It must have been a result of these rifts in space-time, because somehow, despite any rational person’s grasp on temporal mechanics, it is now November, and His Dark Materials is back. As far as premieres go, our return to Lyra and Pantalaimon’s multiverse isn’t the flashiest comeback, even though it remains mostly true to Philip Pullman’s source text. This probably has something to do with the fact that, at some point between last year’s finale and now, Dafne Keen’s Lyra, markedly more brooding and subdued than her literary namesake, has decided that her best friend’s recent murder, by her father’s hand, was the fault of the alethiometer she carries. She spends the episode bickering with Pan — the only one who seems to remember that, a few hours and one universe ago, they agreed that Dust might actually be good — and resisting the urge to ask the device what she’s desperate to know: Where can we learn more about Dust? Is Mrs. Coulter still following them? Where is Lord Asriel? And could Roger ever forgive her?
The pair wander through a jungle for a few days, Pantalaimon still barely touching his person despite the crushing cold and loneliness of being 12 and lost in an alien world. At last, they come upon the “city in the sky” Lord Asriel showed the scholars at Jordan all those weeks (months? Whatever, time has no meaning) ago. This is the ghost town of Cittàgazze, where bands of anarchist children who inexplicably hate cats survive on what little bread and drink they can scavenge from the city’s countless abandoned homes and cafés. One could also say this city is the current capital city of the spectres, terrifying ghouls that have orphaned these Lost Boys and Girls by sucking the life (or, likely, Dust) out of their parents, turning them into zombies. (For the record, The Subtle Knife’s spectres preceded Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’s dementors by a solid two years.) Only adults can see and are thus victimized by the spectres, which means that as each child hits puberty, she becomes potential prey.
This is an imminent problem for Lyra’s new, slightly older friend Will Parry, whom she meets when she and Pan stumble upon the café where he’s been squatting after the desire to pet a kitty led him through the window from his universe into this one. If you recall from last season, Will has been on the run from Lord Boreal’s murder-goons for some time now, and an abandoned city full of unspoiled food seems preferable to trying to lie low at a grimy coffee shop or on an even grimier city bus. Lyra has him in an arm lock before he has a chance to register that this intruder comes fully equipped with a talking ermine. Once she releases him, he promptly does the one thing that would most alienate these newcomers: try to touch Pan.
The taboo violation goes over about as well as you’d expect, but for some reason, it’s still Pan who presses Lyra toward pragmatism here, arguing to stick with this daemon-less weirdo, who also happens to have arrived here from another universe, in hopes that he can help them in their Dusty quest. Besides, he can cook. (Her query as to whether he is a “kitchen boy” also goes over about as well as you’d expect, though it does explain her simultaneous reluctance and desperation to fill the Roger-shaped hole her life.) Once she decides they will move in with him — colonizing his bed and everything — he even gets something called a “shower” working. (Not that she deigns to use this “stand-up bath.”) She attempts to reciprocate his hospitality by recreating his “om-eh-latt,” though her recipe involves 100 percent more eggshells.
Not long after their alliance is sealed, they finally run into some Cittàgazze orphans, Angelica and Paola (the former played by Bella Ramsey, aka Game of Thrones’ Lyanna Mormont). The girls give them the lowdown on spectres, make a quickly stifled reference to someone named Tulio, and turn their attention briefly toward the colossal tower at the town center guarded by larger-than-life angel statues. That’s right, it’s the “tower surrounded by angels” described by the Magisterium’s alethiometer, which told Fra Pavel, and by extension Boreal, that Dr. Stanislaus Grumman’s son would lead them to a knife the explorer discovered there.
But the consequences of that revelation are postponed until a later date, because after running into a spectred young man and saving Will’s stray cat from a mob of superstitious Cittàgazze children, Lyra and Will are on much closer terms, and they discover just how similar their worlds are. (For newcomers: “anbaric” lights are electric, “electrum” is amber, and, though it’s not relevant here, “naphtha” lamps are oil.) Lyra immediately begs Will to take her to his Oxford, where she’s convinced she’ll find answers to her questions about Dust. Keen’s Lyra has retained book Lyra’s imperious streak, at least, which is apparent as she argues that she’s not safe in her world, completely disregarding Will’s protests that he’s not safe in his world, either. What matters to Lyra Silvertongue is that there’s something she wants in Will’s Oxford, and that Will agrees. That he has to justify the risk to himself is not her concern.
It is Pantalaimon who has the last laugh, however: giddy at her success, Lyra finally relents to his insistence that the alethiometer is not bad, but simply limits its answers to the questions it is asked. (I hope this is an intentional delineation on the show’s part, meant to set the stage for when, in the books at least, the alethiometer begins telling Lyra truths she did not ask about, almost as though it has a personality of its own.) Finally, she decides to ask the alethiometer the most pressing question: Can she trust Will? It responds bluntly: “He is a murderer.” While, in the books, that alone is enough to put Lyra’s mind at ease — her best friend after Pan is a panserbjørne king, after all — this time, the device adds that he’s “the good kind” of murderer, and that he’s somehow connected to “this place.” Perhaps it’s not just his age that makes him so interesting to the spectres.
