For a show this densely packed with mythology and a glossary of new terms to learn (daemon, alethiometer, Magisterium, Dust), it’s in the second episode of His Dark Materials that we really start to dig more into the characters and the story being told. Even so, there’s a lot of story to pack into the episode, and occasionally “The Idea of North” shudders under the weight.
Okay, there’s a lot to catch up on, so let’s give it a shot: when we last left Lyra (Dafne Keen), she left for London to be the assistant to fashionable scientist Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who lets her live in her spacious, luxury London apartment (but her study is off-limits). Before long, Lyra smells something off about Mrs. Coulter: she’s much less willing to help her find her missing friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) than she was before, and much stricter on Lyra to boot. There’s a good reason for that: turns out Mrs. Coulter is actually responsible for stealing the children, as she’s the head of the General Oblation Board (“GOBblers”, get it?). She keeps them in filthy Dickensian dorms and promises to take kids on a trip “north” for unknown reasons.
Much of “The Idea of North” revolves around Lyra’s gradual awakening to the cynical, manipulative world around her. This tracks, as what I know of the books revolves around the idea of achieving consciousness and learning difficult lessons about the world around you. In this respect, Lyra is forced to grow up quite quickly during her time with Mrs. Coulter — especially in a harrowing scene in which Coulter’s daemon, a golden monkey, brutally attacks Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), which causes pain for them both.
If I didn’t talk much about daemons in the previous recap, it’s largely because they often feel incidental to His Dark Materials as a whole. As effects go, the daemons themselves look realistically animated, though there are more than a few instances where they don’t feel as integrated into the scene as I’d like. Conceptually, though, they’re very interesting: Pan, for instance, is Lyra’s sidekick, accomplice and Jiminy Cricket figure all in one, and that fact that he hasn’t ‘settled’ on a form yet (which doesn’t happen when their human matures) means he gets to morph into everything from a ferret to a butterfly and beyond. Sometimes, the daemons feel like a hindrance more than a boon (imagine the stress involved in writing a show where every single character has their own sentient pet that has to stay within arm’s length at all times), but this episode finds plenty of things for the daemons to do.
On top of that, “The Idea of North” throws yet another conceptual curveball at us when Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), one of Mrs. Coulter’s fellow Gobblers, crosses through a mysterious portal to what looks like our world – a version of modern-day London with cars, coffee shops, and everything. Dust is the key to these connections, and it seems the Magisterium is trying to dig its claws into other worlds than their own. To what end, we’re not sure, nor how the kids play into it: His Dark Materials still has quite a bit else to juggle.
Speaking of which, one of “The Idea of North’s” biggest complications comes from the sheer amount of narrative busywork it has to do. This is most evident with the Gyptians themselves, who travel to London to look for their missing kids. Ma Costa (Anna-Marie Duff), mother of missing child Billy, is ostensibly one of the main characters, but she hasn’t been on screen enough for us to get to know much about her. She, like the rest of the Gyptians, feel vestigial to the main story, and until they intersect with Lyra’s own journey they look to remain so.
Even so, there’s a lot to unpack and enjoy here, especially Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter. With her haute couture fashions and sly, thin-lipped smirks, Wilson’s clearly having a ball with the role. She’s obviously the villain of the piece, but her cageyness feels borne of other motivations as well, and the longer runtime of the show is giving her plenty more to do than Nicole Kidman had in 2007’s previous (failed) adaptation of the material. As she and Lyra continue to build their complicated relationship, one borne of necessity and mutual distrust, I suspect that will continue to be the most interesting aspect of this show. At least, until Lin-Manuel Miranda and bears in armor come along.