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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The introduction of the Subtle Knife is His Dark Materials' finest hour so far

Terence Stamp
Photo: HBO

The Golden Compass, the 2007 film that failed to turn His Dark Materials into a fantasy film franchise, was clearly an effort by New Line to replicate the success of The Lord Of The Rings, which has historically been a dicey proposition for film studios. The franchise film cycle just doesn’t work that way: just look at Lionsgate, which tried and failed to follow up The Hunger Games with the Divergent series, with the latter limping to a premature finish line by the third film and never resolving its story cinematically. Getting lightning to strike twice is not as easy as latching onto intellectual property in the same genre and thinking the same strategies will play out the same way.

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In the case of The Golden Compass, the biggest problem was that His Dark Materials isn’t actually like The Lord Of The Rings, for reasons more numerous than we have time to get into. But at the core, I would argue, is the fact that the first book in the series is subtle—pun intended—about the larger scale of the story. While the critique of religion is certainly present, the actual sense of what’s at stake in the story is mostly left to vague suggestions of Lyra being important, with the actual plot staying fairly grounded in Lyra’s lived experience and worldbuilding. It isn’t until the end of the book that Pullman pulls back the curtain to reveal the multiple universes, and it isn’t until The Subtle Knife that the author lays out Lyra and Will’s place within a cosmic struggle between two forces larger than themselves. In “Tower Of The Angels,” this week’s installment of the television adaptation of Pullman’s work, the man formerly known as John Parry lays this out plainly for Lee Scoresby:

“There are two forces that have always been at war with each other: those who repress, who command, who don’t want us to be conscious, inquiring beings; and those who want us to know more, to be stronger and wiser, to explore. And those two forces are lining up to battle as we speak.”

It’s the big picture the first season only speaks of in riddles, and while it’s technically still a bit of a riddle in this speech to Lee, there’s a much clearer sense of how the pieces we’re familiar with fit into that puzzle. “Tower Of The Angels” is the first time His Dark Materials has felt like a fantasy “epic,” and although I have some quibbles with the way they’re achieving this I do believe it’s having a positive impact on the adaptation overall. Presented as a side quest at the end of last week’s episode, Will and Lyra’s search for the Subtle Knife is immediately reframed as something far more significant in an introduction that not so subtly apes the beginning of the very fantasy trilogy that New Line was trying to replicate back in 2007. The Subtle Knife does bear some similarities to the One Ring, what with each becoming a burden on the one who bears it. But whereas the One Ring is the starting point for Tolkien’s narrative, His Dark Materials tracks closer to The Hobbit: an adventure that starts as a journey before it becomes a quest, and registers as a battle before it’s clear that it’s actually a war. And “Tower Of The Angels” is the point at which that shifts, and is the high point for the series thus far.

Now, I don’t necessarily know if I like the “epic” shorthand that the show is using to achieve this. The riff on the start of The Fellowship Of The Ring was a bit too on-the-nose, and the fact it had no narrative justification kind of bugs me. Additionally, the show’s approach to the witches continues to be nonsensical: I know being able to end on a bit of flashy action and the scale of their assault on the Zeppelins guarding Asriel’s tear in the universe is the show emphasizing the escalation at hand, but the idea that a small group of witches brought down a half-dozen zeppelins like it was nothing is ludicrous. How were the witches not able to use their magical smoke monster skills to stop the attack on their home that allegedly killed hundreds of witches? Why would Serafina have even bothered to bring up the fact that there would be men guarding Asriel’s path to another world if she knows that witches are so overpowered? The show’s approach to the witches is to make them “cooler,” but mostly they just stand around and spout expositional nonsense and then participate in flashy but illogical action sequences. I realize the rest of the story can be a little talky, with a lot of the action happening away from the main story, but they need to be doing significantly more to justify the time we’re spending on the witches than flashing the CGI budget.

