His Dark Materials
Recently, I was struggling to articulate exactly why this new season of His Dark Materials has left me so underwhelmed. As an ardent fan of this universe, I should be thrilled with how it’s going. On paper, at least, these episodes are remaining so faithful to the source material that they’re pulling extended chunks of dialogue straight from the text. Despite this and despite the fact that I return to the books themselves year after year without tiring of them, I’ve found getting through each of these episodes even once to be an exercise in willpower. Beyond a few heartening performances (Amir Wilson and Simone Kirby continue to sparkle despite everything), there’s not a whole lot of magic going around. It’s almost embarrassing to be such a huge fan and then attempt to introduce friends or family to this universe through the TV series. I brought this up to a friend, another lifelong fan, and her answer has been echoing through my mind ever since: “The show as a whole is exactly the sum of its parts. Also, the Magisterium ripped off its logo from Tory Burch.”
Because, of course, dragging book dialogue onto the screen isn’t enough to create television gold. It’s beautiful, to be sure: Who couldn’t buy something nice with a reported $10 million per episode? In a disturbing reversal of fate, we’ve come back around to a problem I described in my recap of the show’s 2019 premiere, that time in reference to the show’s predecessor. The 2007 film “suffered from the original sin of translation: that in order to fully transform a story from one language or medium to another, it must engage with and interpret the spirit of the story, rather than mechanically transfer each beat verbatim (and then throw a bunch of money at it to make it pretty).” At first, it seemed the creators of this adaptation understood this perfectly. Now I’m fairly certain of the contrary.
This week’s episode is an all-too-perfect demonstration. For the most part, “Theft” copies and pastes a couple of book chapters, tracing Lyra’s grave misjudgments with Boreal and the cops while continuing Lee Scoresby’s hunt for Grumman and Mary’s for a human-Dust common tongue. Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, Kaisa, visits Iorek Byrnison on Svalbard to learn of Lyra’s trip through her father’s hole in the sky. Its 40-odd minutes feel like a series of stepping stones to some future payoff. The sole new element in the mix is a bizarre plot pit stop, the addition of which suggests that whoever is in charge has lost track of where the story’s actual heart is. (Ironically, it also features the most physical comfort a person has received from its daemon to date, and it’s not a child!)
It all starts with a different kind of disregarded wisdom: Lyra ignores both Pan’s strong reservations and the alethiometer’s mandate that she help Will find his father and takes off back to St. Peter’s, where Mary Malone is busy trying to get the Cave to speak I Ching. Unfortunately, so does Boreal’s errand boy, D.I. Walters, who catches the pair on the elevator to Mary’s office just as the physicist is telling Lyra to make a run for it.
Lyra falls easily into her favorite pastime: lying. Dafne Keen abandons the doe-eyed, dull-witted façade Lyra easily puts on as “Lizzie Brooks” in the books, opting for a more era-appropriate cheeky passive-aggressiveness instead. Unfortunately, Lyra has still failed to consider that deception in this world is a little sharper around the edges than it is in her own, and she glides through a series of half-truth answers to Walters’s questions until a casual mention of Will trips her into admitting they’re staying together. Mary, bless her, makes a momentary stink about his methods, which Lyra uses as a distraction to run for it, Pan flying ahead as a guide.
Like any half-decent hunting dog, Walters gives chase and flushes them right out into “Charles Latrom’s” horrible Tesla. “Latrom” offers Lyra a ride, which she accepts in a panic and then immediately regrets, being that this is a creepy stranger whose every word seems to be infused with poison (remember, Ariyon Bakare’s Boreal is both Bond and Bond villain) and who seems uncomfortably familiar for some reason. She bolts the moment he pulls over, forgetting her backpack in her rush; “Latrom” returns it, of course, just … without the alethiometer inside. So in the span of a few hours, Lyra has betrayed Will to the police and lost perhaps the most priceless possession in the history of possessions.
Meanwhile, poor Will is worried sick. Having been reading his father’s letters, he now believes he could be alive out there, in one world or another, but when he goes to Lyra to ask her to use the alethiometer, she’s gone. Only after he has spent hours searching for her around Cittàgazze does he find her little “Be back soon, xo” note. It wasn’t a total waste, anyway; he runs into Angelica in some sort of tailor’s workshop, where she tells him a bit more about the Torre degli Angeli: It’s the stronghold of the Guild, a group of scientist-philosophers who disappeared around the time the spectres took over, and there’s “no way in or out.” (Why the Rufio of Cittàgazze suddenly decides to help Will out with this little bit of exposition remains a mystery. She also advises he make “a plan” since he’s almost of spectre age, though what kind of “plan” that would be escapes mention as well.)
