His Dark Materials
At last: magic. A moment of pure, spine-chilling wonder, unfettered by puppetry or casting or invented trauma. Dr. Mary Malone’s encounter in the Cave this week might not have had anything to do with Lyra or Will. It might have come late in the episode. But it is the one, undeniably perfect scene that communicates just how incandescently beautiful His Dark Materials can be, if its adapters let it happen.
If anyone deserves such a perfect scene, it’s Mary. She’s spent the whole day being belittled by men, first by “Charles Latrom,” who pops by to discuss investing and mansplain her own work to her and say things like, “I’ve always admired women with a good work ethic,” before gushing about how many defense applications their discoveries could have. Then, when she summarily kicks him out and turns to her research partner for an explanation, he minimizes her concerns about bad actors co-opting their existentially consequential work by suggesting she looks tired. She is every bit a hero throughout, from the look she gives Latrom to her easy, definitive refusal to entertain the idea of compromising her professional integrity; such exhausting bullshit could not have made it any easier to settle into that “negative capability” mindset to give communicating with dark matter another go.
To say her patience is rewarded would be an immense understatement: the dark matter has learned English, or it taught her computer how to translate its own language, and it is ready to answer her questions. At the risk of hypocrisy, I’m going to copy and paste their conversation, which is itself copied word-for-word from The Subtle Knife, because it alone has proven to work in any medium. It is just that iconic:
MARY: Are you shadows?
MARY: Are shadows the same as Lyra’s Dust?
MARY: And is Dust dark matter?
MARY: So dark matter is conscious?
Evidently. [ED NOTE: Dust is rude. I love that it’s rude.]
MARY: The mind that’s answering these questions. It isn’t human, is it?
No. But humans have always known us.
MARY: There’s more than one of you?
MARY: What are you?
MARY: Angels are creatures made up of shadow matter, of Dust.
MARY: And shadow matter is what we call spirit?
From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one.
MARY: You’ve always been there.
Making. Stimulating. Guiding.
MARY: So does that mean angels have intervened in human evolution?
MARY: But why?
This exchange, coupled with the information we learn from a (vastly more annoying) conversation between Lee Scoresby and John “Jopari” Parry, has instantly widened the context in which Lyra and Will’s story is playing out. This isn’t just about special children and their special toys and some Potteresque chosen-one prophecy. It’s going to be about every world, every universe in existence! It’s about a battle of immortals and mortals alike over who gets to determine how those universes flourish or die! It’s an atheist’s Paradise Lost fanfic!
Which isn’t to say that what “Jopari” says about good and evil, about freedom and oppression, is as deep as he thinks it is. After his daemon Sayan Kötör (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a bright little Easter egg for all the Fleabag heads) finds Lee and Hester desperately lost on the Jungle Cruise and guides them back toward their homestead, John Parry proves to Lee that it was he who summoned the aeronaut, not the other way around, by producing Lee’s dead mother’s ring. (What a smug creep Will’s dad is.) The weapon Lee believes he has is actually elsewhere; he’s seeking it too, to bring to Lord Asriel, but Lee shouldn’t be put off from assisting Asriel by such trivial things as hating his guts for what he’s done to his daughter.
“Like him? Who does?” Parry chuckles. “This is much, much bigger than that. Don’t confuse the man with the mission.” He contends that Asriel needs the subtle knife because he’s leading the more righteous of two forces that have “always been at war with each other: those who repress, who command, who don’t want us to be conscious, inquiring beings; and those who want us to know more, to be stronger and wiser, to explore.” The idea that the universe can be divided so neatly in two is a religious fiction. Sometimes those who “want us to know more” are tech billionaires who don’t actually care about other people and do need to be “commanded,” John! Sometimes those who want us to be “stronger” and “wiser” create the atom bomb and encode their own biases into artificial intelligences and then fire people who are paid to point that out!
His own son has to contend with this reality, now that he’s the new bearer of the subtle knife. The knife, created by the Guild 300 years ago, gets a mid-season prologue that, much like Eva Green’s in 2007’s The Golden Compass film, hews far, far too close to Galadriel’s One Ring prologue for comfort. These philosophers and scientists discovered a way to cut the bonds between the smallest of atoms and created the knife for that purpose: one edge to cut any material in the universe, the other to cut doorways between universes. Instead of using it for good, of course, they chose to plunder other universes to enrich themselves. All their slashing created openings for spectres to enter their world; Asriel’s not-so-subtle tear in the sky three centuries later multiplied their numbers exponentially. “The subtle knife was born of hope, but used for greed,” Serafina Pekkala intones. “In the right hands, it could still save us all.”
