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‘His Dark Materials’ season 1 recap – episode 3: ‘The Spies’

(courtesy of Alex Bailey/HBO)

"The Spies"

Directed by Dawn Shadforth

Nov. 18

By Paige Hua

Nov. 18, 2019 10:00 p.m.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Every show has its fillers – thankfully, the third episode of “His Dark Materials” balances it with suspense and intrigue.

The previous episode ended on the season’s first cliffhanger, with the Gobblers kidnapping Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen). However, rather than focusing on the possible stakes of her disappearance, this week’s episode feels like a game of chess – slow and strategic – as each character is positioned to go North. The interactions among characters feel less organic and some scenes fall prey to the lethargic pacing of talking heads, especially as Lord Carlo Boreal meanders in our world, making little progress on his larger mission.

Instead of large, sweeping plot devices that push the story forward, the majority of the episode concerns itself with minute details, planting seeds that promise later payoffs. However, the filler episode is saved by its notes of extreme suspense and powerful displays of character by the show’s supporting actors.

After Lyra’s rescue from the Gobblers by the Gyptians, viewers are introduced to the strongest character of the episode, Benjamin De Ruyter (Simon Manyonda). Manyonda isn’t afforded much screen time, but he is given the most heart-wrenching beats of the episode. Benjamin is easy to love and hard to say goodbye to as he asserts himself as both a leader of the Gyptians and friend to Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson) and Lyra. But in his sacrifice for his family, one can’t help but wish for him to be given more time to develop into a likely fan favorite.

[Related: ‘His Dark Materials’ season 1 review – Episode 2: ‘The Idea of North’]

What becomes more apparent with Benjamin’s death, however, is Mrs. Coulter’s viciousness. Having attacked Benjamin with simian skill, the mystery around Mrs. Coulter’s identity coils tighter and tighter, the line between her and her daemon blurring. And the mystery only deepens when Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) reveals Lyra’s history.

Suddenly, Lyra is forced to grapple with not only Lord Asriel being her father, but Mrs. Coulter being her biological mother and Ma being her childhood nurse. One thing’s for certain: “His Dark Materials” continuously proves itself to be the master of plot twists.

But in the aftermath of Lyra’s discoveries, her relationship with Ma blossoms. As someone who grew up without a mother figure, Lyra’s small moments with Ma are capable of melting even the coldest of hearts. In the middle of teaching Lyra some Gyptian tricks, Ma reminds Lyra of a truth every young girl should hear – that her path in life is one she chooses.

That one line alone sets up a sense of foreshadowing as this episode provides the long-awaited awakening of the alethiometer. As Lyra uses it for the first time to unearth what has happened to Benjamin, the alethiometer spins to life in a golden hue of light. Masterfully shot and edited, the scene invites viewers further into the world imagined by HBO.

[Related: Q&A: Actor and puppeteer discusses unique experience of portraying a monkey on HBO]

But Lyra’s newfound talent also comes with some odd decisions. Despite the headmaster of Jordan College emphasizing the importance of keeping the alethiometer a secret, Lyra shows it to Farder Coram (James Cosmo) and shouts about it on the decks of the Gyptian ships. And when Mrs. Coulter comes to destroy the libraries of Jordan College in her hunt for Lyra, it takes no coercion for the headmaster to tell Mrs. Coulter that the compass is in Lyra’s hands.

Soon enough, the alethiometer will be the worst kept secret in the entire show.

Despite the episode’s shortcomings, “His Dark Materials” places its chess pieces in positions that are sure to promise future excitement. After all, Mrs. Coulter remains the show’s largest enigma, and with the move up North, the long-awaited polar bears are sure to make an appearance. However, HBO’s testament of skill will lie in its next episode. After all, the trailer for next week’s installment teased the entrance of Lin-Manuel Miranda, but given his well-known cheeky attitude, it remains to be seen how the network will be able to transform him into a darker character.

While slower than its predecessors, the third episode feels like the calm before the storm. Or maybe, in this case, a blizzard.

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Paige Hua | Arts senior staff
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
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