HDM reviews: S02E01 The City of Magpies

Updated: Nov 14

I’m going to be doing long-form reviews of the episodes of His Dark Materials series 2. For context on my broader feelings you might be interested to check out my writing here but as a quick precis: I’m a long-standing lover of the books with a lot of interest in the art of adaptation! Episode spoilers after the cut; previous-series spoilers from the start.)


Well, welcome back His Dark Materials! Whatever my feelings about how well or badly anything is accomplished in this series I’m always so delighted to find myself sitting down to watch a version of this story on the telly of a Sunday night.

And what is more - The City of Magpies is a very promising start to the new series.

... Buuut as I’ve come to expect, where this series succeeds it does so more in spite of the writing than because of it.

Everything to do with the set/location work here is spectacular. I was excited and intrigued by screen-Cittagazze more even than when I read the book. Whatever my overall thoughts on the first series I admit of a few moments from it where I think the TV adaptation has actually done something better than the books themselves, where the adaptation has done the best thing adaptations can do - found some new angle of interest in this new form. For instance, In the first series I loved the re-staging of the battle of Bolvangar fight within the claustrophobic walkways of the compound itself.


Now we have a Cittagazze which is, I think, even better than book-Cittagazze.

And it’s not a case of design = good, but story = bad either, because things like set design aren’t separate, at their best, from storytelling. It’s not just that Cittagazze looks cool, but that the way its designed and filmed is carving out the emotional and narrative space appropriate for this part of the story. The step motif seen all over city picks up on the Escher-like image from the title sequence and that association immediately elevates Cittagazze into significance from its first moments. We know from the titles this image of Lyra and Will meeting/paralleling each other within this motif, and climbing… the design and presentation of this city setting are injecting all the right kinds of energy and anticipation into the story where the writing is, well, not always.


Daemons


While we’re on the subject of good storytelling, though, I also want to praise daemons. I’ve written lengthily on how poorly I think daemons were handled in the first series, and it was brilliant to see some early promise of significant improvement for the second.


And yes, that’s partly because there’s simply more Pantalaimon on screen. That’s thanks to an increased budget, as well as the handy story fact that now the A-plot has left Lyra’s world that budget just doesn’t have to cover as many daemons. But the real difference is that daemons are handled better in story terms here than they were across almost the whole first series.


Pantalaimon hin theis epidode actually operated according to what is supposed to be his narrative function in His Dark Materials rather than just feeling like an expensive spare part. He is a foil and sounding board for Lyra, a means to personify her dilemmas and doubts as a character.


And we see in The City of Magpies decent writing in establishing how Pantalaimon and Will relate to each other, as well as Lyra and Will, both as new ideas and characters. As well as their relationship being cute, it actually uses Pantalaimon as he’s intended; to be a way of showing a more hidden side of Lyra.


It’s not flawless, and I thought we needed a bit more imagination and space given to how Will responds to Pantalaimon. I’ll come to it later, but Will’s doesn’t feel terribly anchored in any particular character context in this episode and I missed the sense of his reacting to all this new and fantastical stuff.


But the character/relationship dynamics were including daemons successfully, and that’s new.


And another thing: though I don’t know how the next few episodes will look of course, I’d be very happy now for Pantalaimon to be put on the back-burner for a while.

That’s the kind of handling of daemons I’ve always advocated for, not necessarily more of them, but rather more careful and intelligent work to use them as a story piece rather than meaningless clutter.


Stories don’t need to constantly be juggling every possible ball: you develop one part to a point it can be set aside while you pick up the next. So daemons are something that as long as you do the work in the right places you don’t  need to constantly be seeing them outside of those.


I.e. now we have this solid work done in establishing the dynamics of Will/Lyra/Pantalaimon, it’s going to be fine for Pan to pretty much disappear mouse-formed up a sleeve for the next few episodes; we’ll need him to clear space for other parts of the narrative.


While we’re talking daemons I’ve also got some kudos to spare for their handling outside of Pantalaimon too. Something I wrote about here is how daemons are a versatile narrative tool; here a full character, there a personality-free symbol; there a malicious animalistic imp etc. This episode is showing much more understanding already that daemons can operate differently according to milieu and purpose of scene. In the Magisterium scenes, the daemons are more like well-deployed character notes, unobtrusive as the costume choices.


