This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers.
The problem with prophecy narratives is all the time they spend in the future tense. Such-and-such will change everything. So-and-so is going to save the world. Before a story moves towards a climactic battle, there’s so much team-picking and bag-packing to be done. While avengers are assembled and characters line up to pledge their sword, bow or axe, all eyes are focused on the horizon rather than on the here and now. Momentum stalls. It can feel as though things are going in circles.
Season two has suffered from a little of that, and nowhere more than in this penultimate episode. Lee and Jopari drew closer, but they’re still en route. The Witches arrived with a bang, then spent the episode picking moss. There was much talk of protecting Lyra, and of murdering Lyra, and of how crucial Lyra is to this whole affair, but Lyra herself was left with little to do.
Will’s deteriorating health should have introduced ticking-clock tension to the episode, but it was hard to believe he was ever in any real danger from his wound. His scenes were themed around safety and trust – two repeated threads in this season. While Lyra fangirled over the Witches, he kept his distance, having learnt young not to trust too easily.
Will and Lyra’s finest scene saw them brought close again as he shared his loneliness growing up and experience of being bullied. It was a poignant reminder of what these kids have been through, and another example of this season’s talent for getting into its characters’ heads to make us care about and understand them.
Will wasn’t the only one who doesn’t quite share Lyra’s fascination with the Witches; I wish they were as interesting as she finds them. On paper, they sound great. On screen, they look great. Beyond their beauty and deadliness though, what are they? The elves from The Lord of the Rings movies – ageless, humourless and a little bit… blank. There was a spark of life in Serafina’s irritation at the storybook portrayal of her kind. Perhaps if we’d spent more time alongside them, or if their high-fantasy seriousness has been undercut by say, the cheeky energy of a Lee Scoresby, they’d be more fun company. Season two’s strength has been keying into its characters’ emotional lives. More of that insight into these lethal creatures would be good.
Speaking of lethal creatures, a major step forward did come from Mrs Coulter this week. After last episode’s humanising treatment, her needle swung straight back to the psychopath side of the dial. Oh, Carlo. You may have been a card-carrying Magisterium creep, a colonial thief and a male chauvinist with dull taste in music, but did you really deserve death by poisoning? On balance, yes. You tortured Will, threatened his mother and killed that journalist. It wasn’t all nice suits and speaker systems.
Ariyon Bakare will be missed. At the end, he injected just enough desperation for, and cluelessness about, Mrs Coulter into his character to make you very nearly feel sorry for Lord Boreal. It was skilfully done.
As was the depiction of Mrs Coulter’s eerie new superpower. That was shown as much through the behaviour of her daemon as by Ruth Wilson. He went from terrified and screeching to a kind of trance as Marisa marshalled her emotions and exercised total control over her humanity. Where did she learn that trick? The same place she learned to hold her bare palm over a candle flame, Cardinal-style, and declare that “Strength is salvation” – a family motto? Lee may have a Shaman and Will may have the knife, but Mrs C. now has a flock of deathless wraiths under her command. God help everybody.
Not God. He’s on his way out if Asriel and co. have anything to do with it. Some of the Authority’s former colleagues made their first on-screen appearance this week, as glittering trails in the sky and shimmering wings standing over Mary to protect her from Spectre attack – the Angels were as good as their word.
Mary being Mary (clever, kind, principled. Brings a flask. We love Mary), her approach to inter-world travel is markedly different to that of Lord Boreal or Mrs Coulter. No tricking the locals out of priceless artefacts or conducting an orchestra of soul-suckers for her – she sat in the sun, read the I Ching, and took a couple of Lord-of-the-Flies waifs under her wing. Now she’s on her way up the mountain, along with everybody else.
Some are getting there faster than others, namely Mr Scoresby and Mr Jopari, last seen accelerating towards earth from a wrecked balloon after an exciting dog fight with the Magisterium air ships. Seeing Andrew Scott’s amused and detached character work his own magic with those birds was a bit of a thrill. Speaking of which, beautiful music, this episode, and every episode. Stunning work.
It’s all lining up now. In one corner, there’s Lyra, Will, Lee, Jopari, the Witches, the absent Asriel and the Angels. In the other, there are the snakes and spiders of the Magisterium (the impotence of which was truly cemented this week by its declaration of war on a teenage girl). In which corner does Mrs Coulter belong? Good question.