His Dark Materials Season 1 Episode 3 Review: The Spies

People are complicated. We behave like different people at different times.

There’s the version of who we are in a given moment. There is also a version of ourselves we keep repressed, hidden for some tragic reason. And then there is an aspirational version, the person that we want to be.

As I said, people are complicated.

Keeping track of who we are and what we are capable of being is bemusing, confusing, and thoroughly byzantine at the best of times. Hell, it’s wild just absorbing these last few sentences. It’s easier to consider all of those versions of our own selves as we sit in quiet moments of reflection.


That concept that multiple versions of who we exist underpin this episode, The Spies on a thematic level. The episode hinges on the strongest relationship of the season so far: that of Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). A relationship of genuine care, but also desperation and abuse. It is also rooted in blood.


Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother, the result of a love affair between herself and Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). The affair caused a scandal that ruined both of them, to some degree. Mrs. Coulter became a pariah, and that partially fuels her behaviour. It’s part of what drives her to storm past rules – breaking the scholastic sanctuary and sending spy flies to find out where Lyra has gone. There is plenty for the character to reckon with.

I’ve written about Ruth Wilson’s scrumptious performance, but I must keep praising her exceptional work. It’s fantastic and should land her a spot in next year’s Emmy contention. The series continually draws on her as a multi-faceted character, a personality that is feral and deranged and more than a simple kidnapper.

The best moment of the episode belongs to Mrs. Coulter, when she attacks Benjamin (Simon Manyonda) and Tony (Daniel Frogson) with a physicality that emulates the violence being imparted by her golden monkey. It’s a striking moment of intense physicality and Wilson nails it.


The episode finds Lyra in the able care of the Gyptians. In John Fata (Lucian Msamati), Farder Coram (James Cosmo), and Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) Lyra finds a trio of adults who it appears that she can trust. Their bond is strengthened when some other Gyptians suggest that they give up Lyra for the group’s safety. Lyra then makes it clear that giving her up wouldn’t help anyone, or prevent more Gyptian children from being taken. And doing so certainly wouldn’t help bring Billy (Tyler Howitt) and Roger (Lewin Lloyd) back, either.

The Spies is His Dark Materials’ most self-assured hour yet. Scriptwriter Jack Thorne’s approach to the two introductory chapters of the story was a bit clunky, but if newcomers to the fantasy series’ lore are already drawn in, then this episode snaps events into place and jolts the story forward with a shot of momentum.

The series will introduce two major characters next week, but right now, the audience has all the info they need to get a feel for (and make sense of) the series’ intricate mythology. Even Lyra receives a bit of clarity as she gets a sense of how to read the alethiometer. It’s a thrilling power – and as we will soon learn, a dangerous one.


His Dark Materials – The Spies Notes:

  • The real-world parallels to the abuse of the Magisterium police against the Gyptians is unfortunately prescient.
  • Andrew Scott!!!!!!! Hot Priest from Fleabag!!!!!!!
  • “Men get funny about their shame.”
  • Will!!!
  • “I betray my family for no one.”
  • The direction from Dawn Shadforth is an improvement from Tom Hooper’s mildly stoic and shaky-cam vision. In essence, it adds another layer of shine to this episode.
  • Lorne Balfe’s score is top-notch and is now available to purchase!
  • The show’s visuals, production design, and costume design continue to be top-notch



  • That teal blouse with the navy pants? What a colour combination and a flawlessly designed ensemble. At some point, I’ll pay attention to the other costumes, but dear God, everything Ruth Wilson is wearing is flawless.
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