Let’s start with the good news: Will Parry has not been devoured by a CGI smoke monster. The cliffhanger ending of His Dark Materials’s second season premiere is forgotten within the first few seconds of the follow-up episode (“The Cave”), as Will and Lyra prepare for their journey into his world from their home base in the empty city they discovered last week. I’m guessing the digital beasts will be back, Chekov’s gun-style, but for now Lyra and Will are safe to journey to Oxford in search of answers. Well, “safe”-ish: Lyra nearly gets hit by a car within seconds of emerging from the portal between worlds. They don’t make ’em like that in her home dimension.
Eager to discover this alternate-reality Oxford, Lyra explores a campus museum. There, she bumps into Lord Boreal (a debonair Ariyon Bakare). A resident of her world and frenemy of her mother Mrs. Coulter, Boreal has been hunting for Will’s missing father since season one. Lyra reflexively — and wisely — lies about her identity when the man introduces himself and gives her his card. But it’s a safe bet he knows exactly who she is, given that he spotted her walking with Will right after they emerged from the portal. (In the gallery at a trial of heretics later on, Boreal asks Mrs. Coulter how her daughter’s doing, knowing the answer himself.)
What We Do With the Shadow Particles
Following the clues given to her by the alethiometer, Lyra arrives at the office of Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), a preposterously Irish ex-nun turned physicist who specializes in the study of dark matter. Lyra’s first words to her are a sugar-rush jumble of concepts the physicist can’t possibly understand or contextualize — Lyra talks about her world, about Dust, about the Magisterium, about her father, almost without a pause for breath.
But something in Lyra’s demeanor convinces Mary that she doesn’t need help — she needs answers, specifically about what Mary’s been studying. So Mary divulges the results of her research into so-called “shadow particles,” a mysterious form of matter that does not react to light but which can be detected via a sophisticated computer array called the Cave. (Shadows on the wall of a cave — get it, Plato fans?)
Using the Cave’s sensors, Mary has discovered that the particles adhere most especially to objects that are manmade or have had extensive human contact, as well as to humans themselves. This has led Mary to the outlandish conclusion that the particles have a sort of consciousness, and can only be seen if you want to see them, suspending your mind in a state of “anticipation without impatience.” In other words, it’s the same act of semi-self-hypnosis required to operate the alethiometer. This feeds Lyra’s conviction that it’s not Dust that’s evil, as the Magisterium claims, but the Magisterium itself.
Unsurprisingly, when Mary connects the machine to Lyra, the thing goes into overdrive. Instead of hazy lines on a monitor, the particles begin forming full-fledged pictures, corresponding to the symbols on the alethiometer. These tell Lyra that Mary is important, and that she must find out why on her own, using the I Ching as her guide. (Like the Cave and the altheiometer, this Chinese augury method is another way of communing with Dust.)
Will, meanwhile, darts to and fro in an attempt to access a trust fund left to him by his missing father, so that he can make sure his mentally ill mother Elaine (Nina Sosanya) is well taken care of. The family’s lawyer can’t help him because he’s not yet of age; his estranged paternal grandparents rat him out to the local cops, who are secretly on the payroll of the sinister Lord Boreal and trying to track down Will’s stash of letters from his dad. Sensing something is wrong, Will hightails it out of there and back to the botanic gardens where he and Lyra agreed to meet.
Though Lyra is late to their rendezvous, she’s able to set Will’s mind largely at ease. Sitting on a park bench, she uses the alethiometer to ascertain the truth about his parents: His mother is safe, and his father is alive. The next step is to find him, but whether this quest will interfere with Lyra’s promise to return to Mary’s lab the next day is an open question.
The Use and Abuse of Slow Motion
But while Lyra and Will are busy in his world, Father MacPhail is taking steps to secure his control over Lyra’s. Named the acting Cardinal of the Magisterium after his predecessor’s untimely, Mrs. Coulter-aided demise, he’s in danger of losing the position to an ambitious rival who turns a diplomatic visit from the witches’ ambassador into a trial for blasphemy. If MacPhail is to secure his colleagues’ vote to take over the Magisterium, Coulter argues, he must be a man of action rather than words.
So MacPhail orders the bombing of the witches’ northern stronghold, an attack that the witches in question witness from the safety of another island nearby. (It’s apparently not a very comprehensive bombing, though it does happen in overwrought slow motion.) Though MacPhail atones for this “sin” by holding his hand to a candle’s flame, it achieves the desired effect: His brothers vote unanimously to make him the new Cardinal.
Rather inexplicably — and that word is starting to become a mantra for this character — Mrs. Coulter takes the occasion of MacPhail’s ascension to the position of ruler of the world to taunt him about their shared secrets, as if he couldn’t order her killed right there on the spot. Having learned from Lord Asriel’s captured servant Thorold (Gary Lewis) that Lyra must have slipped through the same portal as her father, she then embarks on a quest to find her daughter, and discover the truth about the witches’ mysterious prophecy about her. She even gets a badass slo-mo shot as she walks away, though what she’s done to merit this kind of treatment is beyond me.
Parodies and People
This is what I keep bumping into as I think about this show: I don’t think that the villains have the complexity and nuance that would merit their share of screen time. Coulter is a completely transparent liar who’s personally unpleasant to be around; the men of the Magisterium are varying degrees of toady, fanatic, and coward; Boreal is like a dastardly Dr. Who baddie. The more they all puff themselves up, the harder it is to take any of them seriously, or to desire any more time in their company. The whole show feels off-balance as a result; outside of Will and Lyra and maybe Mary (it’s a bit too early to tell), no one behaves in a way that feels recognizably human, and the whole thing feels like it would fall apart if looked at too closely.
Compare all of them to the care with which Mary is introduced. We first see her as she attempts to take care of a family of wrens outside her office window. She and Lyra share tea and cookies, but the cookies are stale, probably having sat forgotten in a desk drawer for months. After Lyra’s visit, Mary tells a colleague what happened over beers. She feels like a person, not a parody of religious extremists crossed with the iconography of the Empire from the Star Wars franchise, nor a Coulter-esque figure of permanent, obvious mendacity. More Marys and fewer eeeeevildoers would go a long way towards making His Dark Materials appointment viewing.