The Children Fight Back in a Gripping Episode of ‘His Dark Materials’ (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 6, “The Daemon-Cages.”]
His Dark Materials is now starting to resemble the kind of show I was picturing in my mind before it premiered — a fantastical adventure with dark, sinister overtones. It was a plodding and somewhat mundane start, but ever since Lin-Manuel Miranda rocked up in a hot air balloon in episode four, the series has gone from strength to strength.
“The Daemon-Cages” is undoubtedly the best episode of the season so far and the first one that could comfortably stand on its own against other prestige TV dramas. It feels like the perfect culmination of the first part of the story, where all of the disparate plot points come together to create a fast-paced, high-stakes, and dramatic piece of television. There are tense action sequences, alluring visuals, some disturbingly dark themes, and, of course, Emmy-worthy performances from Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson.
At the end of last week’s episode, Lyra (Dafe Keen) was snatched in the middle of the night and taken to an Arctic laboratory where the General Oblation Board carries out its evil experiments on kidnapped children. And so, the majority of this week’s episode takes place in this heavily guarded unit, which is more of a prison than a lab. It’s all gray corridors and metal gates. The children wear matching drab jumpsuits. Haunting screams echo from behind closed doors. It’s basically a pre-pubescent penitentiary… or a really dystopian boarding school.
Before having her body scanned and photos taken (in a way that resembles police mugshots), Lyra is reunited with her best friend Roger (Lew Lloyd). Juvenile jail has not been kind to the former kitchen boy, who is a shell of his usual spirited self. However, he does still have his daemon, so at least he hasn’t been entirely zombified like the late Billy Costa and other children who have already been experimented on. Lyra assures Roger that help is on the way and begins plotting a revolutionary uprising.
This means we essentially get a prison escape drama but with children — sort of a cross between Annie and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. After causing a distraction, Lyra and Roger search the building and find out what is really happening to the missing kids. They discover a room full of cages, inside each one, a daemon, separated from its human counterpart. Those humans, who are hidden away in a secret room, are soulless husks — child zombies with no sense of being. It’s a really unsettling and uncomfortable image, one which evokes real-life images of internment camps or detention centers.
The machine in which the daemon-severing takes place is also a frightening bit of equipment. It’s a massive, circular, metal contraption with two cages inside — one for the child, the other for their daemon — and a large guillotine ominously hovering above. It’s what I imagine a magician from the future would use for the ‘sawing a person in half’ trick. But this is no sleight of hand or grand illusion. This is what Dr. Cooper (Lia Williams) and her associates are using on these poor, defenseless children, for what they claim is the greater good.
“We’re on the edge of a magnificent discovery,” Dr. Cooper tells her colleague Dr. Rendel (Amit Shah), who is starting to have his doubts about the whole thing. “How many more children have to die before we get it right?” he asks. You see, the machine doesn’t quite work yet. Yes, it separates a child and their daemon, but afterward, it leaves the children unresponsive and barely functioning. But Dr. Cooper doesn’t care. She believes what they’re doing is necessary to free future generations from “tyranny and sin.” It all comes back to this idea of control and what the adults in power deem is best.
As Lyra and Roger spread their message of escape to the other kids, a Golden monkey wrench is thrown into the plan when Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) makes an unannounced visit. Lyra manages to stay undetected for a short while, thanks to some excellent cover work and under-the-bed hiding, but when she’s summoned to the experimentation room, she has no choice but to break her cover and call for Mrs. Coulter’s help. This is another really horrible, unpleasant scene, especially as Pan (voiced by Kit Connor) is ripped from Lyra and shoved into a cage. And if not for Coulter’s intervention, Lyra and Pan would have been cut from one another.
Coulter tries to explain things to Lyra, about what is going on at the lab and why she didn’t tell her she was her mother. Again, Keen and Wilson play off each other brilliantly and truly elevate the material when they’re on screen together. An emotional Coulter claims that she would never let anyone hurt Lyra. While Lyra is cynical, she keeps her emotions in check and plays along. She realizes it’s all about Dust, the mysterious substance that, according to Coulter, leads to “a life of sin, guilt, and regret.” And Coulter blames its cause on daemons. “At the age we call puberty, daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in.”
Lyra makes a fair point when she says if the operation was such a good thing, then why did Coulter stop it happening to her? And that’s when Coulter admits that the experiment still needs “ironing out.” It hasn’t quite been perfected, but like Dr. Cooper, she is willing to sacrifice the few for the many. “One day, you will see all I’ve done to right this world for you,” she states. Knowing her mother’s weak spots, Lyra thanks Coulter for saving her and pretends to hand over the alethiometer in a metal tin that has been soldered shut. Unbeknownst to Coulter, the tin actually contains a Spy Fly, which startles her and provides enough distraction for Lyra to flee the room and lock her mother inside.
This allows Lyra to carry out her escape plan, setting off the fire alarm and directing the other children to freedom. Roger rescues the zombified kids after giving a rousing speech, while Lyra destroys the severing machine, almost bringing the whole building down in the process. At the same time, the Gyptians charge the unit, providing back-up and man-power in a chaotic but thrilling action sequence. Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and Iorek (voiced by Joe Tandberg) all get moments to shine, and even Serafina the witch (Ruta Gedmintas) swoops in to annihilate the remaining guards. It’s a cathartic, triumphant moment in an otherwise grim and disturbing episode.
Mrs. Coulter, meanwhile, skulks away, while Lyra hops aboard Scoresby’s balloon, along with Roger and Iorek, to continue North for her next mission. There is another prisoner she needs to help escape — her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). As the balloon floats through the night sky, Serafina drops by to tell Scoresby that the fate of “more than this world” depends on Lyra and that it’s his job to protect her. That’s a big responsibility, and one he instantly fails at when the balloon is attacked by cliff-ghasts (flying demon creatures), and Lyra ends up falling overboard.
It’s a bit of a cheap cliffhanger, as we know that Lyra isn’t in danger of dying — her fate practically demands that she survives. But I can forgive a shock-value ending in an episode that was otherwise deeply engrossing and thoroughly entertaining. And even if Lyra’s well-being isn’t in question, there is at least some intrigue around where she will end up now that she’s out of Scoresby’s protection.
- There’s a brief check-in with the other world this episode… and there’s not a great deal happening. Carlo Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) men continue to stake out the Parry household. Meanwhile, inside the house, Will (Amir Wilson) watches old footage of his father, John Parry (Andrew Scott), being interviewed on the news about one of his expeditions.
- Last week, I posited the theory that Mrs. Coulter is a witch, and that’s why she’s able to separate from her daemon. Now I’m wondering if the reason she can do that is because she had the severing operation done on her?
- It’ll be interesting to see where the Gyptians go from here, as it feels like they’ve served their function for the plot. They wanted to find and free the missing children, and that’s what they did, even if John Faa (Lucian Msamati) feels like he failed for not saving Billy.
His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO