“You’ll be whatever you want to be.”
After Lyra was taken by the Gobblers at the end of last week’s episode, it was understandable to assume she’d spend the first act this week trying to escape from whatever plans they had for her. Instead, thanks to the Gyptian team searching for their kidnapped children, her captivity is shorter than the show’s opening credits. Though such an expedient escape drains some of the tension from Lyra’s ordeal, “The Spies” has a more important role to fill, unveiling Lyra’s past and emphasizing her importance in what’s to come, all the while never giving up what awaits our protagonists in the North.
From the onset, His Dark Materials has refused to handhold its audience. On the subject of daemons, very little is known, other than the sacred relationship they share with their human companions. “The Spies” adds another drop into this bucket of mystery when Farder Coram (James Cosmo, Braveheart, Game of Thrones) talks to Lyra about Pan’s eventual settling. She balks at the idea Pan will need to settle as Coram gives us a better understanding of the relationship between a daemon’s final form in relation to the human companion. Based on his short spiel, this is a subconscious act that can’t be influenced by the conscious will.
And yet, as the series continues to push the idea of Lyra’s unique nature, she (and Pan) could be the one that breaks the natural order of things. She was able to read the alethiometer on instinct, an act that warned of Benjamin’s death. As the focal point though, Dafne Keen seems to really be hitting her stride. The anger and fear she exudes when challenging Ma Costa after nearly being discovered by the Magisterium police include multiple layers of emotions. She even injects a much-needed fire in an otherwise droll speech by John Faa (Lucian Msamati, Black Earth Rising, Taboo) to his fellow Gyptians. There’s a reason she was so beloved in Logan and the emotional range she explored in that movie, it’s becoming clear this is a very talented young woman, a must-have when those playing your parents are James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson.
Continuing on the daemon/companion angle, Mrs. Coulter’s display of animal savagery adds even greater weight to Farder Coram’s theory. Since her introduction, she’s shown an almost uncontrollable rage wanting so desperately to be unleashed. But it’s not just rage; there’s an instability that hints at an unfathomable melancholy. Some of this may be the scars of a painful history, as Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff, Shameless, Suffragette) shares the truth of Mrs. Coulter’s relationship with Lyra; she’s the girl’s mum.
This comes as no surprise to book readers or even those who read into the fiery resentment the woman harbored towards Asriel. Considering her daemon had most likely settled before the darkness her affair with Asriel brought into her life, it suggests that she’s always carried in her that potential of violence and fury. Her actions against Benjamin that mirror what she perpetrated against Lyra. “The Spies” further emphasizes Mrs. Coulter’s unrelenting focus to obtain her goals, refusing to bend and those in her path—be it the scholars of Jordan College, the Magisterium itself, even her own daughter—are not safe from this woman’s fury.
Then there is Boreal, whose journey back to the parallel Earth bears curious fruit when Thomas shares some fascinating news on Grumman. Born John Parry in that world, he was a Royal Marine, lost in Alaska thirteen years ago. Boreal’s disbelief rides on the fact that Parry had his own daemon, an impossibility considering the man’s birthplace. Thomas asks what if a person who travels through the veil somehow gains the ability to bond with his own daemon? It’s a question that won’t be answered anytime soon, though Boreal does task a man to spy on Parry’s remaining family. Maybe more frightening is the thought of Boreal making an alliance with Mrs. Coulter; despite the powers of the Magisterium, this menacing duo comes across as more deadly than the organization itself and, more importantly, they are the most captivating aspect of the show thus far.
Now that Lyra knows how to operate the alethiometer as she travels North with the Gyptians, His Dark Materials has shed itself of the necessary preamble and readies to attack the mystery of the series’ first season. We know that Lyra’s special but the why behind it is still cloaked in shadows. And let’s not forget about Dust; how it relates to the children and parallel worlds has yet to be revealed but it will play an integral role in what comes next. Light on action and, for the most part suspense, “The Spies” is a necessary exposition-focused episode that lays down the border pieces of the puzzle so that the greater narrative can be filled in without a return to the fringes. Moreover, with Lyra’s family tree revealed, the anticipation of her reuniting with Asriel and Mrs. Coulter takes on an entirely new meaning.