As the dark winter nights draw in, it seems only right that His Dark Materials transitions to the cold, bleak, wintry North for a chilling sixth instalment – The Daemon-Cages – set in the oppressive maze of The Station (A.K.A. Bolvangar), where the Oblation Board’s sinister experiments on children are finally unveiled…
If there’s an issue I have with The Daemon-Cages as an episode, it’s how rushed it feels. Despite having a whole hour to play around with, the story feels like its jumping from scene-to-scene, and doesn’t have the space to fully enrich Lyra’s time at Bolvangar with enough tension or mystery. There’s a very studio-bound feel to most of the episode, and while the Station sets all look suitably bleak and unwelcoming, I did find myself wanting to explore a bit more.
There’s an appropriate feeling of claustrophobia, but I was hoping that the episode’s climactic battle would take place outside the Station’s walls to give the action more room to play around in. Alas, this was not the case, but the battle itself was very well-staged for a BBC Drama, and I appreciated that director Euros Lyn (a Doctor Who alumni, no less, in a Bad Wolf production) kept the focus on Lyra’s journey through the conflict. I’d admittedly rather see the whole battle unfold in a huge, The Lord of the Rings-esque fashion (like The Golden Compass film adaptation), but in a television series with a more limited budget, I think that Lyn made the smartest choice in showing glimpses of the battle through Lyra’s perspective. I was very glad to finally see more of Lee Scoresby’s balloon at the end of the episode, and I loved how warm and cosy it felt, especially in contrast to the cold, bleak interiors of Bolvangar. Oh, and the Cliff-Ghasts looked suitably nasty.
As I’ve mentioned in virtually every single His Dark Materials review on this site, Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson absolutely stole the show, and it was a genuine pleasure to watch the two hold a scene together for the first time since the second episode. Keen gives Lyra a real determination, and an inner strength that plays to the character’s endearing personality. Lyra doesn’t break in front of Mrs. Coulter because she knows that she can’t show weakness in front of her, whilst Marisa is attempting to be emotionally open with Lyra, to show some kind of weakness to gain Lyra’s trust. Wilson is just magnetic as Mrs. Coulter, and I loved the way her presence was built-up in the episode before she even appeared on-screen, it just really adds to her villainous persona. The spy-fly escape was a great moment, but was somewhat undermined by how poorly-established both the tin and the Alethiometer were in terms of their respective locations. As Lyra had changed her clothes and had no obvious place where she could have hidden both without the Sisters at the Station seeing, it seems odd not to have established where both had been hidden prior to the escape scene. But hey, that’s just a nit-pick.
I also felt that, given how much the episode needed to focus on Lyra’s fear of being separated from Pantalaimon, that we needed to actually see more of their relationship. We don’t see Lyra consoling Pan after nearly being separated, we don’t see Pan’s reactions at all during Lyra’s scene with Mrs. Coulter, and we don’t really get to see much of Pan when the separation is about to happen. I just feel that the show isn’t highlighting the relationship between human and Daemon as much as it could, and I feel should, given how key this relationship is to the overall story of His Dark Materials, and especially with the emotional hook of this episode. Some episodes give Pan a bit more focus, but others lack this focus, which I do find quite frustrating, and must make the central conflict seem less concerning to an audience unfamiliar with the books, as they won’t be as invested in Pan and Lyra’s bond as those who have read Philip Pullman‘s novels.
The Daemon-Cages is an odd episode in His Dark Materials, in that I feel so much is handled so brilliantly that the elements that aren’t seem all the worse. When all is said and done, it is a great episode, but I wish there was more to it: more of Pan and his reactions to the events unfolding, more of the Station to explore, more of the tension, and a bit more of the battle at the end. Still, I very much enjoyed The Daemon-Cages (if enjoyed is the right word for an episode that depicts the harrowing moment when Lyra and Pan are almost separated forever), and the teaser for next week’s episode has me very excited..!