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.
This week, we begin with Lee Scoresby (Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway actor/writer/director, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and his rabbit familiar, Hester (voiced by Cristela and Cars 3 alumna Cristela Alonzo) humming a cowboy tune in their aeronautical balloon. They are searching for their ne’er-do-well friend Iorek, an armored bear. They spot the gyptian fleet below also headed for the village of Trollesund on the shores of Lapland. In the city, Lee is rebuffed by the local law. His reputation has preceded him.
One of the most compelling themes in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is the way in which he represents childhood as both a sacred time and a space for profound frustration at the complexities of the adult world. It’s one of the most unifying themes across all of children’s literature, and a difficult trick to pull off effectively. It is especially difficult to strike this balance in children’s fantasy, since the magical elements of the world can sometimes serve as deus ex machinae that make the adult world literally less complex. While Pullman’s novels are excellent at giving the reader a limited, childlike perspective on a world that is overwhelmingly complex and adult, the television series, in broadening its perspective, must also account for those complexities. The difference in approach between book series and television series was starkly illuminated in this week’s episode.
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.
One of the great things about superlative children’s literature is its ability to let events unfold from a simplistic, child’s perspective while cluing in older readers to the complexities of an adult world. As an example, look no further than Harry Potter’s Sirius Black, who must seem, to the child reader, the ideal, fun-loving companion to the boy-wizard and, to the adult reader, a troubled man in a state of arrested development who is using Harry to reconnect with his dead school chum.
This balancing act is no easy task. And even the best children’s literature occasionally sacrifices some of the complexity of the adult world in order to keep its narrative centered on a child protagonist’s experience. Such is the case with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which is additionally burdened by the fact that much of the world is predicated on heavy theological concepts which Lyra understandably is less interested in than the immediate danger she must face while dealing with agents of the Magisterium and Armored Bears.
And while none of that tension makes HDM a less satisfying read, it is true that one of Pullman’s most intriguing characters is left a little thin and unfairly treated by the narrative. I am speaking, of course, of Mrs Coulter, one of the series’ primary antagonists. I should add here that, in discussing Mrs Coulter in this article two things should be noted: First, I have not done a full reread of HDM in about a decade and while I am attempting to catch up while I watch the show and write these articles, some of my sense of the novels may be based on older information and recollections. Second, any discussion of Mrs Coulter that involves the novels will have to involve MAJOR SPOILERS for the books (and presumably the show), so read on at your own peril.
The first half of Episode 2 of His Dark Materials follows a number plot threads, many of which come together in the back half. We’ll check out the individual strands first…
One of the things I was most curious about in the lead up to the premiere of HBO/BBC’s His Dark Materials was how they would deal with the adaptation’s visual aesthetic. Philip Pullman is famously spare with description, leaving quite a bit up for interpretation. Further complicating this is the oddity of the setting itself: HDM is set in an alternate universe where the Catholic Church did not lose political power in England, altering the course of the last five centuries of European and North American history. It is ostensibly set in the present day (at least the present day of the first book, Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, 1995)—but because of the power of the Church along with other, more subtle alternate universe changes, it oughtn’t look like a mirror of the late 20th century. Essentially, HDM should look like a period piece of a period that never existed, but isn’t so alien as to make us forget that it takes place in a world that ought to seem uncannily familiar.
That’s admittedly no small task, but going by the premiere episode, “Lyra’s Jordan,” I think the look of the production is something they absolutely nailed. Beyond being thoughtful and splitting the uprights between “contemporary drama” and “fantastical period piece,” the overall look of the show also provides an interesting meta-commentary on Pullman’s place in the pantheon of British fantasy literature, some twenty years on from its publication.
Hi there—I’m excited to be Tor.com’s recapper for HBO and BBC’s His Dark Materials, a television adaptation of the beloved fantasy series by Philip Pullman. I’ll be posting these recaps every Tuesday and will also be offering some additional analysis and meditation for most episodes in separate essays a little bit later in the week. For reference, I have read and enjoyed the HDM books, so there will be some discussion of the source material, but these reviews won’t contain spoilers for the entire series (though they may hint at some of the plot-points down the line, based on my admittedly imperfect memories of what was contained in the novels, so be forewarned).
