Broken Families Abound in His Dark Materials’ “The Lost Boy”

This week, we open with Kaisa’s reiteration of the prophecy surrounding Lyra. She is the one who is destined “to end destiny.” But, in another surprising move for book readers, we then get the other half of the prophecy, where a boy will stand beside her. In our reality, we see that boy, Will Parry (Amir Wilson), the son of Lord Boreal’s target John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman.

 

In Our World:

Boreal and his our-world tracker (Jamie Wilkes) watch Will and his mother, Elaine (Killing Eve and Marcella’s Nina Sosanya), from their car. The tracker assures Boreal that social services have not been called so Boreal is free to do as he likes without attracting attention.

Elaine is intercepted by Boreal, who calls himself by the familiar moniker of the novels, Charles Latrom. Claiming to be an old army friend of John Parry’s, he asks after his “old friend” only to be told that he died thirteen years ago during an Alaskan expedition. Boreal gives Elaine his number.

Meanwhile, Will, bullied at school, is interrupted by his mother during a boxing match, attracting further scorn. Boreal’s hunter had mentioned in episode three that Elaine was mentally unstable and that comes up again in this scene, providing the ammunition for much of the taunting Will faces from his opponent. Will’s coach, Mr. Hanway (Ray Fearon—Harry Potter’s Firenze!), offers him support if Elaine is ever in need of more permanent care.

At home, Will and Elaine have dinner. She gets worked up, seemingly paranoid (though we know the truth) in insisting that someone has been going through her things. She is calmed when she finds a stash of old letters from John. She tells Will that he can read the letters, despite an earlier embargo. He may need them soon.

Boreal is informed that, after hacking the Parry household’s finances, it’s clear that John knew he would be gone for years and ensured that his family was well provided for. From this, we can assume that he must have known about the portal before he left.

Wandering through her house at night, Elaine notices Boreal’s tracker watching from the front yard and stands guard, anxiously, over Will while he sleeps.

 

In Lyra’s World:

John Faa and asks Lyra to query the alethiometer about the defenses around Bolvangar. She divines that it is guarded by Tartars but also notices glimpses of something else: a rusty cage seen through an open door. She tells Farder Coram that a nearby village is troubled by a “ghost” that’s somehow connected to their journey. Coram tells her that they need her with them. Lyra goes to Ma Costa to try and convince her to give this plan her blessing.

While Ma Costa, Lyra, and Kaisa discuss Lord Asriel’s imprisonment by King Iofur Raknison at the behest of the Magisterium (it is, in fact, all to do with the city he glimpsed through the aurora and his research on Dust), Coram finally meets with his old flame, the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala (The Strain’s Ruta Gedmintas).She has remained young and beautiful but insists that Coram is less changed by the years than he might think. Their reunion is strained, however: Coram is fixated on this world and the missing gyptian children and Serafina looks to a more all-encompassing war that Asriel threatens to bring to the multiverse. She promises to help Coram if she can.

Faa allows Lyra to leave with Iorek Byrnison to investigate the missing village, with the firm promise that they return the next night. While stopping for a meal, Iorek explains that he is an exile from Svalbard for the crime of killing another bear, thus forfeiting his crown and allowing Iofur Raknison to take power.

In the village, Lyra, Iorek, and Pan sense that there is something terribly wrong. She approaches the door revealed to her in her visions. Reaching the cage door, she finds Billy Costa, his head shaved and terrifyingly daemonless. He remains catatonic, unbalanced, insensate to all the world.

They return to the camp, where Lee keeps her from interfering with Ma Costa’s grief. Lyra is understandably horrified by what’s been done to Billy and Lee suggests that it must be the result of the Magisterium’s experiments. He tells her it’s all about control in the end.

Ma Costa and Tony are consumed with grief at Billy’s side; his mother sings him a lullaby as he finally slips away. At the funeral, Faa tells Maggie that they must fight against the Oblation Board’s atrocities. She responds that they have to kill them.

Tartars stalk into the gyptian camp during the night. They kill a few gyptian guards before knocking Lyra out and bringing her to The Station at Bolvangar where Dr. Cooper (Doc Martin and The Crown’s Lia Williams) says that she is on the verge of transformation. She is forced to strip naked by Sister Clara (Morfydd Clark), who then offers her an institutional jumper exactly the same as Billy Costa’s.

 

Shattered Families Against an Epic Backdrop

I will admit that, in the last two episodes especially, I have been feeling a growing disengagement with the show which, though well-acted and decently written, seemed to be hitting a somewhat plodding groove where the adaptation felt increasingly rote. While I am still worried that the show will fall short of its potential, “The Lost Boy” offered new reasons to be excited, mainly through its sensitive exploration of dysfunctional and broken families.

In previous articles, I have spoken at length about the fundamental brokenness of Lyra’s family of origin. Granted, there is an operatic quality to the story of a girl who falsely believes herself to be an orphan, only to learn that parents are not only alive but are revealed to be a vainglorious war-monger and ruthless sociopath. But this episode takes a long look at more subtle and relatable kinds of familial brokenness to great effect.

