His Dark Materials Book to Screen Analysis: Episode Three ‘The Spies’

Episode Three Spoilers

The Spies

For an episode that took place over a handful of days in even fewer locations, The Spies has been the most revelatory episode thus far. We are now entirely involved with the Gyptians, Lyra’s parentage has been fully revealed, we know where the Gobblers are taking the childrem. The episode opens with Lyra being swiftly rescued by Benjamin de Ruyter ‘s group. After the opening credits Mrs. Coulter is seen leading a raid on Jordan College, instructing her goons to find her something that is heretical or illegal. Her behaviour towards the Master of Jordan is markedly different than her dealings with Father McPhail last week. Rather than using sexually aggressive behaviour she resorts to mere thuggery, degrading the scholastic sanctuary of the college and vandalising everything in her wake before, hilariously, complaining of “privilege”, that being tired old men talking in a tired old way about tired old things. It is tired attempt to ramp up the “feminist Mrs. Coulter against the patriarchy”. The best thing about the scene was the Master’s face when she throws pages she has torn from an undoubtedly valuable book into the fire. Rather than concentrate on Mrs. Coulter’s ‘feminist’ remarks here we should look at her utter disregard for academia despite being a scholar herself. That Mrs. Coulter is a religious zealot, above all, must be remembered.

The academics on the Magisterium’s side have a small triumph. Fra Pavel, the CCD’s alethiometrist, is introduced. He chastises Boreal for the violation of Jordan’s sanctuary. While Boreal tries to assert that their thuggery was necessary, Fra Pavel reveals that they have heard a rumour Lyra is with the Gyptians and that they are sending officers to find her, although they are ultimately unsuccessful.

Mrs. Coulter’s revelation of Lyra’s father’s identity last week has hampered what should have been a more natural settling in for Lyra with the Gyptians. Her meeting with Farder Coram and Lord Faa reveals very little and she remains mistrustful. She starts to develop a friendship with Farder Coram a little earlier on, but it is not until after the Magisterium raid that Ma Costa reveals that Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother and her own connection to Lyra, having been hired by Asriel to nurse her. To be frank it has been drawn out and rather clumsy and I am suspicious that giving the task to Ma Costa, instead of Coram and Faa, is part of the campaign to remind us about the sanctity of motherhood.

In a departure from the book Lyra is taken to see the Gobbler that snatched her. This is a curious scene as Coram takes Lyra down to see him being questioned and to ask her “Is this all right Lyra?”. Lyra replies that he wanted to do worse to Roger and Billy, and why would they take the children if it wasn’t to hurt them? There are ways this brief scene reflects on various other aspects of the episode. Firstly Coram is asking Lyra if she thinks cruelty against the enemy is acceptable. I am not entirely sure that Lyra would have answered the way she did, but I could be applying hindsight here. It could be that a younger and inexperienced Lyra would have answered this way. Another aspect of this scene is the contrast between the Gobbler being captured and Benjamin De Ruyter being captured. The Gobbler eventually gives in and tells the Gyptians what he knows – and that is not everything, he is only a hired goon. It is the same as the Magisterium police overlooking Lyra hiding in Ma Costa’s boat during the raid. They have nothing really invested in this. Doubtless were Boreal himself there he would have found Lyra. So we can again consider the question, “Is this all right Lyra?”. Is it acceptable to hurt people who are just doing their job? Or can we question the ethics of someone who is happy to be paid to kidnap children, or someone who is complicit in the Magisterium’s dictatorship by working in a government job?

