After elevating its storytelling, His Dark Materials has a bit of a letdown in the season's penultimate hour
The last two episodes of His Dark Materials have been the strongest to date, as they have isolated story components, limit the scope of narration to the strongest characters in the series, and speed forward with some momentum on their respective journeys. We spent minimal time with the magisterium and witches in various places in the two episodes. These are two storylines that the show never quite got to grips with. And as you've read over the past two weeks, I can't pretend I missed them when they were gone.
And so it's a bit of a disappointment to be content with "Malice" and find that it works in a similar way to penultimate episodes of serialized dramas that merge the different storylines in anticipation of a rapid climax. The truth is that while His Dark Materials contains many of the elements of such an action-packed finale, this is not the show's forte, as the last two episodes have shown. While there's nothing in this episode to reveal the improvements the show has made in its second season, it's still not hard to feel that the show is moving further away from what it does best as it powers up all parts of its story to build excitement for whatever is coming next week.
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The episode's opening scene is foreboding in that sense, as it brings the witches back to their place as the story's expository crutch. After traveling to Cittàgazze two episodes before, we land on the witches and plan their next move before it is presented to them in the sky: angels flying overhead. We get some chunky details about how they haven't made themselves visible in thousands of years, and before you know it, Ruta Skadi is flying off to join them at Asriel's side - knowing instinctively that they are traveling to be around Asriel's war against the to join teaching profession - while Serafina and her travel companions try to find Lyra and Will. The way the witches are positioned relative to the narrative of the show just never made sense: they have too much agency and at the same time too little omniscient powers that register as small parties once we actually spend time with them. They're useful but ultimately unconvincing, and the show had to come full that circle at some point this season if it was to be exciting to see Lyra and Serafina face-to-face, as it seemed meaningful that Coulter interacted with Lee and Lee Mary in earlier episodes this season.
To be clear, Serafina's role in Lyra's story largely continues the positive development of her relationship with Will and the assignment at hand. The episode is limited to the idea of trust, and how Serafina's desire to protect Lyra by hiding her complicates her desire to help Will in his search, which by all accounts does not include hiding as the father he is is on his way to inform the wearer of the precision knife of the task ahead. Lyra implicitly trusts the witches, but Will doesn't. Hence, there is tension over the transitive qualities required to find a way forward. The alethiometer leads them to an encounter with Jopari on the mountain, and the presence of Serafina is both a protection - first from the children in Cittàgazze, then from the magical infection of Will's wound - and a threat to the path ahead of them lies. But while there's a version of this story where we at Serafina are equally invested in the witches and their place in them, the show struggled to balance this, making this a thematic rumination exercise that is the inevitable climax delayed for the finals.
The only story that feels more like a climax here is that of Marisa Coulter, who convinces Boreal to roll into town just with her resolve to protect himself from the ghosts. Last week the show worked to redefine Coulter's story as one of the sacrifices it made in order to thrive in a sexist world. So seeing her "tame" the ghosts is a challenge - this happens off the page in the books to top off her ability to destroy her own humanity in search of power. She tells Boreal that the ghosts just want to feed on the living human, and all she had to do was "turn off" what I read as a story about the price of assimilation for marginalized individuals like you. It is terrible to think that Marisa would ever give up her humanity, especially to order a group of ghosts to travel to the jungle to attack those who travel with her daughter, but she has spent her entire life standing on Command of men to suppress responsibly around them, and so this is old hat at this point in time. She does not suppress her humanity to prove something to them: she does it to defeat them, although she runs the risk of losing her humanity completely in the end. It is gratifying to see her rejecting Boreal's claim that they are "the same" when she poisoned him, but it is also a reminder that while there is genuine anger in their actions, the directionality is chaotic and a serious threat to Lyra and everyone in her represents orbit. The image of her "directing" the ghosts is terrifying, and Ruth Wilson whispers and bites her way through yet another powerful performance that keeps the momentum in her side of the story.
One of the challenges of “Malice” is that stories seem to move in different steps: For example, from the urgency of the horror film of the children who storm Lyra and Will's residence trying to kill them, to the peaceful Mary Malone, with whom they chat about the I Ching and encounter the same children who are just looking for an adult to hug them. The urgency of the action film that Lee and Jopari's balloon ride is interrupted by the Magisterial airships brings the episode to an uncertain climax when the balloon crashes to the ground, but we never return to check on Mary and the kids like that Others start up stories - the ghosts attacking one of the witches, Coulter's murder of Boreal - play out there. When the episode ends, it feels abrupt: As much as I appreciate a show that doesn't arbitrarily extend the episodes to 58 minutes just because it's possible, it felt like Mary might be missing a scene that she was about could show us a little more What exactly protects her from the ghosts - these must have looked like angel wings - and what did she decide to do with the children when they pulled the strands of their hearts and reminded them of their nieces.
Partly for this reason, the episode feels unfinished, which makes it difficult to gauge its effectiveness until we see the second half (which, as always, I am aware that those of you reading this from the UK will do it have already seen). The show does not find as much value in bringing all the stories to Cittàgazze as it might have done, since the witches never really registered and the interference of the teaching profession is mostly tiptoe about the religious allegory, the lyra “others Name ”surrounds. and the role it will play in a larger conflict. The show set up Will and his father's reunion as a parallel to Lyra's reunion with Asriel in season one, but I don't know if Will's visions of his father and the path ahead really did go a long way in creating this delay in that reunion as an impulse register of any kind. Everything in “Malice” stays mostly during the season, but the episode's “Moving Pieces in Place” feature reminds us that not all of these parts are created equal, and this leaves an episode that takes a privileged journey across the destination seem like a bit of a disappointment after two strong outings.
As always, a reminder, while I know these reviews were originally intended for book readers, I deliberately play a little dumb with some things that I understand better. So if you read something and say, "Myles, you know what that means" probably did.
Andrew Scott captures the "man who was broken by his pursuit of enlightenment and his inability to return to his family" from Jopari / John Parry, but I guess he still has some sense of humor, and so was his reveal Play a nice slice of ease in a series of scenes that were mostly "Lee's concern about Jopari's crypticism".
This is specifically a coming-of-age story so I appreciate they took the time to allow Lyra and Will to have a conversation about how growing up has shaped their understanding of the world, as in Will's story about the Imagine a world with your father as a child, but lose sight of it as you get older. A nice little scene that I kind of wished for was the end of the story as opposed to "Bad Smoke Monster vs. Good Smoke Monster, which for some reason doesn't turn into a smoke monster to fight the other Smoke Monster."
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Another of those episodes where getting more demons is really crucial: something as big as the serpent choking next to Boreal or as small as the cardinal's demon answering for him while Fra Pavel tries to spit out, what he learned about Lyra contributes a lot to this world and these scenes. We've talked about what has changed between the seasons, and it really is the "x-factor" that is a fundamental improvement on the show's worldbuilding that unfortunately did little to help the witches.
Through the amber binoculars (possible spoilers for the entire series)
The main change we see here is that Mary spends time in Cittàgazze instead of just getting to her next destination. I like the choice, if it gives her a little more freedom of choice in the next phase of her journey, but I'm curious how you will get her out of this situation. There's still that part of me that goes, "What if you make up something for Mary out of cloth instead of depicting the world she's supposed to occupy?" I'm trying to get it out of my head, but it's hard not to see that as the biggest challenge of adapting this story.
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