TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Betrayal” (S1, Ep. 8)

Warning: spoilers for the episode follow.

And so we come at last to the season finale of His Dark Materials. All I can say is: wow, what an episode!

Having finally located her father, Lyra realizes that he is not at all the man that she always assumed he was. In fact, he might be as much of a monster (in his own way) as her mother. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter finds that her own loyalties might be hopelessly divided, even as Lord Asriel commits a heinous act in his attempt to undo the centuries of repression by the Magisterium.

In many ways, this episode is a fitting climax to Lyra’s journey to maturity. For the first time since Asriel abandoned her in Oxford for his own journey north, she must confront the fact that he is, in his own way, as twisted in soul as is Mrs. Coulter. Just as importantly, however, the episode also makes it clear that, much as she might come to hate both of her parents, Lyra is in many ways the perfect mix of her two parents, for both good and ill.

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this first season has been its ability to show Lyra’s growth as a character. By the end of this first season, we’ve seen Lyra truly mature from a headstrong girl to a headstrong and intelligent young woman, one who is fully conscious of the choices that she’s made and how that has affected the lives around her. When, at the end of the episode, she steps through that beam of light into an uncertain future, it marks the culmination of all of the choices that she’s made during the season.

Just as importantly, for the first time since the series began, we finally get to see Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in the same scene, and the chemistry is off the charts. Of course, it helps that the two of them are portrayed by actors at the top of their game, but it’s undeniable that the two actors have a similar sort of energy to their characters. I’m truly glad that they decided to include this scene, as it allows us to get a glimpse at the strange, unsettling energy that exists between these two characters, and it really sets up some of the conflicts that will arise between them in the future.

I was particularly impressed by the way that this scene shows us the change that has come over Mrs. Coulter through the course of this season. As much of a monster as she is, there can be no doubt by now that her feelings for Lyra are genuine. She truly loves her daughter, and it is that love that keeps her from going after Asriel and joining in his war against the Authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that Ruth Wilson absolutely shines in this scene, as she has throughout the course of the season.

Of course, this episode is truly heartbreaking, and I say that as someone who has read the book and thus knew about Asriel’s intentions for Roger. Still, to see that poor boy–captured so charmingly Lewin Lloyd–forcibly severed from his daemon is one of the most painful incidents to occur in the entire season, made all the more so by Lyra’s thwarted attempts to rescue him. This incident forces us to recognize the true darkness that lies at Asriel’s heart, a darkness that will have profound consequences not only for all of humanity, but in particular for his daughter.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed this first season of the show. It’s done an excellent job of adapting Pullman’s work, and I think the decision to start introducing elements from the second book in the first season will work out to the benefit of the second one. I also think that the expansion of Boreal’s role is one of the better choices, though I’m sure that it will upset some fans of the book. However, he has to have something to do through these early episodes, so that his sporadic appearances in the second don’t feel so random. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what season two will bring, and I hope you’ll join me for my reviews when it finally arrives!

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.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Unaccompanied Fae” (S1, Ep. 6)

As all of you know, I’ve been growing more than a little impatient with Carnival Row and the snail’s pace at which it has, so far, seemed content to move. Thankfully, things have started to heat up in the sixth episode of the season, marking a turning point (or several) in the overall arc of the story.

In the episode, Mr. Agreus and Imogen attend an art auction, at which the Puck thoroughly humiliates some of Imogen’s enemies by outbidding them for a priceless piece of art, Rycroft is eventually arrested and accused of the murders, Vignette is imprisoned for attending a museum exhibit closed to Fae, and Jonah Breakspear and Sophie Longerbane form the beginning of an unusual political partnership.

To my mind, this episode marks the first time in the entire season that we’ve finally begun to feel some forward momentum with any of the storylines. Of course, Rycroft’s is the most significant, as this marks the moment when his own “friends” turn against him, both those in his personal life and those in the police department. It’s a useful reminder–if any were needed–about the brutally and violently xenophobic nature of the Burgue and its inhabitants. One begins to wish that there really were some dark god wakening in the bowels of the city, and that it will eventually rise up and destroy the humans who have already caused so much misery.

It also marks the first time that I began to feel myself become genuinely interested in the Imogen/Agreus storyline. Mostly, I suspect this is because there now feels to be at least a modicum of chemistry between them, both the characters and the actors. Though I’m still struggling to see exactly what the point of this relationship is–i.e,. how it connects to the other stories, if at all–but I will say that this important moment marks one of the few times that I found myself actually caring about what happened between the two of them.

And, of course, there is the poignant scene where Vignette discovers that her beloved library has been dismantled and reassembled in a museum. It’s a moving scene for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it reveals how it feels to be one of the colonized, forced to watch one’s sacred trust debased and rendered into nothing more than a commodity. To me, this might just be one of the most interesting moments of the series in terms of its critique of colonialism. One can hardly blame Vignette for her outburst of rage at the Burgue residents who so casually come in to view this sacred space, and the outrage is only made worse by the fact that she’s arrested.

