After years of waiting, fans of Phillip Pullman’s classic His Dark Materials trilogy finally have an adaptation that does right by its source material. The pilot episode, titled “Lyra’s Jordan,” is excellent, and hopefully signals a bright future ahead for the series. We meet Lyra, played perfectly by Logan‘s Dafne Keen, and are introduced to her world. The episode sets up the world of His Dark Materials nicely, and I can’t wait to watch the rest of the season.
The opening title provides a bit of backstory for those unfamiliar with the novels. I will note that if you haven’t read the books, this episode might feel more expository than necessary, but all this information pays off, I promise! It introduces the idea that each person in this world (which is similar to our own) has a daemon, a piece of their soul that lives outside their body. This world is controlled by The Magisterium, but recently there have been rumors about a prophecy from the witches in the North involving a child with an important destiny that seem to suggest the downfall of The Magisterium.
As the title card fades out, we are transported to a dark Oxford as a helicopter flies over the city. Lord Asriel gets off, holding a baby in his arms. He swims across a flooded river to a door that is nearly underwater. As he frantically pounds against the door, it is opened by the Headmaster. Before the surprised Headmaster can react, Asriel invokes scholastic sanctuary and hands him the baby. The Headmaster tries to protest, saying that they can’t risk their sanctuary, but Asriel insists that the child is not safe anywhere else. He leaves, and we flash to 12 years later.
Lyra, now a 12-year-old, races through the halls of Jordan College with her friend Roger, causing trouble. They end up in the crypt below the college, with Lyra scaring Roger. They chat about their daemons, who take the form of various animals that travel with them. As children, the daemons’ forms can shift, but once they become adults the daemons “settle” in one form. Lyra teases her daemon, Pantalaimon, about what form he will eventually take. Lyra and Roger run off to another adventure, and we join Asriel in the North, where he and his daemon Stelmaria are trying to photograph the Northern Lights. He’s looking for something, and he finds it in his photograph. They rush back to his laboratory, where he believes that this mysterious evidence he has collected will convince the scholars of Jordan College to fund his next expedition. It’s clear that this is a matter of grave importance, and for good measure, he pulls an ice covered severed head out of a freezer. If his photographs won’t convince them, this will.
After the spectacular opening credits (with a TON of Easter eggs for those who read the books), we return to a bored Lyra getting her daily lessons from The Librarian. She’d rather be anywhere else, and the Librarian cautions her that the scholastic sanctuary that protects both her and Jordan has its limits, and she would do well to observe them. Disinterested as he drones on, Pan notices that her uncle Asriel has arrived. Lyra, who idolizes her adventurous uncle and wants to join him in the North, sneaks out of the classroom and onto the roof, where she races over buildings to get to Asriel. Outside the Receiving Room window, she and Pan watch as the Headmaster puts poison in Asriel’s wine. Lyra is angry and Pan is confused, since the Headmaster has always been kind to them.
When Asriel enters the room after the Headmaster sneaks out, Lyra leaps through the window to warn him. Asriel is angry at first, thinking this is an invention of Lyra’s imagination, but he believes her when he inspects the wine for himself. Thinking quickly, he smashes the bottle while ignoring Lyra’s questions about why the Headmaster would want him dead. He opens a small cupboard and indicates for Lyra to hide inside it. He wants her to spy for him during his presentation to the scholars that night, and particularly wants her to note how they react to his mention of Dust. Lyra doesn’t know what this means and wants to know more, but the others will arrive soon, and there’s no time to explain.
Asriel’s plan to discuss Dust is heretical and goes against the Magisterium, which is sure to make the scholars at Jordan worried. He opens by stating that he went to the North on a secret mission to find out the true nature of Dust and find a missing expedition. The show does not explain what Dust is yet, but the stunned reactions by the scholars show that it is something they fear. Asriel shows one of his photographs of a child and adult. The adult seems to be surrounded by Dust while the child is not. Additionally, Asriel claims to be able to see other worlds in the Dust, worlds that the Magisterium cannot control. This outrages the group, which condemns this as heretical and dangerous. Asriel goes even further, bringing out the severed head. It’s the leader of the previous expedition. Asriel infers that the Magisterium wanted him dead because of what he found. The scholars, nervous but convinced by Asriel, agree to fund his expedition and continue this work, despite the danger in defying the Magisterium.
Elsewhere in Oxford, a group of Gyptians are celebrating the “settling” of Anthony Costa’s daemon. It’s a rite of passage for the Gyptians, a nomadic group who travel the rivers and live in houseboats. Tony’s younger brother Billy sneaks off, sad that his brother is no longer a child with him and scared he will be left behind. Anthony’s ma tells him to go to his brother and reassure him, but Billy is gone.