Again, it’s not all praise: the witches’ daemons are still dull, cardboard exposition-dumpers even more than their human counterparts; Lee’s dynamic with Hester is still feeling a bit try-hard and flat to me, and the golden monkey feels under-utilised as the omen of horror he was in the books. I guess Ruth Wilson’s performance doesn’t leave a lot of room. Unlike the book-Coulter, screen-Coulter contains all the shades and affect of the character in one body, so there’s just not a lot of room left for the monkey to bring in anything notable. But it does seem a shame that when there’s that reveal of Mrs. Coulter being unexpectedly present in that first scene, it doesn’t come in the form of the monkey climbing into shot.


Lyra and Will


So moving more generally into the writing:


This episode is very plot-light: we don’t get into any world-hopping this episode, we just have Lyra and Will meeting and forming a dynamic, and a few set-ups for what will become plot later (the native children, the tower, the spectre-eaten man and, sigh, the knife calling to Will I guess).


That’s a pretty solid call, I think. It gives us a chance to feel the significance of the relationship that forms here, and to have a cool-down/gather ourselves from the huge events that brought series one to a close. But it's also  a dangerous call when it comes to Thorne’s weaknesses as a writer. It means this episodes needs to be all about a relationship arc as its story and he’s bad at those.


The worst episode of series one was episode two The Idea of North, where he failed to notice he’d written himself into a story-less corner with how he handled the Lyra/Mrs. Coulter dynamic in their introductory scenes in the first episode, and so we had an episode with nowhere to go in terms of emotion, character or relationship.


Happily, the the Lyra/Will dynamic fares much better as the core of its episode. Even Thorne can’t entirely bunk the arc of these two interesting kids meeting and bouncing off each other.


But I’ll be damned if he doesn’t appear to be trying to suck the life out of it.


My hypothesis is that Thorne is just a very soapy writer. He cut his teeth on soap-form dramas like Skins and Shameless. That’s not an insult re. the sense that soaps are ’low art’; my point is that he writes to serve meandering status-quo for shows that have nowhere in particular to go, no forward momentum.


I.e. he can write a perfectly good conversation scene but he can’t stack these scenes to show how two characters are progressing into something different from where they started. When we have a simple relationship-focused story as in this episode or The Idea of North you really see exposed how his scenes just fail to follow one from the other in his writing in the most fundamental ways.


So all of Will and Lyra’s scenes are good. Some are lovely. But they fail to really impart a sense of any core or significance to this relationship. (And that failure to discover the character/relationship engines is probably why we get the lean into prophecy and destiny, but I’ll come to that presently).


For example, after the scene where Will saves the cat (or, you know, Saves The Cat) it feels weird that we don’t see or hear about the cat in the next scene. Sure I can infer that Will just let it loose somewhere that seemed safer, or whatever. But it’s less the logistical question that bothers me and more the sense of a lack of consequence from one scene to the next. The saving of the cat was a dramatic and emotional high point in the episode. The cat became a symbol and a macguffin – and then immediately disappeared between scenes. That goes for really all of the scenes’ relationships to their neighbours. For example, I don’t know why Will deduces that Lyra comes from a different world. Again, it’s not that I can’t fill in some plausible detail there but rather that it feels like what’s missing is the actual story part.


Or it’s half-there, I dunno. Because once again the series does raise things consciously which are great angles, it just doesn’t eecute them strongly.


