There are things His Dark Materials is doing right; the performances are great, the cinematography is top-notch, and Philip Pullman’s words are cleverly integrated into the script. But its inability to capture one of the franchise’s most-important tenets, the connection between humans and daemons, has become too big of a problem to ignore—making the final confrontation at Bolvangar ring hollow instead of revelatory.
“The Daemon-Cages” focuses entirely on the siege at Bolvangar. Lyra has been kidnapped and is now stuck at the research facility with a bunch of other children, including her best friend Roger. It isn’t long before Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) also arrives, there to inspect the work. The small team of researchers—and vacant-eyed nurses who’ve been severed from their own daemons—are trying to cut children off from Dust before they reach puberty, to block them off from sin.
This plan is explained to Lyra by Mrs. Coulter in the best scene of the episode. She shares not only what the General Oblation Board’s goal is, but why she chose to give Lyra up. It was a rare scene where I felt things were explained just enough to make sense without taking away from the heart of the moment.
It’s clear that Mrs. Coulter’s experiments at Bolvangar are motivated by her own past. She had an affair with Lord Asriel and, instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she’s trying blame the nature of sin itself. It’s also clear she doesn’t actually believe in, or trust, the work she’s doing. You know she’d never get the procedure. Plus, the moment she saw Lyra in the machine, prepped to be the latest subject in the experiment, she immediately rescued her. Mrs. Coulter thinks there’s one set of rules for herself (and those she cares about) and another for everyone else. It definitely comes across as commentary on how the rich and powerful see themselves as above the law.
But that’s where the praise kind of ends for me. I was looking forward to this one, as it’s such a crucial part of the story, but was left pretty disappointed. To make this episode work, we needed to know everything about the world of humans and their daemons, so we could focus on the House of Horrors that is Bolvangar. We needed to see Lyra and Pantalaimon crying and saying goodbye to each other as they were about to be severed, devastated that their soul was about to be ripped out. What’s more: We needed to know what that meant.
The emotional stakes just weren’t there. Instead, the episode is plagued by more exposition on what the machine is doing to the children and why it’s bad. Everywhere you go, Lyra, Roger, or Pantalaimon has to explain what’s happening or how to feel about it. It was less raw emotion, and more emotional labour. Much like last week’s Billy reveal, the show is leaning too heavily on over-explanation to make up for the fact that it hasn’t built the world up enough for the audience to understand how important daemons are to people.
It also doesn’t help that, even though the big conflict is about severing children from their daemons, nearly every scene shows children and adults without daemons. For example, when Lyra walked into the cafeteria, I counted dozens of kids and maybe a small handful of CGI daemons. I get that it’s a budget issue, but it makes the main crux of the series seem confusing. It’s like: Who cares if they don’t have their daemons anymore? They barely had them anyway.
Lyra is able to escape from Mrs. Coulter, thanks to that magic spirit beetle you probably forgot about, and launches the daring escape. Roger performs a “believe in yourself” speech for the severed kids, which would’ve felt silly were it not for Lewin Lloyd’s performance. And the gyptians arrive to wage war on the facility. The action scenes were all right, with a couple cool moments—Ma Costa confronting that researcher with Billy’s name, only to snap his neck, was especially badass. But the action felt limited by the sets, which were small and narrow, and you could start spotting the repeated use pretty quickly. I also didn’t like how it ended with Serafina Pikkala swooping in, murdering a bunch of guards with Sonic the Hedgehog speed, and peacing out. It would have taken a lot of the tension out if she could’ve just, you know, done that the whole time.
The episode ends with Lyra, Roger, Lee Scoresby, and Iorek heading on the next leg of their journey to rescue Lord Asriel. Lee and Serafina share a moment where they discuss Lyra’s destiny and it’s clear the show is leaning heavily into Lee’s role as Lyra’s surrogate father (possibly because of the onscreen bond between Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dafne Keen), which Lee has conflicted feelings about it. It’s a welcome addition, as it’s great to see the adults in Lyra’s sphere getting some emotional development of their own. However, it isn’t long before they’re attacked by some winged beasts, ending with Lyra tumbling out of the hot air balloon. Where will this lead? I mean, I think we all know. Bear fight.
Every episode of the series so far has been named after a chapter in the His Dark Materials books. The one this week, “The Daemon-Cages,” made me chuckle a bit, as it felt again like more exposition dumping. There are daemons, and they’re in cages. That’s bad.
I’ve seen some folks unfavorably comparing Ruth Wilson’s performance as Mrs. Coulter to Nicole Kidman’s, and I don’t think that’s fair. Both of them bring something great to the character that the other one didn’t. Kidman nailed Mrs. Coulter’s grace and control, making her angry outbursts feel like expressions of power. Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter feels more like a string pulled too taut. She’s smart, she knows what she’s doing, and presents control. Internally, she’s barely holding on. It gets more at Mrs. Coulter’s heart, and I feel will help explain her later character choices better.