Having just barely finished their filming before impact of the COVID-19 virus (sans a standalone episode), HBO delivers His Dark Materials season two without skipping a beat. In the season two premiere, we find Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) in a strange new world abandoned by its inhabitants. In Lyra’s world, the Magisterium takes on the witches, and Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) embarks on a mission to help Lyra.
This season, after my recap, I will include notes comparing the episode to Philip Pullman‘s book series. These observations will include spoilers for the entire His Dark Materials book series and will be beneath the “In The Book” heading.
“The City of Magpies” picks up right where season one left off with Lyra waking up in a strange new place. After surviving the horrific experience at Bolvanger, being betrayed by her parents, losing her best friend Roger, Lyra has changed. She doesn’t trust her alethiometer like she did and she is plagued with guilt about Roger. She treks across the new land all alone until she comes upon the image of the city in the sky. This is Cittagazze.
In the city, she comes across a familiar face (at least to us viewers): Will. Fair warning, we stan Will Parry, Defender of Cats and Wielder of the Subtle Knife, around here. There is going to be a lot of words spent talking about the wonder and brilliance of Will Parry and Lyra Belacqua here. Deal with it.
Having followed a cat between some hornbeam trees and through a tear in the fabric of his modern world, Lyra is incredibly foreign with her daemon and her world full of dust, anbaric lights, and experimental theologians. Although Lyra and Will initially have a prickly first meeting, due mostly to Lyra’s mistrust of him and the fact that he has no daemon, they soon decide to stick together. Through Will, we learn a little bit more about daemons. This opening episode of the season alone has shown how varied Pan can be as a daemon. He isn’t just the snow-white ermine we’ve come to visualize him as, but a bird, a bug, a wolverine, a (precious) red panda. The benefit of Lyra’s story being moved to Citagazze and beyond means there’s more budget for the daemons and that’s a very good thing.
Traveling through Cittagazze, the two of them stumble upon Angelica (Bella Ramsey, aka Lyanna Mormont from Game of Thrones) and Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats). Angelica tells them that “spectres” have overrun the city, though these things seem to only be seen by adults and ignore kids. The girls describe spectres like monsters and after one attacks you, “You’re still alive, but everything that makes you human, that’s gone.” Angelica and Paola note that while Lyra is still a girl, Will is “close to the change” of becoming a man. During this info dump, Paola lets slip that someone named Tulio has been taken by the spectres. Notably, the mass exodus of Cittagazze is relatively recent given that the bread is still fresh.
Later, when Lyra and Will come across one of the human husks left over from a spectre attack, the two of them get to witness first hand what is so dangerous about this city for adults. However, it’s not just the spectres that are sinister here. Yes, it’s time to meet the very mean-spirited kids of Cittagazze. The two of them hear the sounds of an animal screeching and Will and Lyra arrive to see a group of Cittagazze kids (Angelica and Paola included) abusing a cat and attacking it. This is the same cat that Will followed through the tear. Regardless, Will is naturally protective of cats and runs to save it from these kids. Before the kids can riot, Pan transforms into a ferocious wolverine and allows the two of them to escape.
At night, the city quiets down and we begin to see the tendrils of spectres in shadows and the corners of our eyes. Will and Lyra discover that although there are big differences between their worlds, both of them come from a place named Oxford. Intrigued, Lyra immediately wants to travel to Will’s world and try and find some scholars who can tell her about dust. Will, currently hiding from the police, is reluctant, but he wants to check back on his mother as well and agrees.
Finally, given time alone, Lyra looks to her alethiometer. After the experience with Roger, she knows it won’t tell her everything, but she is curious about Will. It reveals to her that he is a murderer, but the good kind — like Iorek Byrnison — and also that the two of them are connected to Cittagazze in some way. At the same time, Will has visions of what we will learn is the Subtle Knife and he is lead to the Torre degli Angeli, shadowed by a spectre the entire time.
I love this reintroduction of Will in this opening. We get to see him as a compassionate, kind, responsible, and clever character and we get to see him finally meet our heroine, Lyra. The two of them are well-crafted and individualized characters. I loved seeing Will paying for his drink, picking up fallen food, cooking and cleaning up. His independence and maturity directly reflects the kind of life that he has always lived. It also stands in contrast to Lyra’s without gloating that fact. More on this later.
The second plot line of this season revolves around the Magisterium and the witches. After tearing a giant hole in the world, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) left his world without turning back and the Magisterium is now forced to deal with potential heresy and denying clear facts. The witches, with knowledge of the prophecy surrounding Lyra, wish to help her fulfill it. I am very excited to see more inclusion of religion and dust and angels this season, and it looks like we’re on that path.
While Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck) views any talk of new worlds as heresy, the far more practical and realistic Father McPhail (Will Keen) finds it hard to lie about an event so open and cataclysmic. Spotting this conflict, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is quick to insert herself and play the one against another. Oh, and we will also be stanning Ruth Wilson and her fabulous outfits and also Mrs. Coulter’s character development. Prepare yourself.