Once Will figures out where Lyra has gone, he rushes back through the window and to the Bench, where he finds her distraught. (Although not nearly distraught enough; here’s Lyra reacting in The Subtle Knife: “She who seldom cried was sobbing with rage … so passionately [Will] thought that hearts really did break, and hers was breaking now, for she fell to the ground wailing and shuddering, and Pantalaimon beside her became a wolf and howled with bitter grief.”) Luckily, Pan remembers that Latrom had given Lyra his card the day before, when she met him at the museum, so she knows where to find him. While they wait for the cover of darkness, Will takes them to a movie theater, yielding a scene so pure and delightful it almost makes the rest of the episode worth it. Not only does Lyra discover the joys of popcorn (absolutely disgusting, tastes like wood shavings, can’t stop eating it), but both she and Pan get to experience the magic of cinema through the most heartwarming film in existence: Paddington. (As a movie about a talking bear who travels far from home, it enchants Pantalaimon in particular.) Will, who never really had a childhood, much less a friend, can’t fathom why Lyra doesn’t seem to “take anything seriously,” “anything” apparently including such grave endeavors as eating popcorn. (Relatedly, until that poor kid laughs at a joke, I will not know peace.)
“Just because I’m not sat in a corner crying doesn’t mean I don’t take things seriously,” she retorts. Convinced that he came looking for her thinking she’s been “messing around,” she lays it all out for him — about her dad killing her best friend and how she hates herself for having betrayed him and how everything she’s doing is to make it right again. Chastened, Will admits, “I came looking for you because I was worried about you.” Two traumatized, hunted orphans learning day by day that maybe they really can trust each other: You love to see it. (What little of “it” there is, anyway.)
Afterward, when they head to Latrom’s place — the word house doesn’t really feel right for this veritable museum of an estate — they’re a united front. Will goes into advocate-for-mum mode, asking the man to return the object that “Lizzie” “left” in his car. Boreal has adjusted to this universe quite well, though, and all but purrs that possession is nine-tenths of the law as he produces the compass from a safe. Even if they could prove it was hers, what are they going to do, call the cops on him? Of course not.
He abruptly drops the act and calls the pair by their real names, suggesting that Lyra isn’t as sharp as her mother, at which point Lyra finally remembers him from Coulter’s soiree. (Remember when he murdered that journalist by crushing her butterfly daemon in his hand?) If they want it back so bad, however, perhaps the trio could negotiate a deal: He knows about the window to Cittàgazze, and, seeing as he can’t go there without being attacked by spectres, he’d like them to procure a knife from the man who made that window, who Boreal believes to have taken refuge in the Torre Degli Angeli. “We’ll get your knife,” Lyra growls into Boreal’s face. (She straight up spits in his face in the book, but maybe chucking a crystal tumbler against the wall is a rough equivalent.)
All the way back in Lyra’s world, Lee Scoresby and Hester are still ballooning about, combing random towns across the north for news of Grumman. Finally, they end up blown “accidentally” toward a new town, where they stake out the saloon of the Samirsky Hotel to see what the locals know. Turns out, they know a lot! (Their luck, a hazy interstitial implies, is thanks to John Parry summoning them with a ring and a spell. So, uh, there’s that.) The wayward clientele have all sorts of rumors to share about how Grumman is a shaman and also a scientist who survived a bear trap to the leg (?). But the loud conversation attracts the unwanted attention of the Magisterium gestapo lurking in the shadows. Finally, the bartender with an unsettling red spider daemon and strong Oktoberfest Melisandre vibes suggests he check out the old observatory.
It’s a trap! There he finds but one astronomer, a weathered guy who almost immediately takes his inquiries after Grumman — a heretic, didn’t you know? — as evidence of his being an enemy of the Magisterium. He’s not not wrong, necessarily, but shooting at a man as he’s walking out the door isn’t exactly smart, especially when that man also has a gun. Lee returns fire, running to the guy’s side just as the man’s lemur daemon disintegrates and he dies. They’re going to make a run for it, but by now those Magisterium goons have the place surrounded, and they take him captive. It just so happens that the Samirsky Hotel is a common enough way station in the region that who should happen to breeze in for the night, while her daughter-questing zeppelin refuels, but Mrs. Marisa Coulter?
