The latest episode of His Dark Materials had a lot of information to throw at us in very little time.
[Editor’s Note: While the BBC has already aired this episode, HBO will not until tonight. Proceed at your own risk. -Jill P.]
As Lyra gets ready to head north in search of the missing kids, she’s confronted with more shocking revelations (and exposition dumps) about her family’s history, as well as a new ability that she barely understands. Meanwhile, Lord Boreal continues his search for Stanislaus Grumman but ends up finding something else entirely.
“The Spies” starts with Lyra (Dafne Keen) being rescued from the Gobblers—otherwise known as the General Oblation Board, the mysterious group run by Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) that’s kidnapping children for a still-unknown purpose. A few gyptians, led by Tony Costa and Benjamin, have taken things to the next level by going on unsanctioned midnight raids. The raid may have saved Lyra’s life, but it was also incredibly stupid, and their recklessness comes at a price.
Most of the episode involves the gyptians telling Lyra (and the audience) a lot of big expository stuff. I get that there’s a lot of story that has to be conveyed in a relatively short amount of time, and the show is doing the best it can, but it did come across as a plot dump. For example, there’s the revelation that the gyptians have been watching over Lyra since she was a baby—partially as thanks to Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) for the kindness he’s bestowed upon them—and the conversation Lyra has with Farder Coram (James Cosmo) about alethiometers, and the nature of daemons and why they settle upon adulthood. Then there’s the reveal about Lyra’s mother, which takes almost three straight minutes to get through. Bless Anne-Marie Duff’s heart, she carried Ma Costa’s scene best she could, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was stuck performing an overstuffed monologue that works better on the page than the screen. It’s all necessary information, but putting it all into one episode felt excessive.
Ma Costa revealed Lyra was conceived during an affair Mrs. Coulter had with Lord Asriel. Her husband, Edward Coulter, tried to kill Lyra as revenge, but Ma Costa—who was Lyra’s nurse—kept her hidden long enough for Lord Asriel to arrive and kill him. That action stripped Lord Asriel of his money and property and made Mrs. Coulter into a social pariah—which partially explains why she’s aligned herself with the Magisterium. Lyra was supposed to go to a nunnery but Lord Asriel snuck her into Jordan College in the dead of night to prevent it.
Having learned that detail about Mrs. Coulter’s connection to Lyra, all of her actions in this episode make a lot more sense. She is traumatized, reckless, and determined to get Lyra back at any cost. This includes issuing a raid on Jordan College in search of anything heretical she can use against them and commissioning the use of spy flies, winged creatures filled with “bad spirits” that can be used to track people. They’re banned by the Magisterium but Mrs. Coulter doesn’t give a shit—one of the many times we see leaders of the church bending or breaking the rules to serve themselves.
Take, for example, Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). He’s continuing his quest to be in a different book than everybody else as he lays the framework for Will Parry’s story (which technically begins in The Subtle Knife but happens concurrently with Lyra’s story). Lord Boreal makes another trip to the “real” world, meaning our world, to get more information from his contact. It turns out that Stanislaus Grumman isn’t hiding out in our world…he’s from our world. He’s actually a military officer named John Parry who disappeared about a decade ago during an expedition in Alaska. He left behind a wife and a son, and Lord Boreal tasks some scary-looking guy with “keeping an eye” on them. It’s here we get our first official look at Will Parry in a photograph, and my heart skipped a beat. It’s Will, you guys, he’s here.
One thing I really appreciated about this episode, and the season so far, is the expansion of Lord Boreal as a character. It would be easy to portray him as just another villain, but the show is giving him his own story and motivation that’s separate from everybody else. His goal is, well, pretty simple. He just wants to meet the only other person who’s crossed worlds. He’s eager to find someone else as strong as he is.
As Lord Boreal puts it, there aren’t many people who have the fortitude to cross over into another universe. Even his “real” world companion agrees that he wouldn’t have the guts. It seems like there’s something keeping most folks from crossing over, possibly a gut feeling that it’s wrong to be in a world that’s not your own. I like this explanation, and feel it puts characters who do move between worlds in a new light. Most notably, Lord Boreal himself, who now seems like an even bigger threat than we thought, as he possesses a mental strength that’s unique, enigmatic, and dangerous.
However, he’s not the only one with a unique power. In this episode, Lyra discovers that she has the ability to read the alethiometer without the use of translation books. She can simply make her mind go “blank” and use the tool to learn the truth about anything in the universe. She uses her skill to find out that Benjamin and Tony Costa got caught at Mrs. Coulter’s apartment while trying to steal some plans for the Gobblers’ northern facility. Tony Costa barely escaped with his life. Benjamin did not. It was a harsh and terrible way for Lyra to discover the full truth about her skill, and showed that the Gobblers (and Mrs. Coulter) are not to be messed with. It’s time to speed up their plans. It’s time to head north.
The best scene was Mrs. Coulter, drunk off her arse, strolling on the ledge of her apartment balcony pretending to be Lyra. Of course, coming after her declaration that she hates walking on ledges because she’s always tempted to jump, the whole scene takes on a more disturbing tone.
That guy investigating the boat was dumb. The dog daemon was telling him Lyra was right there, and all he did was pound on a wall and say “nah.”
A little detail I appreciated was seeing Ma Costa’s daemon attending to Pantalaimon, who was in bird form, as Ma Costa herself was checking on Lyra. Given how daemons are the extension of people’s souls and spirits, it made sense that their experiences would mirror each other too.
For anyone who’s curious, that creepy Magisterium guy Lord Boreal was talking to is Fra Pavel, the Magisterium’s alethiometrist who will play a pretty significant role in the series. Of course, most of the Magisterium is filled with creepy guys, so sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.