One could argue that the problem with His Dark Materials so far is that it insists on staying slavishly faithful to the source material. It's an understandable decision, especially in light of the 2005 film, which excised all of the religious overtones to reduce it to a story about Lyra and her cute animal friends. But in being so intensely literal, the show has perhaps gone too far in the other direction, erasing the magic of the world in a quest to make it as realistic as possible. The result so far has been a workman-like adaptation, which would have been remarkable in say, 2012. But in 2019, especially facing competition like the high-concept Watchmen, it's merely ho-hum.
That's why the best parts of the show are those that go over the top -- Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and, of course, the armored bears. But it's when the show chooses to finally zag instead of plodding along the book's well-worn predetermined pathways that things also finally light up, narratively speaking. Lord Boreal's forays into our world aren't just exciting because a character is somewhere other than where the book places him. They're fascinating because they're unexpected, and allow the show to go its own way.
That's why this week's decision to spend half the episode with the Parrys was great. We got to know Will (Amir Wilson) a high school wrestler who suffers from bullying due to his father's disappearance and his mother Elaine (Nina Sosanya). Will doesn't show up at all until the second book and is then only really seen and understood via Lyra's pint of view. Elaine is all but a non-character, and Will's life on our version of Earth is something only recalled in dialogue. To spend an entire half episode filling out Will's backstory, so he becomes a lead character in his own right, is one of the best decisions the show has made so far.
It also gives Boreal more to interact with over here as he attempts to prey upon Elaine, who is viewed by most as emotionally shattered by her husband's passing 13 years ago when, in reality, her knowledge of John's mission has made her paranoid. Her freakout leads to Will discovering his father's letters home, though he initially resists reading them. It also gives Boreal a mystery of sorts to solve. He knows Parry and Grumman are the same person, but he has no tangible proof. Until that is, Thomas hacks Elaine's bank accounts and discovers Parry set up a long term payout deal to his wife, as if he knew he'd be gone a very long time. Boreal's eyes light up. The evidence will be in the Parry house.
Meanwhile, back in Lyra's world, the alethiometer is wreaking a little havoc with everyone's plans. John Faa and Farder Coram were planning on heading directly for the children to rescue and free them. They also want to stay on the path because Mrs. Coulter could reach them at any time. But Lyra's question to her truth-teller over the security they'll face upon arrival accidentally calls up a side mission to a nearby town, to rescue it from "ghosts... or something."
The series also finally brings in Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), the witch that Coram was once married too. She arrives with a bit of useful plot exposition, explaining why the aurora borealis is where people can cross between worlds, how it's where the walls between multiverses are thin. But not to worry. Iofur Raknison, who was so respectful to Mrs. Coulter last week, is playing both sides. Asriel may be prisoner, but he's a very busy prisoner, who's still working on his project.
At least the alethiometer was right to send Lyra to the "ghost." Said ghost was Billy Costas, the child first taken in the premiere, and one of the few named children the group was aiming to rescue. But Billy isn't himself; he's not even awake. His daemon is gone — cut off and taken. Lyra brings him back to camp, but he's less a child than a vaguely shambling zombie, better off dead than alive. It's a recognition his mother understands, as she sings him to his death. Lyra is left disturbed and frightened. But her determination in going, and her courage in bringing Billy back, gains her the respect of the adults.
And now we know what the Gobblers, Mrs. Coulter's General Obligation Board, are doing, and why they're called "child cutters." The Magisterium not only knows, it is funding this "research." It turns out there's a unfortunate side effect no one considered when souls developed outside of the body. It makes them far easier to steal.
While Will sleeps uneasily in his house, unaware of what's happening outside of it, Lyra is also in danger. The Gobblers come out at night, not just in London, but also in the Arctic, it seems. They catch Lyra unawares and drag her off to their labs. She thinks fast enough upon questioning to rename herself Lizzie, but that only means Dr. Cooper (Lia Williams) and the sisters in charge have no idea who they have here. They might pause if they knew it was Mrs. Coulter's daughter they just designated as "Category A" (almost at puberty), and therefore to be prepped for immediate experimentation.