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! Series spoilers included, though I try not to talk to directly about what's to come from the books.)
After a minor wobble last week, this episode felt really strong not just in itself but as a build upon previous episodes. That's something I didn't feel once in the first series but this series benefits from coming from The Subtle Knife's simpler more linear narrative than Northern Lights' quite episodic nature in the A-line. For a different writer the advantages would be the other way round but the writers (series writer Jack Thorne wrote this episode with Sarah Quintrell whose credits include Doctor Who and Call The Midwife) seem on much more confident ground with the story forms here. Another advantage is that the book The Subtle Knife included subplots whereas Northern Lights contains none, so the writing isn't having to make series subplots up whole cloth, something which led to a lot of the weakest points of series one.
But before I properly get into the writing, I just have to once again sing the praises of the production design, which is outstanding this series - both looking gorgeous and working hard. Cittagazze continues to play out fantastically, steering the atmosphere just right, and every location within Lee's travels was both fresh and perfect in its look and atmosphere. Joel Collins is absolutely the MVP of this series. He's not only doing his own job brilliantly, he's frequently carrying the storytelling van where the writing is weak too. Some of the praise undoubtedly belongs to the director too - this episode was directed by Leanne Welham who doesn't have many well-known credits yet but has jobs across shows like Endeavour and Coming Up and directed the TV film The Trial of Christine Keeler.
Will and Lyra
This was never my favourite part of the story in the books. Lyra's compounding mistakes feeling a little too unfounded in her character and a little too pushed to allow Will to be the manly, competent hero. I think the series sells it all a little better, if only in that Will is here is a softer, less certain, less angry character so Lyra's sudden cluelessness feels less like 'chickification'.
On the other hand, the series does fiddle away some of the sense of motivation around Lyra's decisions.
In the book, the alethiometer tells her she must help Will and she ignores that advice and pursues her own ends, which leads her into trouble. Then she has to admit all that to Will. It's a better character moment because it has Lyra behave wrongly, then deals her a consequence she has to deal with by correcting her behaviour.
In the series though she has already accepted the instruction to help Will and told him about it, and so her decision to go off on her own feels less strongly motivated defiance and more of a side-quest invented only in order to land her in trouble.
Also on the bad side, Will still very much feels like he is hanging around twiddling his thumbs until his mission drops into his lap.
His story is going to finally get off the ground, presumably, next week. But the worst thing you could probably say about this episode is it puts the nail in the coffin of 'did they manage to pull off introducing Will early?' Because no, they didn't ultimitely. Having already stretched the early part of Will's story very thinly over the first series, he has been left with nothing to do for the first three episodes of this one and that's not an insignificant failing.
So the Lyra and Will stories this episode were solid in themselves (which sounds like faint praise but honestly 'solid character story' is much more than the first series tended to achieve) though they did confirm overall weaknesses in the handling of Will. That continues the writing we've seen for their storyline this series on a very even keel which is nice in itself.
But what elevates this episode is that for really the first time, some of the subplots felt like they were properly engaging and earning their place.
I haven't been sold on Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby from the start and he's never going to be someone I consider a great casting choice (much as I admire his work), but I thought he finally came alive as a character in this episode, and captured some of that delightful adventure-novel spirit which makes him so fantastically readable in books like The Subtle Knife and Once Upon a Time in The North, both of which informed his story-line in this episode.
My complaint would be that whatever else this writing/performance manages to capture it does not include the streetwise competence of book-Lee. Book-Lee is reckless and gets in over his head, but he's never a fool. This Lee falls for traps easily, fails to read the room, and in a gunfight doesn't duck for cover. Mrs. Coulter ends up freeing him because, she says, she wants him to protect Lyra if he finds her. But this Lee can't protect himself.
And not unrelatedly, his relationship with Hester continues to feel vague. In the book/s they would acknowledge to each other when something felt like a trap; she'd advise him in a fight, and so on. If they were having those exchanges in the series it would help you to see that Lee isn't a rube - he's just moving in very dangerous territory.
The scene where Lee does manage to switch up the power dynamic was compelling. In a powerless position, captured by the Magisterium and interrogated by Mrs. Coulter, he manages to use his vulnerability and empathy as strength, making Mrs. Coulter see herself in him and recognise her violence for the weakness that it is. That's a good scene in itself, it just feels like that insight into Lee's character and the idea that he operates best in a one-on-one beat-down like this. I'm not going to spoil the book too exactly, but suffice to say this scene doesn't appear to inform any o the territory we're working towards or Lee.
There was little of the Magisterium this week which is great because I do not think the series is doing anything good there. Like Myles McNutt put it in his review: "the Magisterium story (has gone) from "mostly disinteresting" to "stuck in my craw"".
And likewise we only got a bit of the aftermath of last week's lack-lustre and vague witch bombing. None of that makes any more sense or registers more this week, but it was mercifully brief and brought Iorek Byrnison back in.
It has felt a bit odd how big a part he was on series one only to disappear so complete in series two. Of course the series is following the book, but the series also has a broader sweep subplot-wise and so it feels conspicuous not to be seeing the bears. Also, we had a sense of Iorek's continued place in Lyra's inner life, sense of identity and how she relates to Will in the book and it feels like that's a ball that's been dropped here.