Illustration for article titled The introduction of the Subtle Knife is His Dark Materials' finest hour so far
Photo: HBO
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Which is why the scenes in Cittàgazze represent the best bridge between the show’s different modes. The fight at the top of the tower between Will and Angelica’s brother Tullio brings action, the subsequent conversation with Giacomo Paradisi (a welcome Terence Stamp) connects the present to the past and sets the stakes for the journey ahead, and then the scene with Will in the bath takes stock of the emotional impact of these developments on our protagonists. It’s the last scene that really pulls the story together, and has what the witches scenes lack: a clear understanding of how the big picture that’s coming into focus actually matters to the heart of the story. As much as the introduction of the knife is—based on Jopari’s understanding—a huge moment in the war for the future of thought itself, the script does a great job of making these scenes just as integral to Will and Lyra’s relationship. Lyra and Pan both get wrapped up in the fight with Tullio, but this really comes to a head as Will is recovering, and Lyra starts to realize that the knife is Will’s alethiometer, and leaps at the chance to help him understand how to tap into the mindset necessary to wield it. And in the most pivotal moment, we see Pan step forward to rub his adorable red panda head against Will’s wound, shocking an unknowing Lyra who doesn’t understand the feelings that Pan is projecting on her behalf. The scenes bring together the various themes, tones, and characters of the series really effectively, and the solidity of the show’s core narrative by the end of it is easily the most momentum the adaptation has achieved thus far.

As previously established, I’m more mixed on the way Young Lee Scoresby is impacting the story, but I don’t think it’s entirely destroyed the effectiveness of the symmetry of Lyra and Will journeying forward while their father/father figure team up to assist them. It’s hard for me to gauge how the “reveal” of John as the shaman would play to a non-reader audience, especially since I don’t know how much Andrew Scott’s casting registered last season, but Scott brings the right pathos to the part. And I at least understand the writers’ desire to have this particular buddy pairing be a little closer in age, even if “Grandchild I never had” is more interesting than the “I haven’t been lucky enough to have children” we get from Lee here as Jopari asks him to explain his love for Lyra. But the core of these scenes is thematically solid enough that there’s positive momentum, and—unlike with the witches—there’s substance beneath the money shots of the rolling green landscape, which add some nice visual diversity to the episode that makes this hour directed by Leanne Welham the most visually impactful yet.

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Illustration for article titled The introduction of the Subtle Knife is His Dark Materials' finest hour so far
Photo: HBO

The “turning point” quality of “Tower Of The Angels” also comes for Mary Malone, who is the third side of the triangle of people who are being asked to tap into the forces of the universe in order to play some role in what’s to come. As previously discussed, in the first book this is entirely Lyra’s journey, but the show shifted this by making Will a protagonist from the word go. And so while this turning point comes early in Will’s story in the books, meaning the focus is slightly more on Lyra’s belief—thanks to the alethiometer—that their paths are connected, it registers more as a turning point in Will’s own story here. By comparison, though, Mary Malone was only introduced a couple of episodes ago, and so it’s harder to necessarily see her revelatory connection with the cave—or shadow, or dark matter, or dust—as a huge moment for her character. But I think that was always part of Pullman’s intent: these revelations about a philosopher’s knife and celestial forces out for vengeance are a turning point in Lyra’s larger journey, a pivot in Will’s emerging story, and the starting point for Mary’s. And while the shift in narrative does sort of make it harder to see Mary’s side of this story on the same level, since Will and Lyra are more equally established, I’m continuing to enjoy Simone Kirby’s performance, and she sold the exposition-heavy scene well.

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I don’t think that The Golden Compass would have succeeded if they had used omniscient voiceover to tell the story of the epic battle between oppressive forces and free thought, and the circumstances of the forging of the Subtle Knife, and the stakes of what is to come. His Dark Materials is so compelling because of how it uses Lyra’s story to gradually peel back these layers, her gradual discovery of the emotional complexity of her world and her own self the key to why the story works as well as it does. “Tower Of The Angels” suggests that although the less-focused storytelling in the first season damaged that core slightly, and I still have some reservations, there’s an undeniable energy to that central journey that the show is bringing to life at the moment, which is at least enough for me to have raised expectations for the last three episodes of the season.

