His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 3 Review: “Theft”

To paraphrase the Eurythmics, they’ve traveled the world and the seven seas, and everybody in this most recent episode of His Dark Materials is looking for something, or someone. Will Parry is looking for his father. So is Lee Scoresby, though he knows the man under a different name. Lyra Silvertongue is looking for Mary Malone to continue their experiments with Dust. Mary is searching for answers about what Lyra’s interaction with her computer system means. The cops are looking for Lyra and Will alike. So is Lord Boreal, who happens across Lyra for just enough time to steal her alethiometer. (He absconds in his Tesla, lol.)

Therefore, Lyra and Will wind up looking for Lord Boreal in order to get the alethiometer back. He makes a deal with them and sends them looking for a magical knife, trapped in an impregnable tower in the city in another world that they use as a home base. Lee Scoresby is looking for that same object, though he believes it to be in the hands of Will’s father, John “Stanislaus Grumman” Parry. He’s also looking for Lyra in the bargain. So is her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who has Scoresby imprisoned and beaten for information to advance her quest, but after receiving a note from Boreal telling her that he knows where Lyra is, lets him go in hopes that he can beat Boreal to the punch. Iorek Byrnison, the king of the armored bears of the north, is looking for Lyra too, as are the witches led by Serafina Pekkala. There’s a prophecy about her, you see, and it’s of paramount importance that she be found and safeguarded. Hell, everything that everyone’s looking for is of paramount importance to someone.

That is my biggest beef with “Theft,” the third episode of His Dark Materials’ second season. The plot looks like the staircases in the otherworldly house where Lyra and Will have taken refuge — leading in every direction, crisscrossing and doubling back until it becomes difficult to determine which direction people are headed, and why they’re headed there in the first place.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Inquisitions

On the plus side, Serafina’s daemon Kaisa (voiced by David “Poirot” Suchet of all people) comes closer than anyone to explaining the prophecy that makes Lyra so damned important to everyone. “She is to bring the end of destiny,” he says, “to return our free will not in this world, but far beyond.” When Iorek asks if she knows any of this, Kaisa elaborates: “She must do it in ignorance. If she’s told what she must do, it will all fail.”

That’s an elegant bit of business, that last part. Lyra’s life up until this point has been all about lies — the lies she was told about her parents, the lies her parents told her, the lies she’s told everyone just to survive. (Think of how readily she comes up with fake names and backstories to safeguard her identity, just for starters.) Now we have an extra reason for the adults (and daemons, and armored warrior bears) in her life to lie to her: If they tell her the truth, the whole prophecy will go belly-up, and the freedom of seemingly all sentient beings in the multiverse along with it. 

This could also make for an entertaining mystery element to the plot, if the filmmakers are so inclined. Will Lyra ever get close to the truth about herself and her grand mission? Will she suss out that her adult friends and guardians are hiding something? Or will her mission to deduce the secrets of Dust continue quite without the aid of those adults who know about the prophecy and her role in making it come to pass?

I find all of this much more interesting than, say, the continued adventures of Mrs. Coulter. And I think I’ve figured out why, too. During the first season, we were able to see multiple sides to the villain, enabling us to contrast her demeanor around other adults with her demeanor around Lyra, and contrast that with how she behaved towards the kids she was planning to subject to torture or death with her intercision machine. Being around Lyra in particular brought out a level of internal conflict within her that lent itself to Ruth Wilson’s virtuosa control of her instrument — her tremulous voice, her lambent eyes, her bowstring of a mouth. Without Lyra by her side, she’s now just a Darth Vader knockoff, presiding over interrogations as she hunts for her offspring and various magical maguffins. She’s a much less interesting character than she was, and it’s a much less interesting performance as a result. 

Previously:

His Dark Materials

Lee is Not Throwing Away His Shot

Which leads me to sing the praises of Lin-Manuel freaking Miranda. His Lee Scoresby has been one of the show’s most unexpected revelations; the softness of his face cuts against the character’s cowboy clichés, making him seem like a person rather than a type. (That’s the biggest pitfall with Coulter right now.) In this episode alone he’s tasked with being bored while listening to a barfly recount pointless stories; shrewd when he realizes the observatory operator he’s talking to is a fanatical believer in the Magisterium while he himself is not; remorseful when he defends himself from the observatory guy’s gunfire by returning fire of his own, killing the man; emotionally scarred when he reveals he was abused by his father; shrewd, again, when he accurately speculates that Mrs. Coulter’s parents were abusive as well; brave to the point of self-destructiveness when he brags that no amount of torture will be able to pry the secret of Lyra’s location out from him. When Mrs. Coulter winds up knocking out a guard and tossing Scoresby the keys to free himself, I was baffled why she’d do this (because he allegedly knows where Lyra is and can get to her before anyone else, I suppose, but why not make herself his partner in the quest if so) but glad she did, because it will mean more Lee Scoresby in the show’s future. 

In general I pride myself on being able to follow dense, tangly narrative. What kind of critic brags about feeling otherwise, I’ve often wondered? If you can’t tell one house in Game of Thrones from another, or one mafia underboss in The Sopranos from another, that’s hardly anything to crow about like it’s the show’s fault rather than yours. But His Dark Materials’ narrative is such a latticework of deception and competing-but-overlapping quests for various magical items and people that trying to read it as an actual story about actual humans governed by actual human-behavior patterns is a punishing task. (Seriously: When they figure out that Lord Boreal has stolen the alethiometer, why on earth would Will and Lyra just show up at his house and walk up to the front door?) This story, these characters, need room to breathe. Watching them run up and down various narrative staircases isn’t enough.

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