This review contains spoilers.
1.3 The Spies
In material terms, episode three didn’t move us very far forward. Like a docked boat, Lyra’s journey stalled in one place while other characters were frustrated in their various searches. By the end of the hour, Lord Boreal was still on the trail of Stannislaus Grumann/Col. John Parry, Mrs Coulter was still on the trail of Lyra (the spy flies only telling her what the Magisterium already knew – that Lyra and the alethiometer were with the Gyptians), and – Benjamin and Tony’s break-in having failed to uncover the location of the Northern station – the Gyptians were still on the trail of their missing children.
Viewed on a purely practical level, you might say that The Spies spent an hour busily going nowhere. As any Pullman fan knows though, materialism will only get us so far. By keeping Lyra in one place, this episode made room to reflect on emerging themes of identity, free will and choice.
To be clear, those aren’t embellishments to this story, they are the story. Any version that side-lined those ideas and sped off to the witches and armoured bears would be more panto than adaptation. (Next week though – did you see? – armoured bears!)
By embedding Lyra in the Gyptian fleet, The Spies allowed for several intimate scenes in which her future came under discussion. (And in each one, Dafne Keen holds her own against actors with careers three, four, even five times older than she is. She’s remarkable) In one, Lyra told Farder Coram that she didn’t want Pan to settle in one form, and in another she was assured by Ma Costa that her future would be entirely her decision. It’s a complex question as Lyra’s the chosen one in this story. How much choice do the prophesied ever really get?
Time was also devoted to the intricacies of daemons and how their animal forms reflect their human counterparts, sometimes to the bafflement of outsiders. The idea of dissatisfaction with the form of one’s daemon and the psychological implications of that was raised – an idea sharply relevant to real-world identity politics.
Any of us who don’t feel we’ve quite grasped the whole human/daemon relationship should be reassured by how many questions those in Lyra’s world still have about it. Lord Boreal, for instance, is still working out the daemon rules when it comes to crossing between worlds. Does our world have daemons? Do you get one if you cross over to theirs?
Boreal’s scenes, with their secret meetings under bridges, banks of computer screens, facial recognition traces and the passing of brown envelopes are pure spy thriller, an unexpected inclusion in this fantasy series. Being more familiar to Sunday night television, they’re less compelling than Lyra’s story, but have their moments. This week’s was a tease of Andrew Scott in the Colonel Parry role plus the comical detail of Lord Boreal taking further advantage of the great variety of salty snack food in our world. Last week it was a packet of crisps, this time he was munching on a cone of chip shop chips. Next time, a bag of pork scratchings? Do you think Mrs Coulter complains about his cheese and onion breath?
Speaking of Ma Coulter, in three episodes, Lyra’s gone from being an orphan to having the full complement of parents (even if one is a professional absentee and the other’s a “cess-pit of moral filth”). Indeed, Lyra has more than the full complement of parents, if you count Ma Costa, the nurse who once looked after her as a baby and who took her in this week. As told through Lyra’s costume change from the restrictive shiny blue dress Mrs Coulter put her in to the warm, cosy, orange, oversized knitwear Ma Costa wraps around her, Ma Costa’s a very different mother figure to Mrs Coulter. She’s warm not cold, shabby not chic, full of love not…
…just what is Mrs Coulter filled with? In her story about Lyra’s origins, Ma Costa said it was shame at having been made a pariah by her own lustful affair with Asriel. Mrs Coulter’s nasty, arrogant, sadistic scenes at the raid on Jordan College didn’t present her as somebody mired in shame – like her rage and her feral monkey side (see that attack on Benjamin? Worthy of a David Attenborough voiceover), it’s something she keeps behind closed doors. “You’ve already done the worst you can possibly do,” the Master told her this week. Care to make a wager on that?
The Spies was preparation for Lyra’s passage north. Between her mother-revelation and newly discovered skill with the alethiometer, it gave her provisions for the way ahead. Long journeys require well-stocked stores. This episode’s reflective scenes ensured that food for thought is in plentiful supply for the one Lyra’s about to take. This story won’t starve.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Idea Of North, here.