his dark materials the cave review

His Dark Materials continues its upward momentum with “The Cave,” an episode that really hones into the science-fantasy elements of the show in reinvigorating new way. The show is more Jules Verne-inspired quest than dour Game of Thrones knock-off now, and it’s exciting to see how this more confident His Dark Materials is beginning to take shape.

A Different Oxford

His Dark Materials is proving that it cast its two leads right, as Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson show off their sparkling dynamic with plenty of fun banter — kicking things off with a wardrobe montage in which Lyra insists on wearing the most flamboyant capes and hats, to Will’s chagrin. The two of them make their way to Will’s window in the air, hidden amongst some ruins within the city, and Lyra characteristically runs headlong into the new world, right into the side of a passing car.

But her car accident is nowhere near as bad as that in the books — Lyra gets away with a scrape on her leg, but is more shaken by how different this Oxford is to the parallel one in which she grew up. It’s one filled with fast cars, tall buildings, rude people, and an empty landfill where her Jordan College should be. Keen, always a stronger physical actress than a dialogue-forward one, does well at portraying Lyra’s fish out of water experience, and her deflated reaction to finding answers in this strange, alien Oxford. At a loss, Lyra and Will regroup at the Botanic Gardens nearby, one of the few places that reminds her of her Oxford (and a location that is a heartbreaking tease for book fans). Will resolves to meet his family lawyer while Lyra searches for her Scholar that can teach her about Dust — though they part angrily, due to Lyra’s typically blunt way of trying to connect with people, this time by revealing that she knows he is a murderer. Will’s shock and angst at Lyra’s knowledge is good, with Wilson proving to be adept at the kind of YA turmoil that his jutting jaw affords.

After they part ways, Lyra finally finds a familiar taste of her Oxford at a natural history museum, exploring the artifacts of the arctic that looks so familiar to her own adventures in the North. Pan (more of a presence than ever before, grumbling about having to hide in her backpack) can’t shake a bad feeling at the museum, which Lyra ignores, leading to her encounter with “Charles” (Ariyon Bakare), a kindly stranger who chats with her about the exhibit and expresses strange interest in the “compass” she was using. Of course, Charles is really Boreal, from Lyra’s world, who is finally given more to do than stalk our main characters from the shadows — and he’s great at it. Bakare manages to give a very snakelike, cunning performance here, and is much more interesting in this two-minute scene than he’s ever been. It’s finally made clear why they gave Bakare such an expanded role, though I wish we hadn’t had to wade through so much of a slog to get to this.

Trials and Tribulations

Speaking of a slog — the faster they finish this conflict with the Magisterium and the witches, the better. The imposing shots of the Magisterium, in all their fascist imagery, is still a snooze, even with Ruth Wilson doing some of her best emoting. And unfortunately, the witches don’t fare much better, even with Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) and Serafina (Ruta Gedmintas) consistently shot from low angles to make them appear more regal. Ruta Skadi can’t seem to do more than snarl, while Serafina’s futile attempts to move the plot along fall to deaf ears.

The biggest thing of interest in this subplot is the trial of the witch consul, Dr. Martin Lanselius (Omid Djalili), accused of treason and heresy for defending the witches and their strange ways. It’s a kangaroo court that draws obvious parallels to the Nazi kangaroo trials (we get it, they’re fascists), but Djalili gives a standout performance in this time-waster of a plot — all noble brow and dignity.

While Ruth Wilson is excellent as always as Mrs. Coulter — scheming and chatting with Boreal, with the dynamic slightly upended by the knowledge that Boreal has seen Lyra — she is given little more to do in this episode other than fume on the sidelines as the Magisterium go through a power struggle via acting Cardinal MacPhail (Will Keen), at her urging. It’s the kind of Game of Thrones-style plotting that His Dark Materials would best do away with, and there’s a sense from Francesca Gardiner and Jack Thorne’s script that they would like to brush past it as well. But there is a bit of a comeuppance toward the end for Mrs. Coulter, when she learns from Asriel’s manservant that Lyra has crossed over into the new world — Wilson’s trembling lip threatening to become a full-throated sob as the horror sinks in.

Taking a Bite From The Apple

It’s nice to see His Dark Materials cross over properly into science fantasy, as Lyra arrives at the office of Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), a physicist studying dark matter — which Lyra realizes is the same as her Dust. We get an excellent science experiment montage as Mary explains her testing of these invisible particles with various objects (a nice touch making the first item an apple), and discovering that these particles not only respond better to manmade objects, but that they’re conscious. There’s a familiar rhythm and energy to this sequence (who doesn’t love a science montage?) that gives His Dark Materials that sense of fun that it was missing last season. The sci-fi language is a familiar in for new audiences, and ramps up the mystery as Mary starts to become the audience surrogate — perplexed and intrigued by this strange young girl who burst into her office and immediately makes more progress on their research into dark matter in a few minutes than they had been making in months.

Kirby is perfectly cast in this role — a little eccentric, but most importantly, deeply empathetic. She immediately takes a gentle tone with Lyra, who desperately begins to ramble about her adventures and her “world” before pleading that she must learn about Dust, driven by her guilt over Roger’s death. Keen’s physicality — like that of a wounded animal, jumpy, suspicious — matches well with Kirby’s compassionate everywoman persona, and the two click almost instantly. The sequence where Lyra manages to get Mary’s computer, the episode’s titular “Cave,” working is wonderful, and full of the awe and mystery that this show should have been pushing since the beginning. But just as quickly as this dynamic starts to get going, it is brought to a halt, as Lyra suddenly runs out of the office to make her meeting with Will.

While Will’s subplot meeting with his lawyer and estranged grandparents is kind of filler, it is effective at grounding his story in some real world tension: a classist grandfather who betrays him to the police and makes him a fugitive from the law, leading up to his and Lyra’s first major fight before they gain each other’s trust and accept their fate. Their quiet scene in the botanical garden on that bench is a soothing and satisfying way to end a packed episode, as the series brings with a renewed energy into the second season.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • This season really looks gorgeous. They put all that money into Citagazze with the sweeping CGI helicopter shots, and I really love the vibrant ruins feeling they pulled off.
  • The portrayal of daemons this season continues to be much improved: we see all the priests at the trial wit smaller daemons, while Father Macphail’s daemon is the first to speak outside of the main cast.
  • Boreal has apparently found Littlefinger’s jet pack.
  • Book readers, freak out with me: the bench! “I like it here!”
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