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His Dark Materials Discussion: 'Lyra's Jordan' introduces viewers to a wonderful new heroine

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Nov 5, 2019

There are some fandom hurts that go impossibly deep. The way Padmé died. The Hobbit films. Splitting Mockingjay into two films that ruined a perfectly serviceable book. But the film adaptation of Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the first in the trilogy His Dark Materials, is one cinematic wrong that felt impossible to right. Pullman's lyrical and challenging writing seemed to be too difficult to translate to film, so fans were left wondering if they would ever have a worthy take on Lyra Belacqua's journey onscreen.

So far, BBC and HBO's His Dark Materials is trying its damnedest. The new version of a controversial series premiered Sunday in the UK and Monday in the US, and the first episode, "Lyra's Jordan," is as faithful to the books as one could hope. Is there room to grow? Of course. Does it feel like showrunner Tom Hooper and co. might actually pull it off? Also, yes. We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer and we're here for all of the daemon magic they can throw at us.

Warning: This discussion contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 1 of His Dark Materials.

Credit: HBO

Life At Jordan College

Alyssa: As a fan of the books, I will admit that while all of the pieces of this project made me feel optimistic, I was still VERY NERVOUS watching this. I’ve been burned before! Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman were perfectly cast and The Golden Compass was still very bad! However, about five minutes into this episode, I was fully onboard. This is the adaptation that Lyra Belacqua deserves. They don’t really bother to ease you into things; they just throw you right into the flood. I like a fantasy series that takes its viewers seriously, and His Dark Materials does. Yes, James McAvoy is there walking around like the Ultimate Daddy, but you have to pay attention to the details.

Jessica: Hard agree. I too have seen the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s work and it was … not good. This show, however? Right off the bat, HBO is speaking to my brand of kink. We’ve got a soaking wet James McAvoy cradling a baby. That will never not be hot. I personally loved how this world was revealed as we went along. Voiceovers and title sequences often feel like unnecessary hand-holding. I respect that this show thinks more of its audience than that. So we meet a baby Lyra who’s been brought to Jordan College under scholastic sanctuary, which we’ll learn later has ties to the Magisterium (or the bad guys, if you’re new to this series). Baby Lyra’s got a destiny. It’s a whole thing.

Alyssa: So, in this particular world, humans have animal daemons that represent their souls and are their constant companions. I’ve never wanted anything more in my whole life. My dog is great, but we have limits to our soul connection. Did I get choked up seeing tiny baby Pantalaimon peeking out of Baby Lyra’s blanket? Yes, of course. It was absolutely too cute. So, Lyra and Pan grow up at Jordan College, and they basically run rampant through the streets. It’s great. In the books, Lyra is basically half-feral — disobeying orders, refusing to bathe, acting like an absolute rascal — and while the show still softens her edges a bit, she feels much truer to the book than previous adaptations.

Jessica: Lyra is a little menace and Pan is the most adorable CGI weasel to ever exist on television. Honestly, I was worried about how this show would pull off the whole daemon thing but between Pan and Lord Asriel’s snow leopard, Stelmaria, it looks like computer-generated talking animals are not gonna be a problem here. What is a problem is Lyra, who wreaks havoc at the school, regularly ditching her lessons and roping her poor pal Roger into exploring the mausoleum below Jordan College even though he’s told her he hates the sight of a decomposed corpse. Not cool, Lyra! While she’s been scaling the rooftops and living that uni life, Lord Asriel, her uncle, has been off exploring. You get the feeling pretty quickly that his no-nonsense vibe would’ve been a good influence on her if he’d managed to stick around.  

Credit: HBO

A Dangerous Discovery

Alyssa: I’m not sure I agree. Asriel is a flinty dude, and he isn’t particularly interested in raising a child. While they might be stuffy, I think Lyra was probably better off with The Master and The Librarian, tbh. But yes, Asriel is definitely a no-nonsense fellow, single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge. He’s been in The North, looking for potentially dangerous things, and he stumbles upon some troubling information that sends him back to Jordan College and into the uneasy arms of academia. You know the information is troubling because before he even settles in, The Master tries to poison him. With his favorite wine no less! Welcome home?

Jessica: The sheer gall! Asriel, who walks up into the school with Stelmaria serving some palpable BDE, could’ve kicked the bucket fairly early in this series if it weren’t for a misbehavin' Lyra spying on The Master. She saves her uncle, who rewards her with threats of breaking her arm and a night spent spying in a cramped cupboard. Their tense bickering and overall dynamic is hella toxic, but I also thoroughly enjoy seeing Dafne Keen go toe-to-toe with McAvoy and Lyra exasperate the hell out of her stuffy, self-righteous uncle.

Alyssa: It is indeed a rough dynamic, but certainly an enjoyable one to watch. What does it say about Asriel that his first thought at seeing Lyra wasn’t "Hello niece, how’re things?" but instead "Hey, I’m going to throw you on the table and then enlist you into a very dangerous mission while informing you that if you get caught I will not help you?" A lot of things, but most of them can be summarized with YIKES. After destroying the evidence of the attempted murder, Asriel gets to do a very familiar, boring academic thing that the show somehow makes pretty thrilling: defending his research! While in The North, Asriel has made a discovery about the mysterious substance known as Dust: adults attract Dust, while children do not.

Jessica: This show has already worked some kind of magic, because who knew a Powerpoint could be so thrilling? These old English puddings lost their minds when Asriel mentioned Dust and its attraction to adults, something the Magisterium has already supposed. You get the real sense that the academics at Jordan College both fear and rebel against the Magisterium’s influence. I’m getting major Middle Age Catholic Church tyranny vibes from those dudes. But back to the slideshow: Asriel’s also discovered that a better camera has allowed him to take pictures of an apparent rip through space/time, showing a hidden city in all that Dust up North. It’s enough to cause a panic amongst the dudes in robes. The word "heresy" is shouted a lot. Honestly, it's how I wish every class presentation we had in my high school history class had ended.