I’m still a little frustrated by the Jonah/Sophie storyline. I’m honestly not sure why they haven’t made the two of them a more central part of the narrative, since there is a.) obvious chemistry between the characters and the actors; b.) Sophie is an amazing character and c.) it would help to up the political stakes of the story. One gets the sense that their relationship, and its political consequences will come to play a greater role in season 2.

Overall, I thought this was a much stronger episodes than most of its predecessors, and I cannot wait to see what lies in store in the ones to come.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “The Joining of Unlike Things” (S1, Ep. 4)

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I finally got back into watching Carnival Row last night, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the fourth episode today before I attempt to watch the fifth tonight.

Having established the backstory between Vignette and Rycroft, the story switches back to the present day. Rycroft continues his investigation of the mysterious deaths plaguing the city, and he learns that the deaths might have been caused by an undead amalgam of various Fae creatures. Meanwhile, Vignette must contend with the politics of the Raven and in the process is responsible for the death of another member of the gang. Meanwhile, Imogen plots to attain the financial assistance of Puck Agreus, and Absalom Breakspear finally manages to regain his son.

The episode marked some significant developments in character development and helped to move some parts forward, though not quite enough for my taste. I’m still waiting to see why exactly I should care about Imogen and her impending destitution. Marchant does the most with what she’s been given in the script, but I can honestly say that I find this particular storyline the most tedious to get through. Similarly, while I find the Puck Agreus fascinating as a character, as of yet the show hasn’t developed him enough for me to either understand exactly what his arc is nor why I should.

Now, in terms of both Rycroft and Vignette, things are a little better.

One gets the sense that Vignette’s forced killing of one of the other members of the Raven is going to have significant consequences on her development as a character. Unlike almost everyone else in the Burgue–Fae and human alike–she has managed so far to cling to some vestige of her moral compass. This, however, seems to be changing. Vignette is a bit of a loose canon, devoid of the things that once allowed her to understand her place in the world. And, of course, it’s pretty clear that she still loves Rycroft, and one gets the feeling that he may hold the key to her ultimate salvation.

For me, the highlight of this episode was twofold. One, the advancement of the Chancellor plot, in which the Absalom’s son is finally recovered from his captivity and the son’s realization that his mother was responsible for his kidnapping. The means in which this is revealed–he recognizes the sound of her heels clicking on stone–was, I think, one of the finest scenes the series has yet produced. And, of course, Jared Harris is always a pleasure to watch; I just wish the show would give him a bit more time to stretch his wings and help us to understand what makes him (and his wife Piety) really tick.

The other highlight was Rycroft’s encounter with the creature that is probably responsible for all of the murders, as well as the revelation that it is in all likelihood a golem fashioned of dead Fae. The scene with the haruspex, in which he has to provide his seed in order for her to work the magic to create a similar creature, is both disturbing and oddly sensual. This is one of the few times that we’ve seen the workings of magic in this world, and hopefully this means that we’ll see more in the future.

My major complaint with Carnival Row remains the same as it has from the beginning. While I can see some connections among the various disconnected storylines, the series hasn’t done a great deal so far to bring them together into any kind of coherent whole. For the most part, it can’t quite seem to decide which of them is the most important, and so it’s a little difficult to get emotionally invested in any character other than the primary duo of Rycroft/Vignette.

Overall, this was a satisfying episode, though I am starting to wonder just how much of the many mysteries that it has put into play it is going to satisfactorily solve by the time that the season ends.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Kingdoms of the Moon” (S1, Ep. 3)

Warning: Some spoilers for the episode follow.

The third episode of Amazon’s original series Carnival Row marks rather a departure from the episodes preceding it, as it takes us back in time to learn of how Vignette and Rycroft first met and fell in love. Though they forge a powerful bond in the midst of terrible war and suffering in Vignette’s homeland, ultimately Rycroft chooses to lie to her about his death, in the hopes that in doing so he can spare her heartache and perhaps save her life. She, of course, not only sees this as a profound betrayal of their love, but also points out to him that, had he but trusted their feelings and love for one another, they could have spent the preceding years building a future together rather than suffering loneliness and (in her case) despair.

In my opinion, this was the strongest episode so far, precisely because it remained focused on the two main leads and their burgeoning relationship. In fact, I wouldn’t have minded seeing at least one more episode treat us to this backstory, since it’s clear that the two leads have a great deal of chemistry and that the story is, in some ways, at the heart of the series as a whole. I’m sincerely hoping that the two of them end up getting back together, which seems to be the endpoint of their respective stories.

