'His Dark Materials' Gears Up for a Stormy Finale in the Penultimate "Malice"

His Dark Materials is nearing the end of its second season with an episode that feels very much like the set-up for the finale next week. (Originally set to run 8 episodes like season 1, an extra filler episode set to catch up with James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.) But that’s not to say there isn’t anything to enjoy from “Malice” — far from it, in fact. Yes, the penultimate episode of season 2 is a lot of build-up, but boy, is it effective at ramping up the tension, stakes, and thrills to sky-high levels.

Our Better Angels

After many episodes of glowering, the witches re-enter the fray (Ruta Skadi separating from Serafina’s group to join with the re-emerged angels) to give valuable exposition and valuable support to Lyra and Will, who have barely recovered from their injuries sustained during their heist at Boreal’s mansion before they’re set upon by the vengeful children of Cittàgazze. In a great, chilling sequence right out of a horror movie, Angelica (Bella Ramsey, utilized so well this entire season as ally-turned-villain) taunts Lyra, jumping at our frightened heroine through the crack in the door. Lyra and Will, whose wounds have begun bleeding terribly since his encounter with Boreal, flee from the mob of kids who are hooting and hollering at them in a sequence right out of Lord of the Flies. Cornered on the rooftop, Lyra and Will are only saved by Serafina, who swoops in from the skies and causes the frightened Cittàgazze children to retreat.

The witches are much more fun when they’re bouncing off grounded characters like Lyra — Serafina’s amused interactions with the excited heroine being a prime example. Now under the safe protection of the witches, Lyra reverts back to her childish glee that we haven’t seen since season 1, excitedly grilling Serafina about the ways of witches as Serafina warmly replies. But less trusting of the witches is Will, who is naturally wary of these strange women who arrived from the skies, until Lyra soothes him out of his state of flight-or-fight. But this compromise doesn’t last long, as the witches examine the subtle knife and the wound it’s made on Will, and resolve that the only solution is to cast a healing spell — for which they’ll find better herbs on their world. But Will (Amir Wilson, giving great turmoiled angst once again) refuses, single-minded in his quest for his father, despite Lyra’s pleas. Serafina watches their dynamic, equally intrigued and concerned, suspicious of Will but wholly dedicated to Lyra. But later, she approaches Will like an equal, telling him of the mysterious around Lyra and asking for his help in protecting her.

Meanwhile, after a few hours of blissfully wandering the beautiful city of Cittàgazze, Mary is using her I Ching sticks to determine her next course of action when she notices a pair of followers: Angelica and Paula, smarting after their failed attempt to kill Lyra and Will. The girls are perplexed by this adult wandering their abandoned city, completely unbothered by the Spectres. Latching onto Mary’s innate kindness immediately, Angelica asks the scientist for a hug, revealing this monstrous would-be murderer to really be just a scared little girl.

Our Worst Spectres

The Magisterium members rear their ugly heads for a short, but important scene: Cardinal MacPhail finally learns the truth from Fra Pavel’s conference with the alethiometer, that Lyra is the subject of a prophecy that will see her “tempted by the serpent” once again, and that she has another name…which the episode cuts away from, rather than tell us. But it’s obvious: Lyra is the new Eve, which immediately makes her the target for the Magisterium. And if Mary is the serpent, what does that make Mrs. Coulter?

Another force completely, as our complicated villainess proves upon her entry into Cittàgazze. Mrs. Coulter has no patience for Boreal’s fear of the Spectres, and is almost excited by her first glimpse at a Spectre victim, smugly observing, “We can learn from this…” But Boreal isn’t interested in learning as much as he is in running from the Spectres, who soon appear at the square where Mrs. Coulter is waiting for them, looking (and sounding, with that creepy whirring noise) like the smoke monster from Lost. Mrs. Coulter stares down the Spectres, her face an icy mask while Boreal takes refuge in a nearby café and her daemon screeches in fear. But slowly, timidly, she parts the horde of Spectres with her hand, like a smoky Red Sea. What was her secret? an amazed Boreal asks. “They consume what makes us human so I just hid that from them,” she replies, as her voiceless monkey daemon looks…sad? Dismayed? For all the spotlight the show gives to Mrs. Coulter, I still find her character (and the representation of her self-hatred in the monkey daemon) endlessly fascinating; a fascination His Dark Materials shares, giving Wilson a knockout scene where Mrs. Coulter sweetly plies an ecstatic Boreal — who naively believes that Mrs. Coulter will join him in his quest for world conquest, or something — with wine, poisoning him and dealing the killing blow with the ruthless words, “You were never not have ever been my equal.”

But in the skies above Mrs. Coulter and Boreal’s body, and near the mountains where Lyra and Will are traveling, a climactic battle is about to take place. Lee Scoresby and Jopari have traveled to the new world, to find Spectres infesting the city and the knife bearer nowhere to be found. Lee is anxious to at least check out the city to look for Lyra, but Jopari refuses, rerouting them up toward the mountains only for a fleet of Magisterium airships to appear behind them. The fragile harmony between Lee and Jopari is broken, Jopari ignoring Lee’s frantic pleas for help against the Magisterium, until he realizes that the shaman has summoned up a whole doomdsay storm for them. Lightning strikes several of the Magisterum ships while a flock of birds fly into the remaining ones. But just as it seems they’ve evaded the worst of it, a Magisterium ship shoots the gas canister in Lee’s balloon, sending them tumbling down — just as a horde of Spectres descend on the witches escorting Lyra and Will. The episode ends on a cliffhanger, in the very literal sense, but it effectively whets our appetites for the big finale showdown.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • I like that this episode still finds time to give us some good Lyra-Will bonding — both obvious (their cute little conversation about trust) and less so (Pan curling up near Will’s neck after the witches perform their healing spell).
  • I love Andrew Scott and his man-bun and his cheeky riddles.

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