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His Dark Materials - The Spies - Review

In the first episode of His Dark Materials not directed by Tom Hooper, Dawn Shadforth stepped in to tackle Jack Thorne’s script and the result gave us the best episode of the series yet, filled with plenty of tension and espionage as significant places on the board continued to fall into place.

Mrs. Coulter is pissed at loosing Lyra, so she pins the blame on Dr. Carne and Oxford College. The Magisterium are turning over every scrap that they can find in the search of something illegal, and eventually, it isn’t long before Mrs. Coulter learns that not only is Lyra in the company of the Gyptians, but she also has possession of an alethiometer, declared illegal to possess by anyone unauthorised, and Dr. Carne was most certainly unauthorised. Carne pushes the blame back on Mrs. Coulter by telling her that he trusted her with the responsibility of protecting Lyra, but Lyra is currently one step ahead both of them.

Spending much of the episode with the Gyptians, the show continues to explore Lyra’s past with multiple revelations coming thick and fast. Not content with just learning that Lord Asriel was her father, Lyra wants to know who her mother is and what happened to her when she was younger. She’s tired of having secrets kept from her and in an emotional confrontation with Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa, she learns that not only is Mrs. Coulter her mother, explaining the woman’s driven pursuit of her, but Ma Costa also played a role in raising Lyra for a brief period of time, putting her in much closer contact with the Gyptians than she realised. Lyra was placed in Oxford to keep her out of Mrs. Coulter’s reach, but it was only a matter of time before Lyra was found.

The Gyptians think that they have the edge over Mrs. Coulter but she’s proven herself to be a formidable foe already this series time and time again, and Ruth Wilson continues to put in one of the best performances as the year making the villain even more memorable than Dafne Keen’s brilliant Lyra (who is a tad too passive in her own story at this point, but this episode went some way to rectify that), who has plenty of material to do in this episode. Whilst Mrs. Coulter only just foiled a half-cocked plan by Tyler Howitt’s Billy Costa to steal plans from her office (which is surprisingly easy to break into, even if breaking out is considerably harder) that saw the death of his friend (who died rather than give up information to the enemy), she was able to send Spy Flies – forbidden by the Magisterium – soulless objects that act as tracking beacons, to a Gyptian ship that has already been searched by soldiers. And it’s here that this time Mrs. Coulter strikes gold – she knows where the Gyptians are, knows what ship they’re on and knows where they’re headed. Best of all, she doesn’t even have to look for them – as they’re coming to her, in search of the missing children.

The speech below the deck of the canal boat where the Gyptians were roused into battle despite being nervous at Mrs. Coulter’s powers was an inspirational moment and possibly my favourite scene of the series so far, it hit the mark perfectly and provided as a fascinating end to what essentially is just the first act of this saga. Although much content with the Gyptians is being brushed over in favour of advancing the plot quickly, it helps streamline the series to continue to give it its fast paced feel, once again, His Dark Materials felt much shorter than an hour episode and was just what I needed after an exhausting day at work.

The tension in certain scenes was palpable – the soldiers searching the Gyptian ships was suitably tense, especially with a committed Ma Costa screaming at them for information on her missing son escalating the tension further, and Billy and his friends’ raid on Mrs. Coulter’s house was a highlight of the episode, now that we see it in a whole new light – rather than a place of wonder through a child’s eyes, it’s replaced as a place of fear and horror in that of Billy’s.

Two more important scenes played out in The Spies that are worthy of mention, particularly anything that happened in our world has so far been effective and this episode was no different. The episode itself felt a lot like a spy thriller – something out of John Le Carre wouldn’t go amiss here, and the cat and mouse game continued into our world. Lord Boreal still wants to know what the rules are when people cross worlds, are daemons part of their world, or can they come to light in ours? And do crossers from our world into theirs gain daemons when they crossover? Pullman’s novels presents an interesting answer to this that I won’t spoil here, but whether the show sticks with that vision or changes it remains to be clear.

Lyra discovering the ability to use the alethiometer was another contender for a favourite scene of the episode, with Shadforth and Thorne easily reminded of the importance that the scene has to offer. It’s an artefact that plays a big role in the future of His Dark Materials, and much like the entirety of The Spies, everything here feels like an important set-up, and I wonder how many debates about daemons and what people’s daemons would be if we were in their world have been created. An important point is raised here: everyone wants their daemon to be a Lion or a Hawk, but how many actually get what they want? You often don’t realise what you have in the ability of a daemon to shapeshift into whatever form it wants until it’s actually gone.

If The Spies was the best episode of the series so far, it promises to get even better next week. Can His Dark Materials rival Watchmen with late character introductions in the middle of a first series with the arrival of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby? And will the first armoured bear appearance of the series live up to the much anticipated hype? Regardless, next sunday (or Monday, for those in the USA) can’t come quickly enough.


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