His Dark Materials Drops the Ball on a Big Reveal, and Not Even Will's Introduction Can Save It

Lyra (Dafne Keen) gets a strange reading from the alethiometer.
Image: All images HBO

The latest episode of His Dark Materials formally introduces us to Will Parry, as Lyra and company head north to find the missing children. However, a strange reading from the alethiometer leads Lyra to a terrifying discovery—something that will change their world forever. Unfortunately, His Dark Materials fails to stick the landing, highlighting an ongoing problem the show still hasn’t fixed.

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“The Lost Boy” introduces us to not one, but two lost boys. The first is Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a young boy from the “real world” (aka our world) who takes care of his mother Elaine (Nina Sosanya) in the absence of his father, who’s been missing for years. Will is quiet and nervous, always looking over his shoulder and trying to not draw attention to himself. But there’s a streak of anger. We see it when he tries to fight a kid who made fun of his mom when she arrived at school, scared that someone was trying to dig up information on Will’s father.

His mother may have mental health issues, but her fear and paranoia aren’t unwarranted. Lord Boreal and his hired goons have been staking out their home, determined to find out how much John Parry knew about the doors between worlds and the answers may lie in some letters Will’s mom has hidden away. She shows them to Will in one of her moments of panic—initially saying he’s “not ready” to read them, then later giving him the choice. It clearly puts a lot of pressure on Will, who seems torn about whether or not to look at them. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d imagine he’s torn between wanting to find out more about his father and blaming him for abandoning them.

Will’s early introduction is the biggest surprise of the series so far, and in my opinion, it was a smart one. Technically, he doesn’t appear in the book series until The Subtle Knife, but bringing him in now gives us a chance to get to know him better before his story converges with the rest. Wilson has a clear handle on the character, and I’m loving his portrayal so far. I also appreciate how the show is spending time exploring Will’s life as his mother’s full-time caretaker. He cooks dinner, keeps the house clean, knows how to manage her moods. It’s an underrepresented situation in fiction, but one that more children than we realize have to go through. It forces them to grow up too fast and lose their childhood. A very important theme in this episode, as it turns out.

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Meanwhile, in another universe, Lyra and the gyptians are heading north to Bolvangar. We get some interplay between Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who’s starting to emerge as a sort of father figure to the young girl. The two of them have a fun dynamic, and it gives Keen a chance to show a sillier side of Lyra. But this episode has little time for fun and games, as Lord Faa asks Lyra to read the alethiometer to find out how many soldiers are waiting for them at Bolvangar. In short: It’s a lot.

Iorek tells Lyra that bears “cannot be tricked.” Suuuuuure they can’t.
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However, the alethiometer’s reading doesn’t stop there. It tells her to investigate a nearby fishing village where the residents are haunted by a “ghost.” It seems like an odd request, but Lyra is insistent that she needs to trust the alethiometer. Lord Faa, trying to shame Lyra into giving up, says she’ll have to convince Ma Costa that finding Billy can wait until she’s done with her side quest. But that’s exactly what she does. We see Lyra using her skills in manipulation to guilt Ma Costa, using Billy as leverage and promising that she’s doing it for him and Roger. That might be true, but you could tell Lyra’s sad-faced pleas weren’t completely earnest. She wanted something and used the tools at her disposal to get them. Just like her mother.

Having succeeded in getting Ma Costa on her side, Lyra and Iorek head to the fishing village to find the ghost. They arrive at the location, now abandoned, with a single shack waiting for them at the end of a long walkway. They slowly head toward the shack. The tension is high, the emotions even higher. Pantalaimon is terrified, alternating between trying to put on a brave face and begging Lyra to leave. But they can’t. Lyra opens the door, and inside they find a ghost...in a manner of speaking. It’s Billy Costa, and he’s been separated from his daemon leaving him cold, disoriented, and weak. He’s brought back to the camp, but it’s too late. As Ma Costa bravely but tearfully tells Billy he can “go to Ratter,” the boy dies.

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The scene with Billy, Tony, and Ma Costa was beautiful, which makes what I’m about to say even harder: His Dark Materials kinda screwed up here. We find out Mrs. Coulter is stealing children to separate them from their daemons—the shocking truth we’ve been building to for five episodes—and the scene doesn’t land. Too much of it had to be explained to us as it was happening. This is a terrible thing and we should be focusing on its emotional impact. Instead, characters are forced to give us non-stop exposition about how awful it is that Billy doesn’t have his daemon anymore. Not only does it take us out of the moment, it highlights one of the biggest missteps of the series so far: His Dark Materials has failed to demonstrate how vital daemons are to the story and world.

The episode ends with the gyptian camp getting ambushed in the middle of the night. Lyra is kidnapped and taken to a medical facility up north, where she’s stripped down and examined like a lab rat. Because she might as well be one. Lyra’s in Bolvangar. Based on what we’ve seen, it may not end well for her.

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Lyra heads toward the shack.

Random Musings:

  • I try to avoid “well, in the book” comparisons as often as I can, because television shows can and should stand on their own. That said, there were two things I wanted to point out here—one that worked, and one that really, really, really didn’t. First, in the book, the boy Lyra finds is named Tony Makarios, who was introduced solely so he could die later on. The 2007 movie changed it to Billy, and so did the show. As sad as it is to lose Billy Costa, I feel the show made the right choice. It raises the stakes and gave a familiar face to the horror.
  • That said, where was the fish?! One of the most emotionally gripping moments from The Golden Compass (The Northern Lights) was seeing Tony gripping a dried fish tightly to his chest, desperate to cling to anything that reminded him of his daemon. The gyptians threw it to the dogs before burning his body, only to have Lyra scream at them for it because it was the last thing he loved. I understand why they wouldn’t want to portray the gyptians as being heartless with Ma Costa’s son, but taking the fish away entirely was a dumb choice. It would’ve been the easiest way to “show don’t tell” Billy’s pain. In an episode consisting entirely of tell-don’t-show, those moments were desperately needed.
  • I appreciated the scenes between Farder Coram and Serafina Pekkala, going into the loss of their son and relationship. It gives both of the characters some much-needed space to explore their pain, and it doesn’t hurt that James Cosmo knocks every heartbreaking scene out of the park.
  • His Dark Materials is a pretty diverse show, but as of now the only black woman with a speaking role—other than Adele Starminster, the journalist from episode two that Lord Boreal killed within five minutes of appearing onscreen—is Will’s mother, who has mental health issues. I’ve seen criticism that representation of black women on the series has been disappointing, and this episode further cemented that. I hope to see this addressed in the future.
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About the author

Beth Elderkin

Video Editor and Staff Writer at io9. My doppelganger is that rebelling greeting card from Futurama.