Part of the magic with television and storytelling, in general, is the way we come to care and deeply empathize we people we don’t know, with people who aren’t even real. Of course, when watching a high-stakes fantasy drama with an infinitely complicated fictional world this enchantment can become terribly inconvenient as the new His Dark Materials series is proving.
When episode three opens with Lyra bound and screaming in the back of a mysterious van we’re already on edge, and as our experience from the past two episodes has shown us, it’s probably going to get worse from here. Luckily, part of the charm of this new series is in the unsuspecting ways the story pivots from what we expect. We don’t have to watch this helpless child struggle for very long as the van is ambushed by a mysterious masked group and before we can distress at the newest band of bad guys the men recognize Lyra and a boy unveils himself to be Tony Costa and the other men to be part of his Gyptian community. Upon discovering Lyra they pack in whatever plans they had and head back to the Gyptian boats taking Lyra with them against her will.
Now to refresh your memory of episode two, Lyra literally just escaped from the hawk-like clutches of Mrs. Coulter, who it turns out is the queen of the child-kidnapping Gobblers, and now she is being shepherded along into the Gyptian camp by another group of adults she doesn’t know and doesn’t trust. As a child, she is understandably seriously distressed and acts out accordingly. Though Ma Costa and Farder Coram repeatedly warn her that it is not safe to go alone, Lyra wants to refuse every offer of protection from them. Clearly traumatized by the abuse and lies of Mrs. Coulter’s house,, Lyra has gone from a happy and curious child who trusted everyone to a cynical and yet very frightened young girl who feels completely alone.
Yet, it is only when the Magisterium authorities raid the Gyptian boats and Ma Costa manages to hide Lyra in the nick of time, that Lyra’s frustration and fear meet at their ultimate climax. Breaking away from the Gyptians after the coast is clear and running off, it’s clear Lyra’s fed up with the adults lying to her. She knows that Mrs. Coulter will never stop hunting her but she doesn’t know why and no one will tell her. Between losing Lyra’s trust forever and her overwhelming need to protect her Ma Costa chooses the former and finally tells her the truth everyone else has known and viewers have been guessing at since episode one: Mrs. Coulter is her mother.
After the truth bomb last episode about Lord Asriel being her father not her uncle, this devastating new revelation is another blow to young Lyra’s world. She thought she was in danger now but in fact, she has been in danger all her life. Her mother, Marisa Coulter, was married to another man, Edward Coulter, and when she had Lyra she tried to hide the baby from her husband but when he found out he was determined to hunt Lyra down and kill her. It was Asriel who wouldn’t let that happen. He fought Edward and, in the process of defending his child, killed the potential baby murder. Of course, the theocratic laws of this world frowned upon the affair, the love-child, and the second-degree murder and though Asriel wasn’t sent to prison he lost all of his property and assets as punishment. He lost everything for Lyra and put her in Jordan College for her own protection and now that childhood home is no longer safe either, as we see Mrs. Coulter breaks scholastic sanctuary to tear apart the college and question the master about Lyra’s whereabouts. All she can do now is stay with the Gyptians and Ma Costa, who was her wet nurse and genuinely wants to keep her safe and join their efforts to find the missing children in the North.
While she cant join the platoon out in the open just yet she finds her own way to contribute with the alethiometer. We were told that all scholars need special books and years of study to understand it, yet in this episode, we see that Lyra is gifted with an innate comprehension of the instrument and almost right away can decipher the mysterious symbols and ask questions. She uses it to check on Tony Costa and Benjamin who undertook a ridiculous plan to break into Mrs. Coulter’s house and steal her Gobbler plans for the facility in the North. After obviously being caught, Tony just barely scrapes away while Benjamin finds himself in Coulter’s clutches and chooses to throws himself down the elevator before she can torture him because things have gotten that cutthroat pretty quickly. As Asriel said in the first episode, a war has started, and Benjamin is the first casualty we know of and we’re certain he won’t be the last.
Speaking of, the Magisterium and their cronies seem to be setting up targets everywhere. Lord Carlo Boreal has transcended worlds into one that resembles our modern-day in his search for Grumman. Discovering that he originated from that world as Colonel John Parry he sets spies upon the wife and the son Grumman left in that world who book fans will recognize as Will Parry, the other protagonist of this series. In the books, Will doesn’t really make an appearance until part two of the series, The Subtle Knife, which according to initial reports, we weren’t planning on seeing until season two. But of course show runners don’t want the story to follow the series page by page and so we might get to see more of Will than we thought we would this season, a welcome change considering no other rendition of the series has even come close to that mark.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter is as mentioned on the hunt for Lyra. Besides destroying Jordan College and ripping up the blankets and sheets of Lyra’s bed, her plans for Lyra’s capture involve going rogue. In a scene in which she is clearly drunk and balancing on the edge of the terrace while her anxious monkey daemon watches, you almost feel bad for her. After all, this woman has lost her child not once but twice now. She even has one of Lyra’s dresses with her. But that sentiment lasts all of twelve seconds when she takes out a small box revealing what at first glance looks like some tacky red earrings but are actually spy flies. Illegal spy flies. After they get Lyra’s scent from the dress they speed off to track her and as we see by the very end of the episode they succeed. Meaning that Lyra and the Gyptians have to get moving North now before Mrs. Coulter can catch up with them. And just like that, the race is back on.
It’s a divided third episode with three major plots going on all at once, and except for the boat raids and breaking into Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, there’s less action than we’re used to in this episode. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This week’s episode was about laying the groundwork and revealing the relevant secrets for all the action coming up ahead. As far as TV shows go it’s still thrilling and for such a young actress, Dafne Keen plays an incredibly passionate Lyra. If nothing else, it was a satisfying, almost relaxing, episode that checked the mechanics of the story line off the show’s to-do list, but considering that episode four is about Lyra and the Gyptians making an alliance with the witches it’s fair to say we’ll be back on the edge of our seat next week.