Imagine if you could argue with your soul, not just in the metaphorical sense, but in the form of an animal outside your body. This animal would shift and change shape throughout childhood but would eventually settle into one form once you became an adult. Your relationship to this animal, called a daemon, was profound and sacred, and if it were hurt, you were too.
Based on the classic Philip Pullman novels of the same name, that’s the world His Dark Materials is set in and it’s one that while similar to our own, is controlled by a powerful religious organization called the Magisterium. If you haven’t read the books, some of this might be familiar to you if you’ve seen the rather bloodless 2007 film,The Golden Compass, but if not, we begin our tale with a prophecy involving a child with a great destiny, a child named Lyra Belacqua.
The episode opens, a little surprisingly, in a scene from 2017’s Pullman prequel novel The Book of Dust, which details the Great Flood that delivered Lyra to Jordan College in Oxford as a baby. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, in a fine performance that balances imperiousness with a sense of suppressed tenderness) carries the baby through the flood and charges Jordan’s Master Carne (the always welcome Clarke Peters) with keeping her safe, invoking scholastic sanctuary to do so. Why Lyra is in danger and from whom, we do not learn as Asriel disappears back into the flooded night.
Twelve years later, we see that the floodwaters have receded and Lyra (now played by Logan’s ferocious Dafne Keen) has become a bold and wild girl, running through the halls and the rooftops of the college with her closest friend Roger (the sweet-faced Lewin Lloyd) while arguing with her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor) about the form he will take when she becomes an adult. Lyra craves adventure in all forms and little does she know, she’s about to embark on a grand journey.
While they are just kids for now, getting up to innocent mischief in the grand setting of the college, a storm brews in the North where we rejoin Lord Asriel on a dangerous expedition with his daemon Stelmaria (voiced by Helen McCrory). Rushing back to his camp after photographing the Northern Lights, it’s clear he’s captured something amongst them that no one else ever has. Whatever this mysterious evidence is, he believes it’s enough to convince the Scholars of Jordan College of its truth. And if it isn’t enough, the gruesome ice-covered head he brings with him should be.
After the beautiful credit sequence where savvy book readers may spy some visual Easter eggs, we rejoin a very bored Lyra during a lesson by the college’s soft-hearted Librarian (Ian Gelder). We get some exposition (the episode, which is directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper, is rather heavy on it) about how the school’s scholastic sanctuary protects both Lyra and the Scholars from the Magisterium. But there is a limit to its protections, and Lyra for her own safety would do well to observe them. But the girl has never met a limit she hasn’t tried to test. Once Pan notices the long-absent Lord Asriel outside the window, Lyra loses what little interest she had in the lesson and, after some trickery, is out on the rooftops tracking her uncle and hiding outside the usually forbidden Retiring Room.
While she’s overjoyed to see her uncle again, others are not so happy. Outside the window, she spies the normally kind Master poisoning a decanter of Tokay, a certain rare liquor that her uncle favors. He flees right as her uncle enters and pours himself a glass.
Lyra foils the poisoning before he can take the first sip, jumping through the window and smashing the glass out of his hand. Taken by surprise and paranoid from experience, Lord Asriel throttles Lyra before he realizes it’s her. Once he figures out that she isn’t lying about the poison, he assigns her to spy for him as he gives his presentation to the Scholars later that night. He wants to know how the Master reacts whenever Dust is mentioned.
Now this isn’t the normal sort that you banish with a can of Pledge. Dust in this world is a subject that is highly controversial, even heretical, and the Magisterium will police even the discussion of it. And Asriel, being as headstrong as his niece is, plans to discuss it. He hides Lyra in a window cupboard to spy (though during the actual presentation she’s hidden in a different part of the room which the show does not explain).
During his presentation to the Scholars, Asriel confesses that for the last year he’s made a series of discoveries while trying to determine what happened to the missing Stanislaus Grumman expedition. Through his research, he’s obtained long-suspected proof that Dust is only attracted to adults and not children. The show does not explain why this is scandalous so for now, you’ll just take it on faith. More controversially, he announces that within the Northern Lights, the Dust reveals there is a city in the sky, which indicates there is a myriad of worlds beyond this one, worlds that the Magisterium does not control.
As the room explodes in alarm at the blasphemy Asriel has just uttered, the Master tries to end the meeting, but Asriel protests that Grumman discovered the same information and paid with his life. And he can prove it as he pulls out Grumman’s ice-covered head. Asriel warns that there is a war brewing between two powerful forces and he needs funding to continue this dangerous work. And he dares them to stand against him.
