“They consume what makes us human, so I just hid that from them,” Mrs. Coulter says of the spectres who eat people’s souls. “I suppress myself.” Would that we were all so lucky. Less an episode of television than a staccato succession of individual scenes — a series of unfortunate events, you might say—the penultimate installment of His Dark Materials’ second season puts all of the show’s characters through their paces, marching them relentlessly from one plot beat to the next over the course of its relatively brief 45-minute running time. Precious little humanity, in the form of the emotional and intellectual forces that actually drive people to do what they do, remains.
I Never Understood a Single Word He Said, But I Helped Him Drink His Wine
We’ll start with Coulter, who is slowly emerging as a supervillain of the highest order. Not content with having her preside over a concentration camp for children, His Dark Materials now gives her the power to withstand and command the spectres, the creatures that look and sound like the smoke monster from Lost and have driven all the adults from the city of Cittàgazze, leaving their children behind instead of taking them with them for reasons that are never adequately explained.
With this power in hand and the journey from one world to the next already accomplished, Coulter no longer has any need for Lord Boreal, the entrepreneurial explorer whose motivations, beyond being evil, have gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle at this point. Because Coulter, too, is evil, she makes a big show of kissing the man before telling him off and poisoning him to death. She then sits at the table with his corpse, drinking wine and holding her hand over the flame of a candle into the wee hours. “Strength is salvation,” she says to no one in particular. I guess getting drunk next to your murder victim takes a kind of strength, sure, but I’m not sold on the salvation bit.
Having an altogether more positive experience in Cittàgazze is Mary Malone, the scientist who’s been instructed by angels to find Lyra. She’s by far the most interesting adult character, because she’s the one who actually acts like a person. She seems quietly delighted with having traveled from one world to the next — and equally happy to encounter the city’s feral children, with whom she forms a near-instantaneous bond. Angelica, doing her best to articulate her concept of adulthood, says that Mary can make them take baths if she likes; “Miss, can I have a hug?” says Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats), who just hours before had tried to find and murder Lyra and Will. She’s still a kid, one who’s been abandoned, and that kind of affectionate physical connection to another person is as pressing a need as food, water, and shelter. It’s an unexpectedly tender and touching moment.
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War of the Worlds
Most of the other characters, however, are driven by quests rather than any kind of human need. Will wants to find his missing father, and Lyra has been instructed by her alethiometer to help him. The witches, led by Serafina Pekkala, want to protect Lyra, and if that means helping Will as well, so be it. Lee Scoresby is out to find and protect Lyra as well; for him, that means helping Jopari, Will’s father, track down the bearer of the subtle knife, by means of which Lyra can be safeguarded. (Neither man knows that Will is the knife-bearer.)
And back in Lyra’s world, the Magisterium’s wheels keep turning. Using his own alethiometer, Fra Pavel has discovered that Lyra has a secret name that bears a great destiny with it, though he doesn’t say the name aloud. “If she’s tempted,” he says, “she will fall.” Ominous! So armed with that knowledge, Cardinal MacPhail sends a fleet of airships through the breach in the sky into the other world in hopes of intercepting Lyra, though how they’d know where to look isn’t quite clear.
Instead of Lyra, though, they find Scoresby and Jopari in the aeronaut’s hot air balloon. Jopari is able to summon a storm and a flock of crows to take out two of the three enemy ships, but the remaining one shoots the balloon down, ending the episode on a cliffhanger.
And there you have it, pretty much! Everyone’s on a journey, everyone’s on a quest, everyone’s looking for somebody else, and everyone’s in danger. It feels like very stock-fantasy storytelling, which is odd, given original author Phillip Pullman’s concerted effort not to write a stock fantasy. But that didn’t stop him from creating, in the form of Mrs. Coulter, a villain whose main power seems to be sneaking around the constraints of the world-building that surrounds her. She’s tortured children on behalf of religious zealots, but we’re meant to find her emotional life intriguing rather than repellent; she’s an adult in a world where adults get eaten by monsters, but she’s immune by virtue of her sheer awfulness.
What the show really needs to do in its final episode this season, I think, is to lean heavily on the relationship between Lyra and Will, its two most dynamic and empathetic characters. (Though I’ve got to give props to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fine work as Lee Scoresby, the show’s biggest surprise.) I want to feel what it’s like to be children essentially on their own in worlds marred by adult cruelty, naturally coming to rely on each other above everyone else. That’s the basis for a potentially fascinating relationship, one that’s a lot more fun to watch than Coulter’s latest depredations. Much like the witches and angels themselves, our fate as viewers is in their young hands.