Asriel goes to the cupboard and finds Lyra asleep. He tenderly carries her to her room. James McAvoy is excellent in this scene, showing Asriel’s tough exterior but also the caring side hidden beneath. Lyra wakes up and begins asking her many questions about Dust and about whether she can trust the Headmaster after what happened. Asriel goes back to being the gruff uncle he was before, telling her not to trust anyone.
The Headmaster and the Librarian sit by the fire discussing Asriel’s presentation and the failed murder plot. It seems that the Headmaster was trying to stop events foretold in a prophecy, wanting to spare Lyra. Both are worried about the effect this will have on Lyra, since it is crucial she play her part without knowing what she is doing. The Headmaster notes that she will commit a life altering betrayal, knowledge he has gained from a mysterious device called the alethiometer. The Librarian, who cares for Lyra, protests that they can keep her at Jordan and spare her from her destiny. But the Headmaster says they must let everything unfold as it should.
Word gets back to the Magisterium that Asriel is mounting an expedition, and he is forced to leave quickly. Roger runs to tell Lyra that her uncle’s airship is leaving, and she races to Asriel, begging him to take her with him. He says the North is no place for a child, especially with the work they are doing. She asks if this airship is like the one her parents died in. Asriel pauses, and it’s clear there’s a secret he’s keeping. Lyra runs away in tears, as Roger adorably stands up for her, telling Asriel that Lyra is “better than you think she is. She’s special.” Asriel retorts that everyone is special, as the airship takes off, but he seems conflicted.
In the Magisterium, Father MacPhail and Lord Boreal discuss Asriel’s trip. They feel he has overstepped the limits of scholastic sanctuary and plan to keep tabs on him. But both want to keep this a secret from a mysterious woman, who we see walking through Jordan College. She is beautiful, and the second Lyra sees her at dinner, she is entranced by her. Mrs. Coulter sits next to Lyra, asking her about her dreams and ambitions. She is a researcher of sorts and has been to the North, which Lyra is amazed by. Mrs. Coulter is everything Lyra wishes she could be: smart, sophisticated, an explorer. She also offhandedly mentions knowing Asriel. Mrs. Coulter reveals that she came to Jordan to meet Lyra. The Headmaster wrote to her asking if she could find a place for Lyra, and she wants to offer her a job as her assistant. Lyra is over the moon and asks if Roger can join them. At first, Mrs. Coulter seems reluctant, but when it seems that Lyra might say no otherwise, she relents with a gleam in her eyes. But then Lyra hugs her, catching her off guard. Her reaction is tinged with sadness, but why? What is her connection with Lyra?
The next morning, the Librarian knocks at Lyra’s door. She’s leaving with Mrs. Coulter, but he and the Headmaster need to speak to her alone before she goes. She’s confused, and the Headmaster doesn’t help. He is vague, telling her that he has sworn to protect her. He gives her his alethiometer, telling Lyra that it tells the truth to those who know how to read it. Lyra doesn’t seem to understand its importance, but he tries to impress upon her that it is valuable and must be kept a secret from the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter. She wants to know how to use it, but he says she and Pan must find that out for themselves. They say goodbye, and the Headmaster and the Librarian seem worried as Lyra leaves the study. Lyra searches for Roger, but he is nowhere to be found. Pan wonders if The Gobblers have him.
The leaders of the Gyptian group are worried; Billy is the sixteenth Gyptian child to go missing recently. They believe a mysterious group called the Gobblers is responsible. Many think the Gobblers are just a children’s tale, but with the disappearances lately, they aren’t taking any chances. Ma Costa wants to keep looking for Billy close to home in Oxford, but Gyptian leader John Faa thinks he’s been taken to London with the other children. He decides that they will head to London on their own to find their children, since the police have looked the other way.
Lyra finds Mrs. Coulter and tells her about Roger and about the Gobblers. Mrs. Coulter pulls Lyra aside and appears to confirm that they are real. She reassures Lyra that they will search for Roger in London, but Lyra has to come with her. Lyra rushes back to her room for the alethiometer. She tries to ask it where Roger is, but doesn’t know how to use it and can’t find any information.
She decides to join Mrs. Coulter, just making the airship in time. Looking out the window, she sees that the Gyptians are leaving too. Mrs. Coulter looks concerned on hearing this, but quickly reverts back to her polished self. We end on Roger, in the back of a dark van, pounding on the doors and demanding to be let out.
His Dark Materials airs Mondays at 9 p.m ET on HBO.