In the end, they don’t and he gets his funding. In the excitement, he forgets about Lyra and later finds her fast asleep in her hiding place. He carries her up to bed and tenderly tucks her in. It’s obvious that behind the gruff exterior, he deeply cares for the girl and McAvoy is excellent during the quiet moments in this scene. Once he realizes she’s been faking sleep just to be close to him, he becomes aggravated as she starts pestering him with a million questions. What is Dust? Can she look at Grumman’s head? Will he take her North with him? And can they still trust the Master given what he tried to do? “I don’t trust anyone,” says Asriel.
And he’s right not to; word of his blasphemous presentation has gotten back to the Magisterium and he needs to flee back to the North as soon as he can. Roger tips Lyra off that her uncle is leaving by airship and, furious that he’s leaving so soon, Lyra begs him to take her along. He tells her that it’s too dangerous and that she needs to stay put. Scared for her uncle, Lyra asks if this was the same type of airship that her parents died in and Asriel’s pause reveals there is some hidden truth about her parents that he hasn’t told her. But that’s a mystery for later and Asriel looks conflicted as he leaves. Lyra, though still determined to go North, flees in distress.
Elsewhere in Oxford, a Gyptian child named Billy Costa has been kidnapped. The Gyptians are a group of river-dwelling nomads and Billy disappeared after the ceremony celebrating his older brother Tony’s daemon settling into a hawk. Since several other children from the community have mysteriously disappeared, the Gyptians are convinced they’ve been kidnapped by a group called the Gobblers. Some scoff at the idea that the Gobblers are real and that the children haven’t just run away, but with 16 children missing so far, something must be done.
While Billy’s mom, Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), wants them to keep looking in Oxford; John Faa (Lucian Msamati), the King of the Western Gyptians, and his advisor, Farder Coram (Game of Thrones’ James Cosmo), believe Billy’s been taken to London with the other missing children. And that it’s time they went to London to find them.
At the Magisterium itself, they’ve received a full report of Lord Asriel’s heresy and they are deeply concerned. Though Asriel has invoked the cause of academic freedom in his work, he’s gone far beyond the limit of scholastic sanctuary. Father MacPhail (Will Keen) charges Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) with pursuing Asriel to the North while keeping the investigation quiet from a mysterious woman.
The identity of that woman does not remain a mystery for long as a glamorous figure makes a grand entrance into the college’s dining hall and sits next to Lyra. Surrounded by stuffy older men for most of her life, Lyra has never seen a woman like Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson, perfectly cast), who is stylish and worldly and everything that Lyra secretly would like to be. For a girl looking for adventure, Mrs. Coulter seems like a godsend and Lyra can’t believe it when she’s asked to be the grand lady’s assistant in London with a future promise that they will travel to the North as well. But she can’t leave Roger behind and asks Mrs. Coulter if he can come along. After some reluctance, Mrs. Coulter agrees he can come.
But before Lyra can ask Roger or can get too elated about her new adventure, she’s called in to see Master Carne without Mrs. Coulter’s knowledge. Earlier in the episode, the Master explained to the Librarian that Lyra has a dangerous part to play in the events ahead, but she has to discover the path for herself, as horrible as it might be. Knowing this, the Master gives Lyra an alethiometer, the mysterious compass-like object which we saw him hide earlier upon Lord Asriel’s arrival. It’s one of six in existence, and though it’s illegal, it will help her discern the truth. Lyra is not interested in keeping secrets, but the Master urges her to take it for her own protection. And since he’s not sure Mrs. Coulter can be trusted completely, Lyra must keep her own counsel and never reveal what she possesses. The time for playing childish games is over.
Lyra realizes she’s hasn’t seen Roger yet to tell him about London, but he’s nowhere to be found. Despondent, she confides to Mrs. Coulter that Roger has disappeared just like Billy Costa did and being a woman who knows how to get things done, Mrs. Coulter promises they will be able to find Roger once they get to London. She tells Lyra to meet her on the airship, but before Lyra does, the girl tries to use the alethiometer to locate Roger. Unfortunately, the device remains a mystery to her and gives her no answers. Lyra gives up and boards the airship to London at the last minute, keeping the alethiometer secret in her pocket.
Eager to begin the search for Roger, Lyra starts talking of the Gobblers to Mrs. Coulter, but being on a public ship, the woman urges Lyra to be quiet and reminds her it’s not safe to talk of such matters in public. Lyra stares out the window instead and sees the Gyptian boats headed in the same direction. She’s not the only one on the tail of the Gobblers. And it’s a fortunate thing for poor Roger, whom we see screaming in a cage as the episode ends. Whatever the Gobblers have in store for him, it doesn’t look good.