Watching “The Idea of North,” I’m reminded that His Dark Materials and I go way back. I read the books for the first time when I was a teenager, and spent many a day trying to make sense of the world Pullman had created. Back then, not many people I knew had read the books, and though the next time I fell so hard for a book series, I would go on to find the community that would allow me to dissect every little detail ad nauseam (yes, I’m talking Harry Potter), I never found that with His Dark Materials.
Maybe now is my time.
Last week’s first season premiere of the show, titled “Lyra’s Jordan” wasn’t my favorite episode. It wasn’t a horrible episode by any stretch of the imagination, and visually, it was as stunning as I expected, but it was a bit slow and there was way too much exposition – and I say that as someone who understood why every scene was there. Imagine how the people who weren’t – couldn’t – follow any storyline other than Lyra’s were feeling.
Episode two, titled “The Idea of North” picks up the pace quite a lot, and rewards us with the first big revelation to come this season: Lord Asriel, Lyra’s uncle, isn’t actually, you know, her uncle, but her father. And I’m calling that the only revelation because I’m assuming you all figured Mrs. Coulter wasn’t exactly a saint from the get-go.
The change in pace also allows me to say this unequivocally: His Dark Materials isn’t the next Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t have to be. If this episode proved something is that it can be its own thing, and still be interesting. We lived through the Game of Thrones era, and that was, at times, amazing, and at others, horrible. If this show wants to be more consistently in the middle, while being more feminist, more empowering and way more socially aware, then count me in.
So, let’s talk about “The Idea of North,” and try to (without spoilers) go into Mrs. Coulter’s and Lord Asriel’s motivations, Lyra’s loneliness and the idea of other worlds.
LOVE OR DUTY?
In many ways, the first two episodes mirror each other, never more than in the moments Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter spend with Lyra. She hasn’t had many parental figures in her life, and Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter fit those roles better than anyone else she’s ever spent time with.
Lord Asriel treated Lyra in episode one both as a precious thing, and as a nuisance, with very little time for Lyra to adjust between one and the other. Same goes for Mrs. Coulter, who at times feels like she actually cares, wants to connect to Lyra, and at others feels like she’s only using her.
What is the truth? And, does it have to be just one or the other? Asriel seems, shall we say, more complicated than Mrs. Coulter than right now, especially because we know that, no matter what he did later, no matter how aloof and absent he might have been, he brought Lyra to Oxford to keep her safe. All Mrs. Coulter gave us was a few tears and a moment of looking like she didn’t want to use this child as she was using others.
Is it enough? That is the question the show leaves us with after introducing us to both these people – good and bad parts. What role they’ll end up playing in Lyra’s life, in her journey, is still to be discovered, but one thing seems certain: whatever they end up doing, neither of them are black and white characters, no. There’s many shades of grey in them, and in life.
It’s part of what keeps us interested.
The first episode was a lot of this child is extraordinary or can be extraordinary, without Lyra doing anything to make us believe that she was anything close to what people were saying. This episode, though still keeping her firmly grounded in reality, makes us feel like there’s something about Lyra that could actually be what others see in her.
It’s a combination of her curiosity, the steadfastness of her beliefs and her loyalty. She’s grown up isolated, and frankly, alone, our Lyra, and that makes her into a weird kid who both clings to any perceived praise and is ready to defend the kindness, however small, others have paid her before.
This means that for a moment, yes, she wants Mrs. Coulter to like her, and yes, she takes her words to heart, but she also very much clings to this idea of Asriel that might not be as close to reality as she would like it to be. He was always more concerned with his research, his things, than he was about Lyra, but he was still the only parental figure she had, and that’s hard to let go of.
But this tale isn’t about Asriel or Mrs. Coulter, it’s about Lyra. About who she can be, what she can do. And that is something that Lyra is going to have to figure out for herself, starting now.
OTHER WORLDS OUT THERE
That the show would go into this notion, which Pullman would go on to actually explore in the sequels to Northern Lights (the name of the first book in the series, and the one we’re seeing adapted now), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, isn’t exactly surprising. It’s a big subject, and it has a lot to do with the big storytelling arc of the series. However, that the show would be so cagey in the first episode and then so clear in the second one is still a little jarring.
In general, I would have preferred they took the approach this episode took about everything. This isn’t a big twists kinda series, figuring out Asriel was Lyra’s father, for example, isn’t a bit gotcha moment – I remember when I first learned it simply going, oh well, that makes sense, and moving on. So, for the show to try to play up things for shock value is probably the wrong choice.
Especially because every second of the plot that doesn’t revolve around Lyra is still – well, to be kind, not as interesting. So clarity is needed for us to care about this shadowy people making shadowy plans, particularly because this is still a TV show, so even when they are clear, they’re not revealing everything.
So I guess this is a plea, as much as commentary: let’s continue to take the approach this episode took. Make the first episode the exception to the rule, please. The show will be better for it.
Things I think I think:
- As someone who knows what’s coming, Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy have given me exactly what I need from Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, and I can’t wait for the journeys these two characters take.
- Poor and brown/black kids, of course. That’s what the Gobblers take. Poor and brown/black kids.
- “I can never get away from the occasional urge to jump.”
- Eh, yeah, lovely conversation to have with A CHILD.
- After an episode of wearing the same clothes, many wardrobe changes in this one! Still, Dafne does a great job of showing, physically, how uncomfortable Lyra is in her new clothes.
- The social commentary of Mrs. Coulter being one of the few women who is respected is QUITE obvious.
- “No one’s ever said I can be extraordinary before.”
- I feel so bad for Lyra, because she so desperately needed some attention and that’s why she ended up here, with Mrs. Coulter.
- “The clothes you wear determine how people see you.”
- SAD BUT TRUE.
- It’s quite disturbing, the lengths Mrs. Coulter will go to mold Lyra in her image.
- I hate that monkey.
- But it’s clear Mrs. Coulter has never actually been around children for a long time. She expects Lyra to behave like no kid ever behaves.
- “He’s a failure of a man and a failure of a father.”
- I mean, not completely wrong, but ouch.
- This episode does as great a job as the first one did of showing these people in Lyra’s life that, in some way, might care for her, and yet they never manage to care in the way she needs.
- Pay attention to the whole different worlds talk.
- The conversation between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra in the terrace is full of repressed anger and amazing acting.
- Roger is too adorable.
- “I don’t think I understand any grown-ups at all.”
- See, and Mrs. Coulter didn’t believe you about the roof thing, Lyra.
- Considering that hurting the daemon hurts the person, I’d want a big ass daemon. Just saying.
- Look, showing OUR Oxford is super cruel if they’re not gonna give me Will Parry. Though, of course, giving me a glimpse of Will Parry is ALSO super cruel.
Agree? Disagree? What did you think of “The Idea of North”? Share with us in the comments below!
His Dark Materials airs Mondays at 9/8c on HBO.