E.g. I liked the beats that Lyra moves through in her initial encounter with Will. She gets the drop on him (in a lovely mirror of her S0101 encounter with Lord Asriel, where she was the one pinned); they talk – and then she realises Will doesn’t have a daemon and backs off. She reacts with fear in the book too, but I really like the series turning that into a whole thing. After Lyra’s experiences in series one Lyra is, literally, triggered by the idea of a daemonless person and needs to get out of there. That's great, but again, the series doesn’t execute that idea very sharply or follow through on it much. We get this set-up, that this is an obstacle for Lyra. But we don’t get the story beat of what gets her/them past that. Later get a nice moment where Lyra encounters a spectre-eaten young man (presumably Tullio) and shows how her experiences have made her kinder and softer as she treats him unhesitatingly with the kindness she showed Billy Costa. And we get, towards the end of the episode the line that pays off Lyra’s initial fear and rejection of Will: “You do have a daemon,” she says, “You just can’t see it.” That’s a lovely character-informing pay-off, I just wish there was some writing that better made a story of how she got from point A to point B. The story can never be very powerful so long as its skipping the parts where it has to work out how characters change their feelings and philosophies. If we were given a sense of what, specifically, it was that convinced Lyra that Will does indeed have a daemon in some way, it would teach us better what daemons mean.


So that stuff works, but only by the skin of its teeth. Another part of Lyra's story I'm critical of is the opening sequence following her journey from the crossing point to Cittagazze.


And look, I mean, it’s not easy, this continuity of story and character, it’s really not. But Thorne has chosen to expand and extend on the book and that’s great but whenever he creates any additional material to the book’s scenes, the time spent almost always feels either under-utilised or misguided. Thorne’s added scenes often seem concerned with addressing practical issues or getting into fairly irrelevant back/side story which is harmless enough in itself, but he tends to do things which actively undermine the main story.


In S01E01 we opened with the scene of Lyra being delivered to Jordan which is bad because – well, for reasons too many to go into here, but which I talked about here. It’s a scene which is concerned with the how we got here without understanding that showing that part of the story can undermine the reality of where we find ourselves.


This S02E01 seqience of Lyra's journey shows the same problems. It's just too ungrounded in any kind of believability. I’ll accept the idea of Lyra travelling for days as a passing mention. My mind will fill that space in with whatever plausible detail it needs to. If you show it, like this is shown, I stop believing it, because all you’re doing is pressing implausible detail upon my imagination. It undermines the main body of the story because I can’t believe the slightly-scruffy, slightly downcast Lyra who arrives in Cittagazze is someone who has been sleeping in caves and eating what she can find. That Lyra would be a filthy, feral, half-starved animal.


When the consequences of her hardship are so lightly felt it undermines an awful lot about the series. I can’t invest much in future trials very seriously when I’ve seen this level of hardship and hardiness handled with such breeziness.


And one of the big reasons it feels unbelievable is because Lyra is unmotivated in it. We don't have the focus on knowing what she's aiming for or motivated by here, so we're left to cast around for clues leaving the reality very vulnerable to questioning.


As for Will…


It’s nice to see a version of Will that’s softer, less grim and less certain. Honestly, while I like book-Will as a character, I’ve never been wholly enamoured of the way he slots into HDM because his strength and competence seem to so frequently require Lyra to be silly and disempowered. He prompts a ‘chickification’ in her. So I’m up for lovely Amir-Wilson-Will.


But at the same time, that soft, sweet, fairly light/open-hearted affect does jibe oddly with the given facts of the story. In contrast to Lyra, Will really didn’t feel very informed as a character by his recent history. As far as I noticed he doesn’t so much as mention the beloved mother he recently surrendered to someone else’s care, nor so much as cast a troubled look into the middle-distance to remind us of the fact that he, you know, recently killed someone and has a feeling or two about that, probably.

We don’t see much by Way of Will reacting to the fantastical and unbelievable, outside of when Pantalaimon first speaks in his presence. So Will feels a lot less grounded in particularity than Lyra so far.


Coming back to the relationship arc itself:


I’m finishing up a piece at the moment on The Haunting of Bly Manor and how it relied on meaningless, unstoried circumstance to move events forward. It had to do that because it hadn’t actually got a core story; it was an adaptation of The Turn of The Screw which remained pretty faithful to events and chronology but changed enough about the core that the story didn’t go any more. So the big beats have to be convenienced into happening.


I mention it because I see the same issue here, though not show-killingly like in Bly Manor: Lyra and Will’s alliance is all circumstance.


In any story, and certainly any plotty story like His Dark Materials, events are moved forward by both external factors and happenstance as well as character choices. But those external factors should be built to work for and with a character story. Circumstances should push characters to make choices it is interesting for those particular characters to make, etc.


