his dark materials the daemon-cages review

His Dark Materials gives us our most action-packed episode yet, but one that may not be totally emotionally satisfying to longtime book readers. After ramping up the stakes in last week’s episode, where we saw the horrifying consequences of a child being cut from his daemon, the season-long conflict wraps up a little too neatly in “The Daemon-Cages.

This is the climax, supposedly, of all the child-kidnapping plots, all the intrigue, all the somber exposition about how daemons are the irreplaceable souls of humans beings. And while the majority of the episode’s plot is the stuff of thrilling prison breaks — whispered schemes, snowballing distractions, and lots of crawling through vents — “The Daemon-Cages” is lacking the soul that made the stakes so high on the page. I’m referring to, of course, the noticeable lack of the titular daemons in this episode. The absence of daemons onscreen isn’t a problem with only this episode — the animal-soul companions of the human characters have shown up sporadically throughout the series, usually to flit through the sky or jump on a box before disappearing again — likely as a result of TV budget constraints. But in an episode that hinges on the viewer noticing daemons and knowing of their importance, the absence of onscreen daemons is more deeply felt than ever.

Just Following Orders

Newly arrived to Bolvanger, Lyra is led, shivering in her thin jumpsuit, through the heavily guarded compound filled with concrete cages dimly lit from the inside. It’s probably no coincidence that Bolvanger’s design resembles Auschwitz — His Dark Materials has not been shy about linking fascist imagery to the Magisterium, and this is the most obvious example yet (a later glimpse of the severed children with their shaven heads and blank stares doubles down on this).

But Lyra’s fears give way to joy when she finally reunites with Roger in the canteen, where a bunch of sad-looking children are quietly eating. Pretending not to know each other, Lyra and Roger communicate in whispers through their daemons. But their catch-up is interrupted when a scientist calls for Bridget, who is fearfully led to a room with a giant steel door. The placidly smiling nurse — one of our eerie Ratchet lookalikes — standing in a daze outside the steel door is a nice touch to remind us that something is off, though non-viewers might be slow to pick up that it’s because she and the other nurses don’t have daemons.

Dafne Keen is in top form as Lyra in this episode, equal turns impetuous and inquisitive as she settles into her alias of Lizzie, a dumb trader’s daughter who keeps asking the scientists about Dust. Her probing questions to the jumpy male scientist are interrupted by a fire drill, which sparks Lyra’s idea for an escape plan. Starting a snowball fight to distract the nurses, she and Roger use the opportunity to explore the compound, discovering cages housing human-less daemons, and a room full of the soulless, severed children. Roger is horrified but Lyra is newly motivated, ordering Roger to follow her lead as she plans the real escape.

Hatching an Escape

I’ll give it to writer Jack Thorne and episode director Euros Lyn: they know how to stage a heist. One of the major strengths of His Dark Materials thus far are the show’s suspense sequences, and “The Daemon-Cages” has that in spades. Before Lyra can enact her plan, Mrs. Coulter makes her glorious return to the series after a several-episode absence (I missed you, Ruth Wilson). As the children clamor by the windows to watch Mrs. Coulter’s airship land, Lyra becomes unusually panicked, finally pleading with the fellow girls in her dorm to help her hide. This is the first (and last) time we see the other children show their personalities, with the dorm leader Annie suspiciously questioning Lyra before agreeing after Lyra tells her about the severed children and her maternal connection to Mrs. Coulter.

Mrs. Coulter reminds us of how good a Big Bad she is, swaggering in with a cheeky smirk and cloyingly sweet compliments to the girls while Lyra hides underneath the bed. In a wonderfully tense moment, Mrs. Coulter’s monkey daemon almost sniffs out Lyra, before she narrowly escapes discovery. I like the touch of Lyra rallying the girls to escape and fight — their immediate camaraderie is believable and enjoyable to watch, but is barely seen again for the rest of the episode. This again is a longterm issue I’ve had with the series: Lyra has felt incredibly isolated from other children, despite being described as a girl quick to befriend everyone. We see a little of that in her relationship with Roger, but the lack of that amiable part of Lyra’s personality may hurt the series in the long run.

Lyra’s planning with the girls is cut short when Lyra is suddenly called in for the experiment, which she tries to escape before the scientist grabs Pan, knocking her out cold. (Other people holding daemons can knock out their human now?) Lyra awakens in the cage and screams for Mrs. Coulter, which confuses the scientist while taking away from the emotional impact of the scene — Keen’s impressively feral scream aside. This is the moment in the book where stomach drops, and the horror sets in that Lyra would be separated from Pan, from her soul — made all the more horrifying by Lyra’s agonizing screams for Pan. Trading that to scream for her mother is smarter on Lyra’s part, but not on the show’s part.

