His Dark Materials Recap: Mangy Vermin

His Dark Materials

The Abyss
Season 3 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

His Dark Materials

The Abyss
Season 3 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

Philip Pullman’s harpies — creatures with human faces and chests, aged and hideous but human nevertheless and so different from the cryptids we get in this TV show — are the debased casualties of the Authority’s tyranny. They are a tragedy in themselves, a humanized interpretation of the merciless Greek myth and a microcosm that can explain not only the author’s intent but the persistent victimization of women — in Christianity, on this show, and in the world more broadly. It may not be their canon backstory, but it’s helpful to think of them as the Authority’s dæmons, the creatures your soul becomes when you feed it filth and condemn it to darkness.

Let’s start with something simple: Lyra’s observation to the harpy who saves her from the Dust Abyss. “You like stories, don’t you?” she asks. “True ones,” responds the harpy — once No-Name, now Gracious Wings. “True stories are nourishing. They feed us. We had no idea there was anything but lies and wickedness.” Lyra offers stories for safe passage through the land of the dead. Gracious Wings accepts with a vicious “Do not lie to me!”

Now here’s the part they left out in the show — the story No-Name of the books tells Lyra and Will of her kind’s damnation:

Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, the Authority gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it and our very hearts are sickened. But still, it was all we had to feed on. It was all we had. And now we learn that you are planning to open a way to the upper world and lead all the ghosts out into the air … What will we do now? I shall tell you what we will do: from now on, we shall hold nothing back. We shall hurt and defile and tear and rend every ghost that comes through, and we shall send them mad with fear and remorse and self-hatred. This is a wasteland now; we shall make it a hell!

This is how Lyra comes to the bargaining table — understanding that the harpies literally live or die by the ghosts condemned to the prison they guard. They are themselves prisoners who have been cursed and abandoned with nothing but misery and the fear that they’ll die if they fail to do the job assigned to them.

In fact, it was originally Will who got their potential out of them after Lyra had angered them with her lies.

“Harpies,” he said, “we can offer you something better than that. Answer my questions truly, and hear what I say, and then judge. When Lyra spoke to you outside the wall, you flew at her. Why did you do that?”

“Lies!” the harpies all cried. “Lies and fantasies!”

“Yet when she spoke just now, you all listened, every one of you, and you kept silent and still. Again, why was that?”

“Because it was true,” said No-Name. “Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea that there was anything but wickedness. Because it brought us news of the world and the sun and the wind and the rain. Because it was true.”

“Tell them stories,” Lyra now shouts to the parade of dead in their wake, in perhaps the cringe-worthiest moment of this entire series. But No-Name and her sisters have been forced to swallow stories for millennia. The story that humans are wicked and that wickedness is the only food they’ll ever know. Stories are their cudgels for tormenting the dead. They force them to relive the worst moments of their lives — true moments — to squash hope and keep them imprisoned. Stories — lies and fantasies, yes, but heavily curated truths — are what birthed the Authority and Metatron in the first place. The world of the dead’s prison bars are constructed as much from stories as from mountains of decayed belongings. Pull back even further: The thing you imagine when you read the word harpy? That’s a prison made by men’s stories too. The Authority’s damnation of the harpies maps onto patriarchy’s vise-grip on women’s lives all too perfectly.

In the books, when Lyra decides to give up stories for stories’ sake, it’s because she realizes the harpies desperately need something else. In her pivotal moment, when she tells the whole truth about her life, she’s offering them the possibility of something more. This show will have you believe it is stories that allow Lyra and Will to save the dead from purgatory and fulfill the prophecy. It’s not. It’s the harpies’ liberation.

Their abridged treatment echoes across the series. It’s the same kind of shallow read that gave us a Lyra that audiences dislike but a Will they would die defending. It murders Ruta Skadi — not just a witch queen but a queen of queens, one who survives the books — to prove that Asriel really is That Monster (as though his non-reaction to news of his daughter’s death wouldn’t be proof enough), and Metatron is That Evil God. Worse than murder, we learn, a dæmon sucked into the Dust chasm means your soul will never truly rest. (If only Serafina Pekkala and Iorek Byrnison had made good on their threats to beat Asriel Belacqua within an inch of his life!)

