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A muddled Magisterium raises doubts about His Dark Materials’ commitment to its source material

Illustration for article titled A muddled Magisterium raises doubts about iHis Dark Materials/i’ commitment to its source material
Photo: HBO
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NOTE: While The A.V. Club’s coverage of His Dark Materials looked at the first season from both Expert and Newbie perspectives, we’ve moved to one review for the show’s second season. Be forewarned that there may be light spoilers for the books toward the end of the review and the potential for significant spoilers in the comments.

When Lyra asks the alethiometer how she’s to go about finding someone who can tell her about dust in Will’s Oxford, also known as “our” Oxford, it dispenses two important pieces of information. The first is the logistical pieces necessary—the name of the college, the photo on her door—for Lyra to figure out the location of the dark matter research lab and Mary Malone, the former nun who turned to science as a different way of understanding the universe. The second, though, is more critical: despite having built her reputation on being able to spin a web of lies (although the show did a bad job of articulating that compared to the books, if we’re being technical), she is to tell Mary Malone the absolute truth.

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That truth sounds absurd to someone from “our” world, of course, but that’s the point. When Lyra finds Mary, she tells her she wants to know about dust, and alludes to another world, and none of it is making any sense at first. But the alethiometer’s advice to Lyra is central to the premise of His Dark Materials, as this is by nature a story of what people do with the unvarnished facts of the matter. Lyra later tells Will that the alethiometer is not concerned about good or bad: it only cares about an objective truth, and ultimately the fate of this world comes down to what the people of these worlds choose to do with it. Lyra’s world is run by a regime that runs away from the truth, seeking to destroy that which they don’t understand. The future of these shared universes depends on people like Lyra who are able to open themselves up to the unknown, and the alethiometer knows that Mary Malone is cut from the same cloth. She may not fully understand what Lyra is saying, but she immediately realizes that what she calls dust might be what she calls dark matter, and swiftly opens herself up to the possibility that this could be something bigger than herself even if she’s not yet packing up her I-Ching box for whatever journey dust wants to send her on.

“The Cave” is a testament to how Pullman’s fantasy world is rooted in this principle of belief: not spiritual belief, as it’s understood in the context of the Magisterium or in the convent where Mary once studied, but rather in some power that goes beyond ourselves. Lyra spends the first book becoming in tune with this principle, and she begins the second by somewhat unconsciously becoming a missionary for a secular truth that is using her as a vessel to bring others into the fold. Here, both Will and Mary eventually come to realize that the answers they’re searching for don’t rest where they might have expected. Will goes to lawyers and grandparents in search of his father, but eventually it’s the alethiometer that gives him the assurances he needs—that his mother will be okay, that his father is alive—to follow the path that awaits him in Cittàgazze and beyond. Mary isn’t quite a believer just yet, but she’s already speaking the language by asking her colleague to have faith, realizing that she means something different than she did before Lyra Silvertongue showed up at her office earlier that day.

Illustration for article titled A muddled Magisterium raises doubts about iHis Dark Materials/i’ commitment to its source material
Photo: HBO

I appreciated that “The Cave” captured the almost intoxicating feeling of certainty that comes from dust—whether through the alethiometer or the computer the episode is named after—even if the show is still struggling a bit to articulate the subversiveness of this message. Last week, I mostly felt that the expansion of the Magisterium story was a waste of time, but in this episode I thought some of their choices compromised the very premise of their existence in this world. When MacPhail spoke at the Cardinal’s funeral, there’s a point where he refers to “this Magisterium,” and I found that perplexing: isn’t it the Magisterium? Isn’t the whole point of this organization its absolute power within the Church? It’s a small rhetorical distinction, I admit, but semantics is one of the first things that triggers that nagging voice in the back of my brain as a book reader that those involved with the show have continued to distance themselves from Pullman’s critique of religion out of fear of public backlash. There’s no question that the Magisterium is being presented as an autocratic and ultimately evil organization, and that it retains a clear religiosity, but a lot of what we see in “The Cave” muddles the core message.

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I realize what the show’s writers—this is the first episode on which Jack Thorne is not the only credited writer, with Francesca Gardiner co-writing—are trying to do with the conflict with the Witches. Lest we argue the show is unwilling to embrace the real-world implications of this story, the situation is shifting more toward a political allegory about the corruptive force of power. MacPhail is trying to become Cardinal, but he’s faced with a zealot drumming up support for his own candidacy, raging against the purported heresy of the witches in order to convince the Church to drop a whole lot of bombs on them. It’s a parable to the rise of modern fascism, as elected officials overlook extremist views within their party until they reach the point where they realize the only way they can stay in power is by openly validating them. Eventually, we find MacPhail knowingly atoning for his sin, burning his hand over a flame at his daemon’s request as though he knows what he did is wrong but he had to do it to wield power, only to immediately discover that Coulter has every intention of ignoring his authority and doing whatever she wants anyway.

