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His Dark Materials S1E6 (“The Daemon Cages”): Suffer the Little Children

In last week’s His Dark Materials, Lyra had gotten to Bolvangar ahead of the rest of her posse. She wasn’t happy about it, having been abducted (again!) from the Gyptian camp in the middle of the night. She got the one-two punch of realizing where she was, and that this was the place where Billy Costa had had his daemon cut from him. Yikes.

Lyra was quick-thinking enough to have given them a lie when asked for her name, so the doctors there don’t know that she’s anyone special. She joins the ranks of the dormitory children as they march into the mess hall, looking for all the world like they are about to launch into the opening number of Oliver! At last, Lyra’s primary goal is fulfilled, because there sits her friend Roger, whose rescue has been at the top of her to-do list since the beginning. Roger looks a little the worse for wear, but his daemon is alive and well and with him. There are lots of children in the mess hall, but very few daemons are visible. These are untreated children, so I’m guessing we should assume their daemons had shifted to creatures small enough to be kept in pockets? Or did the animators get lazy?

Lyra and Roger check in with each other through their daemons. When daemons talk to other daemons, can other humans hear them? There’s so much we don’t know about daemons—how they work, why they take the shapes they do, where their names come from—but we love them. They’re every variation of every “what is your spirit animal” meme, and lord knows we love those.

Lyra is examined again, more thoroughly than before. Dr. Rendal is young, and seems like a decent enough man, for all that he’s working for the bad guys. He tells Lyra, “this is a philosophical establishment, not a child chophouse.” Um, nooo…it can be and clearly is both of those things at once. During the exam, Lyra tries to get the doctor to spill some information about Dust, but he’s not about to be fooled. He verbally raises an eyebrow, Lyra’s Spidey-sense tingles, and she has to backtrack so he can think she only meant dust (with a lowercase d). Assisting Dr. Rendal is Sister Clara, who is clearly an adult (albeit a younger one), and while she isn’t catatonic the way Billy was, she has no daemon to be seen and a creepily detached demeanor. Are we to assume that they are treating adults as well as children?

Roger and Lyra, looking distressed about something

In the courtyard, Lyra and Roger instigate a snowball fight so they can slip away to explore. I have to say, this series so often reminds me of Matilda (the musical) that I had to wonder if the punishment for the snowball fight was going to be the Chokey for everyone. If there were any actual consequences for it, we never got to see. Roger and Lyra find the room with the daemon cages. We should have had Sarah MacLachlan singing over this sequence, featuring pathetic animals in cages. It’s a bunch of sad-looking daemons but without their humans. This is where Lyra breaks the news to Roger about Billy, and Roger gets to demonstrate that he is a better actor than she is.

I think the scene between the two doctors is one of the most important we’ve had so far. Over a drink, it is revealed that neither of them is particularly pleased about having to be there. However, the older doctor, Dr. Cooper, clearly believes in what they are doing. She drinks rather a lot, but she’s keen on the work. Young Dr. Rendal is much less so, questioning the process and the deaths. Cooper reminds him that what they need to do is play up their progress to Mrs. Coulter when she comes visiting, telling her they are further along than they actually are. Isn’t it exciting, Mrs. Coulter, we’ve made such progress that now the patient can be conscious for the whole procedure! You can be awake while they rip away your soul! What fun!

In Will’s world, he’s up late at night, watching videos of his father (Andrew Scott) on his computer while his mother sleeps. Thomas and a fellow stalker type are parked outside in Thomas’s Lurkmobile. They want something from the house, which is why they are monitoring it, but one of them says, “she knows we’re watching, that’s enough for now,” which leads me to wonder if part of their objective is to increase Elaine’s paranoia. Extra creepy, guys.

Mrs. Coulter has come to Bolvangar to check out the operation. She wafts in like she normally does, accompanied as usual by her Creepy Golden Monkey (CGM). The other girls in the dormitory (where are their daemons? They haven’t been severed yet, but they are scarce in this episode) with Lyra agree to help and hide Lyra under one of the beds. I’ve come to the conclusion that either daemons just can’t smell for bollocks, or that Lyra’s imperviousness to being sniffed out is part of her whole Chosen thing. Either way, Lyra, who clearly has pretty strong arms, is hanging on to the underside of the bed like DeNiro in Cape Fear. CGM is like a foot and a half away but doesn’t figure out she’s there.

