Well, it happened.
After six episodes the battle for the kidnapped children at Bolvangar finally went down, and while the children were freed by the Gyptians in an almost happy ending the episode as a whole was disappointing.
Now, being a major fan of Philip Pullman’s books, I’ve tried to look past all the minor issues of the show, like the lack of the constant presence of daemons due to budget limitations with CGI. But for an episode that we have been building to from the very start, the one that was supposed to be the very crux of action for the entire season, “The Daemon Cages” basically rushes through the major plot points to move the story along in a ‘let’s just get this over with’ sort of style that makes it pretty dull to watch.
We left Lyra last week being kidnapped and held in Bolvangar with a fake name, and even if we didn’t know where it was going from there it was alright because Lyra and Roger, who are arguably each other’s only family, were finally going to be reunited. Only that fell flat. While being the clever children they know they can’t acknowledge each other right away, but even when they steal a moment together it’s a quick “ good to see you” and then they are right back down to business, planning their imminent escape. Okay, cool, they’re in crisis after all.
But as the episode goes on there’s more and more of these should-be intense moments that are just resolved in a matter of seconds, like the girls in the dormitory trusting Lyra and willing to risk punishment for her after they specifically say they would trust no one. Granted they were hiding her from Mrs. Coulter, but even so, bonds like that don’t materialize instantaneously. When Lyra tells Roger about Billy’s death, it’s meant to be a heartbreaking realization for Roger and while Lewin Loyd offers a tear for his dead friend it’s off to the next task within seconds. Even the fight between the Gyptian crew and the tartar guards looks like some overly rehearsed play fighting at best and hardly qualifies as action.
Yet, despite these emotional blunders, perhaps the worst part of this episode was the various logistical flaws that disillusioned even the most die-hard of fans this episode. Seriously how did Lyra completely destroy the separator machine used to sever children from their daemons within seconds during the battle? And how did Lyra, Roger, and Mrs. Coulter, all run around and hide in this maximum-security prison by pressing themselves against a wall? Not to mention the fact that the battle was concluded when Seraphina dropped in and used her magical skills to attack the remaining tartars single-handed, which begs the question where are all the other witches? Like the ones working with the Magisterium that we heard about last episode? Did they just tap out of this defining battle?
His Dark Materials may be a fantasy series but the level to which we had to suspend our disbelief this episode makes it the worst in the season so far.
Though it’s worth noting that there were still some stellar performances this episode, particularly by Ruth Wilson. We saw Mrs. Coulter come to Lyra’s rescue from the daemon cages in the knick of time, followed by a seemingly emotional and heartfelt declaration of her love for Lyra, her devotion to protecting her, and her reasons for pursuing this method of research.
Of course, the whole effect is spoiled when Mrs. Coulter asks Lyra for the alethiometer and gives her a loyalty ultimatum, and while it was satisfying to watch Lyra throw that offer back in her face by tricking her into opening the spy fly and getting away, we still got some valuable information here. Namely, that the reason the Magisterium is interested in separating children from their daemons is to study Dust. The religiously rigid intentions of the Magisterium have been downplayed so far, but now we know that their interest in Dust has to do with their belief that Dust, and hence the daemons they are linked to, are what cause a person to develop complex feelings and emotions that will lead them to sin. Adults cannot be saved from it, only children who have yet to hit puberty and hence the kidnappings are actually meant to save these children from a life of sin.
Now messed up thinking aside, since the concept of Dust and its power literally define this series it was worth knowing this chain of thought and it will be useful in the next coming episodes as well as we see the tension between these parallel worlds grow. While this episode struck a sour note there are still some plots they’ve goaded us into that we need to see play out. Like Will watching old videos of his father and trying to understand what happened to him, completely unaware that Lord Boreal is stalking his home. There’s also Lyra’s next adventure with Iorek, Roger, and Lee, to rescue her father from the armored bears. Which, because she ended this episode by falling from Lee’s balloon, probably means it’s going to be far from a boring voyage. Let’s just hope they get the pay off and pace of the story right next time.