It was inevitable. After three episodes, it was time for a giant exposition info dump, and His Dark Materials Tower of the Angels was that info dump. After making a deal with Lord Boreal/Latrom last episode to steal the knife for him, “Tower of the Angels” opens up with the voice of the angel Xaphania (Sophie Okonedo) explaining the origin of the Subtle Knife. We then get two more explanations throughout an important, yet repetitive episode. The biggest takeaways we get at the end of this episode is that Will is the Bearer of the Subtle Knife and Mrs. Coulter has entered into Will’s world.
The history of the Subtle Knife is sprinkled throughout the episode, but here is the gist. The Guild, headquartered in the Torre delgi Angeli, created a knife that was so sharp it could cut through anything. One side of the knife can cut through anything, including spirit and immortals, and the other side can cut through the fabric of our world. Instead of using it for the benefit of all, they used it for themselves and stole things from other worlds. Because of their actions, they opened their world to spectres. After Asriel’s tear in the sky, spectres became plentiful.
Lyra and Will meet Giacomo Paradisi (Terence Stamp), the current Bearer, who has been tied up in the tower by a desperate Tulio (Lewis MacDougall). The spectres fear the knife because it is the one thing that can kill them, so it protects the post-pubescent Tulio. Will fights Tulio for the knife and after a bloody match where he loses his ring and pinky finger on his right hand, he wins. Giacomo recognizes this as a sign of Will’s right to the knife, as all Bearers lose those two fingers and win the knife in a fight.
He teaches Will how to use the knife, telling him to put his mind at the tip of the knife and clear his mind, which is difficult given the fact that Will is suffering from the pain in his hand. After finally cutting a window into another world, Giacomo teaches him how to close it, using his hands and his soul. He then tells Will that there are rules to using the knife. He must always close the windows that he opens, he is the only one who can use the knife, he can not use it for base purposes, and he must always keep it secret (keep it safe).
One of the highlights of Will and Lyra’s story this episode included seeing Pan as an adorable red panda again. While the exposition of the knife was anything but subtle, it was nice seeing the nod toward a person’s connection to their daemon, especially in the fight for the knife. When Tulio kicks Pan, Lyra is thrown back as well. The same goes for Pan touching Will’s hand. It is meant to be an impactful moment in the episode. Daemons are NEVER touched by other people, but in this instance, Pan wanted to touch Will. He wanted to help him.
After saying their final goodbye to Giacomo, Will looks up and sees the shimmering shape of spectres climbing the tower. We’ve heard repeatedly that Will is getting near the age of seeing spectres, and we’ve seen the spectres stalking behind him, this is the first instance of him truly beginning to see them. Up in the tower, Giacomo drinks poison before the spectres can reach him. And down in the streets, a terrified Tulio tries to make it back to his sisters Angelica and Paola but is taken by spectres not long after leaving the tower.
With the knife now in Will’s possession, they must decide what to do. He can not give the knife to Boreal, it is far too powerful and he promised Giacomo to protect the knife. Lyra realizes now that the alethiometer told her that Will was important, but it was likely because of the knife and Will’s status as bearer. Resolving to get back the alethiometer, Will tells Lyra that they must steal it back.
Arriving at Mary Malone’s office, Boreal offers Dr. Mary Malone defense funding for her project but is quickly denied and turned away. Good for you, Mary, good for you for sticking to your ethics! Also boo to Boreal and his, “I’ve always admired women with a good work ethic.” The patronizing never stops with this one.
Rejected, Boreal returns back to his world to meet Mrs. Coulter. Leading her through one of the windows, he takes her through Cittagazze and into Will’s Oxford. It’s clear in this episode that Boreal not only lusts after Mrs. Coulter but harbors a bit of jealousy toward Asriel. Even more interesting is seeing Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to his attraction, as Boreal reaches for her hand, she grabs onto her monkey daemon’s fur. After being stifled and discounted in her own world for being a woman, what will seeing Will’s world do to someone as independent as her?
Reaching the end of the Yenisei River, Lee is met by an osprey daemon. This is Sayan Kötör, voiced by the fantastic Phoebe Waller-Bridge. This was announced back in July during SDCC, but us Fleabag stans still love to see Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott together, no matter the circumstance. Following Sayan Kötör’s lead, Lee finally meets the man of the hour: Stanislaus Grumman aka John Parry aka Jopari. Complete with tattoos, top knot, and trepanning scars, this older John Parry is a far cry from the royal marine talking about epic expeditions.
In another show of exposition, John Parry tells Lee about Æsahættr aka the Subtle Knife. While he doesn’t have possession of it, he knows that it will soon get a new bearer and that person must be brought to Asriel. Lee is averse to helping Asriel in any way, but John Parry tells him the importance of the mission:
“There are two forces that have always been at war with each other. Those who repress, who command, who don’t want us to be conscious, inquiring beings, and those who want us to know more, to be stronger, and wiser, to explore. And those two forces are lining up to battle, as we speak. And if the right side has any chance of success, Asriel will need the knife.”
The highlight of this meeting of John Parry is really his parallel to another absentee father, Lord Asriel Belacqua. Much like Asriel, John Parry also left his child behind for a mission. Unlike Asriel though, Jopari spent much of his life trying to get back to his own world. After finally making peace with his reality, he decided that he wanted to leave a world behind for his son where he is able to think for himself and be free. This is not a far cry from Asriel’s own goals. However, the intention is different.
