After three episodes, His Dark Materials seems to finally be getting more of its footing when it comes to Lyra. After escaping Mrs. Coulter’s penthouse only to be captured by the gobblers in the last episode, “The Spies” opens up with Lyra getting saved by Tony Costa and a bunch of young Gyptians.
Her time spent with the Gyptians gives Dafne Keen a little more time to settle into Lyra than what we previously saw. From playful and wild to docile and uninterested, the past two episodes have pendulum from one version to another, neither feeling entirely like the Lyra Silvertongue we know and love.
Brought in front of John Faa and Farder Corum, Lyra has a contentiousness with the Gyptians that feels odd for someone who essentially grew up among their people. However, both John Faa and Farder Corum are quick to offer her help and let her know that they are on her side. I especially enjoyed getting to know the Gyptians more in this episode, and while the Gyptians chant was a little cringy for me, their development was eagerly embraced.
Notably, Ma Costa finally seems to show something more than just the mourning mother stereotype. She shows the bit of fire in her that impresses Lyra and is easily seen as a stronger maternal figure than Mrs. Coulter. She’s warm, kind, honest, and protective of Lyra.
She is the one who reveals Mrs. Coulter as her mother and discloses the backstory of how Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel met, fell in love, and conducted an illicit affair under the nose of Mrs. Coulter’s late husband. This dramatic telling was originally told by Lord Faa and Farder Corum in the books and done far better now in the television show. Especially given the fact that Ma Costa admits that if they had let her, she would have taken Lyra in as her own daughter.
It’s these moments of seeming strangers showing kindness and a familial bond with Lyra that adds a strong touch of heart in a rather dark story.
However, although she is safe with the Gyptians, her presence is not necessarily welcomed by the general population. When the Magisterium gets wind that Lyra might be with the Gyptians and starts ordering their police to invade the Gyptian boats and destroy the homes looking for her, the Gyptians are fairly outraged.
In the book, Lord Faa reasons with the Gyptians by reminding them that Lyra is Lord Asriel’s daughter and that he has been a continuous champion for the Gyptians and gaining them rights. Protecting his daughter only seems right. But in the show, that seems to be moving a little further away from the political aspect of the story, diverts this speech in favor of giving Lyra a chance to speak.
While the speech is dramatic, it shows a version of Lyra we haven’t seen before. One that isn’t afraid of a crowd of people, one that is willing to fight back. It’s a glimmer of the real Lyra that we’ll grow to love. Her speech inspires the Gyptians and they agree with Lord Faa’s decision to go to the far north and get help from the witches to rescue their children.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter, outraged that she has lost Lyra, tears Jordan College apart looking for her, assuming she has run away. She learns from the Master of the College that he has given Lyra the alethiometer. We see in “The Spies” a lot of the inner rage and anger that Mrs. Coulter possesses. From tearing apart Lyra’s room to viciously hurting Benjamin and his daemon, beneath that cool and charismatic exterior is someone who is furious and slightly unhinged.
Again, I’m here to applaud Ruth Wilson. Her version of Mrs. Coulter is truly magnetic. Scenes of her shakily balanced walk on the edge of her apartment terrace and her tearful outrage when Benjamin kills himself are masterclasses in balancing the kaleidoscope of emotions Mrs. Coulter must constantly have.
It’s interesting to consider the distance Mrs. Coulter has with her daemon in these scenes and the previous episodes. When Farder Corum and Lyra talk about their daemons settling, Farder Corum says, “It will reveal what kind of person you really are.” And when Lyra asks what happens when your daemon settles as something you don’t like, Farder Corum postulates that it could be that you are discontent with who you are.
While Mrs. Coulter doesn’t necessarily reveal any dislike in her daemon’s form, the fact that she strikes it angrily, that she can be so far separated from it, and that the two of them seem to have a contentious relationship shows an inherent dislike of your inner self. It could hint an internal betrayal or simply deep imbalance.
In light of the loss of Lyra, she wakes up her illegal spy-flies (a tracker made of dark magic and evil souls) and watches them fly off as they chase down their target. When they find Lyra, she manages to catch one of them while the other flies away. Captured in a tin, Ma Costa notes that the spy fly, for better or for worse, is a symbol of her mother’s desperation to getting her back. Which is exactly the kind of insight that I love from her.
As the Gyptians decide to travel north, Tony Costa and Benjamin sneak into Mrs. Coulter’s apartment to get details about her intentions with the children. This heist ultimately ends tragically, with Mrs. Coulter capturing Benjamin (with some surprising martial arts) and Benjamin jumping to his death to prevent from being tortured.
Benjamin’s fate is equally revealed to Lyra by her alethiometer, which we finally get to see her read. One of the strongest parts of “The Spies” is us finally learning more about the alethiometer and Lyra’s unique skill in being able to read it. She lets her mind go blank and the arrow of the device starts to move.
After positioning the three arrows to the symbols that represent her question, she realizes that Benjamin has died and surprises Farder Corum with her ability to master a device that typically takes ages and requires the aid of books to decipher the symbols.
Then, we have Lord Boreal. He drives his villainous black Tesla to his other world contact’s house and finds out the identity of Grumman. This is a bold move for the show, since this reveal is placed halfway through the second book: The Subtle Knife, long after we meet and know the character of Will Parry, John Parry’s son.
Regardless, we meet John Parry, played by Andrew Scott. You might know him as James Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock or the hot priest from Fleabag. The plot thickens with these characters, but I still disapprove of this storyline being implemented so soon. It seems to be taking away a lot of the big reveals of the second book. It also feels fairly unnecessary when there are so many other storylines happening. It feels like only a matter of episodes that we’ll be meeting Will Parry.
While I’m very unsure about this subplot, I do really enjoy the direction “The Spies” has taken in this episode. Although we haven’t seen much of Lyra and her superhuman ability to lie to anyone, getting to see her speak up and learn to use the alethiometer is a decent trade-off.