TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Daemon Cages” (S1, Ep. 6)

Let me begin by saying…wow.

That was, without doubt, the best episode that this series has produced by far. And it’s not just that it was a great episode of His Dark Materials; it was a great episode of television, period.

In this episode, Lyra finally discovers what it is that’s being down at Bovangar: human children are being forcibly separated from their dæmons. Being Lyra, she immediately begins to hatch a plan to escape, and while she eventually does so, it’s only after she is almost subjected to the cruel process itself and is only saved by the intercession of Mrs. Coulter. At the end, Lyra tumbles out of the hot-air balloon, her fate uncertain.

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Ruth Wilson threatened to walk away with the entire series in her back pocket, and this episode reveals why that’s a very real threat. She manages to combine in her person a steely, firm power while also conveying a unique vulnerability, particularly when it comes to Lyra. This comes to the fore in their tense and emotional conversation immediately after she saves her from intercision. This is a master class in the power of the face to convey contradictory emotions, and it reveals the extent to which Wilson has a tremendous command over her facial expressions.

However, the scene wouldn’t have nearly the resonance that it does without Dafne Keen, who is her match, both in character and as an actress. The scene allows Keen to bring to the fore Lyra’s complicated feelings about her mother, for though there is much about Coulter that is worthy of revulsion, one suspects that even Lyra cannot fully deny the fact that her mother loves her and wants to protect her from the ravages of the world.

The fraught relationship between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter is one of the most emotionally resonant and complex parts of the books, and I’m really glad to see that they’ve translated it so successfully to the screen. When they are each screaming on opposite sides of a doorway–Lyra out of rage and hurt and pain, Mrs. Coulter out of anguish that her daughter reviles her–it’s impossible not to feel caught up in the emotion of the scene. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s by far and away the best one that this season has produced.

Nor is the episode all action and emotion (as important as those two axes are to its ultimate success). No, for we finally begin to see the deep philosophical underpinnings that have, up until now, existed somewhat at the margins of the narrative. Now that we know that the Magisterium is attempting to sever children from their dæmons in order to eradicate sin, we are confronted with the same moral conundrum as the characters: is it worth […] In putting this argument in the mouth of Mrs. Coulter, certainly one of the most ambiguous characters in this drama, the series also makes us wrestle with our inner demons and our own complicity in these sorts of atrocities.

For make no mistake, it is an absolute atrocity. In their relentless desire to do away with sin, the Magisterium has perpetrated a serious atrocity upon these children, who have committed no other sin except being born on the outskirts of society. It’s hard not to feel immense sorrow and anger at what has been done to them, all so that those in power can continue to exert a stronger hold over the souls over whom they already hold worldly dominion. (It’s also worth noting that, though she only appears for a few moments, Anne-Marie Duff continues to work miracles as Ma Costa)

Truly, this was almost a perfect episode. The writers made a canny decision in focusing almost exclusively on Lyra and her interactions with the other characters. The exception to this is Lee, who have a very revealing conversation with the witch Serafina, who informs him that he now has a role to play as Lyra’s protector. I am now completely sold on Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best that he’s ever conjured.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned!