His Dark Materials’ “The Spies” Is an Exposition-Heavy Calm Before the Storm

We open on Lyra, kidnapped by the Gobblers and then immediately rescued by Ben, Tony Costa, and some other gyptian youths. She is taken back to the gyptian gathering on the Thames where many different clans have met to find their children.

Mrs Coulter descends on Jordan College with a squad of Magisterium grunts, intending to put the screws to the Master so that he’ll give up Lyra’s location. She impugns the idea of Scholastic Sanctuary and he tells her that she has failed as Lyra’s guardian. She discovers alethiometer divination guides and vows to destroy the College once she finds the contraband device. He then reveals that Lyra has the alethiometer—another thing she has lost.

Ma Costa is upset that Tony’s been out on raids and reconnaissance but Lyra convinces her that it’s a good start to finding Billy, Roger, and the other children.  Lyra is then taken to John Faa, who tells her that she must stay aboard the fleet for her own protection. Ma Costa tells her she can be whatever she want while Lyra chafes at the idea that she must be a gyptian woman. Farder Coram tries to convince her of the gyptians good intent and they talk about the mechanics of daemons settling into their final form. Lyra doesn’t want Pantalaimon to settle.

Back at her apartment, Mrs Coulter broods in Lyra’s old room. The monkey closes the door to give her privacy as she erupts into a blind, destructive rage. She then plays at a suicidal game, walking along the railing of her balcony, staring at Lyra’s empty clothes. She then gives the scent of Lyra’s dress to a pair of Spy-flies, illegal mechanical scarabs with a tortured spirit embedded inside each one. They take flight and begin their search. Lord Boreal, meanwhile is informed by a Magisterium Cleric, Fra Pavel (Frank Bourke), that rumor has it Lyra is staying on board the gyptian fleet.

Faa interrogates the gobbler agent that Ben and Tony captured. They find out the children are being taken north. The Fleet is boarded by the Magisterium for an unannounced and illegal search for Lyra. The Costas hide her behind a false panel. Once the Magisterium is gone, Lyra tries to run. When Ma Costa catches up to her, Lyra is angry that no one will tell her the truth and everyone offers the platitude that there are things she is better off not knowing.

Screenshot: HBO

Ma Costa then reveals all of Lyra’s history to her: Mrs Coulter is her mother. She was married to a man named Edward Coulter and had an affair with Lord Asriel. When Lyra was born looking like her father, rather than her mother’s husband, Lord Asriel stole her away and left her in Ma Costa’s care. Edward Coulter caught up with them. Asriel killed Edward Coulter. Because it was self-defense, Asriel was not prosecuted, but he was stripped of his holdings. Mrs Coulter became a pariah in the wake of her husband’s murder by her lover. Asriel then took Lyra to Jordan College where she would be protected by Academic Sanctuary. Following these revelations, Ma Costa asks if Lyra will stay with her to help make up for her earlier inability to keep her safe. Lyra accedes.

Lord Boreal goes back to parallel Oxford and meets in a remote cabin with Thomas, who tells him who Stanislaus Grumman really is: a British army Colonel named John Parry (Andrew Scott). In fact, Parry was born in Thomas’ world and crossed over to Boreal’s. Thomas realizes that Boreal is working independent of the Magisterium. Boreal says he is after Grumman/Parry because he is another man who had the bravery to cross over and he wants to know what he knows. Boreal then sends another contact after Parry’s abandoned wife and child.

Faa speaks to the gyptian conclave about the injustice of their kidnapped children. Raymond van Garrett (Matt Fraser) speaks out against harboring Lyra. Lyra responds, saying the gyptians have no obligation to keep her safe but they need to fight back because Mrs Coulter will never stop pursuing their children. Faa, invokes his right as Western King and says the gyptian fleet will go North to find the children and fight for them. Tony tries to bring up the fact that Mrs Coulter has documents that will help narrow their search, but Faa interrupts, saying they will consult “the witches” instead.

Tony and Ben go, in secret, to Mrs Coulter’s building to try and recover the plans. The monkey sees them and sounds the alarm. Mrs Coulter shoots Ben in the shoulder and demands he give up the location of the gyptians. Ben escapes and throws himself down the elevator shaft rather than be tortured into confession. The monkey watches Ben’s hawk daemon crumble to dust.

Back at the gyptian fleet, Lyra says the blame should be on her or Mrs Coulter for Tony’s perfidy. Farder Coram insists that it is no one’s fault. She shows him the alethiometer and he tells her it is useless without years of study and books. In private, she and Pan get it to move, by letting her mind go blank. She sets the hands of the alethiometer intuitively, and discovers that Benjamin is dead. When she goes to tell Coram this, she is attacked by the pair of spy-flies. The gyptians destroy one, but the other gets away. Tony returns with the plans and they set off north

At sea, Farder Coram tells John Faa that they need to view Lyra as an asset. He tells her that she can read the alethiometer without study or years of practice, making her more valuable than any army they could muster. Lyra wants to throw the spy-fly corpse into the sea. Ma Costa says that it can’t do anything else now that it’s broken. She suggests that because it is highly illegal, it represents a risk and is thus a gesture of either love or obsession on Mrs Coulter’s part and, either way, it is proof that her mother cares about her.

