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'His Dark Materials' 2.01 Review: The City of Magpies

'His Dark Materials' returns with an engaging if dense first episode.

Lyra and her Daemon pan kneel on the streets of a sunbleached city, looking alert
(Image: © HBO)

Our Verdict

A stirring if overly dense return for the prestige fantasy series.

For

  • ✨We'd die for Will Parry!
  • ✨Dafne Keen is still the perfect Lyra.
  • ✨Ruth Wilson needs to be in horror movies please!
  • ✨This episode is genuinely scary.

Against

  • ✨This is not a good jumping on point for new viewers.
  • ✨There are too many threads here and some are far better than others.

This post contains spoilers for His Dark Materials. 

After the shocking events of the His Dark Materials finale, Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) returns in a fantastical episode that might leave new viewers in the dark. The first season established a series of characters, world, and lore that are necessary to understanding where we begin this episode, starting off with Lyra alone in the snowy wastes after following her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) through a portal that he created after separating--and killing--her best friend Roger from his Daemon. It's what many fans of Philip Pullman's beloved books have been waiting for as it means that we're getting closer to building out the world of His Dark Materials

With both Lyra and Asriel on the run--though not together--Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is once again reunited with the evil Magisterium. Wilson is chilling in this role, imbuing it with exactly the right mix of cold maternal kindness to make you shiver with each breathily whispered word. Her aims in this episode are still unclear. We know that she refused to go with Asriel through the portal in the hopes of being with her daughter, Lyra, though that seems incredibly unlikely after Lyra discovered her horrific experiments torturing children and splitting them from their Daemons in order to give their "power" back to heaven. It's a vital part of the wider lore of His Dark Materials which focuses on the evil religious governing body known as the Magisterium. 

In an attempt to find her daughter she convinces the Magisterium to allow her to question a witch, Katya, in their captivity. It's a scene that showcases her brutality, which mixed with her desperation for knowledge is a potent and dangerous combination. The witches play a large part this week as their quest to save their sister means that there are rumblings of a rebellion happening back in Lyra's world. Sadly, for Katya--and Lyra--Coulter's torture is too much and the witch reveals that there's a prophecy about Lyra and her world saving potential. But before she reveals too much her coven arrives to save her in a truly impressive action sequence. 

Really I'm burying the lede here, though, as the biggest thing to happen this week is that Will Parry (Amir Wilson) and Lyra finally meet. It's the moment we've all been waiting for and it delivers. Wilson and Keen are perfect as the reluctant allies and their adventures exploring the dangerous new world they've found themselves in is easily the most engaging thread that we get this week. Scampering around the strange abandoned city of Cittàgazze, meeting haunted children, battling the emptied vessels of adults who've been stripped by the so-called specters, and trying to wrap their heads around the other's differences. The only bad thing about it is we don't get enough. There's so much else that the show's concerned with during "The City of Magpies" that we're too often torn away from Lyra and Will and the horror of the specters. 

Those subplots were far from engaging for this reviewer, though they were clearly important. Mrs. Coulter is trying to sow seeds of disruption amongst the Magisterium, Lee Scorseby (Lin Manuel Miranda and his inexplicable accent) is being enlisted by the witches to help Lyra, and the aforementioned witches are gathering an army for a rebellion against the Magisterium. Basically it's a lot to fit into a single episode and it doesn't always flow as smoothly as I'm sure the creative team would like. There's also a question of darkness. Not in tone but in aesthetic. Lee Scorseby and the witches are shot so dark it was actually hard for me to make them out at points, which is jarring compared to the gorgeous sunbleached cinematography of Cittàgazze. 

In such a packed episode it's no surprise we didn't get much time to actually see Lyra dealing with the fallout of the last season but it's still slightly disappointing. Her best friend was murdered by the man she discovered was her father, who had raised her as a ward and was secretly very evil. Her mother is a maniacal child-torturing sociopath and Lyra barely escaped both of them and yet all of that is forgotten mere moments into the episode. Narratively I suppose that her emotions are all being channeled into her hunt for some kind of reasoning to make the losses that she's suffered make sense, and Keen does a great job selling that. But the lack of time she gets to spend in her grief makes it all seem surprisingly low stakes. 

Lyra's quest for the truth about the strange and magical substance known as dust is a driving force this season. Once she and Will realize that they're both from Oxford, albeit in different worlds, she seems to be one step closer to finding what she's been looking for. Her fear of the truth-telling device known as the Alethiometer has been a struggle for Lyra this week, but she uses it to ask about Will and his trustworthiness, learning that he's a "murderer, but the good kind." So far, His Dark Materials has done a good job of weaving together The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife but we're really in the latter territory now. As the episode ends, Lyra has come to realize that both she and Will have a reason they've ended up in Cittàgazze, though we'll have to wait until next week to find out what that is.