Lying to the cardinal and telling him that she never reached Asriel on the mountain, Mrs. Coulter volunteers to interrogate the witch they have in custody, Katja Sirkka (Marama Corlett), because witches have always had knowledge of other worlds. This interrogation involves Mrs. Coulter torturing Katja as she pulls pieces of cloud-pine out of the witch and therefore slowly taking away her ability to fly. However, during this interrogation, Mrs. Coulter is far more interested in the subject of her daughter instead of other worlds, making her intentions very clear.
During all of this Lee has arrived to meet with the witches. He tells them he looking for Stanislaus Grumman, who he knows has an item that can offer protection to Lyra. Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) supports his mission and gives Lee a way to contact her when he needs her. At this time, we meet Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka). Full disclosure, I have spent years disliking the Latvian witch queen so some of my criticism of her may be colored by my experience with her book counterpart. However, Ruta Skadi manages to be foolish all of her own this episode. Arriving furious, she demands retribution from the Magisterium for the capture of Katja. Serafina Pekkala is more focused on seeking out Lyra and helping her fulfill the prophecy, so Ruta Skadi goes at it alone.
While speeding toward the Magisterium airships she hears the call of Katja. Witches in Lyra’s world call for death by calling out to their goddess of death, Yambe-Akka. Hearing this, Ruta Skadi flies into the air ship in time to give Katja mercy. But this is not before she reveals that Lyra is known by another name in the prophecy and not before the forces of the Magisterium come up against Ruta Skadi. Of course, they’re no match for a witch queen and she dispenses them with ease. And for good measure, she decides to fatally injure the cardinal before leaving.
This is clearly going to set off a domino effect as we see in the following scene. Mrs. Coulter, seeing an opportunity, whispers foul plans into Father MacPhail’s ears. She conspires to kill the cardinal and take the sin for herself so that he may rise up and she may serve him. Of course, anyone who knows Mrs. Coulter will know that she will never serve anyone but herself. One wonders how the Magisterium will react to the assassination of one of their cardinals? Probably not well, Ruta Skadi.
In The Books…
- The title of the episode “The City of Magpies” is based on the actual name Citta (city) and Gazze (magpies). Cittagazze was known for having things like refrigeration and Coca-Cola. Instead of using their invention for good, their scientists used the Subtle Knife to cut into worlds and steal their shiny things and keep it for themselves.
- Initially in The Subtle Knife, we open the story from Will’s point-of-view. Obviously, we’ve already seen a lot of this in season one, but because in the book we meet Lyra in Cittagazze from Will’s POV, it’s interesting to see Lyra making her own way to Cittagazze after the tragedy.
- Lyra and Will’s personalities feel a bit flipped here. However, I think creators made a decision to change some aspects of Lyra’s personality when adapting from page to screen. Still, for a kid who has spent his whole life hiding and mistrusting and being unseen, Will is pretty quick to trust Lyra.
- At the same time, there is a downplaying of Lyra’s own privilege. In TSK, we see pretty quickly how pampered Lyra’s home life is, especially compared to Will’s. She doesn’t know how to cook, she’s haughty, she doesn’t even know how to bathe because servants have done it for her her entire life. She refers to herself as nobility — which she is given Lord Asriel is her father — and although she is very capable as an adventurer, she is incapable when it comes to house work. These traits are fairly overt in the books, however, this can definitely come off in the wrong way on screen, so I understand the little changes. But I appreciated the omelette full of egg shells.
- Rereading the witches’ attack on the airships made me realize that in the book it was Serafina Pekkala who wanted to free the captured witch and not Ruta Skadi. It’s interesting that they’ve decided to give this role to a different character and I’m curious as to how this will play out with the prideful Ruta Skadi.
- On the subject of witches, there’s a few magical elements that feel very different. Pullman never specified what exactly cloud-pine looked like but somehow I always imagined it to be a broom and not small pine needles. It’s an interesting interpretation, however I wish that the effects had signaled a little more impact when Mrs. Coulter was removing the cloud-pine from Katja.
- On top of that, Serafina Pekkala/Ruta Skadi did not overhear conversations made by the Magisterium in this episode. In TSK, we learn that witches have the ability to appear “invisible” but in the way that they are basically unnoticed and forgotten immediately. This skill requires immense concentration. I have no idea how they could have styled this for television, and as cool as it is, I’d rather they blow the budget on the angels and daemons, so I’m glad this idea was scrapped.
- And finally, speaking of angels. Did you guys spot actress Sophie Okonedo as the voice of Xaphania? I have no idea where her voice came up (perhaps in Will’s vision?) but she is the notable leader of the rebel angels. She meets with Asriel in The Amber Spyglass and plays a big role in the war against the Authority. Even though her contribution was small, seeing Xaphania’s name has me so excited for what is to come this season!
Watch His Dark Materials Mondays on HBO Max.