We begin with some table-setting text that sets up the world as one dominated by an oppressive theocracy called the Magisterium. It also mentions the key piece of information that human beings all have a Daemon-familiar who serves as a manifestation of their soul. And it points us toward a prophecy spoken by the heretical witches of the North that a girl with a grand destiny will come from Oxford…
I study Victorian Gothic fiction and am an avid fantasy aficionado, so when Amazon Studios announced Carnival Row, a Victorian-adjacent fantasy series, I fully expected that I would either love or hate it. Now, having binged the eight episodes of the first season (it was renewed for season 2 before it aired), I can say that, much to my surprise, my personal reaction is closer to the former than the latter. It’s a pretty good show and—if it is not necessarily the successor to Penny Dreadful, my favorite series of all time and the crowning jewel of Victorian prestige TV—it is definitely a thoughtful entry that, unlike a lot of media that uses 19th century England as inspiration, is very concerned with the content as well as the look of the Victorian world. Carnival Row is, in essence, a show interested in using both the tropes of fantasy and the tropes of Victorian literature to discuss the multifarious social ills caused by racial inequality and colonialism. And, though it can be at times heavy-handed—and, very occasionally, lazily anachronistic—it does a pretty good job of creating an immersive world that resonates with the evils of the present day.
If you are at all interested in the world of musical theater, you’ve probably heard about Hadestown, the most recent recipient of the Tony Award for best new musical. If you aren’t, I promise that it’s something worth knowing about. The Original Broadway Cast Recording was finally made available in its entirety at the end of July, so even if you can’t make it to New York during its run, you can still appreciate its wild accomplishment.
Hadestown is a decade-in-the-making collaboration between singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and stage director Rachel Chavkin. Beginning as a folk-opera that Mitchell worked on between 2006 and 2010, it made its off-Broadway debut in 2016 at the New York Theater Workshop. From there it moved to Edmonton and London with major rewrites and finally made it to Broadway in March of this year.
At its heart, Hadestown is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a story you likely know well. Here is a brief refresher for those of you who are unfamiliar (complete with spoilers for a 2000+ year old piece of foundational European mythology): The myth focuses on Orpheus—a musical and poetic wunderkind and son of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry—and Orpheus’ wife, Eurydice. Eurydice is sexually assaulted by a satyr and, in trying to escape her attacker, falls into a viper’s nest and is fatally bitten. Distraught at the loss of his wife, Orpheus descends into the underworld to beg Hades, the god of death, and his wife, Persephone, to return her to him. He sings so beautifully that the gods relent and allow Eurydice to return…on the condition that Orpheus never look back, as he walks back toward the mortal world, to check if his wife is following behind him. Orpheus fails the test, and Eurydice goes back down to the underworld; Orpheus, consumed by grief, vows to worship only Apollo, the god of music. Followers of Dionysus, the god of sanity-shredding parties and Orpheus’ previous patron, tear him to pieces for betraying their deity.
I thought Stranger Things 3 was, overall, an excellent season—a great improvement over Season 2 and a return to some of its Stephen King-centric roots that add an extra layer of menace to the proceedings in a show which can, under some circumstances, seem a little too lighthearted and fizzy in places. But Stranger Things 3 managed to continue one of the series’ best thematic through lines wherein the Lovecraftian menace of the Upside-Down serves as a supernatural stand-in for the equally unpalatable but decidedly more familiar suburban horror of child molestation, exploitation, and abuse.
