Spoiler Alert! The following article discusses the His Dark Materials television series up to Season 2 Episode 5 “Malice” and it spoils all the events of The Subtle Knife as well as events in The Amber Spyglass. Proceed with caution! In this His Dark Materials “Malice” book comparison, we’re primarily looking at The Subtle Knife (TSK) Chapter 11 “The Belvedere”, Chapter 13, “Æsahættr”, and Chapter 14 “Alamo Gulch”. The main deviations from the story this week center around the witches, the kids attacking Lyra and Will, and Mrs. Coulter’s taming of the spectres. We also look at the first half of “Alamo Gulch” and we will be discussing just how crazy the book version of events were.

• By now you don’t need me to tell you that the witches storyline has really been transformed, and not necessarily for the better. Most of the characters’ storylines have followed TSK‘s timeline, but this is not the case for the witches. In what should have been Episode 3 timeline-wise,  Serafina Pekkala and her witches come across a group of a group of travelers lead by Joachim Lorenz (as I mentioned in Episode 4) and Joachim actually tells Serafina about the angels, who Serafina doesn’t know about. Joachim informs them that they call themselves the bene elim or Watchers. In fact, all of the information about angels comes from Joachim. They’re “beings of spirit” and after Asriel’s experiment, he remembers hearing a battle between the angels in the fog. This all occurs halfway through Chapter 6 “Lighted Fliers”.

• At this moment is when Ruta Skadi sees a group of angels flying in the night and joins them. I’m quite disappointed we never got a this conversation between Ruta and the angels or got to witness Ruta flying through new worlds because it is definitely one of the more beautiful scenes of the novel. But, perhaps there is still next week’s episode?

• Another thing Joachim mentions is that spectre orphans are common in this world and even hire themselves out to bands of people to go scavenging for food and supplies. This is also where we get the explanation of the name of city of magpies from Episode 1. “All the trust and all the virtue fell out of our world when the spectres came,” says Joachim on page 119 of The Subtle Knife “Lighted Fliers”. That’s strongly reflected in this episode’s attack from the children of Cittagazze. Lyra mentions later on, “Well, I won’t trust kids again. I thought that back at Bolvanger that whatever grownups did, however bad it was, kids were different. They wouldn’t do cruel things like that. But I en’t sure now. I’ve never seen kids like that before,” (The Subtle Knife, “Æsahættr” Page 231).

His Dark Materials "Malice" Book Comparison
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

• Will’s story opens this episode with dreams of his father. This is actually fairly reminiscent of a scene during Chapter 14 “Alamo Gulch.” In it, Lee Scoresby dreams, and in his dreams, he sees through the eyes of John Parry somehow. It’s a completely confusing and ambiguous dream, far less straightforward, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that perhaps John Parry is projecting his visions toward his son, or rather his shaman-ness is linking the two together.

• Foretelling the scene with Mrs. Coulter and the spectres (which we never see on page in the book series), Lyra correctly predicts that her mother wouldn’t be afraid of spectres. She would not only be able to control them but also boss them around. “Lord Boreal is strong and clever, but she’ll have him doing what she wants in no time,” she notes in The Subtle Knife, “The Belvedere” Page 200.

• Concerned about his mother, Will connects his mother’s mental illness to the Spectres, believing that the Spectres came from his world. This is because Lyra sees Tulio counting bricks in the wall after getting attacked by the Spectres. While this isn’t actually true, I do wish that the show would remind us that Will cares as much about his mother as he does his father. In fact, Lyra never gets to ask the alethiometer about where his father is because he first has her ask about his mother and then the children of Cittagazze attack them.

• The attack fills out “The Belvedere” chapter, so named for the building that Lyra and Will are chased to after being hunted by the kids. In TSK, this scene borders on horrific. They have guns and rifles in hand, and even though Angelica said that they intended to kill the two of them, the book makes it very clear without saying so. This scene is fraught with tension, Will can’t move quickly because his hand is in so much pain, he cuts through a window but they end up being 50 feet up in the air, the children have them completely cornered even after Will uses the knife to cut through a stairway. The kids are even chanting kill before the witches arrive, shooting actual arrows at the bloodthirsty children. In the same scene, Will realizes the fate of Giacomo, when he climbs to the top of the Belvedere and sees carrion birds around the tower.

His Dark Materials "Malice" Book Comparison
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

• Serafina Pekkala’s arrival is also pretty majestic in this scene described by Will: “He was taken aback not so much by her flying as by her astounding gracefulness, the fierce, cold, lovely clarity of her gaze, and by the pale bare limbs, so youthful, and yet so far from being young,” (The Subtle Knife, “The Belvedere” Page 207).

