His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 Review: “The City of Magpies”

“I don’t need a stand-up bath, do I?” asks Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen). A young traveler between worlds, she has just learned of the marvelous technological achievement known as a shower, and she’s skeptical.

“That’s one question you don’t need to ask the alethiometer,” replies her daemon Pantalaimon (a shape-shifting animal companion voiced by Kit Connor). He’s referring to the magical, golden compass-like device she uses to ascertain the truth. And sure enough, a couple of sniffs of her own B.O. later, Lyra winds up hitting the stand-up bath.

As the joint HBO/BBC adaptation of novelist Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series enters its second season, small humanizing moments such as these take on added importance. Written by series creator Jack Thorne, the show’s second season premiere, “The City of Magpies,” is weighed down by dialogue consisting largely of arch declamations and great big gobs of exposition. Reminding us that the show’s protagonist is basically a middle-schooler who’s gone days without bathing and could use a good scrub-down is a small but vital way of keeping things down to earth when everything else is up in the air.

Somewhat literally, in fact. At the end of the previous season, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, absent from this season due to the pandemic closing down production prematurely), murdered one of her friends by severing him from his daemon, unleashing energy that tore open a breach in the multiverse that leads to a so-called “city in the sky.” It’s to this city that Lyra travels in this episode, and it’s here where she meets her opposite number, Will Parry (Amir Johnson), a resident of our own world who stumbled across a portal of his own. 

His Dark Materials

Smoke and Dust

That the city is a place of magical mystery is obvious from the start. For one thing, it looks like Lego Minas Tirith as designed by M.C. Escher. For another, it’s all but completely abandoned, and it looks like people skipped town in a hurry. The sole residents are near-feral children like Angelica (Bella Ramsey, aka Game of Thrones’ Lyanna Mormont) and Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats), who claim that the adults have all fled for fear of being turned into insensate zombies by invisible creatures called spectres. Lyra is too young to be in any serious danger, but Will is right on the cusp, and the episode ends with a CGI smoke monster creeping up on him as if to prove it.

Lyra and Will’s meet-cute is as much a matter of learning about each other’s worlds as it is about the kids themselves. Will, for example, has no daemon of his own and has never seen one before, so Pan’s chattiness catches him completely off guard. (On the plus side, he can cook a mean omelet, something Lyra attempts to do herself while neglecting to remove the eggshells.) The duo compare notes on their worlds’ different words for electricity and amber as well, but it’s the one thing they have in common that really intrigues Lyra: Both kids come from a place called Oxford. 

Lyra, on a mission to learn about the mysterious substance called Dust — key to her father’s experiments and believed to be the physical manifestation of sin by the Magisterium, the religious order that rules her world — is antsy to visit Will’s Oxford and seek answers from the scholars who live there. Given that sinister forces from Lyra’s world are already there, hunting for Will and a collection of letters sent by his long-lost world-hopping explorer father, that may be easier said than done. (At the end of the episode, Lyra finds out from the alethiometer that Will is “a murderer…the good kind,” referring to an accidentally lethal encounter he had with a man who’d been hired to steal the letters.)

Witches vs. Clergy

Back in Lyra’s world, the search for both her and her heretical father Asriel continues. The hunt is led by her mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a layperson who’s somehow in charge of some of the Magisterium’s most sensitive and vicious projects, like severing children from their daemons in order to save them from sinful thoughts upon entering puberty. It takes guts for a show to make one of its most charismatic characters an unrepentant child-torturer, that’s for sure, and it’s to Wilson’s credit that Coulter somehow remains watchable, maybe even likeable as far as her fondness for Lyra goes. 

But in this episode she’s in full villain mode. At the end of Season One, Coulter failed to stop Asriel from escaping into another world — she stopped to make out with him instead — and she’s now lying through her teeth about it. Fortunately for her, the Magisterium’s clergy all act like awkward teenagers whenever she so much as smiles in their direction, so they’re relatively easy to bamboozle. 

Coulter all but twirls her mustache as she personally tortures one of the witches who helped destroy her kiddie concentration camp. She’s desperate to learn the secret prophetic identity of Lyra, whom the witches believe has a great destiny in front of her. Elsewhere, the witches’ leader, Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) allies with the swashbuckling Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a friend to Lyra, in his search for an unknown item believed to protect Lyra from magical attack.

Unfortunately for Coulter, a witch-queen named Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) takes it upon herself to fly into the Magisterium submarine where the interrogation is taking place and mercy-kill the captive witch, putting an end to Coulter’s inquisitions. Skadi also murks a bunch of Magisterium goons on the way out, stabbing the imperious Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck), who considers the existence of other worlds a form of heresy, in the bargain. Sorry, buddy! This gives Coulter a chance to conspire with the ambitious Father MacPhail (Will Keen, actor Dafne Keen’s real-life father), on whose behalf she offers to secretly finish the Cardinal off so he can step into the leadership role, with her as his éminence grise

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His Dark Materials

A Race to Nowhere

After this episode, I find myself wishing Coulter’s place in this story was as well-defined as her scheme with MacPhail. For starters, why do these Magisterium creeps keep her around and put her in charge of so much important shit, acting all the while like they’ve never spent more than thirty seconds with a woman before? His Dark Materials seems disinterested in answering this question. Why didn’t Skadi also kill Coulter while she was offing redshirts at Flash-level speeds? “Because then there’d be no more show” is the best explanation I can come up with. Why does Wilson, an actor of formidable subtlety and prodigious talent, lay on the evil-seductress schtick so thick in this episode, when she spent the first season proving that she could communicate volumes simply by twitching the corner of her mouth? I got nothing, man.

That may be why I keep coming back to little moments between Lyra and Will, like the eggshell omelet and the stand-up bath, or their rescue of a lost cat from Paola and Angelica’s gaggle of adultless children. They’re not members of a totalitarian religious sect, or inexplicably powerful agents of same, or witches who stand around in a wide circle on a remote island for a council of elders or whatever — they’re just kids, and despite the circumstances that forced them into a new and unknown world, they have understandable kid concerns. His Dark Materials’ race from plot beat to plot beat as it monologues about alethiometers and Magisteriums and what-have-you has made it a curiously flat drama, despite a talented cast. I hope the show will slow down enough to let the children at its center truly come to life.

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