Of course, it is nothing new to see otherworldly horror dovetail with a more familiar, mundane source of fear. H.P. Lovecraft used his cosmic monstrosities as stand-ins for his own racist fear of immigrants and people of color. Shirley Jackson used her Gothic fabulae to give expression to the private terrors of the lonely and misanthropic. Perhaps most importantly, for our purposes, Stephen King uses his alien and supernatural monsters to explore the perils of nostalgia and the small-mindedness it can engender. Given that Stranger Things is both a show that banks on the nostalgia of its viewers and one that’s specifically interested in the horror landscape of the 1980s—a landscape that King was paramount in shaping—it makes sense that he would be central to the way the show uses the otherworldly to consider and talk about the mundane, tapping into the darker anxieties beneath Hawkins’ sunlit, idyllic-seeming surface.
For all of its popularity, Game of Thrones is a show that faces constant, justified criticism about its racism. It’s an essential issue to tackle, in part because it is also a show with a huge black following. Michael Harriot of Very Smart Brothas over on The Root regularly calls Game of Thrones the “blackest show on television” and his primer on the idea of blackness in the show is not to be missed.
For people outside critical conversations about race and pop culture, it can seem like it is hard to square these two different characterizations: how can a show which some critics of color see as representing their experience also be a show which regularly showcases racist writing and viewpoints? And beyond that, what are the duties of fantasy, both in its inception and in its adaptation, to people of color and issues of race, ethnicity, and color? I’m an extremely white-passing Latinx person who has never had to worry about people who look like me showing up in fantasy yarns, but I have found myself both deeply disturbed by Game of Thrones’ relationship to race and simultaneously desperate to exonerate it. It can be extremely difficult to reconcile one’s love of a show or a book from its politics—difficulties made even worse when those politics appear to be the unconscious by product of privilege. In trying to navigate these choppy waters, I find myself returning to an author whose writing I adore and whose politics I despise: H.P. Lovecraft.
Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones
It borders on cliché that writers tend to metadiscursively tout the importance of storytelling at critical moments. Tyrion’s speech about the importance of a good story in choosing a king in the final episode of Game of Thrones may as well be Benioff and Weiss’ winking plea that the audience trust their judgement. Many are disinclined to do so after a season that was poorly paced and often gave viewers whiplash with the rapid introduction and dissolution of major plots within the course of an episode.
But I will cut to the chase and say that in the end, I loved the finale of Game of Thrones. It took its time and did its best to pull out of the nosedive that many viewers assumed it was in, and—whether or not you feel that Benioff and Weiss earned the trust they solicited in Tyrion’s speech (I myself am very skeptical)—the point they make about the importance of storytelling stands, not just as a pat on the back that privileges writers as the ultimate power-brokers of the human experience, but within the actual narrative: what kind of stories matter and what kind of stories ought to matter in a world like Westeros where power structures are built on the post-hoc justification of conquest? As it turns out, Game of Thrones values, as it always has, stories about the futility of justification.
Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin spent the first three quarters of the first novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series setting up Ned Stark to be the righteous, honorable hero who will sort out the viper’s nest of King’s Landing. Then he dies and we understand, in retrospect, that Ned wasn’t ever subtle or clever enough to be the savior we wanted. The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, in many ways, played out the ultimate Martin plot: first, spend almost eight seasons showing us the rise of a ruler who has the ability to be truly great and also the potential to fall victim to her worst instincts. Then, at the eleventh hour, when she has a critical choice to make, remind us that people rarely rise to the occasion under pressure. Martin has always been a bitter realist with a dim view of human nature; Benioff and Weiss did not pull any punches in delivering that lesson.
[Please note that there are spoilers through the latest episode below.]
Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones
In the first half of this discussion, we looked at the way in which George R.R. Martin channels the Gothic in the Song of Ice and Fire novels. In particular, this is shown through Sansa Stark whose belief in the power of the chivalric stories that Westerosi society uses to mask its inherent cruelty is a kind of retreat—what Eve Sedgwick would term a metaphoric “live burial.” In this second essay, we’ll look to Theon Greyjoy, Martin’s other “Gothic heroine,” as well as parse the way that Game of Thrones uses both Theon and Sansa to try (semi-successfully) to bring out the Gothic in full force within the larger narrative of the show.
Series: HBO’s Game of Thrones
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