His Dark Materials Recap: “The Lost Boy”

The Lost Boy Dafne Keen & Lucas Msamati in His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO)

Things take a bleak turn as Lyra goes on a side trip & discovers the fate of one of the missing children.

A few weeks ago, best selling YA author Sarah Dessen tweeted an excerpt from an article in which a Northern State University graduate revealed that she protested one of Dessen’s novels being added to the school’s core reading program. Dessen was so incensed by a single person believing that her novels weren’t appropriate reading for college students that it became a several day long free-for-all on Twitter, with fans and even other best-selling authors like N.K. Jemisin and Roxane Gay coming to her defense and even demanding an apology from Northern State, which they got. It was a rare moment when neither side of the argument looked good. Dessen came off as a thin-skinned crybaby ganging up with her equally successful friends to punch down, while those on the opposite side of the debate relished the opportunity to insist, yet again, that novels written largely for adolescents and teenagers aren’t “real” literature.

It’s a tired, long disproved misconception upheld by people who believe themselves to be intellectually superior, but have a worldview the approximate circumference of a drinking straw. Not all YA is Twilight, and many novels in the genre deal with very serious issues that parents are often unable to discuss with their children. His Dark Materials, despite it being a fantasy series, addresses a number of unpleasant topics, including mental illness, child death, and murder, all of which are featured in “The Lost Boy,” a bleak and sobering fifth episode.

What starts out as a rather meandering comedown from last week’s episode, where characters spend more time standing around talking than actually doing anything, takes a hard left turn when Lyra (Dafne Keen), under direction from the alethiometer, takes a side trip with Iorek to an abandoned village. Though everyone is against the idea, Lyra insists, relying mostly on her own belief that the alethiometer wouldn’t, indeed, can’t lie. They can’t defeat the Magisterium if she doesn’t go to the village, where she’s supposed to find a ghost, though whether that’s literal or figurative is unclear.

Earlier in “The Lost Boy,” we learn from the witch Serafina’s daemon that Lyra’s fate is joined with that of a boy from the alternate world, Will Parry (Amir Wilson), whose father is the explorer Carlo (Ariyon Bakare) has been tracking. John Parry, known in Lyra’s world as Stanislaus Grumman, disappeared years earlier, leaving Will to be the man of the house and look after his emotionally disturbed mother, Elaine (Nina Sosanya). Elaine, aware that she’s being watched by Carlo, reveals that she may know more about John’s disappearance than she previously admitted, and shows Will a collection of letters about John’s experience in the other world.

It’s here that I must admit I don’t entirely understand the secondary plot about John Parry, and how he plays into the story overall. Presumably it’ll be explained as the story moves along (particularly since His Dark Materials already has a second season in the can), but right now it’s unfolding so slowly that it’s not generating much interest yet. But Will is an interesting character, protective and a little embarrassed by his mother, and it’ll be interesting to see how things go when he inevitably gives in to the side of him that craves both answers, and adventure.

The Gyptians are familiar with loss and grief, which may make them more of a formidable foe than the Magisterium expects.

After finally getting the okay from a reluctant John Faa (Lucas Msamati), Lyra takes that side trip to the abandoned village, riding Iorek like an oversized, grumpy horse. “Do you know what you are doing?” Iorek asks. “No,” Lyra replies. “But I know I’m doing the right thing.” This is of course, the cornerstone of faith, but in this case it’s faith in one’s own judgment, rather than a council of men talking about a being no one can see, but they alone communicate with. It’s a powerful concept, particularly when it’s in the hands of a child. Lyra has no idea what awaits her in the village, she just knows that she has no other choice but to go there and find it.

Despite the horror movie setup, what Lyra finds is far more tragic than frightening. It’s poor, kidnapped Billy Costa, the lost boy himself, cruelly separated from his daemon and left as a catatonic shell of his former self. Though Lyra brings him back to the caravan, and to his mother, Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), and brother, there’s nothing that can be done for him. He’s lost his daemon, his soul, the very core of who he is, and Ma makes the unthinkable decision to let Billy go so he can move onto the next plane. Billy’s death, and the funeral service that follows, is so far the most powerful, sobering moment of the show. The Magisterium would undoubtedly find the pagan rituals of Billy’s funeral to be an abomination, but for those who aren’t interested in the pomp and circumstance of a church service, it feels raw and real, with all of the Gyptians gathered together to sing Billy into the universe. 

His Dark Materials occasionally struggles with coming off as a bit dry and detached, but seems to have really found its emotional footing in “The Lost Boy,” both with Billy’s funeral, and Farder Coram’s (James Cosmo) brief, touching reunion with the love of his life, the eternally young witch Serafina (Ruta Gedmintas). While Serafina offers use of her daemon, she has no interest in getting involved personally in the Gyptians’ impending battle with the Magisterium, warning Farder that “Asriel is bringing a great war, and the Magisterium knows it. “There has never been a moment when I haven’t thought of you,” a weeping Farder tells Serafina, who responds by flying away.

The Gyptians are familiar with loss and grief, which may make them more of a formidable foe than the Magisterium expects. After all, what do you have to lose when you’ve already lost everything? Understanding fully what the Magisterium is planning to do with the kidnapped children, John Faa says “We have to fight,” to which Ma Costa all but growls “We have to kill.” But hey, the His Dark Materials series are YA books, and YA books are dumb baby books for dumb babies, right?

Yes, well, anyway, after an ambush on the caravan leaves a number of Gyptians dead, a kidnapped (again!) Lyra wakes up to find herself in the custody of Dr. Cooper (Lia Williams), who speaks ominously of Lyra being a “category A” who needs “immediate treatment.” Lyra, constantly underestimated by adults, quickly recognizes that the jumpsuit she’s given to change into is the same kind of suit she found Billy in. She’s in Bolvangar, where the journey with the Gyptians was supposed to end. It’s her soul they mean to tear away next, for reasons that seem like they should be more than “because they can,” but maybe that’s enough.

Random Thoughts:

  • Lyra’s accent sounds like it’s becoming more working class English, or rather, like the Gyptians. Is it because it’s where she belongs, or is it related to her glib ability to talk her way in and out of any situation (see how quickly she comes up with a fake name when she meets Dr. Cooper).
  • The M.V.P. award for “The Lost Boy” goes to James Cosmo, who just about tears your damn heart out in the scene with Serafina. It’s likely been nearly fifty years since they’ve least seen each other, and all the pain and love he feels for her comes bubbling out of him in an instant.
  • Lee’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) comforting words to Lyra after she brings Billy back to the caravan is another high point of “The Lost Boy.” Miranda as yet doesn’t have much to do with his role, but brings a level of warmth to it and his interactions with Dafne Keen as Lyra that’s both paternal and brotherly.
  • Aw, the way the daemons’ heads were lowered during Billy’s funeral! I weep.
  • This week in Mrs. Coulter fashion: nothing! She isn’t in this episode. I look forward to more smart cardigans and fur hats next week.
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