I feel that Will and Lyra’s alliance in this episode isn’t founded on anything particularly meaningful. Thee wasn’t a strong sense of why these two would connect and/or team up, say. It felt plausible to imagine that if Lyra and run into Angelica first she might equally have teamed up with her.


In the book this meeting is moved through more swiftly and it’s not long before Lyra and Will have realised that they might do better in their individual plans working together rather than separately for now, and are forging ahead with the plot.


And I do think it’s interesting to slow that part of the story down, but only if you feel you’ve got any actual story beats to explore within it. If you’re going to take longer to tell the story of Lyra and Will moving into a team relationship, I’ll need you to justify why that part of the story has any weight of interest. You need to be telling me the story of why these two team up, or why they make a good team.


I think what Thorne misses, as a writer who is so weak on structure, is that things don’t automatically get stronger for seeing more of it. In the first series – in the first episode – Thorne imagined that he could and should make the Lyra/Roger bond register more by showing us more. He gave it more screentime and showcased more moments of closeness. But he missed that there’s actually nothing more to show. In fact the more I saw of Roger, compared to the book, the more alienated I became because all I saw was how little he resembled a real child and how falsely his and Lyra’s relationship rang when pushed to be Significant.


Lyra and Will’s relationship is one that can take more attention. But it’s still the case that drawing it out doesn’t automatically make it better. You lose more than you gain if you’re not careful: here you’ve lost the sense of momentum from the book, momentum that pushed a very wary alliance into something more interdependent as the plot moved it.


And actually though the book’s time spent here is briefer, it is also better written as a progression. Pullman has a clear understanding of who his characters are, where they’re at and what would be needed to prompt them to have things happen or shift.


For example, the show includes the great book moment where Lyra asks the alethiometer who Will is, learns he’s a murderer, and is like, “This is good news.”


That moment is an actual beat in the book. Lyra, having encountered this new person, asks the aletiometer at the first opportunity to fill her in. She is facing a fork in the road and what happens there is telling in several ways: firstly we see how dependent she is on the alethiometer. Secondly we see how the alethiometer is certainly not totally neutral in the way it presents its ‘truths’. Most significantly, we get a character-establishing (or I guess, ‘reminding’) beat in Lyra’s unusual reaction to the statement. It’s a turning-point: Lyra decides to ally herself with this boy, and we also get a steer as to what ideas are going to play out here. We see that Lyra is operating according to a somewhat eccentric set of standards here and probably has some work to do interpersonal-relationships-wise. “I trust him because he’s a murderer” is a good place to start a relationship arc from because it’s a hell of a false philosophy.


In the show… well, one thing I like is that we find Lyra here refusing to use the alethiometer. As I say the show is frequently great at picking out these new ideas that seem to spring logically from the book. Sadly it’s just as frequently bad at deploying them well.


So I love that Lyra has been wary of the alethiometer ever since it failed to warn her on Asriel’s plan for Roger. That’s great. It’s another place where Lyra feels informed by her recent history and it’s a nice complicating factor to take into this second season where the alethiometer might easily become too convenient a plot element. I just wish I thought that the series was going to do anything with that, or even be very consistent about it.


Because here it doesn’t really develop, resolve or advance. She refuses to use the alethiometer until, for no reason, she does use it. There’s no particular prompt that changes her mind and unlike in the book there’s no turning point attached to this version of the he’s a murderer moment.


Lyra has here already passed the point where she’s committed to teaming up with and trusting Will. She’s eaten his cooking, she’s connected him emotionally with Roger, she’s moved into ‘his house’, they’ve saved a cat together and had a bonding moment on the incredibly cool steps and made their plans. So this moment can’t do anything to their relationship: they’re already where this ought to take them.


Unless the arc is to be that these two characters have a good start but then distrust or wariness enters in because Lyra gets this answer that makes her see that there’s more to Will than meets the eye? That could work, except nope, because one way or another this series immediately cancels the impact of the line and instead places all its eggs in the ‘prophecy’ basket.


Not irrelevantly, the TV version of the scene also does another thing the series is prone to: it shies away from the hard edges of things and mitigates and softens the moment.


