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His Dark Materials - The City of Magpies - Review "Lyra and Will"

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Author’s Note: I am reviewing this episode in conjunction with the UK release dates – it has not premiered yet in the USA and as a result there are full spoilers here. Do not read if you haven’t watched the episode yet.

His Dark Materials is back and we’re in unfilmed territory now. We were in unfilmed territory in the final episode of the series and with much of Will’s storyline in Season 1, but the fact that we’ve reached The Subtle Knife with Will’s backstory out of the way has allowed us to hit the ground running with a bombastic premiere that moves at a very fast pace. It acts as a traditional stage-setter of a premiere, showing audiences where all the pieces are on the board and establishing the characters’ motives and storylines for the rest of the season, introducing us to a beautiful recreation of Cittàgazze, a city between worlds that was opened up by the inciting incident at the end of the first season: the death of Roger, Lyra’s oldest and most dearest friend.

The death of Roger lies heavily on her head in the first episode as Lyra is given time to adjust to it. It’s shaken her to the core and Dafne Keen portrays Lyra’s guilt at losing her friend marvellously. She’s finding it hard to trust easily anymore, scaring Will away when she learns that he doesn’t have a daemon. He doesn’t have a daemon of course, because he comes from a different Earth altogether, one just as alien to Lyra as this one. Our own world: where daemons don’t exist, but are believed to be darker things than Pan. Him interacting with Pan was wonderful as writer Jack Thorne (insanely prolific when it comes to this sort of thing, he also wrote the screenplays for Radioactive, The Eddy, Enola Holmes, and The Secret Garden this year. Good work if you can get it.) found a skilful way to establish the differences between these two. Lyra doesn’t have showers on her world, and Will doesn’t have daemons. Lyra hasn’t been shown Will’s mobile phone yet, but there’s also a big gap in technology advancement between the launch of The Subtle Knife and the Oxford of Will’s world again, The Subtle Knife came out in 1997 and had Lyra travelling to Will’s world (not a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer for next week’s episode or read the books). But Will’s world now is a world of artificial intelligence, tablets and smartphones. I’m very excited to see how His Dark Materials handles the jump through the multiverse, as this was one of my favourite parts of The Subtle Knife when I read it for the first time all those years ago.

Will is also wanted in his Oxford too, he’s a murderer according to the alethiometer which Lyra finally uses at the end of the episode after putting it off, blaming it for leading Roger to his death when all it did was tell the truth. By this point, Lyra likes Will a whole lot more than before (I imagine it’d be a whole different story if she asked it about him before they bonded) and is more willing to trust him and view him as the ‘good sort’ of murderer, if there was any – kind of like Iorek. The chemistry between Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen helps sell even the most mundane of scenes as both actors are at the top of their game, Will making it look easy to make an Omelette (and Lyra thinking he’s a kitchen boy for doing so), leads to Lyra trying to make one herself and completely failing was hilarious, showing the episode’s more comedic side.

The Spectres are the main threat to Lyra and Will rather than the children who have made Cittàgazze their home. They tell Will that he’s almost old enough to turn into a man, and then become one – the resulting cliffhanger is a Spectre attacking him, but it’s a good way to ensure that the stakes are kept high for much of the episode and they know they have a target on their backs. Staying in the abandoned city is no longer safe, so they have to leave and head somewhere else. It doesn’t help that they are also being hunted, by a force that might even be deadlier than the Spectres.

Ruth Wilson’s scheming Mrs. Coulter is back – she’s lied to the cardinal about meeting Lord Asriel on the mountain top, claiming she was too late to stop him, and has a renewed mission of finding Lyra. Now she knows that Lyra is a child of a prophecy (as all young adult fantasy novel protagonists tend to be), Mrs. Coulter has a renewed mission objective and a promotion: the Cardinal was killed by the Witches who had come to rescue their own in a badass fight-or-flight type scenario that really worked in a race against the clock, making use of the show’s ambitious, HBO-backed budget. Although quite why Mrs. Coulter was left alive, I don’t know – especially when everyone else around her was slaughtered easily – but it’s certainly something that she’s been able to use to her advantage. Speaking of Lord Asriel earlier, there was due to be an episode with James McAvoy that they were going to film before the COVID-19 outbreak happened and were unable to do so, and I wonder what impact that’s going to have on the season going forward. But Lord Asriel was never that big of a character in The Subtle Knife anyway, so his absence won’t be felt as much as it would be if he played a larger role.

There’s also the role of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Lee Scoresby to be taken into account in this premiere, he’s gone to the Witches to seek aid in the search for a weapon to help Lyra in her quest. He knows that whilst Lyra is absent, everything has to be done to protect her which he will do even from afar. But out of the major players this episode, his role is largely a secondary one but it’s good to get a reminder of where he stands going into Season 2. His main purpose in Season 1 was to protect Lyra. What does he do now that she’s gone?

There were a few minor notes in this episode that’s important to be made aware of: Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson are getting older even though it’s been a few seconds since the end of Season 1 for their characters. I’m assuming they probably would have wanted to film Season 2 and 3 back to back to avoid this, but by the time they finish the series at this rate Keen will be old enough for them to do a seamless transition into Pullman’s sequel novel, The Secret Commonwealth, should they choose to adapt that as a sequel series. Amir Wilson has showed up everywhere this year (The Letter to the King and The Secret Garden) so going into this show it’s good to know that the actors are constantly capable of bringing their A-Game to the table especially as a lot is asked of them. I did find it odd how Will still has charge in his tablet and phone (especially after being stranded in Cittàgazze for 3 days) and there’s no way he didn’t leave his world with it on full charge, at that. However they sort of explained it away by the fact that Cittàgazze has electricity so Will in theory *could* have charged his phone there? But I didn’t see any plugs anywhere. It felt odd seeing him use a phone in such a magical and beautiful city – expertly brought to life on screen with gorgeous cinematography (watch in Ultra HD for the best experience) – but it’s good to see the blend of magic and technology being present in this show.

Also: How great was it to see Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey show up as Angelica? She’s a lot tougher than she looks, Lyra & Pan. I wouldn’t underestimate her.

The biggest flaw of episode one is that it’s so geared towards a bingeable format that it doesn’t really take the time to breath, it went by too quickly I found myself asking “was that it?” when the episode ended. It felt short… almost too short. Which I suppose is a good thing in an age of episodes that go on for more than an hour and feel longer, The City of Magpies knowing exactly what to use and what not to use making for a brilliantly paced hour is only a good thing. It also means that maybe waiting weekly for these episodes is all the more unbearable – I watched it on Sunday as it aired on BBC One in the UK (I could have seen it earlier as the BFI Southabank were hosting a Q&A preview screening shortly before England went into lockdown again which I was unable to make, unfortunately) – but you always know you’re going to be in for a good time on that Sunday evening slot. It feels like BBC have found a way to recapture the familiarity of watching Merlin and Robin Hood (both great shows), and it’s only a good thing as the nights draw in.

His Dark Materials continues next Sunday on BBC One.

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