After a slower, more character-focused episode to allow two of its leads a chance to shine, His Dark Materials somewhat falters in its third installment, ‘The Spies‘. The key issue with the episode, right out of the gate, is that it doesn’t play on the show’s strengths so far, but instead on its weaknesses. We’re still not quite at the more meaty aspects of Philip Pullman‘s trilogy, which even the “Next Time…” trailer seems to indicate, promising armoured bears, the adventures of Lee Scoresby and Lyra’s journey in the North. Instead, we’re saddled with a rather awkwardly-paced episode that pushes the unnecessary exploits of Lord Boreal and the rather repetitive scenes of various characters teasing the importance of plot-points without letting us understand why they’re important.
One of my main issue with the Boreal plot-thread is that if you haven’t read the books, this seems like a confusingly-written tease for a story you won’t get to see until Season Two. If you have read the books, then it’s an irritating tease that diverges directly from the books in favour of… seemingly nothing so far. We even get a brief glimpse of Andrew Scott as Stanislaus Grumman/John Parry, but the show isn’t interested in explaining why he’s important just yet – because that’d cause issues with the story later on. We even get a visit from Mrs. Coulter to Jordan College, with meaningless lectures about scholastic sanctuary and the importance of Alethiometers, which ultimately doesn’t serve the story.
Even when the episode focuses on Lyra, the scenes feel edited to the bone. None of her scenes with the Gyptians are given enough time to breathe so that we can feel the weight of the scenes. Lyra doesn’t even get a chance to reach Lord Faa’s meeting before his speech is awkwardly dubbed over the top of her walking. It’s moments like these that kill any pace in the episode, jumping from scene to scene without allowing us to truly invest in what’s going on. The same can be said for the reveal that Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother: it’s glossed over so quickly that we don’t get to feel the emotion of the scene, unlike in ‘The Idea of North‘ with the reveal of Lord Ariel’s identity. If His Dark Materials was a feature film, these cuts could be forgiven, but with eight hours to tell the story of Northern Lights, there’s no excuse for edits likes these – especially when the show has been adding even more plot-threads to the story.
His Dark Materials so far has been at its strongest when focusing on Lyra or Mrs. Coulter, thanks to Jack Thorne‘s superb writing and the incredible performances of Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson, but neither character gets much to do in this episode. When they’re on screen, the episode improves drastically, but so much here either doesn’t get time to play out or feels like unnecessary padding. The Spies doesn’t play to its strengths and consequently feels like a rather awkward “between” chapter, after the previous episode’s superb character work and before next week’s key plot developments in the North. It’s not bad, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.