We’re roughly halfway through His Dark Materials’ first season now. Time for some serious voice-over exposition, don’t you think?
“Witches hear the immortal whispers of those who pass between the worlds,” intones an unidentified voice at the start of the fantasy epic’s latest episode (“The Lost Boy”). “They speak of a child who is destined to bring the end of destiny.” That would be our girl, Lyra Belacqua. “If told what she must do, she will fail. But she won’t walk alone.” Is her faithful companion that giant polar bear, perhaps? Or maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda’s character?
“There is a boy whose fate is bound with hers,” the voice concludes, as the shots of the gorgeous and inhospitable Northern wastes give way to a shot of a British schoolboy walking down the street. “Together, they will change everything.” It’s Yoda saying “There is another” all over again!
So far, we don’t know what’s so special about Will Parry (Amir Wilson), the bullied schoolkid we’ve just first glimpsed. But his father, John Parry, is also known as Stanislaus Grumman, a.k.a. the world-hopping explorer that both Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, and the sinister Magisterium agent Lord Boreal have been searching for.
Will’s mother appears to have suffered a serious mental breakdown when his dad disappeared in an Alaskan storm, and she’s been secretly stockpiling his old letters to her. It’s this treasure trove of information that Boreal and his minions here in our world are looking for. His Lordship deduces that Parry/Grumman already knew about the windows between the worlds when he vanished, and his missives to his missus could contain valuable intel.
But Will isn’t the only major new character we meet this episode. Nor is Boreal the only one in search of secrets.
Gyptian leader Farder Coram receives a visit from his old flame, the witch named Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas). The 300-year-old being makes quite a first impression, not so much flying down to meet him as drifting along unseen currents. The effect is as striking as her appearance — statuesque, short-haired, skin laced with vine-like tattoos or scars.
Coram tries to impress upon her the urgency of rescuing the stolen children from the insidious Gobblers. That’s when she hits him with a whopper: The witches have known about the existence of other worlds, like the one Asriel saw in the Northern Lights, for thousands of years. Anything you can imagine is possible beyond those barriers — except for Farder’s fondest wish, that their own son is still alive out there somewhere. It’s smart of the show to keep returning to this point, since it taps actor James Cosmo’s reservoir of moving tenderness; you can imagine the centuries-old witch falling for his younger self, and that’s saying something.
Meanwhile, Lyra is informed by her mystical, truth-divining alethiometer that she must undertake a quest of her own, even if it takes her away from the Gyptians’ campaign to raid the enemy stronghold of Bolvangar and free the kidnapping victims. In a village nearby, she learns, waits a horrible ghost … or something like one.
When she and her bear companion Iorek arrive in the eerie, abandoned town, their discovery is grim. They find Billy Costa, the stolen child of Lyra’s beloved Gyptian woman Ma Costa. He’s alive, but just barely, having either escaped or been abandoned and lost in the cold for days.
And his daemon is gone.
When Lyra and Iorek bring Billy back to the Gyptians’ camp, the absence of the animal counterpart horrifies everyone. In this world, humans and daemons are meant to be inseparable companions — in fact, the mystical creatures are basically people’s souls given external form. Finding Billy separated from his is like discovering him both mutilated and lobotomized.
It’s also a chance for the show to make one of its strongest statements yet, particularly after Lyra is kidnapped by Bolvangar goons and gets prepped by evil-looking nuns and researches for the same procedure Billy was forced to endure.
There is something inhumane, in the most extreme terms possible, about separating children from those they love the most. It robs them of the kindness, care, and security that they need so badly in this cruel, dangerous world — or other worlds, for that matter. Any movement based on tormenting kids in this way, any system that uses the power of the state to kidnap and traumatize its youngest and most vulnerable subjects — that’s the stuff of fantasy villainy. The evil is so clear cut you can write storybooks about it. “It’s worse than anything,” Lyra says.
“It’s about control, isn’t it,” Scoresby replies. “Because if you can remove someone’s soul, you can do anything.” So it would seem.
Unfortunately for Billy, the combination of the “intercision” procedure and his time in the cold are too much for his little body to bear. As his mother sings him a lullaby and tells him he can go see his daemon again, he dies. The funeral that follows, in which he is burned on a pyre, is difficult to endure.
Dark as this material is (no pun intended), it spotlights one of the show’s strengths: the warmth and empathy of its performers. Cosmo’s Farder Coram, Lucian Msamati’s Gyptian king John Faa, Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scorseby all genuinely seem like people who would care, deeply, about the plight of frightened and abused children. You can see why Lyra trusts them, and vice versa. Even in a story this big, those little connections go a long way.
Previously: Have Bear, Will Travel