His Dark Materials season 1, episode 6 delivers a new take on the events of Bolvangar and winds up being the strongest hour the series has released thus far.
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 6, “The Daemon-Cages” takes its name from chapter 15 of The Golden Compass. This is the spot of the debut novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy that pulls the rug out from under nearly every character in some way. and adapting it is no small undertaking. But with over 50 minutes to work with, writer Jack Thorne and director Euros Lyn rose to the challenge widening the scope of what happens at Bolvangar and setting the next sequence of events in a motion that challenges the timeline and structure laid down by Philip Pullman.
But while we could spend the entirety of this review pulling apart instances that are different from page to screen, it would be fruitless. The episode achieves the same objectives laid out on the page, with a couple of additional perks — Lyra’s ability to cause chaos is put in contrast with her ability to process it; Mrs. Coulter continues to evolve from the woman we meet on the pages; and we get a devastating look at what happens with a philosophical question turns into ghoulish intent.
‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 6 recap
The advantages of the unimaginative
Being a practiced liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.
In previous episodes we’ve seen bits and pieces of Lyra’s ability to influence people to her whims — in lectures with the librarian, with Asriel in the retiring room, and with Iorek and Lee Scoresby. But with Lyra’s reintroduction in Bolvangar as Lizzie Brooks there is a new side of her that provides some more insight to how good she is at thinking on her feet.
While the His Dark Materials‘ “The Daemon-Cages” gives us the story of how the adults employed by the General Oblation Board view their work, primarily the story is given to us from the vantage point of the children. Walking down the halls, we are often looking up — at the back of Lyra’s head as we follow in her footsteps, as we take in the expressions on Mrs. Coulter’s face, at the Tartar guards and their wolf daemons guarding the facility.
Under the direction of Lyn, we find ourselves beside these scared children, not looking down on them, but rather walking beside them, crawling under beds with them, avoiding the swings and attacks of people three times our size. It’s a forced perspective that does a lot to inform the limited options that these children have and how Lyra’s cunning shines through when she finds herself backed into a corner.
The children in this place are changed, just as Pan reveals to Lyra after consulting with his daemon. Shortly after her arrival, Bridget McGinn is called away from her dinner, disappearing behind a large metal door as Sister Clara stares into the void with a smile as a power surge indicates that their experiment has come to an end. This was the end of the line for Bridget, but as we back track to Lyra, we see what is at the start. Photos, measurements all looking for Dust.
Just as the doctor is unconvinced of Lyra’s accidental encounter with knowledge of Dust, he also seems to slightly bow to her instigative attitude. The breaking point of Lyra’s verbal spewing of the facts is when she talks about the process of cutting daemons from the children. Their mission, without all the philosophical arguments attached, boiled down to four words — cutting daemons from children.
He can delude himself all he wants, but hearing it from a child he reacts quite strongly wanting to shut out her voice declaring, “this is not a child chopper house. This is a philosophical establishment.” The fire alarm prevents him from his work, the only thing that has been able to stop his brain from churning up thoughts about what they are actually doing there is taken from him.
The sound of the alarm is a droll as the building. It does not signal urgency, but routine. Everyone moves leisurely toward the exit, gathering in the courtyard for roll call. They are not taken beyond the walls, yet it gives Lyra a chance to escape her Lizzie identity for a split-second as she allows Roger to hear her respond to her alias.
If anyone in the Oblation Board had anything to do with school, they would have arranged this better…
This line is not only hilarious, but completely representative of what is captured during the snowball fight. The children are afraid for sure, but they have the advantage over the people running the day-today operations of the place. Minor chaos proves to be the perfect distraction for Lyra and Roger to map out an escape route as a snowball fight (likely the prisoners first opportunity for play since they arrived) erupts thanks to Lyra’s first shot.
A plan is afoot
I knew the depiction of the children at Bolvangar would be tough to stomach. I did not know that His Dark Materials would make it nearly impossible to handle seeing the separated daemons. As Roger and Lyra enter the room filled with cages, they slow their pace, taking care to peek inside the metal tins that house the severed daemons of the children. Still alive, but confused and listless, the souls of the children give us a preview of what the children, like Billy Costa, are going through somewhere in the facility.
Watching Bridget’s rabbit bang his head against the back corner of the cage is going to haunt me for the rest of days.
Compounding the trauma of this room is Lyra having to explain to Roger that she found Billy Costa and that, although he did find his way back to his mother, he died. This precedes their journey to the end of another hall on their path where they find the children counting along to the blares of the alarm. Not only are the children stripped of their soul, but they are shaved and reduced to look as close to clones of one another as possible. It’s at this chilling sight that Lyra tells Roger to get word around that the next time the alarm sounds it will be their signal to escape.