Benjamin’s sacrifice is deeply significant. After Tony Costa and Benjamin break into Mrs. Coulter’s flat to try and find the plans Lyra mentioned, the Golden Monkey discovers them. Tony manages to escape through Lyra’s room, now chilling and ghost-like after Mrs. Coulter trashed it, and worse, we know the monkey was tortured in there as he resignedly closed the door on us earlier. Benjamin is unable to escape, and is shot by Mrs. Coulter. This is the first time we see Mrs. Coulter wielding a gun. Interestingly it is not a typically petite and prim little handgun often given to females in television, but an obnoxiously large and showy handgun to match it’s owner (and there really is a phallic note in its long barrel). Benjamin’s dæmon Sura bravely tries to attack Coulter but the Golden Monkey captures Sura and when Coulter manages to take Benjamin down she mirrors the Golden Monkey’s attack. Ruth Wilson made the decision to “go at him as a monkey would”. Everything about this scene is slightly disgusting, particularly the foul way Mrs. Coulter is manhandling Benjamin in sync with the Golden Monkey strangling and beating Sura, and plucking at his hair, it is well-executed and utterly sickening. When Benjamin fights back there is a tiny moment of hope, only for him to move towards the elevator shaft. In contrast to the Gobbler, Benjamin has no intention of allowing Mrs. Coulter to extract any information from him. “I betray my family for no one!” he declares before throwing himself down the shaft. But make no mistake, this is Mrs. Coulter’s kill, and this is the first kill of the season. It left her unsatisfied as she roared down into the shaft. At least Benjamin maintained his honour in death, which is the intended impact here.

(Last week it appeared Adele Starminster had been killed but as her dæmon did not disappear, it appears that it fainted, as it happened in the book. Sura disappearing as Benjamin died seems to confirm this.)

It appears there are some practical reasons behind Boreal’s expanded story in season one, but it really is becoming more compelling each episode. While Jane Tranter thinks he adds a spy/thriller element, I enjoy that fact that Boreal is a particularly well-realised character. He always remains ever so slightly out of his element when in the other world. Even enjoying the local junk food, Boreal carefully uses a wooden fork to eat his hot chips, mirroring how carefully and deliberately Boreal moves. He hasn’t entrusted his whole task to Thomas but engaged another person to spy on Stanislaus Grumman’s family. And we have learned more about his motivation to find Stanislaus Grumman. This is not a Magisterium mission for Boreal, but his own personal one. Boreal asks Thomas, with some disdain, why he doesn’t try and follow him, and assumes that he is afraid, which Thomas admits to. Boreal wants to find Grumman because he is as fearless as Boreal is and may be his equal. But Boreal’s ideals of courage are quite different to Mrs. Coulter’s. When he sees the spy fly return to her he asks Mrs. Coulter if she is out of her mind and it is not necessarily in an admiring way – it is also quite telling that he maintains a vast distance from her when he seats himself. It might suggest that her bold and obnoxious way of moving is distasteful to him, despite his earlier defence of her with Fra Pavel.

The connection between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter is being forged stronger with each episode. There was the somewhat whimsical scene where she drunkenly emulated Lyra walking along her balcony ledge before releasing the spy flies, although the Golden Monkey watching her fearfully through the window gave it a disconcerting edge. Then there was Ma Costa’s assertion that Mrs. Coulter was only the way she was from being made a social pariah after Lyra was revealed as illegitimate. This is a very questionable route to take, particularly with Ma Costa telling Lyra that the spy fly should be kept as a symbol of her mother’s desperation for her. It is also a symbol of her mother’s abuse, loving gesture and hateful gesture are not airily interchangeable keepsakes.

There were some excellent rousing moments this week as well, with a particularly moving scene where John Faa gives his speech at the Byanroping, the growing relationship between Lyra and Ma Costa and Lyra’s first successful reading of the alethiometer.

Spoilers for Chapters 6 through 9 of Northern Lights only. Want to read along? Read pages 99-159 of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

If you have been thinking about reading the books, now would be a good time to catch up, because the four chapters covered this week give us a lot of insight into the Gyptian culture. It has been a long time since I have read the original trilogy so I was pleasantly surprised when revisiting this particular period in Lyra’s life. There was a great deal of information packed into these chapters, too big a burden for a single episode. Lyra has played with plenty of Gyptian children before but has not really dealt with the adults. The first few weeks she spends travelling with the Costa family, avoiding police raids, which were portrayed rather more dramatically in The Spies, and enjoying her tasks on the boat, feeling some real purpose. She acknowledges Pan was right when calling her Mrs. Coulter’s ‘pampered pet’.

