Content warning: His Dark Materials S1E3 depicts gun violence and death by suicide.
Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) is most assuredly in danger now. Following her departure from Jordan College with the mysterious and lovely Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), then her escape from Mrs. Coulter’s apartment, His Dark Materials S1E3, “The Spies,” begins just after Lyra is kidnapped by the Gobblers. The episode opens with her in the back of a van, driven by two shadowy men. As Lyra watches through the windshield, the men are removed from the van by some of the Gyptians, who then go around back to discover her trapped in a net. Among them is Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), whose little brother Billy (Tyler Howitt) was taken by the Gobblers as well.
At Jordan College, Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium Secret Police search the grounds for “something that is heretical or illegal.” She asks Headmaster Dr. Carne (Clarke Peters) where she can find Lyra, to which he replies that he left the girl with her; their conversation then turns to scholastic sanctuary, which Mrs. Coulter challenges as she rips pages from a book. She says, “If the thinking was clever enough, it would find way to obscure itself from the Magisterium, wouldn’t it?” This seemingly references her own secretive work; then she refers to Dr. Carne and the other academics at Jordan as privileged old men.
One of the Secret Police brings Mrs. Coulter a stack of books for interpreting and reading alethiometers. She reminds Dr. Carne that the only alethiometers in use are sanctioned by the Magisterium, and notes that there is no record of such a device at Jordan College — so why would he need these books? The threat is clear, but she makes it clearer by demanding to know where Lyra is, lest she go searching for the alethiometer and have the Magisterium brought down on him for harboring it illegally. Little does she know, Lyra has had it this whole time — though when she realizes this, her horror is obvious.
“Tell me where she is, or I will destroy all of this,” she says, losing her cool. Dr. Carne replies that by losing Lyra, she’s already done her worst, so if the Magisterium wants to destroy Jordan College, then so be it. As Mrs. Coulter orders the Secret Police to do just that, she also commands them to widen the search for the missing Lyra.
The scene transitions to Lyra on a Gyptian boat, being brought to Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff). Tony lies and tells his mother that they found Lyra while they were out getting supplies, which she clearly doesn’t believe. He tells her about the van, but makes it sound as if they simply heard Lyra making noise from the back and realized they had to stop it, rather than targeting the van based on their Gobblers intel. Lyra says Tony rescued her, and the three of them discuss how getting even one clue about the Gobblers is a start to beating them.
Farder Coram (James Cosmo) brings Lyra to a meeting with John Faa (Lucian Msamati) to learn what she knows, because the Gobbler they captured isn’t talking. She tells them she had no idea where she was or where she was being taken, but that she wishes she could help more. In response, John Faa informs her that Ma Costa has agreed to take her in, and that she will stay with the Gyptians for her own safety. This prompts a defensive reaction from Lyra, whose sole mission is to find Roger (Lewin Lloyd). She doesn’t know these people and doesn’t want to be a prisoner again.
At this point, Farder Coram reveals that even though Lyra doesn’t know them, they’ve known her since she was a baby. John Faa tells her she’s not a prisoner, but she’s “always been important” to the Gyptians. She assumes this is because of her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy); Farder Coram asks her who told her about her parentage, while John Faa confirms that Lord Asriel was good to the Gyptians — but he also says that regardless of her parents, Lyra is special on her own. When she asks why, he says it’s not his question to answer. Then he reiterates that the Gyptians need her help to find their missing children, and asks if she will stay.
Meanwhile at the Magisterium, Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) talks with one of the clerics about the importance of finding Lyra. The cleric reminds him that Jordan College’s scholastic sanctuary has long been established, and that by destroying it, Mrs. Coulter is acting recklessly and could face consequences. Lord Boreal insists that the two of them will happily pay those consequences, and then he’s informed of a rumor that the Gyptians have Lyra. “Officers are being dispatched now,” the cleric says. “As soon as this unseemly situation is contained, the better.”
On the boat, Lyra is restless. Pan tells her that they can’t run away again, and says he trust the Gyptians more than he ever trusted Mrs. Coulter. Lyra exchanges the expensive clothes the latter gave her for Gyptian clothes, hoping they will help disguise her from anyone who might be watching the boats. Then she turns her attention to the alethiometer, which she hasn’t figured out how to read just yet. Ma Costa arrives, Lyra puts away the device, and then goes to help cook dinner, where Ma Costa teaches her some kitchen secrets. She insists that Lyra will be safe here, and encourages her to pursue whatever path she wants as she grows up.