Stray observations

  • The production design for the series has been consistently strong, but I like how they visualized the threads in the universe, which not so subtly match the lines in the readout from The Cave. Happy with how that came together.
  • Unfortunately for the sake of science, I can’t say if I would have recognized Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of Jopari’s daemon without prompting, since someone on my Twitter feed who watched the episode in the U.K. last week spoiled this particular Fleabag-crossover, but I appreciate the intertextual wink and hope some of you got to have an unaided moment of realization.
  • Non-readers aren’t really supposed to know who’s been doing the omniscient voiceover that started the season and continues here, and frankly even as a reader I don’t think I would have pegged that. But it’s Sophie Okenedo doing the voice, and you can see who she’s playing in the credits if you’d like.
  • After Boreal serves as our introduction to Mary’s story here—as she refuses to apply the research to the military application he suggests as Charles Latrom—he meets with Coulter back in their world, and then without explanation he takes them into Cittàgazze, which raises a host of questions the episode doesn’t really answer. If he’s always been able to enter Cittagazze, why didn’t he try to get the knife himself? Curious to see how that resolves itself (and reminder again to the Brits that I don’t actually want you to answer my rhetorical questions with knowledge from next week’s episode).
  • Boreal’s sitdown with Marisa was mostly just playing up their sexual tension, but I really liked seeing how Coulter’s daemon responded when Boreal’s was getting close to touching Marisa’s hand as a way of comparing to how Pan embraced touching Will earlier. A nice reinforcement of the meaningfulness of the daemons as a way of testing the limits of intimacy.
  • I loved the callback to Lyra backing into the bathroom to visit with Roger when they were with Asriel, and Pan following suit: beyond just being charming, it’s also a reminder that a lot of how she approaches helping Will is feeling like she needs to avoid letting him down like she did Roger, and that little connection drove that home without being too obvious about it.
  • Will and Lyra searching for the entrance to the tower reminded me of the kind of scene you’d find in an Uncharted game, as the need to scan an area creates an excuse for some dialogue, and a small puzzle of sorts.
  • I hope on set, Andrew Scott broke into a full Daniel Day-Lewis and ripped off an “I Abandoned My Child! I’ve Abandoned My Boy!” during a take of the scene where John talks about leaving Will behind.
  • You may have noticed I have been using the provided image of Red Panda Pan for the Grading Widget for several reviews, and no, I will not be stopping. (It actually comes from this episode, when Will is waking up, but that didn’t stop me from using it earlier).
  • The scene of Trullio getting taken by the specters didn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, as it didn’t feel narratively necessary, but learning that the character was supposed to play a role in the Lord Asriel standalone episode that ended up never getting filmed due to the pandemic contextualizes that a bit.
  • I was waiting during the fight to get some payoff for the foreshadowboxing from last season, and sure enough it arrived.
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Through The Amber Spyglass (Minor Spoilers for the Book Series)

Since the beginning of the season, Jack Thorne has been very upfront that the “lost” Asriel episode isn’t going to happen, but I’m really hoping they release the script, because the idea that Trullio played a part makes me wonder what specifically they wanted it to accomplish. Asriel’s actions before the war begins aren’t actually that critical, since on some level Asriel himself isn’t critical: it’s Lyra who matters, and the war is really more of a smokescreen than anything else. And so while I can see why the show—having cast a recognizable actor—thinks that could be an interesting experiment, the fact they’re so comfortable cutting it makes me wonder what was in it that they thought was valuable in the first place. Any thoughts, book readers? (I still haven’t gotten to any of the expanded universe material that’s come out more recently, I need to admit).

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