I like Mary Malone's scenes a lot as they really did seem to carry the questions set up by Lyra's visit forward with good momentum. I was amused by how the show suddenly came to life in a way it never usually quite is in the first scene in Mary's house. It's a small, domestic scene with a little bit of funny banter that gives you a sense of the familial relationships. That is Jack Thorne's wheelhouse and much as I think he's doing a lot better, seeing a bit of the kind of writing he's actually good at does throw into relief how very out of his depth he can be in the 95% of this series that isn't lighthearted and mundane kitchen scenes.
Err... Paddington I guess
Finally, in a sentence I never expected to be writing in a His Dark Materials review, I wasn't entirely fond of the Paddington Bear cameo.
Now, I adore the Paddington movies. But I think as an inclusion here they are a tellingly shallow and meaningless choice, in a place where something really informative could have been plugged in.
As I've mentioned before at a screener/Q&A I went to in which the chief creatives fielded questions, a few questions were around the subject of where besides the books the writer and producers looked for wider inspiration and information in the adaptation process? Perhaps they went back to sources that inspired His Dark Materials in the first place, like Milton's Paradise Lost and Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience? Perhaps they looked at previous adaptations like the stage version and the Golden Compass film to examine in what ways those succeeded and failed? The answer came back again and again that 'we just kept going back to the books'.
I do perceive an incurious, unimaginative tone to the series adaptation of His Dark Materials. That definitely doesn't include the production design for which I think Joel Collins is doing sterling work artfully drawing from all sorts of reference points and filming influences to convey a deep and precise sense of each location and scene. But in terms of decisions like this, which belong to the writing and production...
The use of Paddington is just one of those things which make it feel like the chief creatives don't have much going on their brains with this adaptation. No rich pool of reference points, inspirations and influences. Paddington has absolutely nothing to say to His Dark Materials as far as I can think, and if it does it's nothing that was epxressed here. Really I don't think it occurred to the creatives that they should be expressing anything. It's just a cute nod. And that would be fine if it were a blink-and-you'll miss it background choice. But Paddington is really lingered on and we're forced to feel like we're meant to be struck by some entirely superficial notes which don't mean anything.
We don't have to look further than Dafne Keen's own filmography to see how a secondary film reference can be used really strongly. In Logan the inclusion of clips and dialogue from the Western Shane told us a great deal. It gave us an understanding of what genre to read Logan by and therefore how to pitch our expectations and what themes to look out for. It made available a shorthand for a whole range of emotions and themes. At the end (spoilers), young Laura recites lines from Shane over Logan's grave and this quoted elegy tells us perhaps more and works on more levels than original dialogue could do.
His Dark Materials doesn't need a whole other film to be brought in like that, but there's a thousand films which could bring out a thousand different character, thematic and/or relationship beats.
E.g. though the cinema is just a convenient hiding place for Will and Lyra, the circumstances frame it a little like a first date. So there are romantic film moments that could be used to play of that. Look at how the film Atonement uses the Jean Gabin film Quai de Brumes to illustrate the tensions at play.
That could be played in all sorts of ways, from a moment of earnest romance of the kind that might appeal to young teens (e.g. Han and Leia) making the kids blush or something (e.g. a Disney kiss) making them sneer.
Or alternatively you might like to highlight the religious/anti-religious territory at play. It might be interesting to see some Wings of Desire.
It might be nice to see Lyra's emotions brought out, her homesickness and grief over Roger, by using a film with Arctic landscapes, like The Great White Silence. It might be useful to bring back imagery from the first series to enforce that sense of underlying continuity, by having Lyra gaze as shots of the aurora borealis.
It might just be funny to blast Lyra with spectacle, and have a cute 'fish out of water', innocent 'whoah' take, and make the film The Lord of The Rings or something. Even that would be more pitched for story effect than Paddington.
There's so many story things you can do with a film clip. And instead the series goes for this really meaningless reference.
I mean, see what they're saying with the chosen shots. Clearly the idea is that these clips (the first is of Mr. Brown and Paddington talking, and the second is of Paddington stepping through a shimmering 'window' into a daydream) would look to Lyra and Pantalaimon a bit like their own experiences. The talking bear looks a bit like he might be Mr. Brown's daemon and would also remind her of Iorek, and the daydream effect looks like a window.
But.. so what? Can we infer what Lyra (or Pantalaimon) makes of that? She doesn't seem to have any particular confusion or feeling about it.
We can't guess what seeing these moments is telling Lyra because they're not chosen for any real resonance, just because if you take them in isolation and squint a bit, there are moments which look like HDM, which is... funny I guess?
But it's not really a gag, either. As I say there's no clear reaction from out characters which might make this a gag. If Pantalaimon reacted to Paddington's Hard Stare working its magic on Mr. Brown with a line like 'I have to learn that', then it would be a gag. If Lyra looked at Paddington and said, "Talking bears are nothing like that." and Will reacted with a ?? face, that would be a gag.
As it is, it's just kind of nothing. A 'yay British film industry!' shout-out taking up space where a different clip could be doing something great. Paddington also kind of breaks the tone and fantasy of HDM rather because it belongs to such a different kind of whimsy/fantasy but invites comparison between the CGI on the cinema screen and the CGI on our screens in the form of Pantalaimon (they are both created by Framestore).
I do know there will be rights reasons that they can't use just any film, and I don't resent Framestore celebrating their own work, but the moment super clangs for me.
Despite the Paddington misstep, I really rated this episode and would give it:
(Measured against the series’ own standards. For context my marks so far would be:
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+
E01 The City of Magpies B+
E02 The Cave C)