his dark materials theft review

His Dark Materials is only getting better with each episode of its second season, with the third episode, “Theft,” finally bringing an end to the sluggish witches vs. Magisterium plot and getting to the real action. And by real action, I mean Will and Lyra sitting down in a movie theater to watch Paddington.

No, I don’t really mean that. But that scene is a pivotal example of how His Dark Materials is letting loose its dour, epic fantasy trappings to embrace some of the awe and whimsy that was mostly absent from its first season. Pairing that quiet moment of connection with Will and Lyra in the crowded movie theater (along with the quiet comedy of Lyra being introduced to popcorn for the first time) with the escalating stakes of a stranger stealing Lyra’s alethiometer and Lyra’s mother getting closer to finding her makes for a thoroughly exciting episode of His Dark Materials.

Only the Children Are Left

One of my favorite things about His Dark Materials this season is how much of a presence Pan is shown to be, compared to his curious absence in long stretches of season 1 (owing, likely, to budget). One of the remarkable things that sets His Dark Materials apart from other fantasy franchises is the existence of the daemons: the other half of humans who represent a person’s soul, in walking, talking animal form. And we get to see Pan act as Lyra’s soul in this episode, or rather, as her conscience — nagging her and doubting her motives as she goes on her own self-serving mission to learn about Dust with Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), defying the alethiometer’s orders for her to help Will find his father.

Dafne Keen is becoming wonderfully adept at showing Lyra’s natural arrogance, throwing around smirks and sneaky jabs about mustaches. But Lyra’s trademark cockiness comes back to bite her, as she is quickly accosted by said mustachioed policeman, who is searching for Will at a perplexed Mary’s office. Lyra smoothly lies in response to the cop’s rapidfire questions, before letting down her guard and accidentally giving Will away, her face dropping when she realizes what she’s done. A chase quickly ensues, leading Lyra right to the car door of Lord Boreal, or Sir Charles Latrom as Lyra knows him, who offers her a ride home. Lyra happily takes his offer, and distractedly fields his smooth questions (Ariyon Bakare, again, shining when given the chance to actually play the snake) before just as quickly leaving his car, almost forgetting her backpack with the alethiometer in it. But she soon discovers the alethiometer to be missing and for Latrom to be “nothing more than a thief,” as Pan declares. Lyra’s panic is palpable, and it’s never been more clear that Lyra has been thrust into an alien world — bringing something much more interesting to her character, as she relies on her own cockiness more.

Meanwhile, Will (Amir Wilson) finds his way to Lyra after spending the day searching Citagazze for her, where he found only a standoffish Angelica (Bella Ramsey, so wonderfully scrappy and earthy in her brief appearances) who rejects his questions about the myserious Torre degli Angeli and tells him about how the Spectres killed or chased out all the adults in the city, leaving him with an ominous warning about his impending adolescence. But upon finding Lyra at the botanical gardens back in his world, where she tearfully admits that she lost the alethiometer, Will takes her to the movie theater in one of the most delightful scenes of the series thus far. Not just for the fact that they’re playing Paddington at the theater, but for those small moments of emotional intimacy that play out over a comedic scene — Will and Lyra admitting that they worried about each other while Lyra steals his popcorn and calls it disgusting. The scene ends with a lovely little moment of Pan peeking his nose out of the backpack to watch Paddington in awe, and it feels like His Dark Materials is no longer afraid of embracing the magical side of its story.

When The Fog Lifts

The B-plot of the episode follows Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adventuring aeronaut, Lee Scoreseby, who finds himself drawn by strange winds to a sad northern fishing town, where he trades whisky for information on Stanislaus Grumman, the explorer who was said to have a connection to a powerful weapon. His information leads him to a nearby Observatory where Grumman used to work, manned by Dr. Haley (Angus Wright, a British character actor making a meal of his short scene), who is quick to accuse Lee of being a heretic and shoot at him. It’s a chilling reminder of the religious fanaticism that controls the world, as is the next scene that sees Lee captured by the Magisterium’s forces, who had been called by Dr. Haley before Lee instinctively shot him dead.

In an intriguing invented scene for the series, we get the only meeting between two of the most important adults in Lyra’s life: Lee Scoresby and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, killing it again with the chilling menace and trembling vulnerability, what more can I say?). It’s a scene that isn’t in the books, but Miranda and Wilson absolutely sell the hostility that gives way to wary trust, as Mrs. Coulter frees Lee out of her love for Lyra. Oh, and Mrs. Coulter finally finds out where Lyra is, thanks to a conveniently placed other prisoner, Asriel’s manservant, who reveals that Lyra traveled into the other world.

The End of Destiny

Lyra, Lyra, Lyra. It’s all about our resident prophecy girl, who is revealed to be the chosen one to bring an “end of destiny,” declares Serafina Pekkala’s daemon Kaisa, in conversation with Iorek Byrnison. It’s a welcome return to see Iorek again — whose home is now melting because of Asriel’s tear in the sky — though it occurred to me how funny it was that this very serious and straightforward exposition scene takes place between two talking animals. Only on His Dark Materials.

Also grappling with destiny is Dr. Mary Malone, who is on the verge of making a scientific breakthrough with dark matter, but hits a wall after Lyra suddenly disappears. Kirby’s grounding presence offers a nice bit of normalcy in all the fantastical and intense happenings of the episode, and getting a peek at her domestic life (complete with a concerned sister and cute nieces), only proves how watchable she is. I like to see Mary struggling, in a rut, and spending time with her and her frustrated family life communicates that too. Finally, when science fails her, Mary turns to faith, bringing out the I Ching sticks to study — the intercutting of her using the sticks with the Cave waking up and reflecting the sticks’ patterns is a nice touch. Mary’s scientific breakthrough timing with the climax of Will and arriving at Boreal’s mansion, where he shows his hand and offers a deal: retrieve the “subtle knife” from the Torre degli Angeli, and he’ll return the alethiometer.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • The show is really hinting at the importance of those botanical gardens…
  • I wonder if the Paddington shout-out is a nod to the famously mocked CGI bears of The Golden Compass or to the shared backer to both His Dark Materials and Paddington, Anton. I’m choosing to think the former.
  • No Andrew Scott this episode, but I would recognize that voice mystically whispering “Return…” and that mouth anywhere!
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