Indeed, the episode’s revelation that Rycroft is in fact half-Fae substantially raises the stakes of the story, since we now know that he has something to hide. For the first time since the series began, we really get to see a bit of what makes him tick. Of course, we’ve gotten some glimpses of that in earlier episodes, but now we know why he has such an enduring sympathy with the Fae, even though doing so puts him in marked opposition to many of his fellows among the police.

The episode also reveals a tiny bit more about the Pact, the enemy of the Fae that has, so far, lurked at the corners of the narrative. Though that doesn’t change a great deal here, we do nevertheless learn a bit more about them: that they are also not human (and may in fact be of the same blood, even if those that we see appear quite human) and that they are technologically advanced enough to have airships and machine guns (indeed, their appearance near the end of the episode is quite chilling).

We also get a tiny glimmer of understanding of how the humans and the Fae regard one another. It’s clear that the latter are significantly older than the former, even if humanity has managed to attain more technological marvels than their non-human counterparts. One gets the sense that it is the Fae’s antiquity that at least in part explains humans’ antipathy toward them, for it’s well-known that humanity loves to destroy what it can’t (or won’t) properly understand on its own terms.

Overall, I thought this episode marked a significant improvement over the ones that preceded it, in large part because it focused so much on two characters whose arcs have clear stakes. In fact, I think that it’s multitudinous plot lines are one of the series’ weaknesses. It’s fine for an a sprawling story like this to have many different characters and points of view, but you have to give us enough of them to grow and develop and make us care about them, and I’m afraid the series just hasn’t done that so far. For that matter, it really hasn’t given us much of an understanding of the precise political stakes of what’s going on, mostly because the Chancellor Absalom (the always-excellent Jared Harris) has had so little screen time to stretch his wings.

Hopefully, the next five episodes will tell us a lot more about the way that the political winds are blowing and provide answers to at least some of the questions that these first few episodes have raised. If not, then I have the unfortunate suspicion that I am going to grow very bored of this series, and that really does seem a shame, considering it’s very intriguing premise and strong cast.

So, here’s to another episode!

TV Review: Carnival Row (S1, Ep. 1: “Some Dark God Wakes”

When I first saw the trailers for Amazon’s new original series Carnival Row, I admit I was intrigued. I don’t normally watch or read a great deal of steam punk–which was what this series appeared to be–but something about it called to me. And, since I’ve been impatiently awaiting the arrival of the new television adaptation of His Dark Materials, I figured I might as well give this a try.

I’m glad I did.

The majority of the first episode takes place in the city known as the Burgue and primarily centers on Constable Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), who investigates a series of unsolved assaults and murders, and his Fae wife Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), whom he abandoned, who has come to the city as well. Together, they each find that the world that they thought they knew is altogether more dangerous and deadly. By the end of the episode, the entire city of the Burgue seems on the edge of multiple catastrophes: political, social, and perhaps even cosmological.

Both Bloom and Delevingne turn in solid performances, and I found myself liking both characters and wanting to know more about them (though it is very unfair that Bloom continues to age so damn well). There are also some very entertaining secondary characters, though most of these (with the possible exception of Jared Harris’s Chancellor Absalom Breakspear) remain at the margins of the narrative rather than its center. However, it’s clear that each of them is a part of the skein that the series is weaving.

Generically, Carnival Row is some strange amalgam of film noir, fantasy, steam punk, and dark fantasy. Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these together into a fairly cohesive story (at least, as of the first episode). “Some Dark God” does a great deal to set the stage and to introduce us to this world. The Fae are a group that have been exploited by colonial powers for their own benefit and, abandoned by their former allies, they are brutally oppressed by a sinister group known as the Pact. The episode reveals just enough of this backstory, as well as its political and social ramifications in the Burgue, to leave the viewer wanting more.

Of course, it is not lost on me that the film has a great deal of contemporary relevance, given that one of the central issues is the influx of immigrants from a country that was exploited by colonial overlords and then left to its own devices. At times, the allegory is a little too on-the-nose, and I’m sure that this will alienate some viewers. However, sometimes it’s necessary for fantasy to hold up a mirror to our own flaws, no matter how ugly and unseemly they might be, no matter how difficult they may be for us to really want to deal with. “Some Dark God Wakes” does a good job of that, though I do hope that it gets a little more sophisticated in future episodes.

Indeed, there are some signs of that already since, by the end of the episode, some new wrinkles have been thrown into the mix, and we’re left wondering if, just possibly, there is indeed, as the title suggests, a dark force at work that is greater and more sinister than anyone realizes. I’m always up for some cosmological conflict, and that is definitely one thing that fantasy as a genre and a mode of storytelling can accomplish better than almost any other form of literature.

Overall, I thought that the first episode was a fine introduction to the world that Carnival Row has taken as its setting. It’s just one more illustration that Amazon has committed to building up its fantasy offerings. Fortunately, the first season only has eight episodes, so hopefully that means that it will be able to keep its narrative threads in order.

Stay tuned for my next review of the series, coming soon!