His Dark Materials
In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium is the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously. Multiple attempts by filmmakers and showrunners to obscure that undeniable fact is hilarious in its impotence. But at the same time its creators are denying this, the series has also ironically transformed the Magisterium into an even closer avatar for the Catholic church than it was to begin with.
In the books, the Holy Church has no pope. The last pope in Lyra’s universe was John Calvin — yes, that John Calvin — and he moved the seat of the Church from Rome to Geneva. After his death, the papacy was abolished and the Magisterium took its place wholesale, meaning that the Church we see in the novels is governed by a series of increasingly sinister bureaucratic committees, all of which are heinous but whose power and influence fluctuate over time, that come together in a sort of consortium called the Magisterial congress. This is what makes them terrifying: the fact that all of the Church’s atrocities are decided on by a shadowy rat king of priests without a defined head.
So it’s funny that, in spending a huge chunk of this episode on the Church, we ended up watching the election of a new pope anyway. Last season, Cardinal Sturrock was of course powerful, but it was never defined that he was the church’s head honcho; now his death necessitates a full-on conclave to decide on the Magisterium’s new “leader.” If the series creators’ goal was to not insult Catholics or religious groups in general, then they fully self-sabotaged by expanding the role of the Magisterium and its miserable little peons, a focus that has now produced a hierarchy almost identical to the real-life Catholic Church.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t tremendously enjoy watching Father MacFailure seal himself into his own cask-of-amontillado-style trap to win said election. The guy commits a literal witch holocaust, condemning witch consul Dr. Lanselius for heresy and then burning down their ancestral woods, no doubt killing hundreds in an effort to win favor from the other priests, only to be immediately owned by someone who isn’t even officially a part of the church: Mrs. Coulter. “You have nothing to thank me for,” she purrs when he’s finally elected. “Don’t you see? This is a curse. A web of my design, in which you are both the spider and the fly…I have a very, very good memory, and since you need the past to remain buried, you’ll turn the other cheek while I take what I want. Good luck!” I hope this means we’ll see less of him — and less of that giant, brutalist, Madison Square Garden-ass building that passes for the Vatican — going forward.
Meanwhile, the children disguise Lyra in regular clothing, shove Pan into a backpack (“Unbelievable!”), and head to Will’s Oxford, where Lyra immediately runs into the street and an oncoming car. This brooding version of Lyra is barely fazed by these differences; in fact, when she finds proof that Jordan College really doesn’t exist here, she’s only slightly crestfallen, like she knew better than to hope Will was wrong. (In the books, she’s fully bewildered and childishly indignant about just about everything. Except hamburgers. Bummed we didn’t get to see Lyra eat a hamburger and go to Will’s frequent sanctuary, the cinema.) Lyra does quickly understand what a smartphone is — at least, that it “tells you the news” just like her alethiometer, which, by the way, Will, told Lyra you’re a murderer. Unsurprisingly, this does not go over well with the poor, ever-defensive, guilt-ridden kid, so when he finally charges his phone and gets a signal again, a flood of texts from his mother provide the perfect excuse to get the hell away from Lyra for a few hours.
The events that follow, however, quickly rid him of the illusion that the other parts of his life would be preferable to putting up with the insanity that is Lyra Silvertongue. He tries and fails to get some of the trust fund money his dad left to keep him and his mom afloat (though what he would’ve done with it, I can’t imagine), but does learn from his dad’s lawyer that he has grandparents who are alive and well in Oxford. Shitty WASP grandparents, one of whom wants to institutionalize his Black mother and seize guardianship of him while the other just straight-up calls Boreal’s DI to snitch the minute Will mentions the trust fund, but hey! Families, amirite? Implacable survivor he is, Will catches on quickly, spilling his tea as diversion and making a run for it before grandma can come back with a towel. Despite all the frustrating aspects of this show, Amir Wilson continues to be its saving grace. Every time someone hurts him, I just want to do crimes on whoever put that heartbroken look on his face.
The series gets another sparkling saving grace this week, in the form of Mary Malone, the absent-minded physicist to whom the alethiometer leads Lyra. After a brief trip to Oxford’s natural history museum to see an exhibit about her favorite subject (the North) and an “accidental” run-in there with Lord Boreal — who has been following the kids since they arrived in this universe, and introduces himself to her as a “collector” philanthropist named “Charles Latrom” — Lyra is surprised to find the “scholar” she’s not supposed to lie to is a woman. (There are few female scholars in her world, and Jordan’s scholars have taught her to be very dismissive of those that do exist.) She quickly recovers, though, and proceeds to word-vomit about Dust and her father and her dead friend to a woman who was just clinging to a window frame to watch some baby birds a few seconds prior and hasn’t gotten past the words “in my world” yet.