Elsewhere, Lord Boreal steps through a portal to our world. He discovers a boot placed on his car tire.
Immediately, the scene jumps back to Lyra on the boat. Farder Coram reiterates Ma Costa’s promise to keep Lyra safe and says they’re not like Mrs. Coulter. Lyra argues, noting that Mrs. Coulter said the same thing; Farder Coram concedes that’s probably true, and admits that Mrs. Coulter might have even meant to keep Lyra safe — but also suggests that perhaps she isn’t as powerful as she likes to think.
From there, he pontificates on daemons, in a moment of exposition that’s espoused in philosophical musing. He says he’s often confused by daemons, noting that he can’t figure out why Mrs. Coulter’s is a golden monkey, or even why Tony Costa’s is a hawk. Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), whose form has yet to settle because Lyra is still a child, says he thinks he’ll settle as a mole. He can currently change as often as he wants, but his preferred form is that of a white ermine. When Farder Coram wonders about the choice to be a mole, Lyra says, “Yes, so he can burrow underground and stay safe from all you grown-ups.”
She admits then that she doesn’t want Pan to settle, that both she and her daemon would like for him to be capable of changing forever. Farder Coram promises that when the time comes — i.e. when Lyra hits puberty — both she and Pan will be happy for him to settle. He says that whatever form Pan takes, it will reveal what kind of person Lyra really is. If she doesn’t like the shape of her daemon, Farder Coram says that will mean she’s discontented; many people experience this, he says. He also tells Lyra that he “would not change a hair on Sophonax’s head,” though sometimes he dreams her different. Sophonax is a larger than average, autumn-colored cat.
Following their chat, Farder Coram asks Lyra if she’d like to see the Gobbler who took her. In the bowels of the ship, Benjamin de Ruyter (Simon Manyonda) interrogates her kidnapper, demanding to know where the children are and why they’ve been taken.
In our world, Lord Boreal drives to a remote location to meet with his informant, Thomas (Robert Emms). At a lakeside cabin in the woods, Thomas reveals that when he ran facial recognition software on a photo of Doctor Stanislaus Grumman, he found a match: Colonel John Parry, 49th Commando, former marine and explorer presumed dead about 13 years ago. Parry was on a government-funded science exhibition in Alaska when he disappeared. Prior to that, he spent 14 documented years in the Royal Marines — meaning he’s not actually from Lyra’s world. He’s from ours.
This, says Lord Boreal, is impossible, because Grumman has a daemon. Since no one is born in our world with a daemon, he refuses to believe that Grumman could have been born here; however, as Thomas points out, they don’t really know whether people in this world are born without daemons — only that daemons don’t have physical, animalian forms. “Maybe you require a daemon when you cross [between worlds],” Thomas says. He reveals that the information about Parry was locked up tight; whoever hid it didn’t want it to be found. However, Thomas did. In addition to finding Parry’s records, he also traced the ship, which was headed to the Brooks Range.
Although that information is of no use because Parry has surely been gone from that area for so long, Thomas has one more tidbit up his sleeve. Parry left behind a wife and child; perhaps she will know something, although her medical records show a longterm history of mental illness. Thomas presents a hard copy of everything he found to Boreal, but asks if Boreal is pursuing this search for himself or for the Magisterium. His theory is that Boreal is doing it for himself, which seems to make him angry. Rather than answer, Boreal asks why Thomas never tried to follow him into the other world; he says Thomas doesn’t have the courage, that he doesn’t want to find a window — his term for the doors/portals — because it frightens him.
“I was scared, too, but I mastered my fear,” Lord Boreal says. “I never thought that I was the only person to cross, but until Stanislaus, I never came across anyone who was fearless enough to have done it. I want to know what he knows. I want to know where he crosses, and I want to know what he has seen.”
With that, Boreal takes the file, tells Thomas the information is very helpful, and leaves. On the porch, he pauses to send a text message: “Can you meet?” Then he leaves.
In Lyra’s London, Benjamin reveals that the Gobblers are taking the children north, where anything can be done to them. Lyra tells him and Farder Coram that Mrs. Coulter has plans in her study, which would be hugely useful if the Gyptians could just get to them. Farder Coram forbids this, because if Mrs. Coulter finds out where they are, all Hell will break loose. If Benjamin is captured, he says, they risk her knowing everything.