The arrival of Mrs. Coulter’s airship fuels the fear already coursing inside of the girls, but it is nothing compared to what Lyra is feeling. As the girls prepare for inspection, the self-appointed leader Annie (played by Raffiella Chapman) tries to instill some order among them so that the boys will fall subject to Mrs. Coulter’s scrutiny, and they will remain out of sight and mind for another day.
But Lyra’s presence is putting them all in jeopardy. Lyra’s ability to lie has gotten her through some of the adults, but it will not buy her any favors among the children. Instead, brutal honesty about her heritage, what is actually happening in the facility, and her plan to save them all wins over the girl’s dormitory.
She pulls herself up under a bed, tucked out of sight from Mrs. Coulter’s diligent inspection. Her presence is not so much appreciated here as it was when she arrived in their holding room in London. Here she is the authority, not the friend or comforting mother figure. Borrowing a phrase from Pullman, her “gentle musical voice” only offers quells their fears slightly, indicating that maybe they avoided the chopping block for the time being.
Only Lyra is not so lucky. At breakfast that morning, Lizzie’s name is called for testing. Who best to show off the enhancements than the child who is becoming too boisterous and inquisitive?
Lyra is forced to play the only card she has left — revealing her identity and screaming for her mother.
Through tear-blurred eyes Lyra saw her totter and clutch at the bench, her face so beautiful and composed grew haggard and horror-struck. The golden monkey darted from her side and pulled Pan out of the cage.
Mrs. Coulter takes Lyra away from the machine, the experiments, and into her private accommodations. She tries to soothe Lyra by offering her a drink her mother used to prepare her when she was upset. As Lyra continually refuses, she finally bluntly offers that if she were trying to poison her, there are many other ways she could do it other than a drink. This tone felt more natural to their relationship than the one she puts on to try to draw her daughter closer to her.
Mrs. Coulter does most of the talking here as Lyra is want to (rightfully) hurdle accusations at her. She admits to not fighting for Lyra because it would not have been good for either of them (probably for the best) and because Asriel had other ideas for her well-being. (As His Dark Materials showed us from the opening scenes of The Book of Dust.)
The biggest question on Lyra’s mind is: If cutting away someone’s daemon is so good for them, then why wasn’t she glad to see Lyra about to have Pan ripped away?
It is the belief of the General Oblation Board, and by extension some members of the Magisterium, that daemons bring about all sorts of troubling thoughts and feelings. These arrive about the same time that Dust begins to take hold of a child, around the age of puberty. When a daemon settles, it is not too late to severe the connection, but it is too late to prevent Dust.
Claiming that experimental theology requires the sacrifice of the few for the many does little to settle Lyra who would have lost Pan had there been a few more children ahead of her to prove a point. Or prove a point enough that people are willing to look the other way. Though she does not apologize or take blame for killing Billy Costa, Mrs. Coulter does offer some olive branch stating that she is sorry if being herself has caused Lyra any damage. Just wait until her four dads and second mother hear about this.
Bottom line items take care of, Mrs. Coulter returns to main priority — the alethiometer. Quick to think she could seize this opportunity, Lyra admits she is happy to be back in the comfort of her mother’s care and hands over a tin box (that Iorek definitely made off screen somewhere and Farder Coram did not soder because that is one detail I want to keep true). Instead of the tiny instrument, the spy fly gets loose and Lyra bolts for the door smashing the control panel on her way trapping Mrs. Coulter.
Both sides hesitate on opposite sides of the door the scream out their deep-seeded/inherited rage.
Once Lyra is on the run, she is in the position of setting off the rebellion against the General Oblation Board in the North. She has assumed command with the Gyptians, Iorek, Lee, and Serafina on her side. His Dark Materials sends Mrs. Coulter into the air vents, cramped and crawling towards an escape. Though we see it in her relationship with her daemon, her actions with Lyra, nothing quite screams the complete disassociation and loss that she goes through than watching her crawl through the vents, flinching at every loud sound on the outside.
This is perhaps one of my favorite changes from the book. Where Lyra’s action of crawling into the air vents are a means to spy on the plans of the adults (that ultimately earn her a one-way ticket to the chopper and into the arms of Mrs. Coulter), here they are the only way in which Mrs. Coulter can thwart the actions of a child.
A few episodes back, His Dark Materials episode 2 sent Lyra and Pan go through the same type of vent with ease, agility, no hesitations. Mrs. Coulter is not only out of place, not just because of her size, but because of her judgement of herself in that situation. You can almost hear her thoughts circling about what she is being reduced to.
Once she descends, she takes the resemblance of another being as she crouches on the desk — her daemon. This disconnect, between her and Lyra, between her and her daemon come back-to-back. She can try to take their shape, mimic their actions, but she will likely never find her way to either of them. Especially not after she sees what is going on outside the walls of the office.
A Witch’s helping hand
The scene is overwhelming as you whip in and out of battles taking place on several fronts. The children have done their part to assemble and the Gyptians are doing there’s to fight off the Tartars and get the children to safety. Ma Costa makes good on her promise to kill and breaks the neck of the doctor whose faith was already rattled.