Illustration for article titled A muddled Magisterium raises doubts about iHis Dark Materials/i’ commitment to its source material
Photo: HBO
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The show’s message is clear if we take a broad view: “power corrupts, no need to tune in for more at 11!” But I disliked this notion that we’re drawing distinctions between members of the Magisterium in terms of their corruption, as though not all members of the Church are so bad. Perhaps it’s that the specifics of this political allegory feel too real in the current moment, but this notion of separating out those in power who act out of self-interest from those who truly hold fascistic beliefs is out-of-touch with the clarity of Pullman’s specific—not general—critique of the power organized religion holds in society, and shifted the Magisterium story from “mostly disinteresting” to “stuck in my craw” by the time we reached the end of the episode.

Ultimately, His Dark Materials is not solely about the Magisterium: in many ways, without spoiling anything, it’s about how what’s going on here is above them, and above the very notion of them, and so I don’t think this detour completely derails the rest of the work of the story. The stakes are still being established effectively, with Lord Boreal making first contact with Lyra as Charles Latrom (and hiding it from Coulter), and Coulter learning from Torvold that Lyra is not just missing in her world but missing somewhere else entirely. Will, meanwhile, is now fully at peace with what he’s left behind in his own Oxford, his mother safely in his teacher’s care and the police safely avoided after his close call with his no-good grandfather. The season is still successfully tapping into the driving force that comes from Pullman’s novel, that feeling like Lyra has awakened her full potential and is now driving all of the people in her orbit toward something bigger than she realizes. It’s just unfortunate that it continues to come with choices—some small, some larger—that build skepticism of whether the show will be able to awaken its full potential in the rest of this season and beyond.

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Stray observations

  • This is my first time encountering Simone Kirby, who plays Mary Malone, but I quite liked her: an inauspicious character, but that’s sort of the point. We’re now entering the point where there’s no longer a movie cast to compare to, so I am admittedly curious what direction the feature film franchise would have gone given the clear desire to draw “big names” as compared to the more BBC-like approach we’ve seen with the extended cast here. Open to any suggestions of circa 2007 casting options.
  • Okay, so I realize that it’s horrifying when you see giant bombs dropping on something, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t really understand what they were bombing? Were the islands meant to be sacred to the Witches in some way? Were there actually witches who were on the islands? Children? Communities? What was meant to be at stake in that moment? Couldn’t the witches just smoke monster away? Why were Serafina and Ruda elsewhere to watch at a distance? I thought they did a very poor job signifying what we were supposed to be feeling in that moment, which has been a consistent issue with the witches that nothing here resolved.
  • Much as with the scene last week where Lyra told Pan to stay hidden but he emerged immediately, I feel like the writers are actively performing their newfound daemon budget: here they make a big deal about putting Pan into Lyra’s bag, but he pops up more often than you expect when they have such a convenient reason for him not to appear, and there was some nice comedy out of his disembodied voice emerging as well. Combine with seeing and hearing from MacPhail’s daemon and a brief sighting of Torvold’s, and Daemon sighting really is where the show has improved the most in the second season.
  • To my point last week about Will’s battery life, we do get an insert of him getting the 10% battery alert and he does buy a portable battery pack the second he gets back to his Oxford, and so while I remain skeptical his battery lasted that long I’m going to say the show has done enough legwork to satisfy my pedantry this time. I know, I’m shocked too.
  • “They don’t have cars that fast in my Oxford”—but they do have Zeppelins, Lyra, tell Will about the Zeppelins.
  • I know the show wants there to be this battle between Serafina and Ruda about the path forward for the Witches, but I’d wager it would be more interesting if the Cardinal had died from natural causes and MacPhail and Coulter simply blamed it on the Witches. Technically, the show is already doing half of that story given they could have saved his life and chose not to, so why not just let it all be a lie?
  • I realize that it’s necessary for Boreal to see the alethiometer in his interaction with Lyra, but her walking while alethiometering is just dangerous. There needs to be a PSA about that.
  • Seeing Lyra walking through the real Pitt Rivers Museum definitely made the early scenes in Cittàgazze feel more like a set, I think, but that still works to the story’s benefit to keep working toward blurring the lines between worlds slowly but surely.
  • I mentioned comedy earlier, but Lyra insisting on a cape and a hat for her trip to Will’s Oxford did make me chuckle, and I’m truly outraged that HBO doesn’t have a screenshot of Lyra in that enormous hat available for me to embed in this review.
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Through The Amber Spyglass (Slightly More Spoilery Discussion of Future Books)

Okay, so it seems like the critical mass in the comments is either book readers or people who are at least moderately interested in hearing more about the books, so I’m going to keep this here (while admitting that this review was pretty heavily shaped by the books, which is not something I want to repeat every week but was the path that emerged here).

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In last week’s comments, one point we were discussing is how Lyra is grieving Roger’s death, which returns here when she insists that the reason she needs to find out about dust is so that Roger’s death was meaningful. There’s no question that, compared to the book, Lyra’s grief is a more significant part of her character, whether in an effort to soften her edges or simply to acknowledge that audiences at home will feel his death more acutely when we saw him die, and also followed his side of the story in a way the books didn’t. I think what we’re responding to, though, is the fact that in the books it really feels like Lyra “outgrows” who she was in the first book in the second, diving forward with a sense of clarity that is a huge part of the character. And I do think that this is something the show has never entirely captured, and which I’m curious to see them maybe grow into as the season goes on. But I did want to re-up this conversation here, in terms of seeing how others felt about whether Lyra’s grief at all complicates her journey at this point in the narrative.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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