Lyra is saved at the last minute by Mrs. Coulter, who immediately stops the operation and frantically opens Lyra’s cage. Bringing Lyra back to her luxurious apartment, Mrs. Coulter awkwardly tries to coddle Lyra before launching into an emotional explanation of why she abandoned her as a child. Wilson and Keen immediately remind us of how good they are together, resuming their cat-and-mouse game during an exchange that sees Lyra finally getting the upper hand. Wilson subtly plays up Mrs. Coulter’s desperation for Lyra’s love, barely holding back tears even as she can’t help but try to manipulate her. But Lyra throws back that love at her — literally, tricking Mrs. Coulter by handing her the soldered tin holding the spy fly instead of the alethiometer, allowing her to escape and lock Mrs. Coulter in her room. The shared agonized screams between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter on both sides of the door are chillingly good, and gives us a glimpse at the potential for violence that Lyra holds within herself — as well as one of maybe three significant appearances by Pan, who calmly tells her to stop.

The Promise of Freedom

Lyra finds Roger and the two of them enact her escape plan: Lyra pulling a fire alarm to begin the drill, Roger heading to the room of severed children to free them. What does she plan to do? Roger asks. “What I do best: Cause chaos,” Lyra cheekily replies in a thrilling escape sequence that ends too soon. As the adults barely keep the children in order, Lyra runs to the experiment room to destroy the machine but is stopped by one of the nurses, who insists that Bolvanger is “the happiest place.” Lyra asks the nurse the name of the daemon who was cut from her, causing her to stop in her tracks and tearfully proclaim, “I loved him so much” — the first sign we as a viewer get that the brainwashed nurses were severed from their daemons. But the episode doesn’t dwell too long on the ramifications of this — or try to explain why it’s different for adults and children — because this episode is all action, baby. Lyra runs to the operating room, and she and Pan overload the system, causing the metal contraption to implode and collapse, bringing the rest of the room down with it in a fiery explosion.

The battle between the Gyptians and the Gobblers is surprisingly short, relegated to a small, dimly lit courtyard after their heroic entrance. Apart from Ma Costa getting her satisfying Mrs. Weasley moment by breaking the neck of the male scientist, and a surprising superhero moment from Serafina Pekkala, the battle doesn’t much feel like the culmination of six episodes of plot. Even Roger’s triumphant arrival with the severed kids doesn’t have the impact it could — mostly because the freeing of the children and their daemons happens offscreen and without Lyra involved whatsoever (potentially taking away the power of her freeing another group of children later on in the story). The daemon-cages described in the episode title seem like an afterthought, as the series quickly moves on to the next plot point.

While the Gyptians embark on their journey back south with the rescued children in tow, Lyra and Roger prepare to rescue her father, Lord Asriel, with the help of Lee Scoreseby and Iorek. The three of them board Lee’s balloon to head further north, the children quickly falling asleep after the excitement of the day. While they snooze, Serafina Pekkala appears to offer Lee a tow and the two chat about the prophecy around Lyra. This is where Lin Manuel-Miranda’s buoyant performance starts to conflict with the character as written — Lee is a grizzled, stoic loner whose stony demeanor is softened by Lyra. When Lee suddenly declares that he’s grown to love Lyra, it comes off more as cheesy than revelatory, but it’s a minor flaw with a generally series-best performance. But the episode gets a jolt of genuine horror when the balloon is attacked by cliff ghasts, flying creatures that look like clawed flying white monkeys. Lee and Iorek fend a few off in a riveting sequence that plays out like a thriller film, but the group is overwhelmed, and Lyra goes tumbling out of the balloon in a literal cliffhanger ending.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • A short appearance from Will Parry doesn’t add much to the plot except perhaps remind us that he’s there, as well as give us another glimpse of the dreamy Andrew Scott as John Parry in an old news clip.
  • The two scientist’s discussion of intercision as “freedom,” and Mrs. Coulter’s later explanation of Dust as an infestation condemning adults “to sin,” bear some parallels to religious genital mutilation.
  • The best part of this episode is Lin-Manuel Miranda living his best Indiana Jones life. When he yells “Is that all you’ve got?!” while fighting off Tartars, you can practically hear the glee.
  • Witches are superheroes now, apparently. Serafina moves as fast as Superman in battle, killing all the guards in one fell swoop.
  • I love the touch of Mrs. Coulter landing like a monkey on her desk during her escape. The addition of Mrs. Coulter tearfully watching the Gyptians rescue the severed children is an interesting addition however — could the series be trying to soften the character’s edges?
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