His Dark Materials S2E1 “The City of Magpies”

Lyra lies on a blanket in filtered sunlight with Pan as a ferret curled up beside her

The following contains spoilers through His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 on HBO.

Welcome, dear reader, as we begin to review Season 2 of HBO’s His Dark Materials with Episode 1, “The City of Magpies.” That title comes from the new setting we begin in, Cittàgazze, which roughly translates in Italian to “city of magpies.” In this case, referring to magpies in their mythical role as thieves of shiny objects, as we will no doubt learn more about later. Lyra and Will have both crossed over from their respective worlds into this one, and this season wastes no time in getting them together at long last.

Before we dig in any further, let’s talk about a few logistical items. Season 2 will mostly follow the events of the second book in the series, The Subtle Knife. This season will have only 7 episodes, all of which were filmed back-to-back with the filming of Season 1. An 8th episode focused on Lord Asriel was planned, but was not able to be filmed in time before pandemic restrictions started impacting production.

The BBC is airing each episode eight days ahead of HBO, which is going to make spoiler avoidance much harder to navigate. Good on the Brits, they certainly deserve to get something first for once, but placing them a full 2 episodes ahead of the States is also going to squash a lot of the online dialogue and excitement. Hopefully, none of that bleeds over into the ratings and/or hampers the possibility for a Season 3.

His Dark Materials - Lyra and Pan sit on a bed, looking at the athethiometer in the foreground sitting on the far bed post
Lyra debates whether to trust the alethiometer

Lyra and Will

Lyra is understandably having some trust issues right now. At the end of Season 1, her father betrayed her in the most horrible way imaginable, killing her best friend Roger. She feels her other trusted ally, the alethiometer, played a silent role in that outcome by not warning her. When she sees that Will has no dæmon, she’s reminded of the zombie children separated from their dæmons in Bolvangar, and initially runs away from him.

In this, Pan gets to play the better angel of her nature, encouraging Lyra back to her default position of hopefulness and courage. He still thinks they can trust the alethiometer, and he has an almost instinctual trust of Will as well. Eventually Lyra and Will form a tenuous friendship as outsiders exploring this new world together. Lyra even opens up to the alethiometer again, finding out that Will is a killer, but the “good kind.”

Already, Lyra and Will make a fun pairing of contrasts and similarities. Lyra is the extrovert to Will’s introvert. Both were in hiding in their respective Oxfords (“Two Oxfords—worlds apart” as Pan puts it). Lyra, who didn’t know she was in hiding, became the bold wild child among a bunch of stuffy old men. Will, trying desperately to lie low and hide his mother’s worsening condition, became cautious and thoughtful. Both were forced into hiding because of their explorer fathers who abandoned them as children.

The most subtle display of their similarities comes as Lyra explores Will’s house for a place to claim as her own. She is drawn to the very same bed Will picked out for himself. And of course, Will being the gentleman, he acquiesces.

Another mirroring happening here is between this world and Lyra’s. In Lyra’s world, the Gobblers were separating children from their souls, i.e. their dæmons. In this world, the Spectres are separating adults from their souls. In both cases, it leaves the victims a hauled out husk with “everything that makes you human” removed. This is why Lyra has no fear approaching the boy at the fountain. She has seen this before, when she first discovered Billy Costa (S1E5). While the audience is cringing in anticipation of the inevitable jump-scare moment, Lyra does what comes naturally and reaches out to comfort and help the poor creature.

His Dark Materials - Mrs. Coulter leans in to kiss Cardinal Sturrock's ring, making deep eye contact with the stunned man
Kiss the ring

Mrs. Coulter

On the other end of the nurturing spectrum, we have Mrs. Coulter. She has rejoined the Magisterium aboard a submarine with Cardinal Sturrock’s entourage, as they try to plan their next move. She manipulates the Cardinal like putty, with what has to be the most innuendo-laden “kiss the ring” moment even shown on screen. Red is definitely her color.

Even Father MacPhail is not immune to her charms. He knows darned well that she is not to be trusted. She even admits to him in private that she has “other interests” that she wants to pursue. But where the Cardinal could be manipulated with lust, MacPhail is manipulated by power. He merely has to not do anything, allowing Mrs. Coulter to take the sin of the Cardinal’s death upon herself. A first step down a long and slippery path with his new ally.

His Dark Materials - Lee and Serafina clasp hands facing each other as several other witches look on
Serafina gives Lee something to aid him in his quest

Lee Scoresby and the Witches

Lee comes to the council of witches as the behest of Queen Serafina Pekkala. For his part in the coming war, he has decided to seek out a man named Stanislaus Grumman who might help locate an object that can protect Lyra. While none of the witches have heard of this man, Serafina blesses his mission and gives Lee a means of calling her for help, should he need it.