By moving up Will’s storyline, we’re given a chance to explore his home life with his mentally ill mother (who is mentioned in the novels, but is shunted off to the side). The show walks an interesting tightrope, portraying her illness as both a recognizable strain of schizoaffective disorder and as thematically related to her husband’s disappearance. It is common, in fantasy, for mental illness to be treated as some kind of divine or magical gift/curse. There’s something refreshing in the way it’s used, here, to illuminate family dissolution and the difficulties and anxieties face by a child who has to take care of an unwell parent, rather than a symptom of some grand, supernatural design. While Lyra’s broken family is bound up in discussions of good and evil, Campbellian mythology, and divine providence, Will’s feels like a relatively more emotionally grounded look at childhood trauma in a broken social order.

That depiction dovetails nicely with the Costas, who similarly face tragedy. While the gyptians are a welcoming, thoughtful community, the loss of a child is, obviously, a profoundly harrowing and isolating experience. While Maggie Costa’s initial response is to channel her grief into rage at the Oblation Board, I am eager to see if the show continues to handle her emotional state with thoughtfulness and care in the weeks ahead.

This overall theme is especially interesting in light of how much time the episode devotes to the relationship between Coram and Serafina. What seemed like a bit of tragic backstory in the last episode is expanded into an ever-present and painfully raw nerve as the two ex-lovers attempt and fail to reconcile. Coram is lost in the past, resentful of Serafina’s ability to move on—a state of affairs that is cruelly inverted, on a surface level, by his natural aging and her supernatural youth.

And, in this, there is something of a microcosm of the whole series’ message about the dissolution of family in the face of grand destiny. Fantasy so often is predicated on the transformation from Farm Boy to Hero, orphan to king, that it has a tendency to undervalue the joys of family and community. If I can use an example from Star Wars (tabling the old “is it Science Fiction or Fantasy?” genre argument for some other day), we are asked to be sad when Owen and Beru are killed, but we are also excited that Luke finally gets to leave the moisture farm and become a Jedi—such that the loss of a whole and loving family doesn’t really register as something worth mourning or reflecting on at any length.

James Cosmo, in his angry tears, reminds us that the death of Coram’s child is, in fact, something as monumental and apocalyptic as the coming war that obsesses Serafina. This gets a sad echo in the scene where Lyra, ever-boastful, tries to prove Asriel’s cleverness to Iorek by joyfully recounting, without irony, the long, long list of his failures as a father. Grand, cosmic destinies may be at the heart of a lot of Fantasy, but both Pullman and the show seem to understand that these epic events never really fully eclipse or make up for the personal losses and individual tragedies suffered along the way. Coram has been destroyed by the loss of his family. Maggie, Lyra, and Will are all going to be similarly broken, irreparably, by the losses they are experiencing.

 

Some Other Thoughts…

—It is obviously Will who is walking on the other side of the Escher-esque staircase opposite Lyra in the opening credits; I just didn’t realize it until tonight. I’m glad they’ve decided to introduce him early. Making the central mystery of the season the whereabouts of John Parry is a smart move to set up future seasons and get a head start on the dimension-spanning plot.

—Lyra’s “yes hello” to Farder Coram, near the top of the episode, is absolutely delightful. She’s really getting a chance to shine as an impish, impatient sprite the farther along the series gets.

—Pantalaimon’s chubby snow fox is one of the more adorable forms he’s taken this season.

—The North is absolutely gorgeous. Having just come off of eight seasons of Game of Thrones where Northern Ireland and Iceland stood in for Westeros’ frigid mountain passes and endless tundra, it’s spectacular to see Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales used to represent a similar terrain.

—On a similar note, the Parry home is a gorgeous piece of brutalist architecture. All that poured concrete without, all that dark wood within. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen a home on a BBC show and thought, I absolutely need to live there.

—For the same reason that I like the realism of the show’s take on broken families, I find myself impatient with Kasia’s prophesying. I realize that the setting-up and subversion of prophecy is a central trope of much of the Fantasy canon, but a lot of the better adaptations have consciously walked it back. Both Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films and Benioff and Weiss’ Game of Thrones adaptation took pains to strip out a lot of prophetic and pre-destined details of their source material. Even the Harry Potter films got a lot better when the prophesies were treated as a background element that the central trio of kids couldn’t really wrap their heads around. The introduction of prophecy in HDM feels clunky so far; I wish they would either scale it back or have characters react with incredulity to it.

—So far, Ruta Gedmintas’ Serafina Pekkala is great but, for me, she is always going to live in Eva Green’s shadow. My undying love for Green’s bravura turn in Penny Dreadful means I will forgive her anything, including appearing in the underwhelming Golden Compass film and falling into the same, Tim Burton-shaped trap that robbed us of fifteen years of great Helena Bonham Carter performances.

—That said, I love the tree-branch scarification they’ve given Serafina, and the diaphanous, forest green dress is another fantastic bit of costuming from a show that already went above and beyond with Boreal’s tie last week.

—Some eerie, John Carpenter’s The Thing-style vibes tonight with Lyra exploring the abandoned Samoyed village. Again, even after eight years of Game of Thrones, I find I still can’t get enough of haunted, rime-encrusted spaces.

—In that same scene, there is a shot of Lyra looking out at a single, illuminated lamppost amidst the snowy ruin. I really want to believe that is another conscious attempt to hammer home the Narnia parallels. Now if only Lord Asriel had hooves and a scarf…

What did you all think? Is the season losing you as it progresses, or are you being gradually drawn in? With even more daemon and bear special effects in this last episode, does the series live up to HBO’s technical standards? How do you feel about bringing in the Parrys this season? Let me know in the comments!

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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