• Reflecting on what happened, Will goes into a bit more detail than he did in this episode about what happened to his mother. He tells Lyra about her mental illness, which leads her to compulsively need to take purchase of her surroundings, like counting the railings at the park or all the leaves in a bush. Afraid that people would find out about this and take her away from him, Will left a solitary life.

One day, his mother was out of the house and not wearing many clothes. The boys at Will’s school saw her and were bullying her. “They were tormenting her just like those kids in the tower with the cat… They thought she was mad and they wanted to hurt her, maybe kill her, I wouldn’t be surprised. She was just different and they hated her.” After rescuing his mom, Will fights the boys who did this and ends up breaking an arm and some of his teeth. He adds, “After that I never trusted children any more than grownups. They’re just as keen to do bad things,” (The Subtle Knife, “Æsahættr” Page 232).

• It is because of his mother that Will never had friends. He would never be able to invite them over and his main goal was to always protect his mother from others.

• At this point in the book, it is also very clear that even the witches magic will not heal the bleeding in Will’s hand. It’s not really clear to me if it’s working in the show, but despite Serafina’s best efforts, Will’s wound is different. I really feel that this is more connected to his bond with his father than magic, but I guess we’ll have to see how Will’s meeting with his father goes next week to see if I was right or wrong.

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

• The timeline at this time is also matching up. About midway through “Æsahættr,” the witches see a balloon in the distance with a rising storm behind it, indicating that they are witnessing the events of “Alamo Gulch” from a distance.

• Speaking of “Alamo Gulch,” can we pour one out every day this week for the agony we’re undoubtedly going to feel next episode? I can’t even think about this chapter without tearing up, I can’t imagine what a wreck I’ll be next week.

• In a conversation between Lee and John Parry about spectres versus the General Oblation Board, some interesting theories occur about what exactly the spectres feed on.

John: “The Spectres feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Spectres’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.”

Lee: “They’re the opposites of those devils at Bolvanger, then.”

John: “On the contrary. Both the Oblation Board and the Spectres of Indifference are bewitched by this truth about human beings: that innocence is different from experience. The Oblation Board fears and hates Dust, and the Spectres feast on it, but it’s Dust both of them are obsessed by.”

Lee: “They’re clustered around that kid down there.”

John: “He’s growing up. They’ll attack him soon, and then his life will become a blank, indifferent misery. He’s doomed.”

The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 248.

Photograph by Simon Ridgway/HBO

This is actually a bit different from how the show treats Spectres. Although Mrs. Coulter tells Boreal that the spectres feed on more than just daemons and what makes us human, John Parry makes it clear here that they actually feast on Dust. Although Mrs. Coulter tries to separate the GOB with the Spectres, John Parry lays out the truth here. They’re both obsessed with Dust, perhaps for different reasons, but the source is Dust. So, who is the expert? TBD. John Parry can literally possess spectres, as we see during the airship chase in the book, he’s also learned a lot about spectres in his travels. At the same time, Mrs. Coulter does manage to control the spectres, and she also basically teaches them how to fly. It’s hard to say. Just some food for thought.

• Speaking of “Alamo Gulch,” as crazy as it is to see airships taken down by birds and lightning, this scene is WAY crazier in the book. We actually see the downfall of the airships through Lee’s dreams! I know, even for book readers, this is kind of a trippy scene. The dreams are purposefully vague, as Lee witnesses the full force of John’s awesome shaman powers. As mentioned above, he literally controls a spectre and kills one of the pilots. The sky is raining green rain. Lee jumps into the mind of a bird. Even the airships are more intense, they drop literal napalm on the forest and it goes up in flames. If you haven’t read the books (and somehow you’re reading this), read them if only for this insane chapter.

• There’s also a great callback to the book in this episode where we see John Parry pull out some matches. This is obviously a callback to John Parry’s past as a boy scout. When Lee wakes up to fresh coffee, he looks at the camp John’s built and asks if it’s created by magic. “No, you can thank the Boy Scouts for this. Do they have Boy Scouts in your world? ‘Be prepared.’ Of all the ways of starting a fire, the best is dry matches. I never travel without them,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 257). I loved this little nod because that scene has always made me chuckle.

his dark materials "malice"
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

In this relatively short His Dark Materials “Malice” Book Comparison, it’s clear to see the writers of the show melding together storylines. While I don’t begrudge some of the changes, it does lose some of the excitement of The Subtle Knife. Scenes like the attack of the traveling caravan, or Ruta flying with the angels, or the Belvedere scene play out in full, or even that insanely dream-like Alamo Gulch sequence are what kept me at the edge of my scene. It keeps the momentum of the story charging forward.

With some idea of what is to come next week, all I can say is, prepare to do some reading, because we have a lot of ground to cover in that final hour!

Catch my recap of this episode and be sure to tune in on Monday nights to watch His Dark Materials on HBO Max!