Mrs. Coulter would like to see a demonstration, of course, of the great work they are doing. They grab Lyra—she tries to rush past them, but Dr. Rendal grabs Pantalaimon, which brings Lyra down. The time for aliases has passed, and Lyra screams for Mrs. Coulter as she is carried to the machine with the guillotine. It is Lyra’s repeated cries of “Mother!” that make Mrs. Coulter realise what’s going on, and with whom. She slams her hand on the machine to make it stop and takes Lyra back to her own room for a nice cup of tea.

Mrs Coulter at the controls of a machine, while Dr Cooper looks on

Say what you want about Mrs. Coulter—and there’s plenty to be said—but she loves Lyra. Lyra knows it, and she uses it to her advantage. Mrs. Coulter is a complicated character, and her feelings toward and about Lyra are even more complicated. She’s got all the usual mom feelings, plus birth-mom guilt, and huge issues with Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father. Mrs. Coulter may be terrifying, but I found myself feeling sorry for her here. No wonder she is so obsessed with Dust; Dust is basically Original Sin, and therefore a great excuse for someone like Mrs. Coulter to blame her messed-up life on. I didn’t want to give you up, I don’t want to be cruel and horrible, the Dust makes me do it. And it’s not a line—she definitely believes what she is saying: “Every boundary in experimental theology requires the sacrifice of the few for the many.”

She tells Lyra it is time for her to choose a side. This was where she lost most of the sympathy she had gotten from me, since making a child choose between her parents sucks, even when you dress it up in opposing theologies. She wants Lyra to give her the alethiometer, mostly as a symbol of Lyra choosing her side over her father’s. Lyra, however, is a tricksy hobbitses, and instead of handing over the alethiometer, she gives her mother the tin containing the remaining Spy-Fly. Mrs. Coulter is distracted when it flies into her face, giving Lyra a chance to slip out of the room. Mrs. Coulter is hot on her heels, but Lyra smashes the controls that would open the door, and she and her mother primal-scream at each other from opposite sides.

Lyra rushes off to sound the alarm in order to give the children the signal that they are making a break for it. Sister Clara tries to hold her up, but Lyra gets her talking about the daemon that was cut from her, and Sister Clara lets her go. Roger runs off to free the children who have already been cut, if they will go with him. The motivational speech he gives the not-quite-catatonic children is worthy of Buffy Summers, and it made me wish again that we could have him for the main character. The children take some coaxing, but they go with him, and now I have to wonder: what about the human-less daemons in the cages from earlier? Were any of them the daemons of these kids? And if they are, couldn’t some sort of reunion be possible if they freed the daemons too?

The escaping kids are cornered by Dr. Rendal and two henchmen, but then the cavalry finally arrives in the form of angry Gyptians and a big-ass bear. Lee Scoresby gets in his appropriate amount of badass with a well-timed gunshot to a bad guy. There’s a brawl that is typical of this series—badly choreographed, badly shot. Serafina swoops in, taking out a bunch of bad guys in a shower of special effects and arrows. Farder Coram pauses long enough to look at the sky where she has gone with a proud “yeah, that’s my girlfriend” face on. Mrs. Coulter avoids the brawl because she is finding her own way out of the room Lyra locked her in. She’s army-crawling her way through the ventilation system, and she looks dignified and badass while she’s doing it.

The Gyptians emerge victorious from the compound, and soon after, Roger comes out leading the severed children. The Gyptians are at first horrified to see the daemon-less children, but they eventually embrace them and do their best to make them feel like something, someday, can possibly be okay. Mrs. Coulter, hiding in the shadows, observes this, and her eyes fill with tears. Perhaps this is the first time she’s seen real evidence of what she’s having done. Perhaps seeing these children, in such close context with her own daughter, gave her new insight and misgivings about it. Either way, she backs away from the scene and the insight after just a few moments. It’s a beautiful, layered performance for which I hope Ruth Wilson wins many awards.

Roger, Lyra, and Pan happily cuddle in the airship

Lyra and Roger take off with Lee (and somehow, the bear fits in there, too) in his air-TARDIS and have their very own Titanic moment, off to be king of the world. They’re heading off on their own to find Lyra’s father. Plus, there are new hints of a whole other thing involving Lee that we haven’t heard of yet. Serafina stops by to visit during the night (she can fly, after all), and makes sure he realizes that he is responsible for Lyra. He’s not thrilled about this, but he’s grown to love her—which he’s not thrilled about either. It’s one of the first moments where I see LMM and the character actually meshing well, probably because it’s a moment of softness as opposed to him trying to be a roughneck.

This would all be well and good, but soon after, the airship is set upon by the Pullman equivalent of flying monkeys, and during the scuffle, Lyra goes over the side. The last thing we see is Lee shouting her name, as she plummets downward. Yikes!

Next week: bear rumble! West Side Bears! Bring it on!


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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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