Lyra explains what intercision is, and how she found Billy. He’s changed by the trauma of his experiences since Jordan, and it shows. Even adult actors have trouble with this degree of subtlety. They have just enough time to find the children belonging to those caged daemons, sitting or lying staring into space in a dorm room, their heads shaved, dully counting the alarm bells.
That image provides a horrific backdrop for the following conversation, in the office, between the two experimental theologians. The younger has been nursing some doubts about killing children in the name of science. (“This is a philosophical institution, not a child chophouse,” he insists to “Lizzie” when she asks if they’re cutting daemons away.) The lead researcher reiterates that their pseudoscientific work is necessary and righteous, that they are “freeing generations from the tyranny of sin.” Her case is bolstered by the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Coulter, who wants to see the new “separator” machine in action. A whole five children have survived the procedure since she visited last! Now the patient can be conscious during and after treatment! Intercision is basically a stand-in for lobotomy at this point.
Like a cat playing with its food, Mrs. Coulter really enjoys playing Madonna to the children she’s having murdered, and she visits the dorm where Lyra is being held. The children see her coming, and Lyra quickly explains everything to them, from her identity to their imminent escape and rescue, convincing them just in time to hide her under the bed. Because she’s basically treated Jordan College like a CrossFit course her whole life, she successfully hangs from the metal frame, evading her mother and her horrible monkey. I do like the sisterhood Lyra develops with the girls, however brief, as they grip each other’s hands in the mess hall when “Lizzie Brooks” is called to undergo the procedure for Mrs. Coulter’s viewing pleasure.
Of course, it doesn’t take. They manage to stuff Lyra and Pantalaimon into either side of the separator — again violating the taboo against handling someone else’s daemon, but they’re basically about to murder them, so what’s one more touch? — but a moment’s hesitation from the younger theologian, coupled with Lyra’s copious screams of “I am the daughter of Mrs. Coulter!” and “Mother!” allow just enough time for the lady of the hour to show up and shut down the machine.
What follows in an anteroom between Madonna and child is nothing short of a watershed conversation. Lyra has the high ground every step of the way; she patiently watches her mother attempt to justify everything, from abandoning her as an infant (It wouldn’t have been good for either of us, and it was really your dad’s idea anyway) to why she would never subject her own daughter to the “research” she’s spearheading on other children here. “Grown-ups are infected so deeply [with Dust] that it’s too late for them. Condemned to a life of sin, guilt, and regret,” she explains, and we see how this whole monstrous project has been driven almost entirely by its architect’s desperation to escape these things. Sin and guilt and regret — and the “troublesome thoughts and feelings” daemons allegedly bring in puberty — are the root, she’s convinced, of everything that has gone wrong in her life. Sin drove her to cheat on her husband. It drove him to attempt to kill his wife’s bastard, and it then drove Asriel to kill him. It’s why everyone in her old life turned her into a pariah. If it’s too late for her — if she cannot escape that sin and guilt and regret — she might as well double down and make it worthwhile.
Of course, this is the thought process of a zealot. Lyra’s expression remains neutral as her mother shrugs off the death of Billy Costa and countless other children, assuring Lyra that she and her friends are otherwise “safe” from the “teething problems” involved in “sacrificing the few for the many.” But we can see the choice in Lyra’s face anyway, especially when Coulter asks for the alethiometer, reasoning that Asriel doesn’t need “more toys to do damage with.” We can see the realization that her mother is truly beyond redemption. She knows she’s her one weakness — if her mother had bothered to raise her, perhaps she would’ve been better at recognizing her Deceit Face — and tells her what she wants to hear, handing over the alethiometer-shaped tobacco tin containing the spy-fly. As Coulter hungrily pries it open and the demon-bug flies directly into her face, Lyra and Pantalaimon (who we don’t see at all during this scene) bolt, locking her in by breaking the keypad with a fire extinguisher. They shriek at each other through the door, feral with rage — like mother, like daughter — and Lyra runs to trip the fire alarm again.