True, the show’s obsession with Marisa Coulter and her rehabilitation, from selfish monster to doting mother, offers a fascinating character study. Even when it starts to feel like she’s being bullied back into the box of how society (i.e., the patriarchy) expects a mother to behave — both in the books and onscreen — she’s still afforded a remarkable new moment of reconciliation with her dæmon (and thus with herself) after he turns his back on her for trying to leave again in Asriel’s intention craft.

“It hurts when we’re apart,” she admits, sitting in the storage room where the golden monkey has retreated. “I pretend that it doesn’t … At first I think it was curiosity, but now it’s become something else. A way to not feel what I can’t bear. I used to think that I was the strong one, but I was wrong. It was you all along.” Ruth Wilson’s performance and the way the character has expanded onscreen are certainly reasons enough to keep watching this series. But there’s something fundamentally missing.

When Serafina Pekkala counsels Coulter on love’s redemptive powers, there’s a bit of irony there. How loved has Lyra really been by this show? How loved was Ruta Skadi? Not in words but in action — in plumbing their depths, in letting them be more than their copy-and-pasted dialogue. Compare them to, say, Asriel Belacqua or Hugh MacPhail — two men who didn’t really need that much extra development, if we’re being honest. (Their escapades have taken up so much real estate in these recaps, largely because they’ve been getting the most compelling attention.) Readers know how much I adore Will, but even he benefits from a bit of emotional overtime with his father in the middle of their escape.

It definitely could have been worse. This adaptation is still telling the truth. But every once in a while — as with the harpies this week — we’re ironically reminded that we could have had something more.

Field Notes

• Hey, remember when there was a fucking bomb rigged to explode on contact with Lyra, then it sort of blew up nearby and knocked everybody down?

• Guess we just left Roke’s body there with the enemy? Would it have killed you to pick it up and take it with you, Marisa? Guy weighed like six ounces. In the books, he survives — if only to die in the rebellion in a fall from a witch’s cloud pine.

• The worst part about Ruta’s death? That it requires Serafina Pekkala to swoop in and all but reenact the “Who killed my sister?” scene from The Wizard of Oz. She really should have throat-punched that man the second the words “as keenly felt” dribbled from his lips. At least she’s sending her dæmon, Kaisa, to find Pan.

• Speaking of assaulting Asriel, it’s clear the second that man gets within ten feet of Iorek Byrnison that that freakin’ bear has been more of a father to Lyra than Asriel has ever been. Why the panserbjørne king — whose people are dying for this little man’s sins! — spares Asriel a lengthy hospital visit, let alone tells him about both Lyra and the knife’s survival, is beyond me. When Asriel crows about Lyra staging a prison break, I want to slam his head down so hard that his face leaves a perfect imprint in the snow. Maybe that’s the difference between humans and armored bears.

• One bit of important foreshadowing to note between Will and his father: John basically tells his son that his time cutting through worlds will need to come to an end eventually. Staying in another world might be physically possible, but it’s spiritually harrowing.

• LOL at Will and Roger’s little rivalry. While it’s more understated in the U.S. version, I believe the U.K. version of the books makes it more explicit that Roger’s crush on Lyra was just a little too early to the pubescent romance party. (Will has better timing.)

• The doorway back into the real world is a wonderful little moment that surprisingly turned out exactly as I’d imagined it as a kid. Any other book fans have moments like this so far?

• I might be willing to die on this nitpick hill: the opening line, “In the beginning, man was given the gift of Dust.” I cannot overemphasize just how wrong that is. The whole point of the prophecy and the Magisterium’s hunt for Lyra is that Eve and the serpent were responsible for bringing Dust — seen by the church as sin incarnate — into the world! Dust wasn’t given. Dust was taken. These writers have gone monologue-wild, and they must be stopped.

His Dark Materials Recap: Mangy Vermin