The third instalment of His Dark Materials, the giga-budget BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy children’s novels, is a classic “builder”, which is to say, not much happens. There are some good scenes: the fistfight in Mrs Coulter’s (Ruth Wilson) lavish hallway, and the Gyptians’ western king, Jon Faa (Lucian Msamati) building them up for their mission to the north. But in general the mood is very much sleep-well-for-tomorrow-we-ride-at-dawn. The pace can only pick up.
In the episode’s defence, there is quite a lot of plot to build. The manhunt for Lyra (Dafne Keen) is in full swing. At the start, she is in the Gobblers’ van, having been captured soon after escalating from Mrs Coulter’s flat. The Gyptian boys ambush the van and take her to their barges.
By the end of the episode she is on an expedition ship, setting sail for the frozen north. Perhaps we can look forward to a spin-off series, telling these adventures from the point of view of the various modes of transport. We haven’t even met the airship lads, led by Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), although the end-of-episode trailer lets us know he is imminent.
Over in the real universe, meanwhile, a clamped car doesn’t hamper Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) enquiries, although we don’t know what he’s really after. Bakare and Wilson are two of the standout performances of the show so far, equally charismatic and menacing.
In between, there is time for Lyra to discover she knows how to read the alethiometer without books, hide from Mrs Coulter’s goons, and have a showdown with Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff) during which she learns another great secret of her childhood. Lyra threw away the revelation about her father last week, and the same happens here.
Keen is an astute physical actor, expressive and intense in quiet moments, but at high pitch, she can slip into hamminess, and does so again here at a key moment. If the series continues to be as popular as it has been so far, she and we are in for the long haul with His Dark Materials, so hopefully she irons things out.
That aside, there were plenty of visual treats, especially the shots of the barge chugging down the canals, which look suspiciously like steampunk renditions of Hackney Wick before the London Olympics, another large government project involving young people in buses. And I loved Coulter’s little flying spy bugs, which were straight out of Black Mirror. It’s clear she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants; we just don’t know what that is.