In the book the alethiometer simply says, he’s a murderer, and Lyra is immediately relieved to hear it. It’s undoubtedly a funny moment but it’s also a character-true and significant one. It’s striking and odd and so we’re forced to think about why Lyra would have such an unexpected reaction and we come up with some significant stuff about who she is and where she’s at emotionally.


The series (which obviously has to have Lyra narrate what the alethiometer tells her) has her say, “He’s a murderer – but the good kind.”


That for me totally misses the point of the moment. It skews both Lyra’s character and the moral character of the story universe. It sounds like the alethiometer has made this moral pronouncement, that it has both dubbed the accidental death Will was involved with ‘murder’ and absolved him because, I don’t know, he’s a goody. That implication of that is just fundamentally opposed to everything the books, much less this moment, are about.


It’s such frustrating storytelling because the character story is right there. It would all work well if not for the inclusion of one single moment-ruining line.


Funnily enough, I felt that there is a single line of S01E01 whose removal would immediately improve more than one episode. In that instance, it was where Lyra vocalises her decision to go and live with Mrs. Coulter: ““If the Gobblers have Roger she’s our best chance to getting him back”. It’s line with brings to a close all the tensions that have been set up in the Lyra/Mrs. Coulter dynamic, settling into an unstoried synthesis that Lyra has reconciled a wariness or Mrs. Coulter with her own particular agenda and decided to accompany Mrs. Coulter on certain terms. That is what leaves episode two, The Idea of North, without a story to tell, because that relationship story has already been resolved and brought to catharsis.


Here we have just the same problem in just the same way. Again, we are heading into episode two of the series in question focused on a new relationship in Lyra’s life, and again all the show would have to do is cut the final line of her dialogue reflecting on that for it to be great. End on the revelation, “He’s a murderer” and you’ve got a great set-up of tension and ambiguity to fuel this ongoing story. End on “… But the good kind” and all you’ve done is assured us that there’s nothing to be intrigued or interested by here.


So the moment’s deployment in the series doesn’t create intrigue or tension, it doesn’t inform us about Lyra’s character and it’s not even very funny or striking here. In the book it’s funny because Lyra’s “phew” is kind of an unhinged way to react. Here the ‘yay murderers’ thing is indicated as the alethiometer’s phrasing/opinion, so there’s no joke.


So yeah, lots of bad and lack-lustre writing choices within the A-plot and yet still overall it all works This is what I mean when I say this show succeeds in spite of its writing!


The witches, Lee, Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter stories meanwhile… are all fine. I like the series’ version of cloud pine. Er… nothing much to say really; these threads were fine. They’re pulling their weight so far better than in season one’s early episodes, where the Gyptian scenes often felt fillery; too many in number weighed against how much story they actually had to tell.


So finally I just want to complain about prophecy. As a result of a failure to find the character-motivated reasons for things happening, a lack of faith in the story unfolding in itself, Thorne is continuing to go hard on this destiny stuff which is such a boring crutch of a device.


Yeah, there was prophecy and predestination in the books. But it wasn’t a crutch, it wasn’t a lazy way to excuse why your characters are involved in events or why they are significant to one another. It was a. a theme to be interacted with (and not necessarily trusted) and b. not a motivator or relied upon to make things happen; stories worked whether or not the idea of prophecy was in play. The sense of destiny and the questions of agency gave what already worked narratively on its own a heightened feeling, a sense of having greater significance than they might at first appear to. Prophecy, in short, didn’t make His Dark Materials go, it lent a wider significance to a story that worked in itself.


So after a generally great episode I was super disappointed to see Will having unmotivated, meaningless destiny flashes of the knife. But I’m not going to get too churlish yet. I’m too pleased to see His Dark Materials back and too impressed with Cittagazze to dock too many points. I’m giving The City of Magpies:


B+


(Measured against the series’ own standards. For context my marks so far would be:


S01

E01 Lyra’s Jordan:                  B

E02 The Idea of North            E

E03 The Spies                        C

E04 Armour                            C

E05 The Lost Boy                   C-

E06 The Daemon-Cages        B

E07 The Fight to the Death    C-

E08 Betrayal                           C+)

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