Review of His Dark Materials Season 1 Episode Three “The Spies”

“The Spies” explores why Lyra remains so crucial to Ms. Coulter and reveals more of the Gyptians’ connections to the gobblers and Lyra. I have read that many viewers have dropped this episode, but I think a lot of the confusing details have been clarified during this third episode of the first season of His Dark Materials. Let me first start by summarizing the episode and the two main storylines including Lyra’s journey and Ms. Coulter search for Lyra.

The first storyline starts with Lyra and Pan in the back of the gobbler’s van being driven to some mysterious location. Tony Costa and the other young Gyptians rescue Lyra and Pan from the van and return them to the boats. Ma Costa is angry that Tony tangled with the gobblers, but Lyra reminds her that at least they are closer to finding the missing children. Fader Coram and John Faa, who are two Gyptian leaders, interview Lyra about her interactions with the gobblers. She doesn’t know too much since the gobblers never spoke to her. The gobblers refuse to talk to John Faa and his men. John Faa tells Lyra that she will be safe with them. We learn that the young girl will be staying with Ma Costa. Lyra bonds with Ma Costa over some tricks that the Gyptian mother teaches her. Lyra and Pan hang out a little with Fader Coram on the deck of the boat. The young girl says she and Pan wish he would never stop changing shape. Fader wisely counsels Lyra that soon they will grow tired of the daemon not settling to one form. He shows Lyra the gobbler that was tortured by the Gyptians for information. Lyra feels minimal sympathy.

Magisterium Soldiers board the Gyptians during the day in search of Lyra. There are rumors the Gyptians are hiding her.  Ma Costa carefully hides Lyra, so the soldiers can’t find her. After they leave, Lyra freaks out, realizing that she and Pan are not safe anywhere. She runs away from the boat. Ma Costa chases after her. When she finally tracks down Lyra, the girl admits that Mrs. Coulter is her mother. 

Lyra learns from the Gyptian that Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter had an affair, and that’s when Mrs. Coulter became pregnant with Lyra. Her husband learned of this and was outraged. After Lyra was born, Lord Asriel hid her with the Gyptians to keep her safe from Mrs. Coulter’s husband. He tried to murder the baby girl, so Lord Asriel killed him. All of Lord Asriel’s money and the land were seized. Lyra was sent to a nunnery. 

During the great floods that we saw in the pilot, Lord Asriel kidnapped Lyra. He took her to Jordan College, which we witnessed in the first scene of scholastic sanctuary. Ma Costa was the nanny who first took care of Lyra, but she doesn’t know anything else about Lyra’s origin story. Ma Costa says Mrs. Coulter went wrong in the head because she was isolated for so long. She convinces Lyra to return to the boat. Lyra figures out how to use the alethiometer. She can read the device without a book to decipher the code, which is unusual. She runs up to tell Fader Coram, but she and Pan get attacked by these machine bugs that her mother sent to track her down. Fader catches one, but the other tracker escapes.

During the night, Tony Costa and his friend ask Lyra for information on how to break into Mrs. Costa’s home. They execute the break in, but the plan doesn’t go smoothly. Mrs. Coulter kills Tony’s friend. Tony escapes with a list of all the children who were taken from the study. After learning of the first death due to their war with the gobblers, the Gyptians all meetup. They decide to go north to find the kids who were kidnapped by the gobblers.  

The second storyline starts with Ms. Coulter and the Magisterium soldiers searching Jordan College. Mrs. Coulter harasses The Master who tells her that the college is not housing Lyra anymore. The soldiers find books about the alethiometer, which they consider to be heretical. The Master says Lyra’s mother doesn’t have the golden compass anymore and admits that Lyra has the alethiometer. 

Mrs. Coulter tells the soldiers to rip apart Jordan College to find more banned objects. She tells the priest agent whose name is Lord Carlo Boreal that Lyra is not at the college anymore. Lord Boreal returns to our universe’s Oxford University. He meets up with the redheaded man whose name turns out to be Thomas. Thomas tells Lord Boreal that the missing explorer, John Parry, was initially from our universe, not theirs. Lord Boreal is confused because Parry had a daemon that doesn’t exist in Thomas’ Universe. The lord reflects that he has yet to meet somebody brave enough to venture across the two universes.

Ms. Coulter finds out the Gyptians have Lyra, so she sends the soldiers to search all Gyptian ships. She also sends out a couple of machine tracking bugs to find Lyra. One of the trackers comes back, so Mrs. Coulter has an inkling where her daughter is.

There are some beautiful scenes in “The Spies” that demonstrate the cinematographic mastery of the His Dark Materials camera, grip and lighting crew. For example, spectacular god’s eye-tracking shots of the large garden-like green fields of the college ground set the stage for when the Magisterium soldiers fly over Jordan College. The chase scene between Ma Costa and Lyra on the shore was also powerfully staged and filmed with effective use of wind blowing at large blades of grass causing them to shimmer and sway. The distance between  Lyra and Ma Costa on the two sides of a slight incline, their daemons in between the two of them as they yell across to each other, effectively creates tension as Lyra finally finds the answers about her life that everybody has been hiding from her.

Like the novels, His Dark Materials is all about a young woman growing up. Lyra finds out that everything she thought, that Lord Asriel is her uncle, and that Mrs. Coulter is just a kind benefactor, is incorrect. Her idolization of adult figures has been destroyed–a disillusionment that often effects children as they grow up.  We can see that her energetic and curious nature, which has always been stifled by adults, has become vital in her new life as a runaway.

I did not see any significant issues with this episode. I found “The Spies” a lot easier to describe than the second episode of His Dark Materials. My only criticism this time is that several of my friends who have not read the trilogy still struggle with the concept of dust. “The Spies” has not done anything to clarify what exactly dust is.

I cannot wait for next week’s episode four.


Published by Paloma Bennett

I have a Master of Arts in Cinema Critical Studies from San Fransisco State University. I am a Lesbian Feminist Pop-Culture Geek from California who loves film, television, book, comic books and podcasts. I work a the Paley Center at the moment, but I am interested in becoming a professional television and film reviewer.

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