His Dark Materials Season Two Episode Four Review: “Tower of the Angels”

“Vengeance.” Hey, now we’re talkin’! With a single word, His Dark Materials’ latest episode has upped the intrigue — and the alienness of its science-fantasy worldbuilding — to a new level. No, we’re not talking about the vengeance the witches wreak on the airships of the Magisterium and the soldiers on board (which they take out with an alacrity that raises the question of why they didn’t defend their now-destroyed homeland from the enemy fleet in the first place). We’re talking angels, man — aka Dust, aka shadow particles, aka dark matter, aka the mystery stuff the whole series has been soaking in from the start.

There are apparently billions and billions of these self-professed angels, and they’ve begun communicating with scientist Mary Malone using her “Cave” computer array — like, out-loud speech-based communication, not squiggly lines on a monitor. Their voice (provided by Sophie Okonedo) is that rich, mellifluous female tone you might naturally associate with benevolent superintelligences. But when they tell Mary what they’re after, it’s the not peace and love and harmony you’d expect. It’s “vengeance.” Against whom or what? The angels aren’t saying just yet, though fans of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, from which His Dark Materials takes its title, can probably guess. Dare I paraphrase The Blues Brothers and a really funny tweet I saw once and say “We’re on a mission to find and kill god?” Oh, I dare alright!

But Mary’s adventures in angelsitting — which also include giving Lord Boreal the boot when he shows up promising to finance her research using (dun dun dunnnn) defense funding — merely scratch the surface of this dense and eventful episode. 

His Dark Materials

The Man and the Mission

In another world, aeronaut Lee Scoresby successfully completes his search for the missing explorer Stanislaus Grumman, aka our young hero Will’s long-lost father John Parry. Played by Fleabag’s hot priest Andrew Scott (that show’s star Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides the voice of his daemon, Sayan Kötör; very sneaky, His Dark Materials), John/Stanislaus goes by the name of Jopari now and claims he summoned Scoresby using a ring owned by the aeronaut’s mother. As he explains to Lee, Jopari stumbled into this world and was unable to find his way home again, so he became both a scholar and a shaman in an attempt to harness either magic or science in opening another door. 

Now, however, he’s resigned himself to being a man without a country. And he’s out to lend his aid to Lord Asriel, of all people. When Scoresby objects, saying he doesn’t like Asriel — as well one might not, considering, y’know, the child-murdering — Jopari scoffs, “‘Like him’? Who does? This is much bigger than that. Don’t confuse the man with the mission.” Parry may not be much of a father to Will on a hands-on level, but he insists that aiding Asriel will leave a better, freer world behind for his son to live in. It’s sharp writing that drives home the importance of Asriel’s goals, namely leading freethinkers everywhere in a war against “those who repress, who command, who don’t want us to be conscious inquiring beings.” Together, Parry and Scoresby set out to find Asriel’s daughter Lyra in hopes of protecting her, since she too is key to, well, everything.

Lee and John aren’t the only ones having special friend time this week. Responding to an invitation from Lord Boreal, Mrs. Coulter discovers that the dapper gent has his own window into another world, into which he sent Lyra and Will on a mission of their own in exchange for his stolen alethiometer. And he’d be happy to take her there, he says, as his snake daemon slithers its way toward her outstretched hand. (The Bible tells us that the serpent is subtle; the phallic imagery of Lord Boreal’s daemon is not.) “Very well, Carlo,” Coulter purrs, picking up what Boreal is laying down. “Take me to another world.” They travel to the waystation dimension where Will and Lyra have been holed up; Mrs. Coulter takes note of a spectre floating nearby but brushes past the weirdness like a blasé-badass character in a Warren Ellis comic.


His Dark Materials

Bringing a Knife to a Fistfight

Which brings us to the real fulcrum of the episode, the so-called “subtle knife.” The hour opens with a Galadriel-at-the-beginning-of-Fellowship-style monologue about this blade, forged so finely that it can literally cut holes between worlds. Its makers, members of a philosopher’s guild based in the city of Cittàgazze where Lyra and Will have been living between excursions to Will’s world, used it greedily and unleashed the consciousness-eating spectres with every new portal they opened. (Asriel’s gigantic hole in the sky made matters ten times worse.) “Yet,” says the voiceover, “in the right hands, it could still save us all.” 

It does more harm than good in this episode, though. Upon entering the tower where the knife has been safeguarded, Will and Lyra discover the lone surviving member of the guild, Giacomo Paradisi (a game Terence Stamp, cashing what I hope was a heck of a paycheck for a single episode’s worth of work), tied up and gagged. They are then attacked by the older teenager responsible, Tullio (Lewis MacDougall). A trained amateur boxer, Will winds up winning the fight, but at the cost of two fingers, severed clean by the knife’s impossibly sharp blade. This unfortunately leaves the fleeing Tullio vulnerable to the spectres, attracted to his postpubescent consciousness.

Be that as it may. In a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi speedrun, Paradisi trains Will in the use of the knife, which he says chose Will as its new bearer. He briefs the boy on the rules: never open a window without closing it; never let anyone else use it; don’t use it for base purposes, like showing off; keep it secret. He then bids the kids adieu in order to commit suicide before the spectres can eat his soul. Giacomo, we hardly knew ye.

The knife business is well and good, and it obviously will be a major factor in Lyra and Will’s adventures moving forward. But as is so often the case with this series, it’s stronger television when humans make sincere contact with other humans, not when knives make contact with interdimensional planes. You can see Will’s trauma over accidentally killing a burglar last season written all over his face when he’s forced to fight Tullio. You can feel the frisson of unarticulated attraction and affection when Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon violates her world’s taboo and brushes up against the injured Will to comfort him.

You get the sense that for all her prophetic destiny Lyra is still just a kid trying to do the right thing when she walks backwards up the stairs in their hideout so she can drop off some towels for Will without spying on him in the bath. When they say goodnight to each other using their full names, it’s like the verbal equivalent of doodling your crush’s name on your notebook. It’s a small, endearing bit of business that, in terms of emotional impact, puts all the angels and witches to shame.