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His Dark Materials S1E2: “The Idea of North” — Onwards and Upwards!

Excelsior!

I love the episode title. Right off the bat, this episode was able to grab me in a way that the pilot wasn’t, from the title alone. One thing we know about Lyra Belacqua at this point, she wants to go to the North. I’m not sure that even she knows exactly why she’s so keen to go. Sure, it sounds fascinating, with the bears and the Dust and everything her uncle has been up there studying. But it also seems like the idea of it is what she is longing for. In her mind, the North is everything beyond her reach, everything out in the great beyond, which may or may not be knowable. In a story where everything is a metaphor, it makes sense that the North should be one too.

Anyway. Pilots can be problematic, if for no other reason than the amount of world-building they have to cover. And this series started off by making weird choices as to what they were going to tell me, as opposed to what they were going to show me (yes, I’m still a little put off by those title cards from the pilot). But with this episode there was enough they had already established that they could get to the showing instead of the telling.

Mrs Coulter leans out an apartment window, looking alarmed. Her golden monkey daemon is there too, looking in the other direction

When we last left our young hero(ine), she had gone off to London with Mrs. Coulter, expecting to find both her missing friend Roger and a better life. The Gyptians, led by John Faa and Farder Coram, have done likewise, in search of young Billy Costa and the other missing children. We still don’t know much about the Gyptians beyond that they are their own society, and their children seem to be easy targets for who or whatever has been abducting children. Lyra has big dreams of finding answers to everything, as the assistant of the glamourous Mrs. Coulter. She certainly finds answers—though, as it turns out, answers she doesn’t particularly like, often to questions she hadn’t asked.

First of all, we get to learn more about the nature of daemons along with Lyra, when she catches Mrs Coulter’s creepy golden monkey daemon on its own, away from Mrs Coulter. As far as any of us knew, daemons can’t be physically separated from their humans without inflicting pain on both of them. We don’t get to find out now why Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is this long-range variety, but we do get to find out even more about how creepy it is. Golden monkey daemon doesn’t talk (if it does, we don’t hear it), but from the conversations Lyra and others have with their own daemons, what the show told us was a manifestation of the soul also serves as a conscience. This makes sense, especially when you consider that an animal has different instincts than a human, and thus could offer different perspectives.

Lyra, bless her, is a willful kid, and Mrs. Coulter wants things done the way she wants them done. She has reassured Lyra over and over again that yes, she is definitely going to find Roger. She’s about as convincing about this as Prince Humperdinck was when he talked about sending his four fastest ships to track down Buttercup’s Dread Pirate boyfriend. Lyra soon figures this out, and decides to start snooping around on her own. She also insists on keeping the alethiometer on her person at all times, even when Mrs. Coulter doesn’t want her to wear a handbag in the house, as if she knows that Lyra is hiding something in it. We still don’t know much about the alethiometer, but we do know that when the Master of Jordan College gave it to Lyra, he specifically told her to not show it to anyone, including Mrs. Coulter.

Pantalaimon, as a white ferret, peeping his head over Lyra's shoulder

It turns out that when Mrs. “let me mold you” Coulter is displeased with you, she knows how to hurt you where you live—your daemon. Creepy golden monkey attacks Pantalaimon, and as the animals grapple, Lyra falls to the floor in pain. “You’re hurting us!” is her plaintive cry, and if Mrs. Coulter feels anything from the few hits Pan must have struck on the monkey, she doesn’t reveal a hint of it. Lyra realizes that life with Mrs. Coulter might not be the utopia she had counted on, especially when Mrs. Coulter lets it slip that Lord Asriel is not Lyra’s uncle, but in fact her father. And the tone in which she delivers this information suggests, at least to me, that Mrs. Coulter once had some kind of relationship with Asriel, about which she is still bitter. I don’t know about you, but I recognize that tone from times I’ve talked about some of my exes.

Alone, Mrs. Coulter visits a dormitory that is holding a whole group of kidnapped children, including Roger and Billy. She sweetly tells them of a trip North they are going to take, and exciting adventures they are going to have. She also writes letters on behalf of the children, reassuring their mothers that they are well and will return home soon. Later, we see her burn the letters.

We also get to learn neat things about the world(s) of the series, as we follow the wonderfully sinister Carlo Boreal to and from their world to one that looks suspiciously like ours. So, gateways between worlds exists, and you can cross from one to another if you know how. In the pilot, Lord Asriel brought with him the skull of a Jordan College scholar. Carlo, however, goes into the College crypt, examines the skull, and decides it belongs to someone else, though he knows not who. He uses a gateway to enter the other world, and meets with a man whom he asks to keep an eye out for the scholar. It may be that people believed dead are actually hiding here, in this or another parallel world.

We find out that Boreal and Mrs. Coulter are in cahoots. Mrs. Coulter is Head of the mysterious General Oblation Board, which is part of the all-powerful Magesterium, and, judging from the hidden plans Lyra finds in Mrs. Coulter’s private study, they know exactly where Roger and the missing children are. We also find out how easy it is to kill someone, if they are unlucky enough to have a small daemon. When Mrs. Coulter hosts a party at her flat, there’s a friendly journalist who whispers to Lyra the unsettling truth about the General Oblation Board, that they are the Gobblers (get it, with their initials?), and they are behind the abduction of the children. Unfortunately for the journalist, she is killed for her trouble by Carlo, simply by crushing her moth-like daemon in his hand. Shudder.

Carlo Boreal, holding his daemon, which is a light-coloured snake

Here’s a thing that I may change my mind about after the next episode, who knows – does anyone besides me get the vibe that Dafne Keen is playing Lyra a little bit on the autism spectrum? It’s certainly a choice that would make sense, though it’s not a book thing. It may be that in books that were written back in the day, when we weren’t as aware of things like autism, it didn’t occur to authors that this could make for interesting colour for a character. For example, I never thought that about Roald Dahl’s Matilda during any of the times I read the book, but when I recently saw the musical again, it became pretty clear that Matilda was not what you would call neurotypical (I asked the director, and apparently most of that cast agreed with me that she was on the spectrum, but I digress).

In the pilot episode, when Lyra asks Lord Asriel if his airship looks like the one in which her parents died, I didn’t see it as an intended jab to his conscience. To me, it felt like one of those associations that makes perfect sense in a not-neurotypical mind, that  neurotypicals often find devastating and inappropriate. And it didn’t occur to me then, but this episode made me reflect back on the pilot, and that was a thing that stood out. It may also be, however, that this actress is still growing on me, and that she wasn’t initially given a whole lot to work with character-wise, because they were so busy world-building and doing running-over-rooftops sequences. And of course, it could absolutely be that I’m completely making this up, and that the French Woods production of Matilda was so good that it is making me project onto other things. Time will tell.

All in all, S1E2 was a lot better than E1. And I’m really rooting for this show, so I was very glad to see the progress in the right direction. At the end of the jam-packed hour, Lyra and Pan have escaped Mrs. Coulter and decided to head North on their own, but a cliffhanger ending with a sudden hand over Lyra’s mouth looks to have gotten in the way of that. Let’s see where she’s been taken, and where next week takes us. I’m looking forward to it. Excelsior!


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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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