Despite Mrs. Coulter and Father Heyst’s attempts to remind Lyra of her ‘class’, all the sparkle has worn off her glamorous two months with Mrs. Coulter. Lyra settles into the Gyptian lifestyle with ease, thinking of herself as Gyptian before they have reached the Fens. In fact Ma Costa has to remind Lyra that “You might pass for Gyptian with practice, but there’s more to us than Gyptian language.” Once they reach the Fens, after the shock of learning her true parentage, Lyra blossoms once more, impressing the Gyptian children with her wild tales. The Byanropings reveal some interesting discussions. At the first Roping a man named Raymond asks Lord Faa if they are going to rescue the “land-loper” (non-Gyptian) children as well on the mission. Rather than admonish or shame him John Faa tells him that he knows that Raymond is a better man than to leave any children behind, rousing the rest of the Gyptians into roaring approval. We know that were the situations reversed that Gyptian children may well be left behind. After the Byanroping Lyra’s origins are revealed in a lengthy interview with Faa and Coram.

At the second Byanroping John Faa admonishes another Gyptian who would give up Lyra for the trouble she is causing them by reminding him that “it were Lord Asriel who interceded with the Turk for the life of Sam Broekman. It were Lord Asriel who allowed gyptian boats free passage on the canals through his property. It were Lord Asriel who defeated the Watercourse Bill in Parliament, to our great and lasting benefit. And it were Lord Asriel who fought day and night in the floods of ’53, and plunged headlong in the water twice to pull out young Ruud and Nellie Koopman.” It’s obvious that Lyra and Asriel share similar intrinsic ideals about equality that Lyra could never share with her mother. Then the Gyptians mustering men and gold for the mission shows us how tight-knit the large community is, and again, this is a quality rarely seen outside their community in His Dark Materials.

Despite the clunky execution of Lyra’s origins, The Spies has made an immense effort in portraying a lengthy period of Lyra’s travels (a few months at least) in a short space.


Complete Spoilers

His Dark Materials Trilogy

Click to reveal spoilers

Each week so far I have thought I have something figured out and each week they have proven me wrong. In terms of Lyra’s parents, Asriel had a large presence in Lyra’s Jordan and I thought his role may be expanded, but probably won’t turn up until the end of the season again now, when we next see him in Northern Lights. Last week I was leaning towards them forgoing the ‘sacred mother’ route with Mrs. Coulter but this week they have, in fact, gone the whole hog. Lyra should not only understand that her mother’s behaviour is a result of having been a social outcast for a time after the incident between Asriel and her husband but Lyra should also keep symbols of her mother’s “desperation” for her? This is monstrously wrong. It should have been expected that they would add this element, but what exacerbates the matter is the connection the adaptation is so desperate to forge between Lyra and Marisa Coulter, to the point of possibly severing Lyra’s connection with Asriel. By chapter six Lyra is not only planning to go North to save Roger, but her “Uncle” Asriel as well. She only wants to get away from Mrs. Coulter. Later she wrestles with her feelings that a couple months ago she would have been delighted to learn that Mrs. Coulter is her mother, but now doesn’t find it easy, not as easy as accepting Asriel as her father. Lyra has nothing of Marisa Coulter in her, and strongly resembles Asriel in looks and in character, and Lyra is a better version of Asriel, for Asriel is too ruthless. She gets no good qualities from her mother, because Marisa Coulter has none. Lyra is inherently good, which is why Lyra is the prophesied child. I may be reading too much into this but they have certainly laid it on thick in this episode.

And of course Boreal’s expanded story is laying the framework for The Subtle Knife. This was Will Parry’s first official appearance and he may turn up in the flesh by the end of the season.

Next week: ‘Armour’

Join our friends Travis and Rich for the Daemon Dust podcast