Warning: spoilers ahead
This week’s installment of “His Dark Materials” blurs the line between human and daemon.
As the series’ conflict comes to a head with Lyra Belacqua’s (Dafne Keen) arrival in Bolvangar, each actor’s emotional range is on display from the first moment Lyra reunites with Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd). The sixth episode of the HBO production holds nothing back, playing every wild card in its arsenal, including stunning performances by child actors. While previous episodes highlighted the computer-generated imagery’s visual magnificence, this week’s episode hones in on the tension within relationships, resulting in an exemplary scene shared by Keen and Ruth Wilson.
But before arriving at the dramatic peak, the episode’s first half guides Lyra through Bolvangar’s maze of a compound. She is reunited with Roger in the initial scenes, and Keen’s performance that balances her longing to reach for him and the act of obedience she puts on for the compound’s nurses hints at the outstanding ones to come. But she also slowly pieces together the atrocities the Magisterium is committing with the children and their daemons.
This mystery unravels as Lyra and Roger stumble upon a room filled with eerily still children staring at the ceiling, eyes void of emotion and daemons missing from their sides. When those same daemons are discovered caged in a separate room, Lyra and Roger realize the Magisterium is kidnapping children in an attempt to sever them from their animal counterparts, a process called “intercision.”
This revelation becomes the episode’s backbone, especially as Mrs. Coulter (Wilson) herself arrives to check on the experiment’s process. However, she doesn’t realize Lyra has been the next child selected to test the Silver Guillotine, a machine built to cut humans from their daemons. When Mrs. Coulter walks in on her daughter screaming for her, the show is propelled into the strongest scene of the series.
After rescuing Lyra from the crude contraption, Mrs. Coulter shares her first mother-daughter moment with Lyra. But interaction is fraught with tension on both sides. Wilson’s performance is devastating, as her quivering lips and watering eyes portray a woman desperate for a connection with her daughter. As a villain, Mrs. Coulter’s character becomes infinitely more complex as she defends her actions as an attempt to save everyone from the sin of their daemons.
Her own struggle to preserve her ideals infuses “His Dark Materials” with a sense of timeliness because, despite the fantasy of it all, the show perfectly portrays the struggle between right and wrong that applies to the real world. Of course, Lyra remains the protagonist to root for as she plays her mother to a T, pretending to go along with the mother-daughter act until she is able to distract Mrs. Coulter for long enough to escape.
In the end, Lyra locks Mrs. Coulter in her own room, both screaming at each other from opposite sides of the same door. It’s a powerful moment for Lyra, her visceral howl embodying both the pain of a child without her mother and the triumph of a hero over a villain. Meanwhile, Wilson demonstrates her own skills with a shriek of anger that reflects the simian nature of her daemon, drawing out the ultimate irony – the woman who wants to separate children from their daemons is the one most connected to her own.
From that moment, the episode kicks off an epic battle as Lyra’s attempt to flee the compound with the other children is met with the invasion of Bolvangar by the Gyptians. In a moment when all looks lost for Lyra, Lin-Manuel Miranda takes his first shot of the series. His dramatic entrance is followed by Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) in full battle regalia taking swipes at the enemy. While the fight scene is not as intricately choreographed as other battles in the show, it manages to provide all the buildups and payoffs that come with the temporary defeat of the enemy.
However, the fight isn’t over yet as Lyra, Roger and Iorek are all found in the hot air balloon of Lee Scoresby (Miranda), traveling to free Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) from the paws of a polar bear king. But it wouldn’t be an HBO show unless it manages to end on a cliffhanger, and this episode’s might be the most astounding of them all as Lyra falls from the balloon, thousands of feet into the icy tundra below.
The moment evokes a sense of shock at both the cliffhanger and the network’s ability to utilize the strength of its actors, animators and battle choreographers. Previous episodes may have been bogged down by exposition and millions of unanswered questions, but this episode is a reminder that HBO is nothing if not a master of payoffs.
If Lyra survives her treacherous fall, one can only hope McAvoy will return to the screen for a powerful, show-stopping finale.