If there’s one phrase that sticks in the head after tonight’s episode of His Dark Materials, (“The Daemon-Cages”), it’s “the tyranny of sin.” Uttered by one of the scientists who oversees the cruel, child-abusing “intercision” technique in the cold Northern prison known as Bolvangar, it explains nearly everything we’ve seen Mrs. Coulter and the sinister agents of the Magisterium do.
After all, if you truly believe that the planet is suffering under the boot-heel of original sin, is there anything you wouldn’t do to “free” it? Isn’t a sacrifice of the few for the many, as Mrs. Coulter puts it, worth the price?
The answer depends on whether you believe in the concept of sin to begin with. In this fantasy world, of course, the concept is equated with an actual physical substance called Dust, which in turn is associated with human souls in animal form, known as daemons. But what if you don’t buy into the notion that there’s something corrupt in the human heart, which only church and state can destroy? Then you can see Bolvangar for what it is: a facility for the torture of innocents.
It’s all very heavy stuff to wrestle with, and this episode is uncompromising in its depiction of the traumatized, zombified children left in the wake of the villains’ grand experiment. It’s also unflinching in showing us the excuses adults will cling to — sin, science, the need to follow orders — in order to justify their cruelty.
Most of this conflict of conscience is seen through the eyes of Lyra, who’s posing as just another kid named Lizzie Brooks now that she’s been imprisoned. While she reunites with her old kidnapped friend Roger and begins to scout the place, the scientists in charge can be found drinking when they’re not on duty. It’s clear that they know what they’re doing is wrong. The booze is required to convince themselves otherwise.
What they’re doing, to be clear, is severing children from their daemons using a gigantic guillotine. Lyra herself is on the verge of being cut away from her companion Pan when she starts screaming that Mrs. Coulter, who’s visiting the facility, is her mother. Coulter immediately puts a halt to the procedure and whisks Lyra away. She explains that Dust condemns adults to a life of “sin, guilt, and regret.” Once puberty sets in, the once-delightful daemons “bring in all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets dust in.” So the intercision process is a good thing.
“If it was so good,” the ever-insightful Lyra retorts, “you should have let them do it. You should have been glad.”
It’s a killshot of an argument. All Mrs. Coulter can do is talk about sacrifice, and how Lyra will eventually see all her mother has done to make a better world for her to live in. At this point the show boils down to an acting showcase, pitting Ruth Wilson’s maddeningly duplicitous Mrs. Coulter against the childlike confidence and clarity of Dafne Keen’s Lyra. And it’s here where you see what they have in common: They’re both accomplished liars.
As Mrs. C. continues to whitewash what she’s doing, her daughter starts acting like she’s glad that the truth of her parentage is finally out in the open. Lyra even agrees to show her mother the alethiometer she was given by the Master of Jordan College back at Oxford, which Coulter suspects he did so that the girl would give it to her father, Lord Asriel. Then the child surprises her by unleashing one of the buzzing “spy-flies” sent to find her weeks ago. As the insectoid thing buzzes and shrieks, Lyra makes a break for it, then destroys the controls for the door so that Mom can’t follow her.
An extraordinary moment follows: Coulter screams through the door in anger and frustration, while Lyra roars back in rage and betrayal. If you had to boil the whole show down to one moment of raw conflict between the old and cynical and the young and innocent, this would be it.
But there’s much more to come. Lyra and Roger lead a jailbreak of both the normal children and the poor wretches who’ve been subjected to the Bolvangar procedure. They’re met by the combined forces of the Gyptians, aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and armored bear Iorek Byrnisson, who have a savage battle with the base’s guards. Even Ma Costa, the woman who lost a son to these creeps, gets in on the action by snapping a scientist’s neck with her bare hands.
Still, all might be lost if not for the intervention of Serafina Pekkala, the Gyptians’ witch ally. Moving like Quicksilver from the X-Men movies, she slaughters half a dozen Bovlangar guards and staffers in seconds, ending the battle almost single-handedly. So when the dust is settled and she tells Scoresby that the future of the world lies in Lyra’s hands — and the fate of the girl lies in his hands — you’re inclined to believe her.
But “The Daemon-Cages” still has one left trick to play. As Scoresby sails off with Iorek, Lyra, and Roger to find Lord Asriel, his balloon is attacked by flying creatures called cliff ghasts. (They’re a lot like the gremlin from the “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” Twilight Zone episode.) They fend off the assault, but not before the ruckus causes Lyra to slip and fall from the hot air balloon. It’s a pure, uncut Perils of Pauline cliffhanger at the end of an episode all about horrors that feel all too real at our present political moment. If only our own problems could be solved by simply tuning in next week.
Previously: Separation Anxiety