His Dark Materials: 1.06 The Daemon Cages
The week's episode of His Dark Materials rocketed along at quite a hefty pace, sweeping from one event to another with barely a moment to stop and digest. Lyra found herself captured at Bolvangar, subjected to experimentation, freed and reunited with her mother Mrs Coulter, learned what was really happening to the children, broke free during a brutal battle, escaped in a hot air balloon with Lee Scoresby and then faced a life and death attack; that was a lot to get through by the time the credits rolled.
The series has never been guilty of being too slow in it's storytelling, but it certainly felt as if this episode could have been stretched out across two. While this is a criticism, it's a small one however; The Daemon Cages was packed with some wonderful material, disturbing, emotional and exciting. I just wish there could have been a little more time spent on some of the individual elements.
The facility at Bolvangar was a place of horror. From the cages, the shaven heads of the broken children subject to tests and doctors who claimed the death of children was all for a good cause, The Daemon Cages certainly felt like something akin to a concentration camp, a theme all the more disturbing given the very real and sickening events happening along the border with Mexico in the US at present. Lia William's Doctor Cooper, with her claims of scientific break through, was an icy, insidious representation of all that was wrong with the place; along with her partner Doctor Rendal (Amit Shah), she got what she deserved before the episode's end.
There were some very tense sequences; Mrs Coulter's arrival at the dorm while Lyra clung to the underneath of the bed and the oppressive iron clad device Lyra and her daemon were trapped both raised the stakes for the fate of the lead character. There were some genuine horrors too; the discovery of the experimented children in the dorm and Billy Costa's empty cage took the story into incredible dark territory. I had begun to wonder why His Dark Materials had an 8pm schedule - with moments like this and the final battle, not to mention the attack on the camp last week, it's clear that the boundaries are certainly being pushed.
It was a delight to have Lyra's ally Roger (Lewin Lloyd back this week). Unlike Billy, he lived to fight another day and there was real magic as they teamed up to free the children. The other big connection this week, was the reunion between Mrs Coulter and Lyra. Ruth Wilson gave a subtle hint at her vulnerability in her actions with her daughter, openly revealing the truth and giving her reasons for abandoning her. But there was also something dangerous about her too and seeing mother and daughter play off each other was mesmerising. Their shared rage as Lyra broke free and locked Mrs Coulter in was packed with raw emotion.
I would happily have had the episode end here, with the battle and subsequent escape saved for next week. But The Daemon Cages was an episode packed to the brim and the Gyptian assault, the arrival of Iorek Byrnison and the brutal, violent arrival of the mysterious Serafina provided plenty of action. Violent perhaps for younger viewers? Certainly. But lots of fun to watch too, even if it, like the aftermath as the broken children were freed, was over all a little too quickly.
No sooner had the battle been won, but we were onto the next set piece as Lee Scoresby's hot air balloon was attacked by rabid creatures and the episode delivered a shocking cliffhanger. The conversation between Lee and Serafina, Iorek battling the creatures and Lyra's fate were all worthy of a little more screen time, but packed in as they were, certainly kept the epic momentum going to the very end.
The Daemon Cages was the most explosive episode of His Dark Materials yet and is sure to have won over many viewers. But I can't help but feel that, while the individual elements all made for great television, there was a little too much brevity for the hour of television. Still, being an exciting, fantastical TV show is a far better place to be than a boring one...