‘His Dark Materials’ Season 1, Episode 3 “The Spies” Review: Revelatory, Lavish, and Intimate


Having been kidnapped by the Gobblers, Lyra (Dafne Keen) draws ragged breaths as she struggles against the black netting holding her down in the truck of their van. All we can see are the scraps of light and image that Lyra can make out over the tops of the seats. The camera shakes and shakes. Five or so men with bandanas over their mouths throw themselves in front of the vehicle, bringing it to a halt, and begin scrapping with the Gobblers. One captured and the others defeated, they men pry open the trunk of the van as Lyra blinks against the slats of light. It’s the Gyptians, following their new leads about the disappearance of their children. Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson) gapes at the sight of Lyra and whispers her name as she whispers his.

What is so clever about His Dark Materials, is that it deals with incredibly adult conflict, emotion, politics, and other material from the perspective of both the adults embroiled in it and Lyra, a twelve-year-old child who is somehow more significant than any singular grown-up is. Lyra has become wholly entangled in an adult war; She is a pawn, a weapon, an innocent, a resource. Most importantly, of course, she is her own person. Lyra watches this adult conflict unravel around her, and she sees how she is treated as something small, to be protected. One could say she is objectified in a certain sense. Even the Gyptians, who truly do wish to protect and care for her ultimately find her ability to read the alethiometer useful to their cause. Lyra is more important than she could ever imagine, especially to her mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson).

“I think I’ll settle as a mole.” “A mole?” “Yes. So we can burrow underground and stay safe from all you grown-ups.”

The cinematography (Suzie Lavelle in episode 3) in His Dark Materials is intimate and personal, with a few sweeping establishing shots. The camera is rich and pliable, bringing out the deepest, most vibrant tones. It often hovers close to the face, capturing every emotion, vulnerability, and reaction to the fullest extent. Enriched by its lavish, swelling, thrumming score (by Lorne Balfe), the cinematography is some of HBO’s best. By extent, the world-building is quite extraordinary —  very steampunk, highly contrasted. 

His Dark Materials is an intelligent series; It very gracefully adapts the themes, philosophies, and passions of a highly complicated series of novels. It’s classically fantastical, in its mystery and intrigue, but contains a unique emotional and philosophical depth. This is partially due to such excellent source material and partially due to such an intuitive group of creatives. This group of creatives most definitely includes an insanely talented cast. While, of course, Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson offer superhuman performances, their supporting cast members just as astounding. Anne-Marie Duff (Ma Costa), Ariyon Bakare (Lord Boreal), Simon Manyonda (Benjamin De Ruyter), James Cosmo (Fardar Coram), Clarke Peters (The Master) and Lucian Msamati (John Faa) are particularly outstanding in this third episode. Their collective talents and abilities are captivating; Every moment feels intentional, critical and engaging. 

His Dark Materials’ third installment is a lesson on intimacy, contorted affection, haphazard but genuine constructions of family, and the harsh idiosyncrasies of adult conflict.

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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