His Dark Materials season 1, episode 3, “The Spies,” gets us closer to the Northern Lights as The Golden Compass reveals its secrets.
The third installment of His Dark Materials haphazardly appears to throw everything it has at the wall and not only manages to make it all stick, but if you take a step back and admire it from a distance, you’ll see the beautiful map for the rest of the season.
When the first few episodes were presented for review, I did not see or appreciate their intended structure. Of course, we’re not going to march right into Svalbard, take to the air with Lee, and see the vastness of the North in episode 1. But episode 4? That seemed like an awfully long time to wait for Iorek.
“The Spies” presents the third pillar upon which the series will stand with the fourth coming next week. It takes us right to the brink of the journey, crisscrossing a shocking number of plot points to get there. Mrs. Coulter and Lord Boreal fight for my affections this week as Boreal’s story picks up intrigue and Mrs. Coulter’s teeters on the edge of destruction.
The Gyptians have been given enough to do in the prior two episodes to really engrain Lyra into their story in episode 3. Meanwhile, the Magisterium continues to impress its power upon those outside of its hallowed halls by flashing force over communication.
‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 3 recap
A face only a mother could love
Picking up right where we left off in episode 2, no time is wasted getting Lyra into the company of the Gyptians, once again under the protection of Ma Costa. Lyra may be in more comfortable clothes, but there are still secrets whispered among the adults, she is still trapped inside assigned quarters, and there remains this unspoken threat to her safety.
Though familiar with the Gyptians, their means of travel and strong sense of community, Lyra is just as much of an outsider as she was in Mrs. Coulter’s living room. Looked at with confusion and fear by the rest of the community, Lyra responds with similar distrust and unease. There is, however, one clear exception — Ma Costa. Lyra has her guard up most of the time, but over the course of the past two episodes, we’ve seen her melt a bit as she reciprocates maternal guidance.
Growing up in Jordan College surrounded by elderly male scholars and the occasional housemaid or cook, Lyra has largely grown up without the influence of a woman. No mother, or really any parental figures, Lyra gravitates toward Mrs. Coulter and Ma Costa for the knowledge they possess, but also for something behind their eyes; almost as if she can catch a fleeting moment of relief wash over them when they are in her presence and know she is safe.
It’s easy to see these two women and cast them as polar opposites in His Dark Materials. Ma Costa has been nothing but a kind, concerned, attentive and scared mother from her introduction. Mrs. Coulter has expressed her desire to jump from rooftops, inflicts abuse on her daemon (and therefore herself), and attacks Lyra when she (a child) points out her anger.
And yet, they share some inherent need to wrap Lyra up and keep her tucked away from the world. They have motives driven by mistakes or misfortunes of the past that are tangled up in Asriel’s actions as a scorned lover and failed father.
Which takes us to the final puzzle piece of Lyra’s parentage puzzle delivered on screen by Ma Costa. Yes, Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother.
Of note here, when Ma Costa gives Lyra her space and walks away, I noticed that Pan had the urge to follow her. Meaning, Lyra had a tug to go after this mother figure who gave into the child demanding her trust, not the other way around like it was with Mrs. Coulter.
Though it is a lot of information to take in over a matter of two days, Lyra has now begun to cast her whole life against their legacy. Is she important because she is her father’s daughter? Is she a prize to kept because she is her mother’s daughter? Is there shame attached to this feud that brought her to Oxford? Without any guidance on what she should be feeling, there is a little burst of clarity that arrives.
As Mrs. Coulter was “molding” Lyra into the person she needed, Lyra internalized what some of that would mean. It would be acting older than her age suggested, making sure she was well-read, decisive, and — thanks to Pan’s insistence — untrusting of adults. They are confusing and tortured by their decisions and choices. She doesn’t quite understand them, and she certainly does not fully trust them. But she does know what children need, perhaps now more than ever.
They want to be safe; they want to trust the adults around them; and they want a home. Which is why her speech at the Roping is better than most rally cries that come from young heroines. She is scared and she knows what the Gobblers and Mrs. Coulter will do if they get the children to their location in the North.
Her fear ignites those on the outskirts, questioning why it must fall on them to help save the 27 Gyptian children and countless others. If not them, then who? Who can the children look to for help?
‘Is this all right, Lyra?’
As mentioned, Lyra is drawn to the female figures who enter her life. But in the Gyptian community, it is John Faa and Farder Coram who are making the calls. To Lyra they stand opposed to her. Lyra’s relationship with Farder Coram was one of the better single episode evolutions in His Dark Materials. Their relationship takes a 180-degree turn as we see her go from being short and snappy with him, to listening to his stories of daemons on the bow of the ship, to then trusting him with the knowledge of the alethiometer.
