“Theft” has some clunky elements, but strong performances continue to keep His Dark Materials working even in spite of itself.
This recap of His Dark Materials season 2, episode 3, “Theft”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Quite often while watching His Dark Materials I’m surprised that, in its totality, it isn’t a lot worse than it actually is. This season was unashamedly altered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is understandable, but it’s also veering away from Philip Pullman’s novels in ways that don’t always make sense, and frequently succumbing to rather artless worldbuilding and self-indulgence that make its metaphors too explicit and its storytelling too stodgy. Amongst all this, though, is a fantasy framework that remains undeniably compelling and a truly excellent cast that manages to hold everything together through sheer force of will.
At least writer/showrunner Jack Thorne and co-writer Sarah Quintrell have settled upon the two most compelling aspects of the story: Lyra and Will grappling with their loss of innocence, and Mrs. Coulter. Both of those things get plenty of attention here in “Theft”, and a lot of responsibility for the effectiveness of many individual moments has to be given to the performers. Keen as Lyra, navigating Will’s Oxford as an alter-ego and revelling in the opportunity to manipulate and deceive while learning more about both herself and her new companion, who has been rightly sick of her lately, revels in the cautious playfulness that clever kids always seem to have on the telly.
Speaking of which, Amir Wilson’s Will is perhaps the standout performance in the entire show alongside Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter. What’s more, is he’s saddled with a lot of admittedly cliché genre baggage, yet he still finds the depth of humanity in this lanky kid saddled with a great deal of trauma and now sudden, cosmic responsibility. This only makes sense, since just as the first season – adapted largely from the first book – focused largely on Lyra and the alethiometer, the second – adapted largely from the second book – intends to focus largely on Will and the subtle knife.
I mentioned last week that I like how the show allows Will and Lyra to be kids, even while saddling them with world-saving quests, and I felt echoes of that in Lyra’s encounters with Boreal, impersonating a wealthy collector named Charles Lattram, which reeked of “stranger danger”. You can have all the witches and bears and thinly-disguised allegories for the Roman Catholic Church you want, but there’s little more terrifying for a young girl than being accosted by a strange man. Likewise, there’s little more tempting for kids than the idea of spectres and ghouls and dangers around every corner, behind every stained-glass window. This stuff, the gradual eroding of adolescence and innocence, is a lot more compelling than the show’s more fantastical elements, such as a largely needless scene in which Royal panserbørne Iorek Byrnison meets with Serafina Pekkala’s eagle daemon Kaisa to reiterate Lyra’s overall importance.
The undeniable highlight of “Theft” is Lee Scoresby, held captive by the Magisterium after attempting to seek out Stanislaus Grumman, finally meeting Mrs Coulter. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Scoresby has always been cool, but also mostly a means by which to steer the plot in a more adventurous direction. Here, he’s able to round out not just the human side of Scoresby but Mrs Coulter; their shared emotional trauma, and their wildly different means of dealing with it, gives them both a more interesting contour that keeps the latter a much more complicated figure than a simple one-note evildoer. Ruth Wilson’s fantastically nuanced performance is at its best here, playing against someone who can finally, genuinely challenge her in unexpected ways.
With the production compromised by the pandemic, it’s impossible to say whether all this will manage to coalesce, especially given the jumbling-up of Pullman’s fiction. It remains a show with its fair share of problems but, thus far anyway, it continues to work in spite of itself. Let’s hope it continues.
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