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Credit: BBC

His Dark Materials Discussion: 'The Spies' plays with the source material for a huge reveal

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Nov 19, 2019

Adapting a beloved film series for the screen is always a tricky gamble, and sometimes creative liberties have to be taken in order to make something literary into something cinematic. Sometimes that goes well, and other times it ends in a mess that leaves book readers gnashing their teeth. His Dark Materials is managing to walk the line successfully while being faithful, but not slavish, to the source material. Episode 3, "The Spies," features the biggest departure so far — introducing the Parry family much earlier in the story — but honestly, it works. Sowing the seeds for John and Will Parry is a smart move, and will definitely increase their impact when they fully arrive.

"The Spies" continues to peel back the layers of Lyra's birth and upbringing, and with each new reveal we're more concerned for our girl's mental and emotional state. Give the child a break!

We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer, and we're here to discuss creepy daemons, love affairs gone horribly wrong, and whether or not spy flies are an effective means of recon.

Warning: This discussion contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 3 of His Dark Materials.

Credit: BBC

A Gyptian Welcome

Alyssa: While Lyra seemed to be in rather dire straits at the end of the last episode, she luckily was saved almost immediately. After jostling around in the Gobblers' van, she just so happened to be found by Tony Costa and the Gyptians! In their desperation to find the lost children, they stumble upon Lyra as they get closer and closer to their goal. They take Lyra (and a Gobbler for questioning) back to the Gyptian ships and she finally gets a moment to breathe and some clothes that are a little less cute but a lot more practical. Ma Costa is awfully mad that Tony was off doing man stuff when he's still so young and she just lost Billy, but he informs her that they're closer than ever to finding the lost kids. Being a mom seems absolutely terrible on this show, tbh.

Jessica: There really is no win in that department, but I'd much rather have Ma Costa looking out for me than Mrs. Coulter (silk jammies aside). Lyra isn't happy to be cooped up on a boat. She still doesn't trust adults, and honestly, who could blame her. But she's definitely more suited to life on the water, with the Gyptians who are holding tugboat rallies trying to devise a plan to get back their stolen children, than in a penthouse wearing petticoats and having tea. At least she can run in those overalls y'all. And run she does, especially when she confronts Ma Costa about the secrets the Gyptians seem to still be keeping from her. This whole "you're not old enough to understand" business is hella irritating and it seems to permeate everything from the business of daemon settling to Lyra's parentage.

Alyssa: TO BE FAIR, Lyra's parentage is hella complicated. Ma Costa does her best to encourage Lyra to be independent — "You'll be whatever you want to be. Your path, your choice, yours alone" — while also shielding her from some of the worst stuff that the Magisterium wants from her. But all of the kitchen tricks in the world aren't enough to keep Lyra completely safe. Childhood is slipping away at this point, for more than just Lyra. Benjamin gets the Gobbler to tell him that they are taking the children North, but they don't have anything else to go on than that. Benjamin wants to get the plans from Mrs. Coulter's apartment, but before he can make his case for this extreme action, the Magisterium shows up trying to find Lyra. I know we've talked about Mrs. Coulter's creepy monkey daemon, but the Magisterium search dogs also gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Jessica: Unlawful search and seizures are always terrifying but add daemon bloodhounds to the mix and they're pure nightmare fuel. The Gyptians do a good job of hiding Lyra but the close call really has her spooked. She doesn't feel safe with anyone at this point, and Ma Costa recognizes that so she extends a bit of an olive branch by revealing more about Lyra's past. A hell of a lot more. While the news that Asriel is her dad was a bit of a shock, it's nothing compared to the reveal that Mrs. Coulter is actually her mother. It makes sense, considering how weirdly affectionate the woman was with Lyra, but when Ma Costa breaks it all down, Lyra's backstory is just heartbreakingly tragic.