In Mrs Coulter’s flat, she and Boreal watch the remaining spy-fly return. Boreal is impressed and surprised that Mrs Coulter has access to the contraband. She informs him that now they know where Lyra is headed.

 

Some Thoughts and Observations

Screenshot: HBO

—Overall, this episode was a bit more plodding than the ones that came before it. It featured a couple of deus ex machinae that seemed to exist only to drive the plot forward. For example, we have no way of knowing how the Magisterium knows that Lyra is with the gyptians and yet there is no sense in the scene that it is information we do not yet have. Even ignoring this, the Magisterium’s raid of the gyptian fleet mostly gives us an excuse to have John Faa talk about the gyptian’s legal autonomy and to give viewers a few minutes of tension. In the end, they do not find her and Lyra’s anger at being in danger could have come from her general situation. It feels like wasted minutes as Lyra’s peripatetic fortunes cycle repeatedly with no real change in the status quo.

—With the decision to reveal that Mrs Coulter is Lyra’s mother, the major mysteries of the first book have been uncovered. After last week’s surprisingly early reveal that Asriel was Lyra’s father, it seemed silly to drag out another parentage mystery and Wilson’s nuanced grief and panic would have given away the game if they had kept it any longer. I think it’s a good decision, overall, though it was an odd choice to go through the entirety of La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s 2017 prequel to HDM, in the span of a monologue.

That said, some of the other bits of exposition seem useful. Farder Coram talking about daemons with Lyra felt like a decent time to get some of the mechanics into viewers’ heads. I wish some of that storytelling had been accomplished visually, but with aeronautical escapes, panserbjørn fights, and witches yet to come, it may have been that they simply didn’t have the budget for spectacular daemon shapeshifting displays early on.

—I’m on the fence about the inclusion of Lord Boreal so early in the plot. It wouldn’t have been good storytelling to save him for the latter half of season 2 (where he appears in the books) and then have us catch up to his machinations through exposition. But it also feels as though they don’t have quite enough plot per episode to justify his search for Parry/Grumman. Perhaps once Andrew Scott appears in more than just photographs, we will have an interesting arc this season. This is no fault of Ariyon Bakare, who is magnetic on screen.

—Ruth Wilson (obviously) continues to absolutely knock it out of the park. Her scene to scene mood swings, from icy determination, to unhinged wrath, to dawning grief, to suicidal despondency is wholly mesmerizing. Now that we can talk about her being Lyra’s mother, I feel as though Jack Thorne’s writing is leaning into the inherent tragedy of her villainy.

To follow up a bit on Mrs Coulter’s nuance (the subject of my article last week), I think the show is being very smart about making her terrifying, authoritarian, and cruel while simultaneously showing us just how much those inclinations are sharpened by her need to fit in with the Magisterium’s patriarchal rejection of female power. Her speech to the Master about how truly intelligent and clever people don’t need legal protections to get what they want is a great bit of Randian objectivism that speaks to her flawed worldview where, because she has suffered at the hands of a pointlessly cruel system, everyone else should also have to.

That gets wonderfully paired with Ma Costa’s attempt to make Lyra see that just because someone is awful, doesn’t mean that they hate you. I’ll probably end up focusing on the horrors of childhood and misinformation in my article coming up later this week, but the parallel visions of failed motherhood in Ma Costa and Mrs Coulter are really fascinating and surprisingly empathetic, even kind.

—I also feel like the series did a good job of giving Mrs Coulter some physical menace. Her gunplay with Benjamin is cold and efficient and the weird little Krav Maga-esque fight they choreographed for her lends her an edge that we had not previously seen. I am not a martial arts expert, but it feels like the fight choreographer gave her moves that did not beggar belief at her abilities and were just surprising and fast enough that the taller, stronger, and scrappier Benjamin would have been taken legitimately off-guard by her fighting prowess.

—Little details like that really elevate HDM. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Mrs Coulter’s monkey daemon looking fascinated at the glowing dust that Ben’s deceased hawk explodes into is some great visual storytelling that helps keep the concept of the illegal field of study alive even though we haven’t seen Lord Asriel now in two episodes.

—I’m also really loving the theme music. It is just the right level of rousing to sate my need for Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones and Westworld themes. But it doesn’t feel inappropriately adventurous. There is a patina of eerie menace over the whole thing that promises a less bombastic tale. Composer Lorne Balfe is really doing an excellent job.

—The “Next Time On” segment at the end looks pretty darn spectacular. We’ll finally get to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much touted Lee Scoresby and get our first glimpse of Iorek Byrnison.

What did you all think? Was the episode too slow? Or was it a much needed break from some breakneck storytelling? Hooray for Matt Fraser finally getting some lines! Isn’t Ruth Wilson just the best of the best?

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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