Asriel is driven, in part, by his own pride and ego, while time and tragedy have tempered John Parry. Promising Lee that Lyra is under the protection of the Subtle Knife, he states that the bearer of the knife could have their own task and that could endanger Lyra. Leaving with Lee, he conjures up a wind that pushes Lee Scoresby’s balloon toward their destination and (unknowingly) toward his son. Not really sure when Lee got his balloon back, but let’s ignore that.
The witches and their useless storyline have decided to finally go through the tear and search for Lyra. They destroy some Magisterium airships in an action sequence that honestly feels like a waste of money, and fly toward Asriel’s tear. I sincerely hope that they end up serving some purpose, since the witches actually play a major role in The Subtle Knife book.
Back in Will’s Oxford, Mary Malone tries one more time to speak to The Cave, and this time… SUCCESS!! She speaks to the unnamed Xaphania who confirms to her that shadows are dust are dark matter are angels and are conscious. The angels number in the uncountable billions and have always been influencing humans, even intervening in human evolution. “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter. Matter and spirit are one,” Xaphania announces. And why have they done all of this? Vengeance.
In the Books…
Obviously, the points made below cover spoilers throughout the His Dark Materials trilogy.
- By this point in the book, the witches have traveled through to Cittagazze. We get a large part of exposition through Serafina meeting a caravan of people who have been attacked by spectres. They see first hand what happens to adults around spectres (though, these spectres can’t fly so they can’t reach the witches). In this scene, two adults ride away while spectres attack the caravan so that there can be surviving adults to raise the children afterward. One of them is named Joachim Lorenz, who tells Serafina about Cittagazze in a sequence much like the opening of this episode.
- Although Boreal is a main player in the show, he has a much more nuanced character in The Subtle Knife. He has met Giacomo Paradisi and has tried to take the knife from him. The reason why the window between the hornbeams stayed open is because Giacomo was hoping to lure Boreal into Cittagazze and have him get attacked by the spectres.
- Similarly, when he meets Mary meets Boreal, he is much more practiced in the world and sly. This Boreal has spent years in Will’s world, he is embedded into the government and worked as a spy during the Cold War. He accuses Lyra of being involved with some kind of international crime and ties her to Will. He doesn’t get kicked out by Mary, he leaves after having threatened her with an ultimatum to take his help or get shut down.
- Oliver Payne, Mary’s co-worker, is also much shadier and far more ambitious. The Cave project was ready to get shut down, and he was abandoning the project for another job in Geneva. He considered the work meaningless until Boreal came in talking about a defense budget. Mary decides to leave her job at this point and Oliver gives a call to Boreal. After this moment, Mary is locked out of the lab and the whole building has heightened security.
- Tulio’s attack by the spectres is far darker in TSK. When we first see him in the tower, he is fighting off the spectres with the knife, but he only looks like he’s dancing to Lyra and Will. Without the knife, he is consumed by the spectres in front of his siblings, who can’t do anything but watch. The kids of Cittagazze are assholes, but it’s not hard to imagine why after witnessing that kind of trauma.
- While there are many theories of how spectres have come into this world, the actual reality is that they come from the void between worlds. Every cut from the Subtle Knife creates a spectre, and when Asriel tore the sky apart that was like cutting open thousands of windows. It also fundamentally changed how the windows worked. Boreal realizes that after Asriel’s experiment, the windows no longer had to feed into Cittagazze, he could go directly from Will’s world into Lyra’s. This means that there actually is no scene like the one in this episode of Boreal and Mrs. Coulter going through Cittagazze.
- One of the biggest reveals at this point in TSK is the revelation of Stanislaus Grumman. From a severed head at Jordan College to a small village at the end of the Yenisei River, we finally learn the truth about who Grumman is. However, in the show, this is less of a reveal. We learned early on in Season One about the identity of Grumman aka Jopari aka John Parry. I’m confused as to why the show bothered to even call him Jopari.
- John Parry has aged greatly by this point in his life. Being in a foreign world has messed up his body. He reveals to Lee that he lost his expedition mates after going through the window in his world to the spectres in Cittagazze. He came into Lyra’s world and was unable to return back to his own. In Lyra’s world, he learned about dust and explored Cittagazze in a shaman trance state, where he learned about the Subtle Knife.
- A small note: John Parry’s direct line from the book referring to his daemon Sayan Kötör is fantastic and I’m glad it made it into the show. “Imagine my astonishment to learn that part of my nature is female, bird-formed, beautiful.”
- There’s a whole action sequence with how Lee gets back his balloon that I am so grateful that they cut out. In its place seems to be Lee’s conversation with Mrs. Coulter from last episode, which was far more productive and interesting than another swashbuckling scene.
- Lyra recognizes that using the Subtle Knife is much like how she uses the Alethiometer or how Mary Malone uses The Cave and the I-Ching.
- A major factor from here on out in the book is Will’s pain from losing his fingers. This does not get cured until the very end of TSK and it’s in a tragic way.
- Although Mrs. Coulter doesn’t meet the spectres until The Amber Spyglass, the scene of her spotting one in Cittagazze is a sly nod to her eventual control over them in the third book of the trilogy.
- A realization that Mary comes to when considering dark matter. When Lyra tells her about the skulls that she saw in the museum, which the alethiometer dates back to over 33,000 years ago, the pieces start falling together for her. That is around the same time that humans evolved and the human brain became conscious because of dust. Before that time, no other objects had dust on them.
Watch His Dark Materials Mondays on HBO Max.