'His Dark Materials' Season 1 Episode 3 Recap: "The Spies"

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Last week's His Dark Materials ended with Lyra's capture by the gobbler goons, unaware the child they collected was the last one Mrs. Coulter ever wanted to see go North for experimentation. In other circumstances, this might have been the worst thing to happen. Since these goons work for Coulter, this is a direct path to Lyra going right back to the prison apartment. But a lucky break strikes instead. Tony Costa and the Gyptian toughs have steaked out where the kids used to be held and are there to attack when the truck pulls up. Still, it's hard to tell who is more shocked when they open the back of thevan — Lyra to see Tony or the Gyptians to see her.

I've been skirting the Gyptian issue so far in my recaps because they are probably the most problematic part of the original story. In 1995, when The Northern Lights was published, the word "gypsy" was still a stone's throw from being commonly used to refer to the Roma. In a show less intent on a slavishly precise adaptation, those involved might have been able to take a step back, recognize that a quarter-century on, this one particular choice hasn't aged well, and noodled it into something a little more 21st-century appropriate. But sadly, no.

That's not to say the Gyptians, a Romany-like people who live on boats rather than in wagons, and who refer to everyone else as "landlubbers" are terrible. Everyone works very hard to make Pullman's unfortunate stereotype feel like a fully-realized people. And it should not be lost on anyone that these working-class people are the ones losing their children at a disproportionate rate to everyone else, a reminder the rich always prey on those they see as unable to fight back. But this episode is also hampered by the show's need to get all the plot exposition out of the way before the end of the hour, so that everyone can sail Northwards with clear eyes, full hearts, and a will not to lose.

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

That plot exposition includes Lyra's history. Ma Costa was the "Gyptian nurse" who fed and changed her as a baby. She explains what most viewers probably guessed from Ruth Wilson's remarkable blow up as Coulter last week: Lord Asriel is Lyra's father, and Coulter is her mother. Theirs was a tragic extramarital affair. Coulter thought maybe she could pass her pregnancy off as the child of her husband Edward, but Lyra looked too much like Asriel from the moment of her birth to pull it off. Instead, Edward went to Asriel's to avenge his wife being sullied and kill the child. Unsurprisingly, Asriel killed Edward instead. The result was that he lost custody of Lyra, who was first put in a nunnery and then entrusted to Jordan College.

The alethiometer was in Lyra's possession when she was dropped off, and the Master of Jordan considered it her property. Ma Costa doesn't reveal that last bit, the Master does, to Mrs. Coulter, who at first assumes Lyra ran home. She arrives planning to ransack the college in retaliation (scholastic sanctuary be damned). But once she realizes that Lyra isn't there and that the Master blames her for losing the girl, Coulter sacks the damn place anyway. Drunk, suicidal, and half-crazed, Coulter sets out a pair of spy flies to search the child down.

Her acting out only serves to highlight how little the Magisterium thinks of Coulter, and how much her power is an illusion. One of the Magisterium's middle-managers even tells Lord Boreal the Magisterium is very displeased by Coulter's actions. She needs to be reigned in, as they have figured out Lyra is with the Gyptians and will be picking her up immediately. Nevermind that they fail to find Lyra during a search of Ma Costa's boat, that Boreal does not go to Coulter and tell her this immediately is a reminder of how small her circle of loyalists is.

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Boreal has more important things to worry about anyway, such as our world. He's set Thomas on a mission to google that for him. The subject: Doctor Stanislaus Grumman, whose "skull" Asriel pretended to have during his presentation at Jordan College in the premiere. Having searched out the skull in Episode 2, Boreal has realized this was not Grumman's head. He believes Grumman is alive, crossed over into our world, much as he did. But Thomas' results come back with a very different answer. Grumman didn't cross from that world to this. His real name is John Parry (Andrew Scott), and he is from our world. The Grumman name is an alias created for their world. He is, in short, a fraud, but a real one, if that makes sense. (How he has an osprey daemon is not explained.) Boreal leaves our world with this knowledge, but not before setting someone to tail the rest of the Parry family, including John's teenage son Will.

Meanwhile, the decision to go North by the Gyptian community causes Tony and his friend Benjamin to break into Coulter's place. The hope is to get their hands on the paperwork Lyra saw, which showed where the kids were going. They fail, as Tony only manages to come away with a list of all the missing children. But Benjamin doesn't make it out at all, committing suicide rather than risk giving up what he knows when Coulter captures him. But their antics do move the plot forward in one important respect. In worrying about Tony and Benjamin, Lyra finally figures out how to use the alethiometer, and proves she's able to intuitively read and understand it, making her the most valuable player in the current game.

Coulter is perplexed that these Gyptians are breaking into her house, assuming they've been sent by someone else. But when one of her two spy-flies return with news of Lyra's location (the Gyptians captured the other one), her eyes light up. At least their boats are well at sea by the time she does realize they have Lyra. But now everyone is on a collision course, headed to the cold and ice of the arctic.