The knife and Will find each other when Will and Lyra figure out how to get into the Torre Degli Angeli. Inside, Angelica and Paola’s brother Tullio has imprisoned the current bearer and resident of the tower, an old man named Giacomo Paradisi, knowing that the subtle knife’s power includes the ability to kill spectres. The poor guy’s desperation is palpable; he’s filthy and clearly out of his mind with fear, and he attacks Will with the knife the moment they discover Paradisi bound and gagged on the floor. A fight ensues, one that is weirdly also ripped beat for beat from the book, including Will wrapping a rope around his fist to protect his knuckles and the pair crashing through the tower window to struggle on the ledge before Lyra and a freed Giacomo haul them in. (Also, at one point, Tullio kicks Pantalaimon, who’s taken the form of a red panda. Jail for Tullio! Jail for Tullio for One Thousand Years!!) This Will, however, has been formally trained as a boxer. When the knife slices off the ring and pinky fingers of his right hand, he doesn’t register the injury, finally disarming Tullio with a series of professionally delivered blows and sending him running, away from the tower and toward a fate worse than death.
Will passes out briefly when he realizes what he’s lost (including a fair bit of blood), but when he awakens, they’re in Giacomo’s quarters, and the former bearer explains everything, very patiently and very quickly. Losing these fingers in a fight signifies that the knife — also known as Æsahaettr — has chosen a new bearer, as it did for him as a young man; he doesn’t have a choice in the matter. (Amir Wilson must be left-handed, because it’s his right hand that’s maimed; in the book, it’s always the left.) He shows him how to create a window, which involves the same “negative capability” mindset that Lyra and Mary use to speak to Dust. It takes a few tries and red panda Pan reaching out to briefly lick Will’s wound, stunning Will and Lyra both, but finally he gets the hang of it. Finally, Giacomo explains, the rules of knife-bearing are simple:
• Never let anyone else use the knife.
• Never open a window without closing it.
• Don’t use it for base purposes.
• Keep it secret. (Keep it safe.)
The second and last rules especially apply to Boreal, with whom Giacomo is acquainted. (It’s cleared up this week when Boreal leads Mrs. Coulter through to Cittàgazze that the greenhouse window connects their world and this “crossroads” world, meaning he’s had to elude the spectres to get to that second door in the park in Will’s world.) His duty complete, the old bearer bids them a final adieu and heads back up to the tower to drink poison and spite the spectres, who come swooping in when they sense he no longer has the knife.
This whole encounter may have cost Will a couple appendages (all without painkillers!), but as we see later that night when he’s in the bath and Lyra brings him towels — a bittersweet reversal of her scene with Roger in the season one finale — it’s a small price to pay for what he has now. Not only does he now have a supernatural weapon without equal and a way to travel across the multiverse at will (heh), but the experience has brought him and Lyra (and Pan) closer than ever. “You were chosen, Will,” Lyra tells him, explaining that the alethiometer told her he was important. “That’s because of the person you are.” They’ll need to steal the alethiometer back, now that the trade is out of the question, but they’ll be doing it together. Not quite as magical a scene as the smart lady talking to angels with science, but for the kids’ sake, I hope it gets there soon.
• While the children he’s extorting are away stealing for him, Boreal meets with Mrs. Coulter to triumphantly gloat about his little scheme to entrap her daughter. For the first time, we’re seeing the cracks in his suave presentation. Not only is he maniacally jealous of Asriel — “always so insistent he be the first to do everything” — but it seems his whole plan was to “give” Lyra as a “gift” to Marisa, and that by returning her favorite dolly, perhaps he’ll finally get to have her as his dolly. Judging by the smile that doesn’t reach her eyes when she says, “Very well, Carlo. Take me to another world,” it’s safe to say his calculations are about to be off by several very dangerous orders of magnitude.
• The Magisterium’s burning of the witches’ forest has chastened Ruta Skadi, who feels (rightfully) guilty for having incited the retaliation. Fortunately, though, Serafina Pekkala has also had a change of heart: the atrocity has galvanized her toward war, if that’s what it takes to get to Lyra. (Though it should be said that whoever decided to give Ruta such a cliché’d line as “The Magisterium will pay for what they did to us” needs to be put on a serious writer time out.) Upon reaching Asriel’s tear in the sky, it takes them mere minutes to kill the Magisterium crew aboard the zeppelin guard, set all of the crafts on fire, and head through the portal.
• The way we’re now pronouncing “Jopari” — a portmanteau of “John Parry,” derived from the pronunciation of the northern tribe with whom he lived when he first came to Lyra’s universe — will sound like chewing glass for those of us who always assumed it was “joe-PAH-ree.”
• As much as I hate to say it — and I really, really hate to say it — I’m not really feeling Andrew Scott as John Parry! He’s smug and willfully opaque in a way that feels wrong for the character; I simply don’t believe him as the man who helped create this version of Will Parry, even as an absentee father. He also has a man bun and a jacket that makes him look like he just got back from a tooootally life-changing experience doing psychedelics at a Buddhist temple in Nepal, bro. As you can imagine, this made his whole encounter with Lee — played by another actor who might be enjoyable elsewhere but is fully clunking the role — positively excruciating. Worse still, now, with the help of some kind of magic shaman wind, they’re traveling together in Lee’s balloon in search of both Lyra and the knife (Parry doesn’t yet know his son is the bearer), which means my torment is to have a multi-episode arc.
• Please, someone stop my brain from bringing up Monty Python’s Bruces every time someone mentions the philosophers and their Guild.