Part 3 The Intention Craft
In the midst of an episode heavy on travelling between worlds, scary technology and impending war it is somewhat reassuring to come across a former couple having an almighty row. Never mind that they are arguing about most of those aforementioned topics, you can see in the way the lengthy scene is played that these are two people who once loved but now no longer even understand each other yet sort of want to do so. “Why can’t you be who I want you to be?” says a frustrated Asriel as he and Marissa say all those things that have been building up for some time now. It is scenes like this when the series flares into life, when you can dig beneath the plot and find some humanity. And when you have actors of the calibre of James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson, even better because they utterly convince you.
Of course it’s an argument on many levels and it seems as if Asriel is jealous of Marissa’s devotion to Lyra who he is always eager to dismiss of being of no consequence. You can still see the embers of their former passion and the way they now delight in getting even the smallest slight over on the other. There’s a similar, though less emotional, fall out between Lyra and Will over where they should take the knife. Will acquiesces in the end to accompany Lyra to the Land of the Dead in order to help Roger whom she’s seen in dreams. It’s not much of an argument really but of course Will is in love with Lyra something so far unsaid but clear from the sequence where he has to focus on something to help repair the knife. The juvenile disagreement though is much more sensibly resolved than the point scoring of the adults underlining how we become less prone to reasonable solutions to fall outs as we get older.
It’s the episode’s second standout scene while the third is rather more disturbing. Marissa has managed to convince Asriel that she can be of use -though why do people still keep trusting her?- so he ends up showing her his latest device for splitting the captive bad angel into pieces to send him back. Mrs C’s presence has livened up activities at Asriel’s HQ and the viewer will be torn between the two. Watching Asriel pull the levers with glee as he shatters his prisoner reminds us of his similar experiments with the children in season one and that this narrative, for all its Young Adult facia, is extremely dark and often gruesome. Mrs C takes the opportunity to dart out and take the Intention Craft. You see, all the viewers knew she couldn’t be trusted!
Part 4 Lyra and Her Death
Oddly it is death that brings this story alive at this point. After a sluggish start which was full of good scenes but paced so it seemed like the slowest boat trip ever, the season blazes into excellence in an episode that features some dramatic plot developments. It reminds me of how the series began with both Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson at the heart of nearly every scene between them though circumstances are different. Perhaps unsurprisingly Mrs C takes the stolen Intention craft right back to the Magisterium, where she strolls in, confident as you like, and demands to see the President. Scenes between her and MacPhail are always laced with underlying tension and this time that explodes on several occasions. They are each as devious as the other in different ways and the episode shows that to the maximum. Thinking she has wormed her way back into his trust, Mrs C oversteps herself in believing she has the run of the place. But MacPhail has his own plan that becomes more serious as it goes creating a bomb that will seek out Lyra wherever she is.
Even when it seems Mrs C is cornered, she still fights to gain something over him and who knows how this will play out. The scenes between Ruth Wilson and Will Keen are electric and the subterfuge as each tries to gain advantage fascinating. Both use faith as a weapon while she tries to disguise that she is simply looking out for her daughter. He remains tempted by her which only increases his frustration.
In between we accompany Lyra and Will as they seek the Land of the Dead. The preliminary route seems very human like with road markings and lots of ordinary people walking towards a large warehouse. As they gain more knowledge the scale of what they have to sacrfice to gain entry becomes apparent. There’s been a certain reassurance up till now that the subtle knife will provide some sort of escape route but they discover that to enter the Land of the Dead you have to be, well, dead. Makes sense but it means that Lyra cannot take Pan with her. This is where the series’ relative lack of attention to daemons, as opposed to the novels, does show up a bit. The angst of the separation is perfectly played but Pan has not been as much a presence in the series as he is in the books but still they just about pull it off.
The point is that Lyra is not going to make the same sorts of decisions as her mother, she is far more interested in finding an old- albeit deceased- friend to apologise than in the fuss over her supposed destiny.
Part 5 No Way Out
Opening titles and theme music can often summarise a programme so well and this is one of those series that does it brilliantly. It’s one of those few sequences where you don’t want to skip the intro because it eloquently sums up both the feel and incident of the programme. Each season the visuals have changed but never has this introduction seems to perfect what is to follow than for this episode. It’s a great theme in its choral majesty.
The episode opens with quite a contrast. We follow Mary as she and the bizarre anteater / elephant thing with face paint leads her to an oasis where its fellows skate around on oily shells and play idyllically. This is such a bright contrast to the Land of the Dead wherein Lyra and Will find bleached out people wandering around what purports to be the afterlife in misery having forgotten their lives.
Striking though these visuals both are (the sense of scale in both places is impressive) it is what happens within that really makes an impact. There is the joy of science as Mary gradually learns the language of her odd hosts and discovers a way to see “Sraf” as they keep calling that turns out to be Dust. She uses her intellect and her knowledge and discovers the Dust is leaving that world threatening its inhabitants. In the Land of the Dead we see the power of storytelling as Lyra’s initially tentative reunion with Roger turns into a cavalcade of reminiscences which in turn reawaken the memories of the other inhabitants. Both of these narratives strike me as being so wonderfully intelligent yet also accessible and makes you realise how heavy footed some fantasy is when a little subtlety can make much more impact.
Visually the Land of the Dead is a disturbing triumph, so dark you’re best watching with the lights turned off to soak in the gloomy ambience that is in what we see and what we hear. This is the darkest concept in Philip Pullman’s novels. The idea that people there have forgotten what made them who we are is illustrated not just in their desaturated appearance but their blank expressions. The more Lyra’s stories touch them the more their faces animate. The idea everyone is being reconnected to their former selves is something I found particularly affecting as it is similar to the way in which dementia patients can sometimes be stimulated by stories and memories.
As if all this is not enough, we have Marisa’ final showdown with MacPhail which takes some unexpected and brutal turns and like everything else that is happening is interrupted by a stark punishment from the booming voice and white light of the Authority. The scope of this episode is so broad, its contents so engrossing that it is definitely my favourite from the entire series going right back to part one, whose occasional clips here show just how Lyra has grown in every way. When she stands up to the turtle headed creatures who seem to rule over the Land of the Dead there is still that same impudence but now tempered by experience and purpose.
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