As if on cue, the Magisterium Secret Police descend on the boats to search for Lyra. Ma Costa hides her in a hidden cabinet under the kitchen counter, while John Faa recites a watercourse law which strips the Magisterium of any authority — though the Magisterium doesn’t care about that at all, and continues to search the boat. When one of the Secret Police presents a picture of Lyra, John Faa says he’s never seen her. Below deck, Ma Costa tells the Secret Police they should be searching for Billy and the other missing Gyptian children, too. Though the men come close to finding Lyra, she remains hidden, and they leave the boat to search elsewhere.
At her apartment, Mrs. Coulter sits on the bed in Lyra’s room, then rips it apart as her daemon comes into the room from the hallway and closes the door behind him.
Ma Costa retrieves Lyra from her hiding spot and says it’s safe to come out. Lyra angrily runs off the boat, onto land, screaming about how it will never be safe because of Mrs. Coulter. “Farder Coram says she won’t find me but I don’t think she’ll stop until she does,” Lyra screams, “and I don’t know why and I don’t know if I can trust you!” Ma Costa agrees that Mrs. Coulter won’t stop, and Lyra demands to know why; she says she can’t trust Ma Costa or anyone else if they won’t tell her the truth. That, Ma Costa says, is complicated: “Some things you’re better off not knowing.” Then she drops a bombshell: Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother.
As Lyra marches away, refusing to believe it, Ma Costa chases after her and explains how Lord Asriel and Ma Costa met. He went exploring all over the north; Mrs. Coulter was already married, but as soon as the pair met, they fell in love. When she was pregnant with Lyra, the pair thought they could pass her off as Edward Coulter’s daughter, but she looked too much like Lord Asriel. So, he put her in the care of a Gyptian nurse — Ma Costa. Edward went after her, hellbent on killing Lyra, and Asriel fought him to the death. The law didn’t know how to respond; Mrs. Coulter became a social pariah, and Asriel was stripped of everything he owned. Lyra was placed in a nunnery, but during the Great Flood, Asriel stole her away from the nunnery and delivered her to Jordan College, where he demanded she be protected under scholastic sanctuary.
“I just want to keep you safe,” Ma Costa says. “I didn’t manage it before. Let me manage it now.”
At her apartment, Mrs. Coulter stands on the edge of her rooftop balcony, drinking. Her daemon watches from inside the apartment, panicked when she wobbles. After a moment, Mrs. Coulter straddles the balustrade and removes two decorative metal pieces from a wooden box. She sets them on one of Lyra’s dresses, which lies in front of her, and the pieces open up into flying beetle-like shapes. They fly off into the night with Mrs. Coulter and her daemon watching.
Then we revisit our world, where Lord Boreal meets with a new informant. He hands the man the envelope containing information on Grumman and says he needs help finding the house and family. The man pulls out a photo of Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a character who doesn’t appear until the second book in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials book trilogy. Lord Boreal requests that Will and his mother be watched, their activity reported back to him.
Lyra and the Gyptians meet with the other Gyptian clans to discuss what to do about the 27 missing children who have been snatched by the Gobblers. John Faa calls for action, because the authorities won’t do anything about it. One man stands and disagrees, reminding John Faa and the others that the reason the Magisterium is searching their boats is because they harbor a fugitive: Lyra, who’s not even a Gyptian. Attempting to take on the Gobblers means attracting more attention from the Magisterium, and since it’s not just Gyptian children who are being stolen, this man believes the land-lopers should take them down.
The forum dissolves into chaos as the Gyptians argue amongst themselves. “Do what you want with me, but you have to stop her,” Lyra shouts, running into the center of the room. She gives an emotional speech about how Mrs. Coulter will just keep taking children, and fighting back is the only way. Then, Farder Coram reveals the plan: to travel north and reclaim their children. They plan to ask the witches for their support, which will have a huge impact on the fight. John Faa requests the best warriors from every family and gives a rousing speech that garners support from nearly the whole room — they’re going to take their children back.
In the middle of the night, Benjamin and Tony sneak away to break into Mrs. Coulter’s apartment. As Tony is leaving the boat, Lyra — still awake and trying to read the alethiometer — offers to come with him. He refuses, she threatens to expose him, and he tells her that they’re going to find out whatever they can from the papers in Mrs. Coulter’s study. Lyra tells him what she knows about the layout of the space, and he leaves with a simple edict: “You didn’t see me.”
