Lyra’s Past Is Revealed in ‘His Dark Materials’ Episode 3 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 3, “The Spies.”]
Three episodes into His Dark Materials and all we’ve done is a move a few miles downstream from Oxford to London. I don’t want to keep banging the same drum, but I can’t help but feel the series is stalling for time. The promise of adventure teased in the preview trailers seems like just that, a tease.
That’s not to say there haven’t been any revelations or story progression, but it’s all been in words rather than actions. For example, Lyra (Dafne Keen) discovering that Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is her mother should have been an incredibly impactful moment. Instead, it’s reeled off like someone reading the Early Life section of a Wikipedia entry. And that’s an indictment on the writing, not Anne-Marie Duff’s otherwise impassioned performance. Whatever happened to show don’t tell?
Despite these revelations, in terms of actual forward momentum, the third episode remains in stasis. Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians and kept hidden below the deck of Ma Costa’s (Anne-Marie Duff) barge. The King of the Gyptians, John Faa (Lucian Msamati), and his right-hand man, Farder Coram (James Cosmo), promise to protect Lyra and keep her safe. And while the young runaway is initially wary of her new protectors, throughout the episode, they eventually gain her trust.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter tears through Jordan College, looking for her missing daughter. When she realizes Lyra isn’t there, she threatens to report The Master (Clarke Peters) to the Magisterium for reading “unsanctioned” books about alethiometers. Wilson is still fantastic as Coulter descends into rage-filled madness. You can tell Wilson is cherishing this over-the-top villain role; I half-expected her to scream, “Fly my pretties, fly!” when she released those scent tracking Spy Flies.
However, as her faraway looks and semi-suicidal ledge walks reveal, Mrs. Coulter isn’t pure evil. There is a damaged, discontented soul beneath the villainy, and Ma Costa’s monologue explains why. Not only is Coulter Lyra’s mother, but she cheated on her husband with Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). When her husband found out, he wanted Lyra killed, but Asriel killed him first. This ripped the family unit apart. “[Coulter] was broken with the shame of it all,” Ma Costa says. “She was a pariah for years.”
Informational as this all may be, did any of it move the season move along any further? Not really. If it did, it was in baby steps. Take Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), for example, who again crosses dimensions with all the fanfare of a man entering a post office. He’s drip-fed more info about the presumed dead explorer Stanislaus Grumman and discovers that Grumman is actually from the Modern London dimension, not his own. More exciting, however, is that the photo of Grumman reveals he’s played by Fleabag‘s Hot Priest, Andrew Scott.
As for the Gyptians, they’re still looking for the missing children and plan to take their search North. However, it isn’t until the closing moments of the episode that they actually set sail. In the meantime, John Faa gives a rousing speech, uniting his rag-tag group of followers, while Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson) and Benjamin (Simon Manyonda) botch their raid on Mrs. Coulter’s hotel suite. Rather than give up Lyra’s whereabouts, Benjamin takes his own life by jumping down the hotel elevator shaft.
The bungled raid is sort of entertaining, mostly due to Wilson’s primal performance. As Tony escapes through the window, Coulter pounces on Benjamin and pounds on his chest in sync with her Golden Monkey — almost as if she is more daemon than human. But it’s hard to be emotionally invested in Benjamin’s fate. He was barely a side character — even the Gyptians themselves shrug off his death as a minor inconvenience. If his closest friends don’t care, why should we?
More significant is Lyra learning how to read the alethiometer (the golden compass) — something we’re told is meant to be impossible without having studied the books. Lyra not only tells Farder Coram that she has an alethiometer but that she knows how to use it. This is somewhat concerning, seeing as The Master previously told her not to tell anyone about it. While Coram seems like a trustworthy grandfather figure, who knows how this information might be used — it doesn’t take long for him to tell John Faa about it.
There is definitely a lot of set-up here, which promises a more thrilling adventure to come. But this episode felt like it could have covered the same ground in half-an-hour. We should already be on our boat ride North right now, not just setting off. I still have hope for the breathtaking adventure teased in the trailers, but right now, His Dark Materials is getting by on its performances and potential.
- I was a little confused last week about how daemons work, but according to Farder Coram, one does not choose what animal your daemon settles as. “When your daemon settles, it will reveal what kind of person you are,” he tells Lyra.
- During her monologue, it’s also revealed that Ma Costa was the Gyptian nurse who protected Lyra as a baby.
- “Scholastic sanctuary is just another way of protecting bloated privilege,” says Mrs. Coulter. “Tired old men talking a tired old way about tired old things.”
- Farder Coram mentions making a deal with the “witches” in the North, which certainly gives us hope of a more mystical fantasy adventure to come.
His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO