This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers.
The sweet spot of any fantasy adaptation is the point it becomes as compulsive to watch as the books are to read, and season two just arrived there. The episode ended with the major players all set to convene on the same location, raising anticipation for next week’s Cittàgazzan Royal Rumble. If, after the credits rolled, it had only been a matter of turning the page, we’d all surely already be deep into the next chapter.
‘Tower of the Angels’ delivered so many moments long in the coming, it was handing out gifts with almost every scene: Will becoming the bearer of the knife, Mary’s paradigm-shifting revelation about Dust, the arrival proper of Stanislaus Grumman/Col. John Parry/Jopari (a character teased ever since Lord Asriel displayed what he thought was his frozen head all the way back in the season one opener). It was payoff after payoff, and all of it preparing the way for more madness to come.
The episode belonged to Amir Wilson, whose character went from companion to hero in his own right. With his own magical object and his own prophesied destiny, Will Parry is now Lyra’s equal, not the Scarecrow to her Dorothy. Wilson was a match for everything the episode asked of him, even holding his own against a screen presence like Terence Stamp as Giacomo Paradisi, the knife’s previous bearer, who functioned as Will’s Yoda training him in the ways of the force.
More satisfying than watching Will master the knife was seeing his and Lyra’s relationship develop. Their bickering and her posturing were replaced by a new intimacy this episode. Lyra guiding Will to accept his pain rather than ignore it showed wisdom most of the adults in this series – and certainly her parents – have yet to reach. The way she mirrored Roger in the backwards-walking bath towel delivery scene showed her reproducing affection she’d been shown, and rebuilding the sense of closeness she shared with her much-missed best friend.
Will though, is more than a friend, as shown by the tenderly played moment that Pan approached, and was touched by, him. Lyra’s shock and gentle confusion (“In my world, you’re not supposed to touch someone else’s daemon, but you didn’t do anything wrong”) was well conveyed by Dafne Keen and Pan’s animators.
Will earned his hero status through an old-fashioned fight (those boxing lessons paid off) and his purity of spirit. Jopari may not be able to speak for the bearer of the knife’s character, but we can. After spending eight episodes in Will’s company thanks to the liberties this show took with the books’ timeline, we know him to be caring and trustworthy and brave. The subtle knife, forged in hope but ill-used by greed, knows that too.
The episode’s knife-forging prologue was the closest this series has resembled that other great screen adaptation of a classic British fantasy– The Lord of the Rings. A powerful object misused by mankind, a tall tower, wraith-like pursuers… These stories all tend to swim in the same sea, so it’s no wonder they occasionally wash up on each other’s shores. The voice narrating the prologue, by the way, sounded very like that of Sophie Okonedo, who, book fans, has been cast as the as-yet-unseen character of Xaphania.
We may have heard that voice, or at least a computerised version of it, a second time this episode. Will wasn’t the only one who was tested before being given something powerful this week; Mary proved herself worthy of the Shadows’ trust when she refused the offer of Defence funding for her research. (Her facial expression in response to Boreal’s cringe-worthy “I’ve always admired women with a good work ethic” by the way, was priceless. Those two really are from different worlds.)
By kicking ‘Charles Latrom’ out of the office, Mary showed herself unmotivated by personal greed, and was rewarded with that life-altering revelation. Shadows are Dust, and Dust is Angels. Aeons ago, angels bestowed consciousness on mankind. Their reason? Vengeance. Perhaps don’t try explaining that one to Oliver, Mary, he’d have you committed.
Vengeance was also the Witches’ mission. They hit the Magisterium’s fleet of airships like a lethal swarm, delivering floaty payback carnage. Now they’re through the anomaly and they’re not the only ones. Mrs Coulter is already in Cittagazze (what’s scarier, her or the Spectres?), and Lee and Jopari are on their way.
That new double act works. Andrew Scott’s unusual intensity (it’s all about unbroken eye contact, watch how he does it) is balanced by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s motor-mouth energy. One’s strange and otherworldly, the other’s fast-talking, hot-headed and warm-hearted. Just listen to the upbeat musical cues that accompany Lee and Hester, it’s as if in his presence, the show is momentarily able to breathe out and relax. Lee’s that rare thing in His Dark Materials, an adult we can unreservedly trust.
And the Shaman? We can certainly trust his neat summation of the story’s thematic conflict:
“There are two forces that have always been at war with each other: those who repress and command, who don’t want us to be conscious, enquiring beings, and those who want us to know more, to be stronger and wiser, to explore. Those two forces are lining up to battle as we speak.”
Let battle commence.