Alyssa: Super tragic. Asriel and Mrs. Coulter fell in love, made a baby, and surprisingly, her husband wasn't happy about it. Asriel ended up killing Edward Coulter in a duel (I assume), and he was stripped of all his lands and titles. Mrs. Coulter became a social pariah, and baby Lyra was handed over to a Gyptian nurse (Ma Costa, coming in clutch again) before she was passed on to a nunnery and then eventually whisked away by Ariel to Jordan College during the Great Flood. Honestly, I would read another book/watch another season of TV just to get to see all this backstory fleshed out. THE DRAMA!

Jessica: Right?! Why didn't we start with love affairs and duels to the death?! Alas, we'll have to take Ma Costa's word for it that the love triangle was as juicy as it sounds because Lyra's got bigger problems than dead-beat parents who couldn't keep it in their pants and questions of daemons settling that only bring shifty answers from "wiser" adults. She's got a mom who's gone full batsh*t and will stop at nothing to find her. Lyra, honey, untie one of those rowboats and sail off for a new world. Or at the very least, a new continent in your own world.

Credit: BBC

Proof of Desperation

Alyssa: Full on bats*** is correct. After Lyra escapes, Mrs. Coulter heads to Jordan College and immediately begins destroying what I'm sure is the Master's meticulous book organization system. She wants to know why Lyra is so important and whether or not they're hiding her, but the Master basically tells her to pound sand because she's the one who lost her. While she's antagonizing him, she says this about academic sanctuary: "it's just another way to protect bloated privilege. Tired old me talking in a tired old way about tired old things." Listen. I know the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter and evil and they're definitely not going to talk about things in a good and progressive way, but this is not a bad point. Even a broken clock gets the time right occasionally.

Jessica: Honestly, I couldn't concentrate on a word she was saying while she was ripping those pages out of, what I'm sure, is a first edition book. Her thugs trashed hundred-year-old tomes, she burned perfectly good novels, it was all too much for me to handle. Talk about heresy. She ends up finding proof of law-breaking at the college though when she discovers some old texts that apparently explain how to read alethiometers, which are forbidden. They've all be confiscated by the Magisterium which means they have to be pretty powerful. And when Mrs. Coulter discovers Lyra's in possession of one? Whew, I'm surprised she didn't burn the whole place to the ground. She did go home, get drunk, and tightrope walk her balcony though so yeah, still an overreaction.

Alyssa: As someone deathly afraid of heights, I did not understand her willingness to stroll drunk along her balcony, but who am I to tell her how to live her life? She throws her insane tantrum destroying Lyra's room to such a degree that she even disturbs her monkey daemon, and then decides to take matters into her own hands since the Magisterium aren't happy with her behavior and also unable to find Lyra amongst the Gyptians, so she sends out a pair of spy flies to find Lyra herself. But yes, even though she is fabulously dressed as ever, Mrs. Coulter is Not Well™.

Jessica: And to prove just how off the deep end she's jumped, Mrs. Coulter breaks the literal law by employing the use of those pesky robot flies imbibed with some kind of evil tracking spirit, to find her estranged daughter. They sniff Lyra's dress and then head to where the Gyptians are docked, deciding how and when they should fight back (with Lyra's help). But because the only clue they have to where the Gobblers are taking the children is "up North," Tony and his pseudo-guardian Benjamin sneak off in the night to pay Mrs. Coulter a visit. They want those maps and plans Lyra was telling everyone about and they almost get them after breaking into Mrs. Coulter's fabulous digs and rummaging through her desk. I say almost because Lyra forgot to tell them about the monkey in the vents and, well, you can guess what happens next.

Alyssa: Unfortunately, their mission goes as badly as it could possibly go. While they are able to find the plans that Lyra told them about, that damned monkey launches himself out of the vent and raises the alarm. While Tony is able to escape through Lyra's bedroom with the list of snatched children, Benjamin isn't so lucky. This whole fight between him and Mrs. Coulter is such a great way to further establish what a threat she is. She is a surprisingly formidable fighter, who gets Benjamin flat on his back with some insanely weird punches that seem to do the trick. Between her absolute lack of remorse or shame over hurting him and her monkey's tightening grip on Benjamin's hawk daemon's throat, this was never going to be a fair fight.