Ruta Skadi, queen of another witch clan, arrives to urge Serafina to put an end to her indifference towards the Magisterium. They have taken a young witch, Katja Sirkka, prisoner in a roundup of “undesirables.” Ruta prioritizes rescuing one of their own over finding Lyra. Serafina is unmoved, so Ruta takes off on her own.

As she nears the Magisterium submarine, Ruta can hear the interrogation going on with Mrs. Coulter. Katja has broken down and is beginning to tell Mrs. Coulter of the prophecy, very nearly revealing Lyra’s “other” name. Katja cries out for “Yambe-Akka,” the goddess of death, and Ruta whisks in to stab her, whispering, “be at peace.” For good measure, on her way out of the submarine Ruta takes out a few henchmen and also stabs Cardinal Sturrock when he comes out to see what all the commotion is about. If the witches were not at war with the Magisterium before, they certainly are now.

His Dark Materials - Mrs. Coulter's hands leaf through black and white photots of a younger Lyra, as her monkey demon looks on
Mrs. Coulter discovers pictures of Lyra

Quick Takes

A couple of quick takes on the rest of the episode:

  • When Mrs. Coulter looks around the room and sees failure, she starts with Father MacPhail. The poor man’s name literally includes the word “fail.”
  • The move that Lyra uses to pin Will (when they first meet) was taught to her by Lord Asriel (in S1E1).
  • When Will presents Lyra with the omelet, she asks if he is a kitchen boy. Of course, Roger was a kitchen boy, so she would find that comforting.
  • Everyone is up in arms over the fact that Will’s phone is somehow still charged after three days of hiding out in Cittàgazze. Let’s just say he has a spare battery or two in his backpack and let it go, people.
  • Coulter is taken aback when she discovers photographs of Lyra in Lord Asriel’s notebook. This is a reference to one of the later books outside the original trilogy, in which he tasked the scholars at Oxford to take a picture of Lyra once a year on her birthday and send them to him.
  • It is telling that in Father MacPhail’s view, the schism is a “fuse [that] has been lit” and a “bomb [that] has been exploded.” This will play into the Magisterium’s response later in the series.
  • Perhaps we didn’t need what felt like 15 minutes worth of interspersed scenes of Ruta Skadi flying through dark, stormy clouds with a determined look on her face? Just sayin’.
His Dark Materials - Ruta Skadi face-to-face with Katja, in shadows
“Be at peace”

Best lines of the episode:

  • “Cardinal, it is hardly heresy any more. It is visible in the sky above our heads.”
  • “You know, I look around this room and I see failure.”
  • “I’m sorry I scared you.” “You didn’t scare me. Sorry I scared you!”
  • “To me, ‘demon’ means something evil.” “Er… thanks?”
  • “No, we have dust. I’m just guessing my dust is not the same as your dust.”
  • “I think, if bad people think it’s bad, then, maybe it’s good.”
  • “That’s one question you don’t have to ask the alethiometer.”
  • “Good job at staying hidden!”
  • “I will make it my sin. As a first act of service.”
  • “So, it tells us the truth but…” “It just doesn’t tell us everything.”
His Dark Materials - Lee and Hester in the basket of his balloon, looking out over the edge
Lee and Hester approach the council of witches

In The News

Here I try to point you to a few of the more interesting and informative news items over the last week related to His Dark Materials:

  • The BFI & Radio Times released three online panels for their Television Festival on Nov 5, 2020. These include a lot of crew members and some of the lesser stars of the show, so they make for some really interesting viewing. The topics include Jopari and the Witches, Creating Cittàgazze, and When Worlds Collide. Be warned though that they also include some future clips from Season 2 and behind the scenes stills, if you’re worried about spoilers.
  • If you don’t want to watch the video about creating Cittàgazze, Radio Times also has a written article about how the filming location was built from the ground up in six months, including cast and crew reactions. This one is spoiler free.
  • Deadline has an interview with Ruth Wilson (Mrs. Coulter) and Executive Producer Jane Tranter. Among the things they discuss is a reveal that writers are already working on Season 3, which will tell the entirety of The Amber Spyglass in eight episodes once again, and they hope to begin filming in late spring / early summer next year.

That’s all for this week. Please let me know your thoughts and feelings about this week’s episodes, and any theories you have on what’s to come, in the comments below. Remember that 25YL will provide continuing coverage of His Dark Materials throughout Season 2 and beyond.

All images courtesy of HBO

Written by Brien Allen

Brien Allen is the last of the original crazy people who responded to this nutjob on Facebook wanting to start an online blog prior to Twin Peaks S3. Some of his other favorite shows have been Vr.5, Buffy, Lost, Stargate: Universe, The OA, and Counterpart. He's an OG BBSer, Trekkie, Blue Blaze Irregular, and former semi-professional improviser. He is also a staunch defender of putting two spaces after a period, but has been told to shut up and color.

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