TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Spies” (S1, Ep. 3)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials Lyra, having escaped from Mrs. Coulter’s clutches and those of the Gobblers, finds herself taken in by the Gyptians who, we know, are on their own mission to rescue their children. Though much remains unclear, it is becoming increasingly obvious to her that she is part of a much greater destiny than she ever suspected. Meanwhile, the Magisterium–particularly Mrs. Coulter and Boreal–continue their own investigations.

At this point, the series has begun to take some liberties with the original novel, fleshing out some of the behind-the-scenes action that we don’t get in the book. For example, in this episode we see Mrs. Coulter ransack Jordan College, under the mistaken belief that Lyra has fled back to them. And of course we also see Boreal making continued forays into our world in order to track down the man she knows as Stanislaus Grumman (known as John Parry in our world). This expanded frame allows us to get more insight into the characters and their actions, a necessary bid of expansion when you adapt a relatively slender novel into a full-fledged television series.

One of the most conspicuous expansions, however, deals with Lyra herself. Whereas in the novels it takes some time for Lyra to find out that Mrs. Coulter and Lord Azriel are her parents, here we learn that out already and, just as importantly, we find out that Ma Costa is the Gyptian nurse who protected her from the man who wanted to take her life. This important change allows us to get a firmer look into her background and how this will shape her perspective on the world and the actions that she takes as the Gyptians make their way north and she embarks on the path to her destiny. (It’s worth noting that some of this material is drawn not just from the later books of His Dark Materials but also from The Book of Dust).

Naturally, Ruth Wilson continues to captivate as Mrs. Coulter. She positively seethes with a powerful energy, and while she is capable of absolute ruthlessness (though her monkey is the more terrifying of the two), it’s equally clear that she truly loves Lyra and is torn apart by the fact that she has left her. I’ve always thought that she was one of the best things about the books, and I’m glad that the series has opted to give her quite a lot of screen time to develop her character, to show that she’s not just a faceless villain. At the same time, I also appreciate that they’re leaving just enough out of the frame, leaving her something of an enigma that will continue to draw us in (particularly as she sets out to reclaim Lyra for herself).

This episode also featured some of the best cinematography that we’ve seen so far. There were a number of shots that were truly beautiful, particularly the emotional confrontation between Ma Costa and Lyra. The way in which it was staged not only showed the exquisite scenery but also used it to show the gradual drawing back together of Lyra and Ma Costa. Speaking of…I’m a little bit in love with Anne-Marie Duff. She brings to her performance of Costa the perfect blend of vulnerability and strength and makes her a surprisingly central character to the series’ narrative.

The actions of Boreal raises some significant questions, most notably whether the series will opt to introduce Will Parry in this season, or whether it will wait until season two. In any case, bringing him into the frame, even if just by reference, ensures that his introduction won’t be nearly as jarring as it is in the books, where he suddenly becomes a main character in the second book without any warning at all.

Overall, I thought this was a fine episode. The series is finally starting to build up some momentum and I, for one, cannot wait for the chance to finally see the North and, of course, the armoured bears. While some might begrudge the series its rather slow movement, I personally find it a pleasure to let it build up slowly.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for next week’s review.