His Dark Materials Season 1: What Worked, and What Needs to Change

In looking back at the first season of His Dark Materials, I am struck by how much of a mixed bag it has been. Like many of you who have been commenting, I found the season lagging and somewhat uninspired in the middle, plagued by pacing issues and sometimes clunkily written. But that said, there were moments of pure sublimity—including one of the best performances of the year and consistently excellent visual design.

 

Performances, Good and Bad

Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials

Screenshot: HBO/BBC

Let’s start with the obvious as well as the best: Ruth Wilson. Mrs Coulter is an incredibly difficult role. She’s written as a moustache-twirling villain in the novels. From Lyra’s perspective, she absolutely is such a villain, and any actress that was going to play her would have to be brilliant at striking the right balance. Children may see the world in black and white, but a version of the show aimed at adults also needs to account for a version of Mrs Coulter who, though ultimately irredeemable, has to be at least somewhat sympathetic.

Ruth Wilson finds that perfect middle ground between the two. She plays Mrs Coulter with twitchy, cruel smiles, unctuous faux-sincerity, and flashes of unutterable and unbearable sorrow that blink through her mask of confidence with a seemingly involuntary tug at the corner of her mouth or a paroxysm of her eyebrow. The best thing about the 2007 film version of The Golden Compass was Nicole Kidman’s icy, tortured performance as Marisa Coulter, and Ruth Wilson managed to sustain that character for eight episodes. In the same year that Lena Headey’s brilliant work as Cersei Lannister came to an end after being blasphemously underwritten in the final episodes, Wilson’s Mrs Coulter arose as a more than worthy successor to the mantle of sympathetic fantasy villainess. If nothing else, her performance will keep me coming back to the show.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, the show also gave us Lin-Manuel Miranda’s somewhat baffling presence as Lee Scoresby. Don’t get me wrong: LMM is an amazing writer, musician, and theater impresario. Hamilton and In The Heights are quite rightly considered in the highest tiers of Broadway canon. He’s a gentle, charming man whose goofball presence is always a delight, whether it’s reading parody Christmas poetry on My Brother, My Brother and Me or offering millennials some nostalgic delights on Duck Tales. But he just wasn’t up to the task as Scoresby.

I fully admit that the incongruous writing of the character was at least half the problem (they wrote him as alternating between scoundrel and softie rather than incorporating the two as part of an overall trajectory). But he felt out of place on the show. If they were looking for a slightly fey, Latinx Lee, they could have gone for the reigning Red Viper and Mandalorian (and actual Texan) Pedro Pascal. Many have pointed out that this was a characterization of Scoresby that was more in line with Pullman’s novella “Once Upon a Time in the North” than Northern Lights, which places him firmly in the comic relief role. LMM was definitely great with sarcastic one-liners and playing the butt of numerous jokes about his roguishness. For me, the real gaps showed when the show’s depiction switched over (abruptly) to Lee as a beacon of love and kindness. I hope that they continue to develop him in season 2 and that he eases into the role a little more.

As a final note, as far as acting is concerned, it’s been good to see strong performances from Dafne Keen (Lyra), Amir Wilson (Will), and especially Lewin Lloyd (Roger). At one point in time, not all that long ago, child actors were largely seen as the bane of quality acting with only a few standouts making names for themselves alongside adult performers, but Game of Thrones set a very high standard for child actors. Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Jack Gleeson, and Dean-Charles Chapman all began on GoT as children or teenagers and are now household names—some starring in high-profile projects. His Dark Materials, perhaps even more than GoT, needed child actors who could carry scenes and embody characters of central importance, and it succeeded wildly on that count.

 

Writing

Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) in His Dark Materials)

Screenshot: HBO/BBC

The writing has been something of an albatross during this first season of His Dark Materials. The series was solid when it came to scenes featuring individual dialogue, but failed at providing the necessary exposition to make larger moments land. Typically, large swaths of exposition are bad for a series and I was certainly not a fan of the opening crawl. As it turned out, however, the series could have used much more table setting and dialogue-based worldbuilding.

