his dark materials the lost boy review

After last week’s buoyant episode teased the prospect of His Dark Materials, well, lightening up, the HBO fantasy series returns to the shadows with “The Lost Boy.” There are really two “lost boys” in this episode, one of which is a character that does not appear until the second book, The Subtle Knife. It’s clear now more than ever that the series is eager to get to the endgame of Philip Pullman’s ambitious story, even if it means sacrificing some of the fun that Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Lee Scoresby so briefly brought last week (don’t worry, we still get a little hit of that rascally banter with him and Dafne Keen’s Lyra).

But as His Dark Materials season 1 rushes headlong into adapting the final act of The Golden Compass, its jarringly dark tone finally begins to align with the story. When The Golden Compass was first published as Northern Lights in 1995, Pullman pulled the rug under his readers who had, until the final chapters, were happily following an escapist children’s adventure story. That adventure gave way to tragedy as Pullman pulled the veil from his readers’ eyes and revealed his ambitious tale of alternate worlds and corrupt deities. With His Dark Materials doubling down on the weighty tone of Pullman’s later books, that heel-turn probably won’t be quite as effective, but at least the change won’t be quite so drastic.

Destined to End Destiny

“Witches hear the immortal whispers of those who pass between the worlds. They speak of a child who is destined to bring an end to destiny,” Serafina Pekkala’s daemon Kaisa narrates over sweeping shots of the artic tundra that Lyra and the Gyptians are traversing. It’s a prophecy that is familiar to readers and hints heavily at the events that will later unfold. But unexpectedly, Kaisa continues describing the prophecy with a new statement describing a “boy whose fate is bound to hers.” Cue: our first real sight of Will Parry.

Amir Wilson makes his debut as Will Parry, the prophesied boy who has been heavily foreshadowed for the past few episodes in Lord Boreal’s search for John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott). It’s a big shock to see his debut so early, as he does not appear in the book trilogy until The Subtle Knife as a new protagonist, but an exciting one. After Lord Boreal spent weeks searching for the whereabouts of John Parry, who he suspects may have found a portal between worlds, he and his accomplice stake out his wife and son in their posh Oxford home in our world. (Another odd departure from the book — aren’t they supposed to be lower-middle class?) In his wordless first scene, Wilson already makes an impression: pensive, quiet, and walking as if he carries the world on his shoulders, Wilson’s Will seems like he leapt straight from the pages.

However, I wonder if this huge reveal is only exciting for book readers and not show-only watchers — the introduction of this important new character comes halfway through the first season and at a part where Lyra and the Gyptians’ journey is just starting to wind down. Now only a few days away from Bolvanger, the Gyptians prepare for a “blood battle” with the kidnappers of their children. But still, Lyra is troubled by a premonition from her alethiometer, which warns of a “ghost” in a nearby fishing village. She anxiously asks Farder Coram for permission to investigate, but he gently lets her down, explaining that the Gyptians can’t afford to waste any time on their quest to rescue their children.

Everything Will Change

One of the two titular “lost boys” of the episode, Will drifts through his life with his head down, enduring taunts at school about his mentally unstable mother Elaine ( a wonderfully fragile Nina Sosanya) and taking on the role of the caregiver in the years-long absence of his father. But their precarious existence is thrown off balance when Boreal intercepts Elaine on her way to the store to probe about John’s whereabouts, setting off her obsessive-compulsive anxieties. Elaine immediately looks for Will, who is in the middle of a tense spar at boxing practice. While he is able to calm her down, his sparring partner uses the opportunity to bully him once more, and he lashes back until their concerned coach pulls them apart.

In Lyra’s world, Farder Coram finally reunites with Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), who makes her gracefully ethereal debut. Gedmintas is stern and stoic as Serafina, with a character design not unlike Eva Green’s memorable portrayal in The Golden Compass, though with the interesting addition of floral tattoos on her neck and arm. The emotional reunion is yet another showcase for James Cosmo, who delivers an exposition-heavy monologue about his and Serafina’s dead son with a raw emotion that almost seems out of place in this thus-far muted series. But it’s thanks to Cosmo that the scene works: it’s a dimly lit, dialogue-heavy scene that feels plucked right out of the Game of Thrones school of fantasy TV — an aspect of His Dark Materials that is increasingly becoming a sticking point for me. I wish that the writers would trust the material and not to try to be something it’s not. His Dark Materials is already a compelling enough show without all the pointed references to Asriel’s war.