In the books, Lee and Hester simply move on after this. His capture by Magisterium goons, who surround the observatory and throw him into a jail cell, never happens. His subsequent tête-à-tête with Lyra’s mother is also purely a product of the show’s creators. (Although, to be fair, author Philip Pullman is credited as an executive producer.) Until now, some of the show’s additional adult content has been fun — Coulter and Boreal’s venomous little mating dances, for example, have spiced up the joint here and there, adding a weirdly sexy garnish to an existing relationship. Last season, Farder Coram’s crying over his dead child with the love of his life, Serafina Pekkala, felt like it expanded the story meaningfully, playing out an emotional reality that had already been alluded to while underscoring the witches’ complicated relationship with humans.
But surely there can’t be anyone out there who had hoped to see a bloody, chained Lee Scoresby psychoanalyze Mrs. Coulter by suggesting they were both horribly abused by their parents and therefore she can’t successfully torture him??? This woman has infiltrated and dominated the most powerful organization on earth. She is a cold-blooded murderer of children. And now one trash-talking Texan in a jail cell who happens to care about her kid rattles her badly enough to make her lose her composure and show weakness? Mrs. Coulter? Even going strictly by the TV show’s own standards, Ruth Wilson has put too much work into this character to be disrespected like this. Even if she is changing now that her one goal is to find and protect her child, even if his words did unnerve her and she really had been abused by her parents and this is why she’s like this, Marisa Coulter would have had the breakdown in private, screaming like a banshee and hitting her daemon in private, before ever letting someone like Lee Scoresby know he’s gotten under her skin. One could argue that, once she receives Boreal’s telegram saying he has Lyra in his clutches, springing him from his jail cell makes sense for her, in that she’s thinking practically about how best to ensure that no one kills her kid. He’s a means to an end. But after that whole emotional charade, it would appear a dangerous admission of vulnerability, of needing help — and if there’s one thing Mrs. Coulter cannot abide, it’s a man having power over her.
And then there’s Lee. Even fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda can admit the man only ever plays one character, and that character is Lin-Manuel Miranda doing various cosplays. This may work in his favor sometimes; I don’t know. The man may be a musical genius, but his monologue here feels expressly engineered for Lin-Manuel Miranda to have one of his signature moments of inspirational sincerity, to find the ~humanity~ in Coulter. The whole affair is framed as some sort of profound character development for both adults to acknowledge their origin stories, but it’s an unearned upstaging, some sort of commentary about masculinity or childhood trauma that comes at the cost of time with the actual children at the heart of this story — the ones who are being treated like members of an ensemble piece rather than its protagonists, who still often feel more like an adult’s idea of children rather than living, breathing, growing kids with rich interior lives who are being subjected to profound changes both from without and within. If you’re going to expand the emotional boundaries of the story on the page, I am begging you: Start with them.
• Mary finally gets dark matter to learn the language of the I Ching, though she doesn’t know it yet. Attempts in the lab have failed, and her niece and nephew come to stay the weekend. So she’s fiddling with the box of divination sticks in bed at home, practicing her “negative capability” mindset and reading the companion book when, miles away at the college, the Cave whirs to life, reproducing the hexagram she just made.
• Will being consumed by his phone while Lyra watches Paddington is pitch-perfect tween behavior, even if he is refreshing his news feeds and not mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.
• For all its danger and obscene wealth, I do find Boreal’s museum-house hilarious. His security system is named “LAT-CAM”; there’s an astronaut suit and what looks like, maybe, a chunk of the Titanic?? He’s like an alien dragon attempting to impersonate a human being; the kids just happen to have gotten a glimpse into his man cave of forbidden treasure.
• Boreal calls Cittàgazze a “crossroads” world, which both is and isn’t accurate. Once upon a time, according to the books, their universe was quite similar to Lyra’s or Will’s, but the arrival of the spectres quickly robbed it not only of its adult souls but also of every emotional bond or life plan anyone might have had before, leaving behind a crumbling civilization in which it’s all people can do to survive on what they can scavenge or steal — or, in the case of travelers like Will and Lyra, to simply pass through en route to elsewhere.