This was mainly a problem in the treatment of daemons. As many commenters brought up over the course of my weekly reviews, there just wasn’t enough discussion of daemons to prove their ubiquity. Part of that was rooted in what must have been budgetary limitations, but it could have been improved by making more mention of daemons in conversation and clearly explaining both the physical rules of Lyra’s world and the conventions of society (we are never told, and likely needed to be told, for example, that touching someone else’s daemon is the ultimate taboo).

Similarly, the reach and power of the Magisterium was never quite as explicitly religious as it could have been. While the series displayed none of the cowardice that stripped nearly all religious iconography and language away from the depiction of the Magisterium in the 2007 film, the first half of the series is cagey about what, exactly, the Magisterium believes. It’s worth highlighting the fact that, when he bothered to, writer Jack Thorne was more than up to the task of integrating worldbuilding into dialogue—Asriel and Lyra reciting the alternate lines from Genesis did a lot to set out the stakes of the former’s experiments. It’s baffling as to why that scene was included in the final episode as opposed to the first.

The second major issue with the writing was the overall pace of the series. Eight episodes is not a lot of time in which to try to fit everything covered in the first novel (not to mention the first few chapters of the sequel, by moving up the introduction of Will and Lord Boreal) but, even so, there seemed to be episodes that were painfully slow and others that move at breakneck speed—both to the overall detriment of the series. Cramming all of Svalbard into a single episode, for example, forced much of the plot (Asriel’s imprisonment and release) off-screen and proved to be a waste of Peter Serafinowicz’s considerable talents. Conversely, there seemed to be a lot of pressure to put more of Will on screen in order to, I assume, keep him in the audience’s mind. That resulted in some deadly dull and repetitive scenes where Will’s plot was not significantly advanced, and tension built only to disappear at the end of an episode without any major developments. Boreal’s two associates in Will’s world helped provide some context, but mostly seemed like throwaway characters who got far too much screen time.

Despite these issues, there was a lot of stellar writing interspersed throughout the series. Maggie Costa’s explanation of Mrs Coulter’s villainy was understated but lovely. The repartee between Lyra and Iofur Raknison when she pretends to be his daemon was crackling and embodied the heart of what good fantasy television can be. It’s a shame that so much of the series’ runtime was spent on vague pronouncements about “destiny” and endless time spent in the Parry household.

 

Visual Design

Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) in His Dark Materials

Screenshot: HBO/BBC

Everything that the writing occasionally lacked, the show’s visual design nailed. From the 1940s-inspired look of Lyra’s world (which, as I wrote in an early essay on the series, evokes the Lewisian themes that Pullman wants to topple) to the intentionally pathetic attempts to make Bolvangar seem livable, to the brutalist dreariness of that Parry home in which we spent so much time, HDM did a stellar job of making its multiple dimensions feel real, lived in, and evocative of what they needed to evoke without ever straying into the too-fantastical frippery of the 2007 film. The second book offers opportunities for even more stunning visuals, and I can’t wait to see what the production team comes up with for the next season.

 

Racist Language and Stereotypes

Andrew, a commenter on previous articles, made some excellent points early on about the way that the series failed to update itself in terms of racist language and stereotypes which, in turn, inspired me to do something of a deep dive into the problems of the Boys’ Own fiction genre that was met with—shall we say—a mixed response. But everything I said in that article I hold to: from keeping the offensive term “gyptian,” to using so-called “tartars” as murderous-minded cannon fodder, to failing to expand on Iorek Byrnison, thereby keeping him solidly in the role of noble savage, the series kept most of the books’ problematic elements on display without challenging them.