Looking for a Ghost

After much pestering, Lyra finally gets John Faa to agree to her sidequest, despite the concerns of Ma Costa, who is even more antsy to get to her boy. John Faa allows Lyra to travel to the village on the back of Iorek, much to the amusement of Lee Scoresby, who playfully notes that this is “Iorek’s first ride” with a human. Despite Iorek’s surly attitude, however, it’s clear that the talking bear is warming up to Lyra — reluctantly letting Lyra warm herself in his fur and slowly revealing the reason he was exiled: for killing another bear. Though this episode was light on the Lee-Lyra banter, it sort of makes up for it with Lyra’s chemistry with this CGI bear; one of the most charming moments of the episode happens when Iorek rolls his eyes as Lyra goes off on a childish rave about her father.

But those sweet moments are few and far between in this moody episode, which suddenly transforms into a chilly horror show. Lyra and Iorek arrive at the village to find it has become a ghost town. In one of the gorgeously shots sets of the series, Lyra makes her way through the deserted, foggy, frozen tundra toward a cabin that immediately sets off Pan, who pleads that Lyra not go inside. “When I am frightened, I shall master my fear,” Lyra chants, echoing the phrase that Iorek had solemnly taught her moments ago in another sweet exchange between the two characters (and yet another Game of Thrones-recalling line). Inside, Lyra discovers a shivering, frostbitten Billy Costa, whose daemon was nowhere to be seen.

This is the show’s other major departure from the books, making Billy Costa the “ghost” who Lyra discovers. In The Golden Compass, Lyra discovers Tony Makarios, whose character does not appear in the TV series and whose characteristics have been composited onto Billy, including the name of his daemon, Ratter. Severed from his daemon, Billy has become a soulless zombie — essentially an empty shell of a person doomed to wander the freezing cold while clutching a piece of dried fish for comfort. Ma Costa is devastated to discover her son like this, breaking down in raw, guttural cries when Lyra returns Billy to the Gyptian camp. It’s only a few hours later that the unresponsive Billy dies in Ma Costa’s arms as she and Tony sing softly to him. It’s a harrowing moment for the series that still doesn’t quite have the punch it does in the books — this was the turning point for The Golden Compass, when Lyra understands the severity of the situation, while in His Dark Materials, it’s just one more horror for Lyra to witness. But the sequence when the Gyptians build a pyre for Billy’s body and sing a mournful hymn is lovely and moving.

But there is more than one ghost in this episode. Back in our world, Will grapples with the ghost of his father, whom Elaine still recalls with affection, unaware of Will’s resentment for the man who disappeared 13 years ago. After apologizing for showing up at his school, she regales a skeptical Will with stories about his father and promises that he’ll take up his mantle. But before she can elaborate on what that mantle is, she flies into another mantle when she notices things amiss in their house, as if someone had searched the place. Elaine runs immediately to check the box of letters that John had written her, showing them to Will and suggesting that he may need them in the future. But while Will brushes off her concerns as part of her paranoia, Elaine spots a man watching their house from the street.

Later that night, the Gyptian camp is surreptitiously attacked by a group of men who swiftly kill the men on watch before kidnapping Lyra. Lyra wakes up in Bolvanger, a severe-looking scientist with glasses regarding her curiously while chatting with the men in a foreign language. After observing that her daemon can still change, the scientist orders that Lyra be taken inside the steel station to be “prepped,” where she’s greeted by a group of the Nurse Ratchet attendees who order her to strip. Lyra smoothly lies that she and her father were on a trading expedition while she takes off her furs, but stops short when she sees the jumpsuit they bring out for her — the exact same that Billy was wearing.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • There’s no funnier visual contrast than Lyra saying Iorek “looks magnificent” before the show cuts to the bear just lugging a tractor up a hill.
  • Lin really brings so much fun to this show, the banter between him and Lyra when he’s lazing about atop his balloon because of his “bunions” is still top notch.
  • “Alethiome-thingy.” I love Lin.
  • Not sure how I feel about the change to Will being a boxer — I like that in the books he’s a scrappy brawler who learned to fight from defending himself. His lower-class background in the books was a nice contrast to Lyra’s privileged upbringing too.
  • Another change: The cat appears! Though as an actual pet rather than a stray that Will meets.
  • Boreal’s subplot is steadily becoming less interesting. Money trails! How fun!
  • I miss Ruth Wilson.

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