His Dark Materials Recap: “The Daemon-Cages”

The Daemon-Cages Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (HBO/BBC)

Mrs. Coulter is rejected once again, and the Gyptians ride in to rescue the missing children.

Before “The Daemon-Cages,” a little bit of mostly relevant research: despite what some of our current leaders may see about the United States being a Christian country, church attendance has declined by more than twenty percent over the past two decades. Not surprisingly, it’s generational: the younger the generation, the less likely they are to even identify with a certain religion, let alone attend regular church services. Despite all the youth outreach and radical teen Bibles, young people just aren’t all that interested in religion anymore, particularly those which practice an ideology that doesn’t reflect the world as it currently is. The old ways remain stubbornly unchanged, at the cost of new blood.

Here lies the crux of His Dark Materials, as emphasized in “The Daemon-Cages.” The Magisterium, and particularly Mrs. Coulter, don’t hate the children they’re tormenting, they’re afraid of them. They’re afraid that they can no longer control them, they’re afraid that they’re smarter and more curious of the world, and, most importantly, they’re afraid that they’ll see right through them for the fakes and phonies that they are. Separating the children from their daemons is a last ditch effort to maintain control.

“The Daemon-Cages” opens right where last week’s episode left off, with Lyra (Dafne Keen) kidnapped and held captive at in some sort of remote jail/medical facility in Bolvangar, where everything is blue and gray and the children are very pasty. On the upside, Lyra is reunited with Roger (Lewin Lloyd), her missing friend. On the downside, she (and the audience along with her) finally gets a look at the experiment Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) has been overseeing, which is forcing children and their daemons into what look like oversized microwave ovens, severing them from each other and leaving them shells of their former selves. Reporting to Mrs. Coulter is the all too enthusiastic Dr. Cooper (Lia Williams), who proclaims the experiment to be a “magnificent discovery, the cowardly Dr. Rendal (Amit Shah), and a creepy, dead-eyed nurse (Charlie Robinson) we later learn is apparently an early recipient of this cruel “treatment.”

Not surprisingly, Lyra is barely through the door before she’s rallying the other children together to try to escape. Before that can happen, however, she’s next on the list for a daemonectomy, stopped just in time by a shocked Mrs. Coulter. After plying Lyra with hot tea and some motherly affection, Mrs. Coulter tries to explain that severing children from their demons is really a good thing, as it stops the daemons from planting strange and questionable thoughts in their humans’ minds — like, say, challenging the authority of the Magisterium. They’d simply be happier the less they knew.

Rather than be a stock fantasy novel villain, Mrs. Coulter is something a little different — despite her smooth as molasses voice and predatory grin, she’s got some conflict going on in her eyes. In “The Daemon-Cages,” she seems genuinely frightened to see Lyra in the contraption she approved, and there’s a sick sort of sincerity in her promise to Lyra that, even if every other child is separated from their daemons and essentially lobotomized, she won’t be harmed. Mrs. Coulter, while fearing Lyra, also seems something in her that reminds her of how she used to be, before the desire for strict order and propriety took precedence.

Rather than be a stock fantasy novel villain, Mrs. Coulter is something a little different — despite her smooth as molasses voice and predatory grin, she’s got some conflict going on in her eyes.

Despite Mrs. Coulter’s promises of safety and security, Lyra rejects her in favor of helping the other children, which Mrs. Coulter reacts to with a shriek of almost primal hurt and rage. While Roger is in charge of rounding up the children who have already gone through the separation process, Lyra leads the others to escape, just in time for Lee (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and the Gyptians ride in to save them. In a dizzying fight scene between the Gyptians and Samoyed guards protecting the facility, it seems like an even match, until Serafina (Ruta Gedmintas), no longer comfortable refusing to take a side, flies into battle and single-handedly dispatches of the enemy. It’s a dazzling moment in an action-packed episode. Considering an angry, grieving Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) breaks Dr. Rendal’s neck with her bare hands, clearly His Dark Materials’ writers aren’t uncomfortable with letting women characters run the show.

Of course, no one’s running things in His Dark Materials as much as Lyra, who occasionally comes off as a little too clever in this episode, but not enough that it blunted its impact. I don’t know how simply pushing every button will cause a machine to implode and destroy itself, but that’s what she does to to the equipment in the facility, effectively bringing the separation experiments to an end. Mrs. Coulter appears to be emotionally moved by the destruction of the equipment, and the battle between the Gyptians and the Samoyeds, but whether it’s because of Lyra’s natural strength and leadership (qualities she herself obviously possesses), or because Lyra has rejected her (again) is, at the moment, unclear. She escapes, unseen, without her research, and without her daughter.

“What’ll you do?” Roger asks Lyra earlier in “The Daemon-Cages.” “What I’m best at,” she says, with a wry little smile. “Causing chaos.” Indeed, they’ve barely escaped the facility in Lee’s hot air balloon before they’re attacked and Lyra falls out, plunging into the darkness. Perhaps this sweet young girl will be able to just end her day with a sweet and some warm milk, but that day is not today, and more danger lies ahead. This saving the world thing must be exhausting.

Random Thoughts:

  • I’ve really been enjoying the elements of horror and science fiction over the past couple episodes. His Dark Materials occasionally gets a little too dry and self-serious, so having “The Daemon-Cages” take place almost entirely in a dystopian sanitarium is a clever, jarring choice.
  • Speaking of horror/sci-fi, did the kids in their matching snowsuits remind anyone else of the murderous anger babies in David Cronenberg’s The Brood? Just me, huh?
  • As mentioned in last week’s recap, Will Parry’s story is unfolding so slowly that, at just two episodes in the season left, it seems kind of pointless to start rolling out yet. He’s in “The Daemon-Cages” for less than three minutes, in a scene that adds little dimension, and mostly just interrupts the flow and excitement of the Bolvangar plot.
  • This week in Mrs. Coulter fashion: those gray knee boots! *heart eyes*
  • Though it’s not entirely a surprise (even if you haven’t read the books), the parent-child bond developing between Lee and Lyra is a touching bit of warmth in His Dark Materials‘ often bleak storyline. Lee knows an adventurer’s soul when he sees one, and unlike Mrs. Coulter, he wants to see it grow to its full potential.
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