At long last, Fleabag‘s “Hot Priest” made it into His Dark Materials! Tower of Angels may have struggled to work out what to focus on, but it can at least be remembered for marking the formal introduction of Andrew Scott as John Parry / Jopari / Stanislaus Grumman (all the same person, as it turns out), played by Andrew Scott. Scott himself is wonderfully enigmatic in the role, with a sense of both experience and otherworldliness in his eyes. His scenes may feel all too brief in a very cluttered episode, but Scott’s performance goes beyond what’s on the page, and his scenes with Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Lee Scoresby are very engaging to watch.
Nevertheless, “cluttered” is a good description of Tower of Angels; an episode which boasts an impressive guest cast (including Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Terence Stamp), some exciting reveals and an even a witch battle – but nothing really beyond that. Scenes constantly feel too short, and lack any real development, as though the production team were worried it would all feel too slow and expository. There’s ultimately too much going on, but not much actually happening, and when so many storylines are crammed into fifty minutes, it’s difficult to let anything really breathe.
Look at the scene where witch queens Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) meet in a forest: they appear, mention that Lake Lubana has been destroyed by the Magisterium and decide to travel through the gateway in the North to find Lyra, and then the scene just ends. There’s no real discussion, no mood being established, no sense of peril as to what the witches are actually doing – nor how they themselves feel about it. His Dark Materials‘ TV adaptation really does seem to struggle with how to approach the witches, and this doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. All of their scenes this season have felt underdeveloped, and it’s hard to see an audience who haven’t read the novels really caring about these characters; they’re just not very interesting in this TV adaptation.
Meanwhile in Cittàgazze, Lyra and Will find their way into the mysterious tower and discover the Subtle Knife in the hands of a young boy, who has stolen it from Giacomo Paradisi. They try to wrestle the knife away, but in the fight Will’s fingers are severed – a sign that he is the true bearer of the knife, as Paradisi reveals. The fight scene itself is very well done, while Will’s injury is directed in such a way that it still retains an impact without being too bloody for what is supposed to be a family show. It all happens a bit too quickly, but making the scene longer and more intense would have felt too strong for a series with a younger target audience; it’s a tricky balance to strike.
It isn’t really explained who this boy is and what he’s doing, but I guess we’re supposed to be content with the implication that he’s recently become an adult, and is thus trying to use the knife to protect himself from the eerie Spectres (which really are a terrific creation from the visual effects team). His inclusion feels a bit random in this version of the story, and might have worked better had he been set-up alongside Paola, Angelica and the other kids lurking around the city earlier in the season.
It’s always great to see Terence Stamp though, and while his performance felt perhaps a bit wooden in a few moments, he brought a terrific level of gravitas to it all. I really liked his “training” scene with Amir Wilson, as Paradisi attempts to explain the knife’s powers to Will, and I thought the way the knife appeared to cut through the “threads” of the multiverse was a brilliant visual touch. I think that the episode could have taken more time with this scene, and this new role for Will, but alas there’s just too much going elsewhere.
Tower of Angels is a difficult episode to look at individually. It keeps all of the various plot-threads moving, but it doesn’t feel like a particularly satisfying episode in and of itself. There’s a lot to like here – I didn’t even get to mention a great little scene where Boreal (Ariyon Bakare, in his best performance yet) informs Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) that he has found Lyra in another world – but I don’t know how to really assess this episode on its own merits. Ultimately I don’t think it really can be, but I will say that I found it all a bit too rushed for my liking, and I think the last two episodes flowed a lot better both as chapters in the story but also as individual instalments.