After some confusion, some tea and stale biscuits, and a tremendous amount of compassion on Mary’s part, the pair finally discover that Lyra’s “Dust” and the focus of her research — dark matter, or “shadow particles” — are one and the same. Mary and her colleagues have built a computer they call The Cave, which interacts with dark matter contained by an electromagnetic field, allowing them to communicate with it. (“The Cave” is a cutesy reference to Plato’s cave allegory, which says that people who have lived their whole lives chained to the wall of a cave can’t possibly know that shadows are thrown by physical objects and thus simply believe the shadows themselves are all there is to reality.) Because as they’ve discovered, dark matter appears conscious! It responds more actively to objects that human beings have crafted, like chess pieces, than to natural objects, like apples. And when Mary gets into the mental zone that the poet John Keats once described as “negative capability” — a sort of meditative state where you patiently wait for truth without expectations, a state just like the one Lyra enters when she reads the alethiometer — the particles “flock to [her] thoughts like birds.”
Of course, once Lyra plugs in, it’s a whole different ball game. She speaks the language of the alethiometer, a common tongue between humans and dark matter, so after showing Mary the device and demonstrating its power (Mary used to be a nun!), she straps into the Cave, which immediately becomes its own alethiometer, recreating the device’s symbols on the monitor for Lyra to translate. “It says you’re important, that you have something important to do, but you have to make the connection yourself,” she tells Mary. “The Chinese box you have upstairs” — an I Ching box set — “you’ll need it where you’re going.” (If its past interweaving of the books are any indicator of this show’s future, then I am utterly terrified to see Mary’s story in The Amber Spyglass overlap with this season. One of the best subplots of the whole trilogy, but also the one most likely to be savagely botched.)
The Cave also tells Lyra she’s late to meet Will, which really was quite considerate of those particles. After promising Mary she’ll return the next day, Lyra dashes away to meet him at the botanic gardens — a place both their worlds share, a very important place that already has fans losing their minds with foreshadowing. The poor kid is a nervous wreck on account of all the emotional and financial dead-ends, not to mention running from the cops. This isn’t helped by Lyra’s babbling about Mary Malone and the Cave, which sounds to him like she spent the afternoon “playing.” Finally, it occurs to Lyra that she should simply show Will how the alethiometer works. Earlier, it told her that she would have to help him find his father, much to her surprise, as she had been convinced she was the main character here. But if she didn’t trust the alethiometer for a full hour last week, she definitely trusts it now, and patiently shows him how she knows about the murder. She assures him that his mother is safe and he opens up about the incident — of which he hasn’t spoken to anyone before now — about how horribly it has fucked him up, and how scared he is that now he’ll have to abandon his mum the way his father abandoned them. She tells him about Roger, and how she hates herself for it, and her vow to never betray someone like that again. (No spoilers, but ugh, this promise just shattered the heart of everyone who has read the books.) They might be impossibly lonely semi-orphans in an interdimensional quest, but at least now they’ll have each other.
(On the bench.)
Father Graves’s “interrogation” of Dr. Lanselius is a demonstration of everything we need to know about both the Church — he goes back and forth between denigrating witches and insisting that they’re powerful and have kept important secrets from the Magisterium — and about Mrs. Coulter’s true motives. “What sort of a mother would send her child away?” Graves grandstands, as the camera cuts straight to Coulter’s seething face. “Is this not all a perversion of all that is natural?”
We did get one very key bit of information from that literal witch trial, however: Lanselius describes the coming-of-age ritual in which a young witch travels someplace far north “where daemons cannot follow,” henceforth allowing witch and daemon to separate across long distances “without breaking the soul.”
The witches are still arguing over a course of action when MacPhail firebombs their homes. Ruta Skadi wants to unite the nine clans in a full-on war; Serafina Pekkala, pissed that Ruta just up and killed the not-pope, just wants to protect “the girl and the prophecy.” They still don’t know Lyra is in another universe.
It’s relatively inconsequential this week, but I just want to give a shout-out to any scene between Boreal and Coulter, like this one they share at the consistorial court. Their conversations are so manipulative and meaning-dense, they should be subtitled: when Boreal is asking about Asriel, he’s really telling Coulter he knows her too well to believe that she didn’t see him walk through the gate. When Coulter asks him where he’s “been hiding,” she’s really probing for more information about these parallel universes. And when Boreal inquires after Lyra, he’s really saying, “Your daughter hates you and I have her in my crosshairs.” Of course, that’s where Coulter drops the act and hisses, “My daughter is none of your business.” Can you imagine the history required for this sort of deadly quasi-sexual tension?
The show keeps muddling the locations of the window Boreal uses to come and go between his universe and Will’s, and the one that takes Will and Lyra between Will’s universe and Cittàgazze’s. They’re distinctly different doorways, so how does Boreal know where Will’s is to stake it out? And if Boreal knows where Will’s is, why hasn’t he poked his head into Cittàgazze and gotten spectre’d?
Disappointed that we didn’t get to see Lyra and the alethiometer correct the carbon-dating on the museum’s trepanned skulls. (They’re way older than the exhibit suggests.) In the books, it’s a satisfying blow to the idea that adults always know best. I guess the glowing eyes of the statues that follow her as she leaves are a decent consolation.
I loved the symmetry of Mary’s equations written on the glass wall of the Cave calling back to Asriel’s in his arctic lab.