This was especially disheartening as the show was generally pretty excellent at driving home the horror of being a gyptian under Magisterium rule. That we should come to empathize so deeply with an oppressed people while still not being able to refer to them except with an offensive term (the term the characters use for themselves, moreover) was certainly a blow. Northern Lights is nearly a quarter-century old and a lot has changed about the acceptable norms of representing people of color. I’m not a fan of censorship (changing “n***** Jim” to “slave Jim” in some editions of Huck Finn is a mistake on multiple levels) but I’d be horrified if a television adaptation of that book used the original language without also discussing why it’s problematic. Fantasy and Children’s Literature can and should deal with the realities of bigotry, misogyny, and oppression. In its inaugural season, HDM failed to problematize the racism of its source material in any way that was useful, insightful, or important. As others have pointed out in the comments on previous articles, there are more lousy, unexamined tropes in the pipeline for HDM; I sincerely hope these will be rectified in the adaptation process as the series moves forward.

 

Who Is This For?

Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Iorek in His Dark Materials

Screenshot: HBO / BBC

My last thought on this first season is not necessarily a criticism but it is a question worth considering: who is this show made for? Pullman’s books aspire to be the anti-Narnia: a narrative for children that simply and didactically makes the case for the moral possibilities of atheism and the importance of resisting cruel authority. I first read them when I was in college and so I was never, personally, the novels’ target audience, but I think Pullman’s goal is a laudable one. Even if you are a theist who sees value in Lewis’ septology, it is a worthy aim to give children a story that teaches them the importance of freethinking and shows the value of a moral code centered on resisting oppression.

The show is certainly not unfriendly to children. There is very little explicit violence and certainly all sexual content is acknowledged only obliquely. But it is also definitely not aimed at children. When Thorne deviates from Pullman’s text, it is in order to expand the view of the world beyond Lyra and Will’s point of view. His explorations of Mrs Coulter’s suffering under the misogynistic thumb of the Magisterium and Farder Coram’s grief over his dead child are not written to be particularly understandable by a child viewer. I personally loved those explorations and felt that they were worthy complements to Pullman’s child-centric, black and white view of a morally gray world.

But here we get to some problems as well. HDM is, ultimately, a narrative about growing up, and whether or not a loss of innocence is something to be embraced or rejected. Pullman lands this message, in part, by removing some of the complexity from its counter-narrative. Marisa Coulter is, in the novels, a selfish villain who craves power and authority (Authority?) for its own sake. The show has painted her as someone who is (at least) partially invested in the Magisterium’s goals because she has internalized their claim that her own infidelity was caused by the inescapability and folly of original sin. As the series continues (as it will for at least another season), there is a question of how it will handle some of the moral complexities the novels weren’t interested in investigating. Will we see complicated characters like Mrs Coulter sidelined in order to focus on and clarify Pullman’s original concerns? Will we see those themes muddied by Thorne’s interest in exploring secondary characters and their adult motivations? Will there be an effective synthesis of the two? That’s a big question mark for me, at the moment, and the way the first season unfolded offers little in the way of prognostication.

 

All in all, I did enjoy watching His Dark Materials. If I had not been reviewing it and, therefore, putting on a more careful, critical lens each week, I would likely have a vague affection for it as a more or less effective show featuring an essential-viewing performance from Ruth Wilson. It was not my favorite show of 2019 or even my favorite HBO show (Watchmen does a much better job of taking a beloved text and updating it for modern consumption—themes intact, omissions improved upon). But it wasn’t a disaster and I rarely found myself losing interest.

I haven’t had much chance to talk to people in my life who hadn’t read and loved the novels, so it’s hard for me to be sure about whether or not the show found much purchase with non-book readers. Future seasons will provide more opportunity for following threads the novels did not explore: Expanding on the off-screen travails of Lyra’s parents, Lord Boreal, Lee Scoresby, and John Parry could breathe new life into its sophomore season. I’ll certainly stick around for that and, should Tor.com be interested, offer my formal take on it here.

In the meantime, what did you think of this first season? Where did it shine? Where did it fall flat? How would you have capitalized on the former and minimized the latter? Was there something you disagreed with in my assessment? Were there points I missed? I look forward to your 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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