As the Gyptians get the children out, Roger is able to get the lost boys and girls ready to move. One moment I was not expecting to catch me off guard was the roar proclaiming the arrival of Iorek. In fact, next to the rabbit, it was the second time I lost it while watching this episode.
The third comes immediately after Serafina makes her debut among those struggling at the scene. Taking out an entire room of assailants and disappearing before making brief, but meaningful contact with Lyra, the battle is all but over in that moment. John Faa, Farder Coram, Ma Costa, all observe a small group of children, wrapped in their red blankets enter the space.
They each attempt to comfort what is left of the bodies before them, hugging them and keeping them warm until snowsuits can be retrieved and the daemons collected. Rather than a mad dash on snow machines and what I always imagined a crazed Mrs. Coulter doing her best Cruella De Ville impersonation from the Disney cartoon, His Dark Materials gives a calmer exit from Bolvangar.
The children are all taken good care of, not alone in the snow searching for the Gyptians, Lyra and Roger join Lee and Iorek in the balloon with time for goodbyes, and Mrs. Coulter… well… she slowly slips away without causing a fuss. It is very quiet and controlled, which sets me more on edge than if she did try to grab at Lyra and Roger trying to get away.
The balloon man, excuse me, aeronaut Lee Scoresby takes the helping hand of Serafina to get him on the right course. But it is not just the wind that she provides Lee. Instead she reiterates that dangers that await the child and the importance that she holds for the future of several worlds. She is his charge and there could not be a more important job. Lee wants his danger money, but instead is just left with love. Lin-Manuel Miranda captures the moment perfectly saying, “This is not how I was expecting this conversation to go.”
Serafina departs without talking to Lyra which makes me wonder how she is going to get some essential information delivered here and who it will come from. I’ve been nothing but surprised when it comes to these types of things, so maybe it’s Roger! Who knows! As peace attempts to settle over the balloon before they make their way to Svalbard, Lee senses something is amiss.
A creature half the size of man with leathery wings and hooked claws was crawling on the side of the basket It had a flat head with bulging eyes and a wide frog mouth.
And these cliff-ghasts did not disappoint. Iorek and Lee do their best shooting and attacking, but Lee fails to catch Lyra as she tumbles from the balloon.
ICE CORE CHALLENGE 2006
There is a brief aside to visit with Will Parry. The words his mother shared with him during their dinner have clearly stuck with him — “you will take up his mantle.” Watching videos of his father (Andrew Scott!!) on the BBC ahead of his expedition, Will pulls his headphones out just as his dad reveals that he has kept Will abreast of his journey “Shackleton-style” writing him epic missives from the Artic.
The letters are still secure in the false bottom of his mother’s sewing machine. For now. Tom and Boreal’s other man are growing bored of sitting around, but Eileen is aware of their presence and that’s all they need at the moment.
Rather than unpack the differences and which was better or worse, here are the Easter eggs from the book that appear on screen but are not utilized in the same way:
- The picture of the tropical beach in the cafeteria: This is a hiding spot that Billy Costa points out to Lyra.
- How Lyra gets her clothes back: During her measurements, Lyra must evacuate due to the fire alarm, but doesn’t have time to get to her snowsuit, so they allow her access to her garments which she later stashes. This is likely how she got the spy fly smuggled out, but we don’t exactly know how she got it in the series.
- Kaisa flying over Bolvangar: Kaisa helps the daemon’s escape their cages using a bit of magic with some snow, and covers up their footprints leading to the room with the cages. He also informs them of where the Gyptians are which provides some concrete fact, not just relying on faith.
- The conversation in the vents: We are still privy to the conversations of the lab techs and doctors here, but instead of overheard gossip about Asriel’s role in the development of the technology, we hear about the wavering faith of those involved in the project.
- The golden monkey is less visible here than in the books, but he is given a larger role of betraying her insecurities in episode 4. Given how much I am feeling for and appreciating the monkey and Mrs. Coulter storyline here, I think watching the monkey pull Pan from the cage would have been the cause of my undoing.
- Discussions on the balloon: Serafina is involved more in His Dark Materials as an independent which leads me to believe we don’t have the full scope of the witches’ plot sorted out just yet. We certainly spend more time with Serafina on board the balloon as she talks with Lyra in the novel, but it is the collective of witches who fight the battle and give Lee and pull into the sky. Will there be more discord among the witches? Could Serafina be acting in defiance of her clan?
- More on Serafina: On the other hand, would I be able to watch Serafina talk about Farder Coram with Lyra? I did enjoy that we had time with the pair of them on the cliffside and I hope for more shuffling of conversations among these characters.
- One last thing: I hope Farder Coram adopts all the children whose parents will not take them back. He is a Good Dad.
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 7, “Fight to the Death” airs Monday, December 16 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.