Unable to sleep with Tony gone, Lyra continues to fuss with the alethiometer. She closes her eyes after moving the arms of it, making her mind go blank, and when she does, the device begins moving on its own. Both she and Pan are surprised to see it actually working. She falls asleep at the table, only to be woken by Ma Costa, who’s discovered that Tony isn’t in his bed.
Tony and Benjamin successfully make it into Mrs. Coulter’s apartment by breaking in through the elevator shaft. Immediately upon entering the hallway, they hear noises in the vents, but continue on. After Tony picks the lock on the study with a knife, he follows Lyra’s instructions to find the plans where they are hidden in the desk. From the vault, Mrs. Coulter’s daemon watches, then jumps down onto the desk and screams at the top of his lungs.
Tony locks himself in Lyra’s destroyed room and escapes out the window, the same way Lyra did. Benjamin isn’t so lucky. As he’s running toward the elevator shaft, Mrs. Coulter shoots him. As he and his bird daemon lie on the floor, she asks who sent him. His daemon flies toward her, disrupting her hold on the gun, and she pins Benjamin to the ground at the same time that her daemon pins his. Rather than be killed by her, he breaks free of her grasp and says, “I betray my family for no one.” Then he falls backward down the elevator shaft, taking his own life.
Back on the boat, Ma Costa blames Farder Coram and John Faa for Tony and Benjamin sneaking out. Lyra admits she chose not to stop Tony from leaving and Farder Coram tells her it’s not her fault, because no one was able to stop the boys. Realizing why he feared that Mrs. Coulter would find the Gyptians — because she would also find Lyra — Lyra thanks Farder Coram for trying to keep her safe, then reveals the alethiometer.
“i never thought I would set my eyes on one of those again,” he says, clearly surprised. She explains that Dr. Carne told her the device tells the truth, but she doesn’t know how. He recalls being told that you frame a question by pointing each other three hands to a different symbol; each symbol has many — perhaps infinite — meanings. Once the question is asked, the needle points to another symbol which contains the answer. Farder Coram says that unfortunately, without years of study and the books containing the alethiometer’s meanings, it’s impossible to read one.
However, Lyra keeps trying. At Pan’s urging, she clears her mind, and tries to track down Tony and Benjamin. Since Benjamin is a spy, she chooses the serpent for cunning, the crucible for knowledge, and the beehive for hard work. The alethiometer points to an hourglass with a skull on top, and she knows that Benjamin is dead. She runs to the deck to tell Farder Coram, who shouts at her to stay below deck.
As she’s demanding that he listen to her, one of the metal beetles Mrs. Coulter launched throws itself at a seagull-shaped Pan, who falls to the deck with a cry. Also hurt by the attack, Lyra doubles over, clutching her stomach. The second beetle hits her directly, right in the shoulder. She and Pan try to defeat their respective metal bugs; Farder Coram traps one under a cup, then picks it up with a pair of pliers. The second one gets away, which is worrisome; Farder Coram explains that the bugs are Spy Flies, and that the one headed back to Mrs. Coulter will tell her it has seen Lyra. They have to go north, right now.
Tony returns with a list of the children taken by the Gobblers and confesses that he left Benjamin behind. There is no time to even recover the body. To prevent more deaths, Farder Coram reiterates to John Faa that they have to leave, and that hopefully with “the right wind, the witches on our side, and Lyra,” they can defeat Mrs. Coulter. His evidence for just how important Lyra is in the upcoming fight is the fact that she can read the alethiometer without the books.
“She can do what?” John Faa asks. “How?” Farder Coram reveals that he doesn’t know, but that she learned of Benjamin’s death from the alethiometer. If she can continue reading the device, she will be invaluable.
The Gyptians load up and leave, on a course for Trollesund. Standing on the mast, Lyra goes to throw the Spy Fly in the ocean, but Ma Costa advices her against it, since it can’t drown. She reveals that the devices are strictly illegal, as even the Magisterium is frightened of them. Lyra seems surprised that her mother would break the law this way, which Ma Costa says is another reason not to dispose of it. It’s a symbol of Mrs. Coulter’s desperation to find her.
In the final scene of His Dark Materials S1E3, Lord Boreal goes to see Mrs. Coulter, who has employed a new security team. He asks what the Gyptians want, and if the Magisterium is taken care of. She tells him they still have a card to play, and then the Spy Fly returns. “Are you out of your mind?” Lord Boreal asks, when he sees the device.
“We’ve found her,” Mrs. Coulter replies. The credits roll.