Sending Roger to get the severed children, Lyra retrieves her own clothing and is nearly stopped by a nurse, but manages to distract her by bringing up her own absent daemon. Somehow (seriously, HOW), the Gyptian caravan arrives at this exact moment, armed with guns and a big-ass angry bear. Ma Costa immediately finds the terrified younger scientist who murdered her son and snaps his neck. (This moment should have been satisfying, but instead it feels impassive: Sure, they don’t have a lot of time, and it makes sense that she’d compartmentalize, but if you want Ma Costa to kill her son’s murderer in businesslike fashion, don’t have her say, “He was only a boy,” halfway between anguished and conversational, while she does it.)
Meanwhile, Iorek greets Lyra with sarcasm (which, wow, didn’t we just establish last week that panserbjørne don’t do deceit?), Lee Scoresby shoots a Tartar in the back of the head to save a bunch of cowering children, and Lyra sends the machine into overdrive, permanently destroying it. The Gyptians are fighting the Tartars in the courtyard, apparently way better matched to the task than anyone gave them credit for in the lead-up, but for some reason, at that moment, Serafina whooshes in like a goddamned Death Eater and wipes out every single Tartar in a matter of seconds. Show’s over; we won. The Gyptians gather up the daemonless children Roger has successfully coaxed into following him. (Mrs. Coulter and her daemon escape, fittingly, through the HVAC system.)
Lee has managed to get his balloon into the Bolvangar courtyard and fires it up: It wasn’t really part of Lyra’s plan to go on to free Lord Asriel from his detention on Svalbard, as Ma Costa claims it was, but it makes sense that she’d want to anyway. The balloon is big enough for Lee, Lyra, Roger, and, incredibly, Iorek; the Gyptians begin the long trudge back south with the rest of the kids.
Up in the air, Lee makes a very good point to Serafina Pekkala, who drops in again to “give them a tow” toward Svalbard. His contract is fulfilled — he should be getting paid that “danger money” for extending it. His client is now emotionally manipulating him into working without pay, or, as he absolutely cringingly puts it, they “blindsided me with love.” He loves Lyra now, so yeah — he’ll maybe die for free. Or, my bad, help the Chosen One fulfill her great and terrible destiny. “The world is in your hands, Mr. Scoresby, and I am delighted it is,” Serafina purrs as she takes off into the night, unburdened by things like rent or food bills.
Shortly thereafter, the balloon is beset, without warning, by cliff-ghasts, awful winged creatures not unlike the flying monkeys of Oz, who are very hungry. Their attack sends the basket rocking, and the door swings open, tossing Lyra alone out the side and toward the icy tundra below.
Again, where is Pantalaimon as the two of them plunge to their imminent death? Guess he was just relaxing in her pocket.
• Might just be a trick of the light, but it seems like the eyes of those who have had the “procedure” are being darkened in postproduction, like their pupils have been blown out.
• Anybody else notice that every time someone brings up the witch prophecy, they say something slightly vaguer than the last time someone brought it up? To the point where it’s starting to sound more horoscope than prophecy?
• Why are the severed daemons in cages when they leave Bolvangar and not in their humans’ arms?
• Lewin Lloyd (Roger) was also in HDM writer Jack Thorne’s film The Aeronauts — that basically makes his line about disliking heights an Easter egg, right?
• Speaking of Roger, I’m glad he gets his own spicy little personality, one that doesn’t start and end with his relationship to Lyra.
• What kind of daemon name is “Nicholas”?
• We didn’t need to check in on Will’s universe at all this week. What a nothingburger scene, watching him watch YouTube videos of his dad. Ditto that odd 30 seconds in which we watch the Gyptians awkwardly drag a sled across a rocky mountain crag in a snowstorm, for that matter. And the weird “Billy would have been proud of us” coda between John Faa and Ma Costa. These feel like little parenthetical additions after studio notes come back demanding the show check in with every subplot. Instead, we really could have used more time to build emotion in the central story line. Or a little more battle, to dignify the actual stakes of the rescue and alleviate the need for an abrupt witch ex machina to win.