If you haven’t read or watched His Dark Materials, it’s hard to explain how weird it is. This is its greatest strength, I believe, but also its biggest weakness, because while each part is intensely creative, when more closely examined in isolation, these parts can be utterly bizarre. Case in point: I just watched Ruth Wilson, award-winning star of stage and screen, apologize to a sulking CG monkey. Also, the monkey is her soul. What?!
Tonight’s first episode, “No Way Out,” feels as glacially trapped as its title suggests. Having traveled to the land of the dead (and leaving Lyra’s daemon Pan behind), Will and Lyra do a bit of wandering before they manage to find her friend Roger in what they realize isn’t heaven or hell, but the Authority’s eternal prison camp. The dead are, as one might expect, fearful and not particularly motivated to try escaping until Lyra reminds Roger of their exploits together at Jordan College. Remembering his life brings Roger back to life, metaphorically, as well as others nearby, who start telling their life stories, inspiring others to remember, and so on.
Eventually, everyone’s ready to get back to the real world, but it turns out they’re too far down in the underworld—literally, if not also figuratively—and thus begins a slow but steady climb up through caves. Unfortunately, the march also continues through the second of tonight’s episodes, but at least there are appearances by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby and Andrew Scott as Will’s dad to liven things up. Oh, and there are harpies who remind people how terrible they are, but it turns out they like stories too, so it all works out, even when the multiverse explodes.
Remember the Lyra-seeking bomb introduced last week over in the Magisterium’s world? Well, it’s been completed—it just needs to be powered by the severing of someone from their daemon/soul. Luckily, Father-President MacPhail has the perfect candidates in Mrs. Coulter and her golden monkey. But when the pair are strapped in, Dr. Cooper can’t bring herself to pull the switch. When the tiny spy Roke starts to free Mrs. Coulter, MacPhail clubs Cooper to death, restarts the countdown, rushes inside the cell, throws Roke against a window, and gets knocked unconscious by Mrs. Coulter. She rushes out of the cell to stop the countdown as MacPhail hurriedly places himself and his daemon in the sacrificial spots. Luckily, Mrs. Coulter manages to tear the machine apart before the bomb can be activated.
Unfortunately, that’s when the angel Lord Asriel killed last week returns to Metatron, the Authority’s Regent (who, if you don’t remember, is the second-in-command to the angel who pretended to create everything, but is currently running the show and determined to destroy free will). Learning of Asriel’s rebellion, the coldly furious Metatron shines his divine light on the bomb, setting it off anyway. However, the Lyra-seeking bomb does not seek Lyra, and instead just rips large chasms that suck in Dust throughout the multiverse. (Dust, of course, being: people’s souls, angels, original sin, free will, and other assorted fruits and vegetables.) Again, imagine trying to explain this nonsense to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the series.
When “The Abyss” begins, Asriel is delighted he’s finally gotten the Authority’s Regent’s attention, even if the local chasm takes out Witch-Queen Ruta Skadi. Mrs. Coulter, on the other hand, rushes to Fra Pavel, demanding he use his alethiometer to discover if Lyra lived through the bomb that, again, didn’t seem to seek her in any meaningful way. Given that her daughter was still in the land of the dead at the time, you can see the inevitable misunderstanding. Mrs. Coulter returns to Asriel, bitter that Lyra died for his “war crime.” Eventually, after new Witch-Queen Serafina Pekkala stops by to briefly threaten Asriel for also getting Ruta killed, Coulter tries to goad the witch into killing her. It doesn’t work.
Asriel isn’t bothered by Lyra or Ruta’s death in the slightest and travels to meet Iorek Bjornson, who blames Asriel for the chasm destroying the polar bears’ land. I have no idea how Iorek knew where to place the blame, but he does give Asriel an extremely helpful info dump: Lyra is alive, she’s in the land of the dead, she got there with the portal-opening Subtle Knife, which Iorek himself reforged. Asriel returns to base camp and shares the happy news with his ex-wife. As they realize Lyra’s fulfilling the second prophecy regarding her—“She will defeat death”—Will cuts open a door to another world, allowing the dead to not only leave their purgatory, but disperse into Dust and become one with the universe.
So everything’s working out! Death is dead, Roger is free, Will saw his dad, Asriel has his war, and Mrs. Coulter—oh, I forgot about the monkey, didn’t I? Mrs. Coulter’s monkey, perhaps sensing she wanted to commit suicide-by-witch, or perhaps finally fed up with years of verbal and physical abuse, briefly abandons her while she believes Lyra is dead. As a result, at the end of the episode, the star of Luther, The Affair, and so much more, found herself playing a character apologizing to a small and extremely sullen monkey. The fact that Ruth Wilson makes it work to any degree is due to her talent, because the scene ends up feeling earnest, melancholy, and yet still completely bizarre. It sums up His Dark Materials rather nicely, I think.
- The Mary storyline continues to be related to absolutely nothing. This time, she finds some amber glass in a river which allows her to see Dust, and that it’s getting sucked into the sky. Whee. But since Will created the portal from the land of the dead into the world she and the talking elephants are in, hopefully her storyline—hell, her character—suddenly connects to something. I mean, she’s the serpent to Lyra’s Eve, right?
- One of the few things I remember about The Amber Spyglass is that the mulefas—the talking elephants Mary’s been hanging with—use seed pods as wheels, and I was very much wondering how the TV show was going to depict this. Honestly, as much as Mary’s completely severed storyline irritates me, I could have watched those little guys skating around for the entire episode.
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