In their first meeting, just himself, Lyra, and John Faa, Coram is cast as the gentler of the two figures in the room. Lyra becomes defensive asking if she is only a commodity to them because her father was good to their people. Faa remains completely calm in the heat of this moment, but Corman’s “who told you that?” got a chuckle out of me. He is a protector, an advocate for the loss of these families, and now he wants to be sure that Lyra feels safe under the Gyptian protection.
Farder Coram, played here by James Cosmo, is a gentle giant. He comes across not as an all-powerful in charge adult, but a bumbling child trapped in an adult’s body. There are two moments that capture his appeal to Lyra quite well.
The first being their conversation about daemons and their final form. “I’m also confused why she has a monkey daemon. I’m often confused by daemons. Never would have guessed Tony would have a hawk,” Coram says to Lyra in His Dark Materials episode 3. It is an admission that levels them; he is no more knowledgeable about the how and whys of the world, but he does have some wisdom to share from experience.
“There will be a time where you will become tired of him changing, when you come of age It will reveal what kind of person you really are.” If you are dissatisfied, then that means there is a part of you that is discontented. What does this say about the people Lyra’s met and the daemons she’s seen? What does that mean for her and Pan down the road.>(If you can’t wait for this read The Secret Commonwealth!)
But while Coram has much comfort to offer, he also takes Lyra to watch the brutal interrogation of the Gobbler at the hands of Benjamin. He even asks as she is watching through a window, “Is this all right, Lyra?” Did he forget that he is the adult here!
It is those two moments that make the final scene with Farder Coram and Lyra all the more impactful. When Benjamin and Tony go missing, it is Lyra who takes on the burden of guilt for their disappearance. But Coram explains to her that adults look to blame someone for pain they can’t understand, but it is no one’s fault for their choice to leave. It is now that Lyra chooses to trust Farder Coram and tell him about the alethiometer.
He takes his time with Lyra explaining what he knows about the alethiometer to her, but counts it off as a relic without the books to read it properly. But when Lyra tells him what she saw when she left her mind drift and allowed the device to reveal the answer to her question, Coram slips off to tell John Faa about their newfound tool. Lyra has discovered how to read the alethiometer without books and without practice, and will prove to be their most valuable asset in the journey North.
He is on the one hand, saving Lyra from the pressure of knowing that she has some kind of gift (for now) on top of the weight she is carrying from the most recent parental news dump on her life. But on the other, he is yet another adult whispering when she is not around.
‘His Dark Materials’ introduces Will Parry
And by introduces I mean we see one photo, but are treated to a ton of possibilities for the inclusion of his story much earlier than anticipated. Boreal’s ability to cross worlds in episode 2 also allowed his story to cross worlds in another sense, leaving the pages of The Golden Compass and entering those of the The Subtle Knife.
But first a little exposition.
What we know: The photo that Boreal has Thomas run facial recognition on identifies John Parry, a Royal Marine who is MIA after an expedition to Alaska. All records show that he was born, lived, and served in Thomas’ world for his entire life. But as Boreal points out, Parry has a daemon, an osprey, and has been crossing worlds. We also know that the
Hot Priest Andrew Scott is playing John Parry.
John Parry had been a handsome man; a brave and clever officer in the Royal Marines, who had left the army to become an explorer and led expeditions to remote parts of the world. — The Subtle Knife
What we don’t know: How and where Parry has been crossing, how he has a daemon, and what it means for his operations and the information that he has taken with him.
Boreal may not understand parking laws of other worlds, but people are constant. He has a way about him, a way he carries himself and delivers his words — portrayed brilliantly in His Dark Materials by Ariyon Bakare — that can sway the whims of those around him.
Take Thomas, for example. Thomas is unafraid to step over the invisible line between them in a power struggle because he understands his importance to Boreal delivering the information of this world. But Boreal sees his tenacity and intrigue as masking fear. Why doesn’t Thomas follow Boreal when he crosses? It would be easy for him to do so. Boreal calls out his trepidation before admitting that he too was scared.
But the difference between them is that Boreal overcame his fear and crossed. We still don’t know (on screen) the exact answer of why Boreal needs to find and watch Will Parry. However, we do have some insight into the fearlessness that Boreal admires — the kind that John Parry exhibited in his expeditions and the knowledge he was able to gain by crossing at Brooks Range.
