TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Idea of North” (S1, Ep. 2)

Sorry that this review is a few days late. It’s been quite a week. Hopefully from here on out I’ll be able to post my reviews in a more timely fashion (no promises, though!)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds that her stay in London with Mrs. Coulter is not at all what she expected it to be, particularly as her new mentor has more than a little bit of a sinister and cruel edge to her behaviour. The Gyptians continue their search for Billy Costa, and Carlo Boreal reveals that has somehow managed to find a way into our own world.

As was the case in the first episode, Ruth Wilson threatens to overshadow the proceedings. Somehow, she manages to bring together the essential contradictions at the heart of one of Pullman’s most compelling characters, at times vulnerable and at other as hard and cruel as diamonds. We also learn that she appears to have a genuine fondness for Lyra, even though this often manifests as a certain dictatorial approach to her protege. One gets the sense that there are depths to her that we have yet to see, and there’s more than a hint that she has a troubled history with Lord Azriel. Somehow, Wilson just seems to be Mrs. Coulter, and it was particularly chilling to watch the way in which she adopts the sweet persona of a genuinely caring woman, only to dispense with it as soon as she doesn’t need it any longer. (And, of course, there’s also her very sinister monkey dæmon).

That’s not to say that Lyra isn’t also compelling. I’m continually amazed at the deft casting of Dafne Keen in this role. She’s managed to make it all her own, and while this Lyra isn’t exactly as I pictured her, I to truly love the spunk and energy that Keen brings to the role. I’m very much looking forward to how she grows into the role as this season, and the series as a whole, continues.

The Magisterium, of course, continues to loom over everything. Some critics have suggested that it is ominous and menacing in the way of totalitarian organizations in a host of other fantasy series, but I actually think that this is selling the this adaptation short. True, it does handle the religious with a gentler touch than the books, but it’s still there in clearer fashion than it was in the previous film version. Time and again, we see the sign of cross hovering in the background, often looming portentously. For that matter, we also get a closer glimpse at the inner workings of this labyrinthine institution, and one gets the sense that the conflicts within the Magisterium might prove to be just as costly as its efforts outside of it.

Speaking of the Magisterium, I really like what the series has chosen to do with Boreal. In the books, he’s a rather stolid and cunning old gentleman (one can almost imagine him being played by Ian McKellen), but he’s far more of an active character in this adaptation. Here, we learn very early on that he has found a way to access our world, and it’s clear that he’s already started to hatch plots and plans there as well. I really appreciate the way that Ariyon Bakare brings a bristling, very sinister energy to the role, and I’m curious whether the series continues to set him up as one of the primary antagonists this early in the narrative.

All in all, I found this to be a very satisfying episode, one that ratcheted up the tension set up in the first one. I think that the fact that the first season is only eight episodes requires that they keep the narrative moving at a fast clip, rather than allowing us to get bogged down. At the same time, the expanded time frame enabled by television means that we get a deeper, richer look at this world and what makes it tick. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how they bring together Lyra and the Gyptians, as well as the long-awaited reveal of the armoured bear Iorek.

That’s all for today’s review. Stay tuned for my review of tomorrow night’s episode!