The last time we saw Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen), she had just witnessed her best friend Roger being murdered by her father, Lord Asriel, in order to open a gateway into another universe. With no one left to turn to, Lyra followed Asriel through the gateway, and towards the mysterious city glimpsed in the northern lights. The City of Magpies begins almost immediately after the ending to His Dark Materials‘ first season, with Lyra emerging into a new world, Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) seeking help from the witches, and Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) deciding her next moves.
The Magisterium have been shaken to the core by the revelation – and confirmation – of other worlds, with the various Cardinals hiding away in a submarine, uncertain of what to do next. They have, however, acquired a prisoner – a witch named Katja (Marama Corlett) – whom Mrs Coulter tortures for information, to find Lyra and prove her loyalty to the Church. It’s a very dark sequence, punctuated by a genuinely scary performance from Ruth Wilson (I wonder how many children watching will have nightmares tonight…), but the torture itself thankfully isn’t too explicit. Just as it seems Katja is about to give up the prophecy, she is killed by witch queen Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka). It’s a strange place to introduce Ruta, especially given that her role here was Serafina Pekkala’s (Ruta Gedmintas) in the novel, and that character is more familiar to the audience who have only seen this TV series. I’m not against changes for the sake of adaptation, but I’m not entirely sure why screenwriter Jack Thorne decided to swap the characters around – perhaps all will become clear in a later episode, like the Will storyline last season.
Almost concurrently, aeronaut Lee Scoresby visits the Council of Witches, led by Serafina, and announces his intentions to find the mysterious Stanislaus Grumman – who’s head was brought to Oxford by Lord Asriel back in Lyra’s Jordan. I was excited to see how the witches would be depicted in this series, but despite some very atmospheric cinematography, the scene felt somewhat lacking. We started part-way through the events, and left before they really concluded, allowing just enough time for some exposition-dumping, but not enough time to build the characters and the world further. To not even follow Lee’s experience of the events seems like an odd creative decision (he’s already arrived before the scene starts), and with a world as rich as His Dark Materials‘, it seems a shame not to focus more on such a fascinating aspect of it. Also, more Lin-Manuel Miranda is never a bad thing.
But is is Lyra’s journey we’re here to see, and we do get to see how the events of last season have changed her character. She’s no longer as energetic and excited by everything, and still mourns Roger’s death, as she enters Cittàgazze, a Mediterranean city in another world. According to a Q&A, Cittàgazze was entirely built in a car park in Cardiff, but you wouldn’t believe it – the sets are so rich, detailed and worn-down, so much so that it feels like a real place. It’s here that Lyra and Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) meet Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a boy from “our” world. Wilson is good in the role, and while he’s not Will as I had imagined him from the books, I do feel that he is many ways a much better version of the character. He’s tough, but he’s not cold, and while him taking a photo of Cittàgazze on his phone isn’t in the original novel, it does bring the story into 2020 (the novel The Subtle Knife was published in 1997, after all). Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen make for a likable on-screen duo, and I’m interested to see how their dynamic evolves over the next two seasons.
I was very pleased to see how well-integrated Pantalaimon felt in this episode. A recurring issue I had last season was that the Dæmons in His Dark Materials felt like expensive extras, rather than integral parts of each character. Pan and various others would seem to disappear off-screen for a surprising amount of time, which was concerning given how important they are to the overall narrative and each character. Maybe it’s because the scenes in Cittàgazze are more scaled-down compared to some of the bigger sequences from last season, but Pan felt more alive, and was constantly by Lyra’s side, interacting with her and Will, and transforming into a greater variety of different animals than before – even if he did spend the first chunk of the episode stating the obvious: “where is everyone?”/”someone left in a hurry”/etc…
Overall, The City of Magpies was a strong, if slightly messy start to His Dark Material season 2. Quite a few story beats felt muddled (why introduce Ruta Skadi in such an odd way?), while some felt too brief (Lee’s role, not to mention Lyra’s distrust of the alethiometer, which was brushed over quite casually). The way writer Jack Thorne has approached the opening to The Subtle Knife is very different to the novel, and while it probably works better this way as TV version, the episode does feel quite all-over-the-place. Here’s hoping that once the various story-lines get going next week, the series will start to flow a bit better.