There is another contact in this world that Boreal relies on, one who will do the field work of keeping tabs on the Parry family. If Boreal can drive and text, he certainly is not just relying on Thomas as his only lackey. Maybe Thomas knows more than others — the world crossing, the daemons. But if someone is embedding themselves in another plane, they are going to utilize a network.
In a great shot orchestrated by Dawn Shadforth, Boreal meets his contact under an overpass where he is eating chips. He delivers an envelope with Will’s photo in it, the first glimpse of Amir Wilson in the role (or at least his headshot). The shadows cast against the white wall of Boreal and his operative, setting them on different planes even though they are standing on the same level ground. It is as if the message is being handed down from another realm. Absolutely gorgeous.
There was nothing quite like the work that Ruth Wilson did in His Dark Materials episode 2 here, but I felt absolutely captivated by Bakare in every scene. When he shows up in Mrs. Coulter’s apartment after world-hopping and fighting with the guards at her door, he takes a seat next to Coulter on the couch and is delivered more disturbing news about the GOB.
It appears as though his side hustle will be in danger should the activities of his own world continue to be put under a microscope. All the smooth talking in the world from Boreal and Coulter will not keep the Magisterium at bay for long. Clearly concerned about the inquiry, Boreal is even more on edge when the spy fly returns to her apartment. The illegal spy fly! That is what will get them caught, not killing journalists or anything…
The alethiometer, spyware, and a dance with death
The opening shots of the episode focus on the books dedicated to studying the alethiometer and the protection laws running out of relevance at Jordan College. As Mrs. Coulter tears through the campus looking for information on Lyra, she stumbles upon a bargaining tool — so long as the Master does not help her find Lyra, she can put the College through hell with evidence that an unsanctioned alethiometer was at Jordan College.
But while the Master may not have any jurisdiction on his side, he is able to stick Mrs. Coulter where it hurts by saying, “You’ve already done with worst you can do… you lost her.” He is cursed with the knowledge of what the alethiometer has told him and now he has to watch from the sidelines as the universe runs in time to its truth.
But while Lyra’s secret ability with the alethiometer will be further tested, its initial reveal is less than comforting. Still longing for the adventure outside of the boats, Tony Costa already got away with a rescue mission on the sly. But it did not quench his thirst quite enough. When Ben sneaks Tony out to steal plans from Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, it is Lyra who becomes tasked with the knowledge that they are missing.
Captured in the hallways, Benjamin is shot and tortured by Mrs. Coulter and her daemon. But he finds a way out — by throwing himself down the elevator shaft. In that moment, Mrs. Coulter is the angriest I think we’ve seen her and through that anger she becomes more detached from herself.
When she rises from the floor, we see her walk away from the elevator doors and her monkey is nowhere to be found. She is utterly alone, as Fadar Coram describes her, completely discontented with herself. Echoing the scenes earlier in the episode where she sends the spy flies after Lyra, Mrs. Coulter only feels some form of emotional rise when she is inches from death.
Her daemon watches her toy with their lives through a windowpane; he is confused and not sure what is going on, something I bet he has felt quite a lot. Watching him jump when she stumbles along the balcony is heartbreaking, even for someone who grew up with complete disdain for this creature. Thanks for keeping my emotions on high alert, His Dark Materials.
The symbolism of Benjamin’s death is not going to be the last time that Lyra must bear the weight of what the alethiometer reveals to her, but as first tries go, things are not off to a positive start.
Hopefully, the wind and witches will be on their side as we finally (FINALLY) get to Trollesund.
- Ma Costa describes Mrs. Coulter as being “broken with the shame of it all,” following Asriel’s murder of her husband Ed Coulter. Without a child or a husband, it’s hard to imagine what Mrs. Coulter went through during that time. It’s less hard to piece together how her semblance of control crumbles to pieces when the law intervenes in her life yet again, and her family begins to slip through her fingers. I’m not saying kidnapping children to run experiments is right. I’m just saying the woman’s been through it.
- Did you see the monkey’s face when that hawk disappeared after a suicide? I mean… if you think Mrs. Coulter has been through some stuff…This is also compounded by the moment right after, when Mrs. Coulter walks down the hall and the monkey is no where to be seen.
- Of note: In the book, there is only one spy fly.
- Ma Costa following the guards around with a picture of Billy was crushing. But that scented wood trick from the book, though not noted here, did hide Lyra well.
- There is so much emphasis on what acts are motivated by. Lyra is constantly being told she is wanted in this episode, and I think she is starting to take it in stride.
- MY BOY, IOREK BYRNISON, IS FINALLY HERE!
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 4, “Armour,” airs Monday, November 25 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.