Jessica: It's strangely terrifying watching Mrs. Coulter do her monkey jujitsu on poor Benjamin. It's hard to discern her human nature from her daemon nature. She was entirely animalistic with him in terms of physicality, but she was coldly calculating while she held him hostage and threatened unimaginable pain on him as her daemon held his by the throat. Benjamin knows he's not getting out of this alive but he refuses to give up Ma, Lyra and the rest of the Gyptians so he throws himself down the elevator shaft and his daemon turns to Dust. And, strangest of all, back at the Gyptian boatyard, Lyra is able to "see" this happen because, surprise surprise, she's figured out how to read the alethiometer.

Alyssa: Yep, despite Farder Coram telling her that it would take her years of study to learn how to read the alethiometer, Lyra starts to crack it. If I hear even a whisper of "Mary Sue," I will physically fight someone. Tony returns and confirms that Lyra was correct and he hands over the list of children to Ma. The list is even longer than they knew, so they're heading vaguely North in a desperate attempt to save these kids.

Credit: BBC

Boreal's Mission

Jessica: While the Gyptians are rowing North, Lord Boreal's got his own mission that probably isn't sanctioned by the Magisterium. After he goes to bat for Mrs. Coulter, justifying her raid of the college, he heads back through the portal because ... coffee, yo. He seems pretty shocked to find a boot on his car which makes me really start to question his ability to operate a motor vehicle. Anyone with a working knowledge of traffic laws would know those windshield tickets were really piling up. This was the logical next step. He finds a way around it though and heads to the country to meet with his associate who's been researching the long-lost explorer everyone seems obsessed with at the moment and, guys, it's Hot Priest! Praise Jesus, Mary, AND Joseph for giving me a pixelated photo of Andrew Scott in a Colonel's outfit. I now have another version of the man to lust over.

Alyssa: HOT PRIEST IS JOHN PARRY. The decision to bring in Parry, who isn't really a part of this story until A Subtle Knife in the books, is an interesting narrative choice and a fun easter egg for book readers, honestly. I figured he would pop up with the reveal of Boreal passing between the worlds (another thing from book two), but I was still delighted all the same. The references to Will too? I died. I love Will Parry and cannot WAIT to see him onscreen. But I digress. Andrew Scott is here, at least in pictorial form. It is good. However, the situation with Boreal is bad. He's on a mission, and this is not a man to be trusted.

Jessica: Right, once we get over the glee of seeing Hot Priest back on our screens, we realize that Boreal searching for him is NOT GOOD. Worse, John Parry has been missing for a while. He comes from our world, crossed over into Boreal's, and may have picked up a daemon on the way? It's all very confusing for Boreal, and unheard of, which makes him even more eager to find Parry. And he's going to do that by keeping tabs on Parry's mentally ill wife and young son. Will Parry is, unequivocally, the best, and I was happy to get a glimpse of him as well. God help Boreal if he harms a hair on Will (or Hot Priest)'s head. I will burn this place to the ground, Alyssa!

Alyssa: It's a real concern! However, our more immediate worry is for Lyra. One of the spy flies made it back to Mrs. Coulter and Boreal and they were pretty damn delighted by the news that Lyra was found. I'm not 100% sure how they interpreted the spy fly's message, but the details don't matter. Despite the Magisterium's failure, they now know that Lyra is with the Gyptians and will soon realize that they're heading North. This is bad!

Credit: BBC

What's Next

Jessica: Very, very bad. I do hope though that this means we're finally heading North. It's what Lyra's wanted for 12 f*cking years, and what I've wanted since this show started. Heading North means we might hook up with some witches, fly on some steampunk airships, meet those talking bears everyone's been waiting for. It's all very exciting stuff and I would very much like for Mrs. Coulter and her damn flies to stay in London, thank you.

Alyssa: Exactly. Heading North only means exciting for Lyra, and by extension us, so the sooner they get there, the better. Bring on the witches. Bring on the armored bears. Bring on Lin-Manuel Miranda. I've enjoyed these first three episodes immensely, but I am desperate to meet Iorek. Enough teasing! Get to the main event!

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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