There’s a quiet conversation in His Dark Materials episode 3 that, not to put too fine a point on it, messed me right the hell up, because it’s raw, and real, and emblematic of this show at its best. The subject is daemons, the animal companion every character in His Dark Materials has that is, in fact, a physical manifestation of a person’s inner self. A person’s daemon settles on one, permanent form around puberty. The question, posed by young orphan Lyra (Dafne Keen) to an old nomad adviser named Fader Coram (James Cosmo), is what happens if you see the final form of your own soul and don’t like what’s in front of you?
“Many people would like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. Now I’d not change a hair on Sophonax”, Coram replies, looking to his gold-brown cat daemon. But, with Cosmo injecting the line with every ounce of human regret possible, he continues. “But that is not to say that sometimes I don’t dream her different.”
Unsurprising for a story that borrowed its name from John Milton‘s notably laugh-a-minute epic about the Fall of Man, Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials concerns itself with some weighty questions about a person’s sense of self, and how it’s beaten into rough shape by the waves of time. It’s also a show featuring swashbuckling balloon captains, armored battle bears, and a villainous golden monkey, so don’t worry about all those materials being too dark to handle. The series, brought to the television by writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), is undoubtedly fantasy with a capital F. You’ll hear a lot about the possibility of it becoming “the next Game of Thrones” because it’s adapted from a widely-read book series and airs on HBO. But anyone looking for a new Thrones is going to walk away from here disappointed. For one, Phillip Pullman‘s source material trilogy was largely for young readers so the show is devoid of sex and the violence is tame. For another, this is entirely Lyra’s story. The plot doesn’t so much bounce around from location to location as it does draw people from every corner of this strange world into the young girl’s orbit.
Neither of those things is a critique, just an observation, but His Dark Materials does start on a down note by declaring Lyra the subject of a “prophecy of a child with a great destiny.” It’s the story from the books, yeah, but pop culture has seen so many “prophecies of a child with a great destiny” it’s like meeting an “aspiring screenwriter in a Hollywood coffee shop.” But the series gets better with each episode—I’ve seen the first four—and that’s because the world we’re thrown into is genuinely fascinating. It’s Earth-ish, recognizable except for dramatically steampunk touches and the fact everyone comes complete with an animal companion attached to their literal soul. Society is largely run by the Magisterium, Holy Roman rulers who swiftly stamp out hints of heresy.
Like, for instance, the discoveries made in the far North by Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy), Lyra’s uncle, who claims to have proof of a mysterious material called Dust raining from the clouds and floating cities hanging in the night sky. You may or may not know this, but the Bible does not mention these things. After the twin shocks of a contentious visit from Lord Asriel and the sudden disappearance of her friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd), Lyra is drawn into a vast conspiracy involving Dust, an enigmatic Magisterium member named Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), and a terrifying shadow group called The Gobblers—a title not even the finest performers can make sound intimidating when spoken out loud, especially if you live near a WaWa—who are abducting children and taking them north for some nefarious purpose.
There’s a lot to take in—Did I mention Lyra inherits a magic golden compass? Lyra inherits a magic golden compass—but if you want to just sit back and soak it in, there are three deliciously different performances at the forefront. McAvoy is in the show the least but devours the high-fantasy material like a fine but hasty meal, like nobody told him this was TV and not community theater Shakespeare with a massive budget. I can’t quite describe how that’s a compliment but rest assured it is.
We knew Keen was more than capable since Logan, where she matched intensity with Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine at the age of ten. But it’s still remarkable how well she carries the show, a huge spirit with undeniable rebelliousness energy even in quiet conversation that’s going to play huge to a young audience. Keen’s sweet chemistry with her CGI daemon, Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), often turns His Dark Materials into a buddy adventure. This would be their stage alone if it wasn’t for Ruth Wilson as the wicked Marisa Coulter, one of the most endlessly watchable performances I can remember in a long time. A walking Outstanding Costume Design Emmy from scene one, Wilson plays menace bubbling beneath a glamorous service to a tee. Imagine, somehow, a subtle Disney villain and you’ve got Ruth Wilson here.
Unfortunately, all these gorgeous parts have trouble adding up to a coherent whole in the early stretches. The premiere is the weakest of the first four because it’s crammed to the brim with world-building, to the point where the many faces we meet start to blur together outside of Asriel and Coulter. That lack of room bleeds into the following episodes, where plot revelations that feel like full-season slow burns arrive fast and with anticlimactic thuds. You can’t help but think in those moments about how the show is telling an epic fantasy across an eight-episode season. (The series was recently renewed for season 2, also eight episodes.)
His Dark Materials really comes together in its fourth episode, where Lyra first crosses path with quick-witted aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda, having a great time) and disgraced warrior polar bear Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg). At this point, it finally feels like a colorful crew has been assembled and been given direction. In the current climate of Too Much Content, I know it’s infuriating to hear a show takes a few episodes to finds its footing. But there is plenty of sweeping scenery and operatic acting to guide you to that point, bumpy as it may be.
And I really can’t stop coming back to that daemon conversation I mentioned up top, and how moved I was by Lyra’s assertion—the kind of stubborn declaration only a child could make—that she never wants Pantalaimon to settle on a form. After all, everyone takes a while to find themselves. His Dark Materials seems like a daemon who hasn’t settled on a form quite yet, and that’s oddly endearing in its own way, too. For now.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
His Dark Materials premieres on Monday, November 4 on HBO.