After this week’s episode of His Dark Materials we only have two more episodes to go to round out Season 1. So far things have been a great improvement over the ill-fated attempt to adapt this into a movie previously, will that continue in this week’s episode?
The Daemon Cages
Lyra finds herself in Bolvanger finally, but also in the same predicament as the other captured children. Lyra already knows what they do here to children and their Daemons in Bolvanger, but she is about to experience the horrors for herself. Will her friends arrive in time, or must Lyra look for an unlikely source of saviour for her and her Daemon Pantalaimon from the cruel child cutters? And will we find out why these Gobblers want to sever children from their Daemon’s in the first place?
Was it any good?
This was a really good episode of the show, I’ll try to steer clear of spoilers, but the focus of this episode is on Lyra and her new predicament at the Bolvanger Station. Dafne Keen was phenomenal this week, in some parts brave and determined as she attempts to rally the children to push back, and yet just a child with no one to help her from cruel compassionless adults.
As an audience we already know what happens to children in Bolvanger, we saw the effect it had on Billy Costa last week, and this week we not only see one child being sent in for the ‘procedure’ but we also get to see the after-effects of incision on both children and adults. This week I am going to go back to some comparisons with the movie The Golden Compass, both good and bad.
When it comes to the good then you must praise the television medium for focusing more on drama and performances, and in this respect, His Dark Materials blows that old movie away. The terror and tension that builds as these children simply await their turn in the cutting machine is real and I really like how they explored the morals of this in the staff of the station. Whilst one of the scientists is having doubts, it is not enough for him to reject the work being asked of him from the Magisterium, and yet another seems to relish the cruel work being undertaken. When Lyra is picked to be next in the slicer, the audience is suddenly put into the eyes of just how helpless Lyra really is amongst these cruel child abusers.
However, the bad of the TV format is perhaps the budget for big battles and in this respect, the battle of Bolvanger is far more exciting and epic in the movie version of this story. In the show the fighting is happening in the background as the focus remains on Lyra, so we only get one or two shots of Iorek Byrnison and the Gyptians fighting the Tartars. In the book that battle was far more finely balanced and only a clan of Witches appearing led by Serafina Pekkala, and the armoured bear himself helps swing the battle on the favour of the Gyptians. I never got a sense of them winning against the odds in the episode and the battle seemed more of a forgone conclusion. Saying that, the scene where one witch (Serafina herself) arrives to join the battle was spectacular and brutal.
The question is, which one is better, is drama better than Hollywood budget battles? The answer is pretty simply, the drama always wins because that’s what hooks us into a story, a battle, no matter how cool it looks, loses so much when we just don’t care about the characters or the world. I’ll happily accept a reduced scope on battles if they get the story right, and so far so good on that front. Oh, and the Cliff Ghast scene at the end was actually far better done and again uses clever editing to build a tension normally absent from these types of moments, whilst still keeping the budget under control.
So good, did you miss Mrs Coulter last week, well no worries because Ruth Wilson is back in force this week. I’ve been gushing about how good Wilson is for weeks now, but this episode may present the most complex set of emotions for her character to deal with and as such brings the very best out of Wilson. Mrs Coulter is torn between competing desires, she thinks she cares for Lyra, maybe even pretends she loves her, but realistically she simply sees Lyra as her possession. Whilst Coulter convinces herself she is keeping Lyra safe, she ignores the fact that her actions and cruel whims are what places her in danger to begin with.
We also must talk about Dafne Keen again, whenever these two appear on screen together it is electric and they get perhaps their best moments on screen together this week. The conversation they have with one another in private, later on in the episode, is so well put together. It begins with Coulter using truth to hide her lies as she attempts to manipulate Lyra to her way of thinking. However, Lyra has learned from the last time they met and she is also able to use half-truths to manipulate her mother, the student has become the master of lies and the build-up of all these complicated emotions between the two are released as they scream to one another across a locked door, and those screams are filled with hatred, need, and regrets that we as the viewer can really connect with.
This is why I love the character of Mrs Coulter, sure, she’s a villain, but sometimes we love our villains, and I love a villain as complicated as Coulter is. We even get a glimpse into her mind, a reason for doing what she is doing which probably does make sense in her warped mind. However, a sociopath, as Coulter is, can only care about themselves fully, and that’s why she can never really be a mother to Lyra without making her as morally bankrupt as her mother.
Though we don’t get much screen time with other characters there were a few good moments with Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, and Serafina Pekkala, and I cannot wait to see more from these three. Luckily as the story moves on from this point, those characters are some that we are going to be spending a lot of time with, for some right through into the final season of the show. I already feel like all three deeply care in their own way for Lyra and that is essential to the plot that is about to begin unfolding. I also have to say that the one to two episode only background characters were very well performed here as well.
Criticisms and Conclusion
As said, in an ideal world I would have liked to see a bit more of a battle in Bolvanger, but with limited running time and limited budget, I am happy with the trade-off here. Nothing else to say critically, because the rest of the episode is fantastic.
For any viewers out there that may be wondering where the story goes from here, just be patient. His Dark Materials is not a story about kidnapped children being rescued and then everyone goes on to live happily ever after. The real problem in Lyra’s world is the Magisterium and the dogmatic religious rules and control implemented by them. Think of the Bolvanger story as being merely the opening act of the story of His Dark Materials, and only the beginning of Lyra’s true destiny. For a start, we have still to find out what Lyra’s father Lord Asriel is really up to, and why the Magisterium wants him locked away in Svalbard, the kingdom of the armored bears.
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‘The Daemon Cages’ for me is up there with ‘Armour’ as the best episode so far in the show. Things have been building up to this point and finally, the true horror of the child cutters and their warped motivations are revealed. We’ll feel for Lyra, we’ll marvel at Mrs Coulter’s lack of compassion, and we might even cry when we see the severed children. This episode is everything that drama stands for, tension-filled situations with interesting and complicated characters in a world with real consequences. And if you think this week challenges some of our (society as a whole) own religious views on original sin, then buckle down, because things are going to get even controversial as the weeks’ and eventually the Seasons’ roll on.
Grade: A +
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