'His Dark Materials' Season 2, Episode 4 Recap: "Tower of Angels"

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

When His Dark Materials introduced Lyra's Earth in Season 1, it did so directly and straightforwardly. One might even say (and I did, several times) that it was so matter-of-fact in its delivery, it drained the magic out of a mirror universe to our own, which was filled with wonders, including the alethiometer.

The good news is that the show decided not to make the same mistake with the Subtle Knife's introduction this week. But even so, I was not expecting a straight-up Galadriel-in-Lord of The Rings style opening.

Grumman: "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."

That being said, going full LOTR this week was probably the right move. One of the more challenging aspects of adapting His Dark Materials is that the first book, The Northern Lights, is told entirely from Lyra's perspective, keeping the story's grand scope hidden from the reader until the final pages reveal multiple universes. Book 2, The Subtle Knife, spends a goodly portion of the early going filling readers in on Will's story before bringing Lyra in at all, so the story is over halfway through before the curtain is drawn back on the stakes being played out. 

Though Season 1 didn't adhere that tightly to that narrative structure, part of the show's early weaknesses came from insisting on staying within that perspective. Season 2 has managed a better balance, partly due to bringing in Will as part of Season 1, speeding up his narrative, and leaving room to show the stakes instead of just telling. And yet, there is power in words. John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott) arrived this week with a summation of the series' overall battle, even as he laid out his mission to Lee Scoresby, to find the Subtle Knife and the one who carries it. Of course, the irony is that he has no idea he's searching for his son.

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

When Boreal sent Will and Lyra off last week to find him the knife, the show presented it as a side quest: "Get me this so you can have the main item back again." But even if the show hadn't stopped dead to make sure audiences understood the importance of the knife, the price Will pays — losing two of his fingers — would be enough to symbolize this is more than a small price for the more important item. The knife is as essential as the alethiometer and perhaps more necessary in being a plot mover. (The alethiometer can tell them which direction to walk, the knife slices a direct path to it.)

It also helped that all of the scenes in Cittàgazze brought the weight of the danger to the forefront. Like Boreal leading Coulter across from one doorway to the next, even the smaller moments felt fraught. From the honorable death of the former bearer, Giacomo Paradisi (Terence Stamp), to the nasty end of Angelica's brother Tullio (Lewis MacDougall), who was trying to steal the knife to survive hitting puberty, Lyra and Will weren't just here to grab the knife and run. This was a moment to bring Will up to Lyra's level in magical instrument ownership, complete with a sped-up training montage.

As for Boreal, the character's expanded role has paid dividends this season, including this new way of bringing Coutler into Will's world. The knife will come into play in stealing the alethiometer back again, and one assumes Lyra and Will will be able to circumvent any nastiness Boreal and Coulter have planned for them. But one gets the sense that the show isn't going to make it all that easy from here on out and that the days of Lyra stumbling and bumbling past danger simply because she didn't know any better to spot it are over.

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

Coulter isn't the only one to cross this week either, but at least she has a guide in Boreal that keeps her away from the spectres. I'm still not sure what the show thinks it's doing with the witches. One minute it seems like we're setting up for war against the Magisterium; the next, Serafina Pekkala is declaring her people above such matter because Lyra is all that matters. Then this week, we seem to have both — a massacre of Magisterium zeppelins as the Witches head out the door after Lyra. It undercuts the idea that the Magisterium is somehow representative of the evil Lyra is trying to take down if they are so efficiently routed. It also makes one wonder why the witches let their lands and people burn if they can massacre their enemies with such ease.

Also, are the witches prepared for Cittàgazze or the spectres? or any of it? Unlike Coulter, Boreal, and Asriel, who are painted as heedless and uncaring for the well being of the world by their self impulses to run through an open portal to other multiverses, the witches are supposedly more thoughtful, more long viewed. One would assume they would be like Mary Malone, sitting around doing their homework on Dust and having long last night conversations with it before considering such rash behaviors.

By the way, did anyone else notice the voice of Dust sounded like the narrator from the prologue? The Dust knows all. At least one of the supposed "adults in the room" is listening.