Alyssa: Yeah, where the movie (I promise I will stop comparing the two at some point!!) didn’t really get into the books’ tendency to criticize religion, the show is diving in right away if you know where to look. After screaming about the importance of academic freedom and heresy, the secret meeting clears up and Asriel almost forgets about Lyra hiding in the cupboard. At least Stelmaria is looking out! He takes her back to her room and sees how she clings to every bit of information from his travels, clearly hoping to go along with his someday. I think he feels a bit of paternal stirring but tamps it down because he’s a MAN and he has IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO.

Jessica: Damn those pesky FEELINGS! As refreshing as it was to see Asriel might actually have a heart beating inside that frozen chest, you just know Lyra’s pleas to join him on his next journey North are going unheard. Our girl deserves better than that cable-knit, leather-glove wearing hunk of man meat. He may be pretty, but he’s not worth your love, Lyra! And our fears are confirmed when Roger arrives to tell her Asriel is prepping his hot air balloon and he doesn't have any room for her on it. This whole scene was heartbreaking. I've never wished James McAvoy harm before but damn did I curse him loudly when Asriel callously leaves Lyra behind to go back to his research. Roger is right. She's special and he doesn't deserve her.

Credit: HBO

A Menacing Presence

Alyssa: While all of that is going on, we also get our first look at the Gyptians! A river people cast out from society, the Gyptians have a ceremony for their children when their daemon settles on their permanent form, showing that they’ve transitioned from child to adult. Matriarch Ma Costa is celebrating her son Tony’s big day with his hawk daemon, and it’s all a lovely spectacle. Until it’s not. After Tony whines to his mom about his brother Billy’s tendency to be his shadow, Billy gets grabbed by a mysterious man with a fox daemon. When Roger tells Lyra about this later, Lyra may brush it off, but Roger is certain it was the Gobblers. The name is a bit silly, but unsettling more than anything.

Jessica: Look, there’s truth to every child’s nightmare and the Gobblers are the real deal. A ton of Gyptian kids have been taken and Billy is just the latest. Once they realize he hasn’t just gotten lost around Oxford, the Gyptians mount up in their houseboats and sail for London, the ideal place to hide kidnapped children. And Lyra should’ve paid a bit more attention to Roger’s warning but she was distracted by the presence of, who else, Ruth F*cking Wilson! Or Ruth Wilson playing Mrs. Coulter. As terrific as Nicole Kidman was in the film version, Wilson feels born to play this part. She’s both terrifying and awe-inspiring as a female scholar/adventurer — at least, that’s how she introduces herself to Lyra — who turns heads with her blue velvet power suits and golden monkey daemon. We stan.

Alyssa: Lord, is there anything creepier than her silent daemon? Sure, the Ruth Wilson of it all is an alluring package, but that should have been a sign that something is not right. However, Lyra is so desperate for a little motherly affection and the feeling that she matters to someone that she is completely drawn in. I get it! This is the childhood equivalent of answering that 1 AM "u up?" text message. You know it will probably end badly, but maybe this time it won't! Lyra, I can tell you from experience, that it will always end badly. Even when you wrap it in velvet couture.

Jessica: Speak your truth, Alyssa, the girl needs to hear it. Unfortunately, The Master has approved Mrs. Coulter as Lyra’s new guardian — he rightly fears that the Magisterium will come knocking after Asriel’s little performance and worries for her safety. As Mrs. Coulter mesmerizes Lyra with her knowing smirk and promises of untold adventures as her new assistant, you get the feeling she’s got something darker planned for the kid. And when The Master sends Lyra off with an alethiometer, a truth-telling device only Lyra can operate that’s been banned by the Magisterium, and a promise not to trust anyone, you just KNOW these two are going to throw down at some point.

Alyssa: Oh, it is on. While she may not have mastered the alethiometer quite yet — screaming at it like it's Siri was #relatable — it's a good thing that Lyra has it because Roger and his daemon Salcillia are the latest to be taken by the Gobblers. How could anyone wish to harm that sweet boy?! As terrible as these circumstances are, they do put the epic quest into motion, so I can’t be too mad.

Jessica: Maybe the alethiometer is more like an Alexa? Lyra, honey, try screaming “Alexa!” first before asking your questions. Unfortunately, she can’t take the airship ride to London to figure it out because that silent monkey is already onto her. I do love the beginnings of a quest but, man, am I worried about our two little weasels (Lyra and Pan).

Credit: HBO

What’s Next

Alyssa: Cue me crying over "our two little weasels." I really respect how the showrunners didn't try to cram too much into the first episode, instead giving the world a little room to breathe. There is SO MUCH coming, and I can’t wait to see it unfold. I try and watch each episode one a week so I can keep things straight for these recaps, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to here. I’m ready for Lee Scoresby (even if I am skeptical of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s casting despite being a huge Lin stan), I’m ready for armored bears, I’m ready to see what Mrs. Coulter wears next. His Dark Materials isn’t exactly easy to digest, so I hope that they continue to slowly peel back the layers in a way that challenges viewers. Bring. It. On.

Jessica: Look, cast Lin in anything and I’m there. He’s a big fan of the books so I trust him to do it justice and maybe add a youthful spin on the character. Even though we know what’s coming, I'm excited for how this show is going to get us there. We’re already taking some risks, injecting a bit of flavor, and paying homage to the book series, so that’s a good sign. I need more Lyra and Mrs. Coulter drama — because you know there will be DRAMA between these two — and yes, those armored bears. Bring. On. The. Bears!

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.

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