Meanwhile — ugh, adults. Mrs. Coulter, Father MacPhail, Fra Pavel, and Cardinal Sturrock are on their way south after their humiliating defeat in armored bear country. To make matters worse, the cardinal wants to pretend that Asriel’s tear in the sky is a genie that can be rebottled, bellowing “heresy” at the suggestion that other universes might have existed all along and at MacPhail’s insistence that the Magisterium cannot keep this from the public. Then Coulter, who denies having reached Asriel in time, does a devastating impression of any man in a meeting by repackaging MacPhail’s realist argument in her own silky, seductive brand of priestbait. She negs them all — “I look around this room and all I see is failure” — and suggests that she be the one to interrogate the sole witch they managed to capture in the battle, in hopes of learning what they know of other worlds, not to mention Asriel’s plans. Of course the cardinal buys it. You can practically hear the ensuing boner when she kisses the ring.
Apart from her mastery of using men’s own tricks against them, Marisa Coulter is also an exquisite villain for her composure. “Productive people are generally treated very well,” she tells the witch before ripping bits of her cloud pine out from under her skin with a nasty pair of tweezers. This cabin is where this week’s main diversions from the text take place: first, that a witch’s cloud pine is held subcutaneously; second, that the cloud pine is now the source of their ability to do magic in addition to their means of flight; and third, that this witch’s life ends not at the merciful hand of Serafina Pekkala, but instead at that of Ruta Skadi, another witch queen who arrives alone after failing to rally the rest of the witches when the tribes gather to discuss Asriel’s tear in the sky. This version of Ruta Skadi is furious about the Magisterium and wishes to wage immediate, preemptive war on the Church before they lay waste to witchkind.
The captive witch begs for the deliverance of Yambe-Akka — the goddess who comes to witches upon the hour of their death — as she breaks down, telling Coulter that Lyra is the center of a witch prophecy, that she is known by another name. Just before she speaks it, Ruta Skadi is both there and not there, whooshing through Coulter like mist, materializing to leave a dagger in the witch’s heart, and disintegrating again before even her golden monkey daemon realizes what has just happened. In the biggest deviation from the text, this Ruta Skadi doesn’t stop at releasing her comrade. On her way out, she takes out several cronies and plunges the same knife into the chest of the cardinal before disappearing into the night, effectively declaring war without the consent of the other witch tribes.
Cardinal Sturrock, however, does not die immediately, providing yet another opportunity for the now-incensed Coulter. After some limp protest from MacPhail, she pulls him into a conspiracy: she will ensure Sturrock dies and is succeeded by MacPhail, freeing her up to do as she pleases without having to trade the suggestion of a sex act in exchange for every move. “I will make it my sin,” she says to Father MacFailure over here. “As a first act of service.” I’m certain this deal will involve absolutely zero consequences for him.
• While Yambe-Akka is the gentle bringer of death, a Charon-type figure, for the witches in this text, she also appears in real-world Finnish and Estonian mythologies, as well as in the shamanism of the indigenous Sámi of far-northern Europe, as a much less understanding goddess of the underworld.
• Wonder what that “other name” was. Just a reminder, for no reason whatsoever, that this series is a rough retelling of Paradise Lost.
• Lee Scoresby was in this episode. Nothing really happens with him except that he crashes the witch gathering looking for information about Grumman. Instead of telling him about the “defense” weapon he seeks “for Lyra” — witches do know about the Subtle Knife — Serafina Pekkala gives him a Life Alert flower.
• Lyra and Will’s ragamuffin tug-of-war over the worst bed is just crushing. Lyra assumes that taking the smallest bed is a courtesy to the older Will, when in fact Will’s helpless “But I was sleeping there” makes it clear they’re both just abandoned children who naturally gravitate toward lesser spaces.
• Unclear as to how Will’s iPhone still has juice, but the fact that he snaps a picture of the Torre degli Angeli with it feels like the most realistically tween act we’ve seen from these kids yet. (Lyra’s hygiene and “cooking” notwithstanding.)
• Do we ever get a good reason as to why the children of Cittàgazze hate cats so much? The usual “cats are evil” superstition (which, correct me if I’m wrong, is also the only explanation offered in the books) seems so fake and incidental, especially considering how much time we spend dealing with cats.
• Speaking of cats, this week we see Will cuddle that live stray cat they save from the other kids more affectionately than we’ve ever seen Lyra or any other person from her world touch their digital daemon. Seems a lot cheaper, too, than going HAM on CGI, but what do I know?