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HBO's His Dark Materials: A Pre-Show Cheat Sheet

Like GoT and Watchmen before it, HBO's latest fantasy series may confound newcomers at first. Here's what you need to know.
  • Dafne Keen stars as Lyra in His Dark Materials. (BBC/HBO)
    Dafne Keen stars as Lyra in His Dark Materials. (BBC/HBO)

    This Monday sees the premiere of His Dark Materials, the second screen adaptation of the fantasy trilogy by author Philip Pullman. The first was The Golden Compass, a 2007 feature film starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig that tried to kick off a trilogy but was such a box-office disappointment that the sequels never came. HBO's adaptation puts His Dark Materials on Monday nights, adjacent to Watchmen on Sundays, and suddenly it's like all of our prayers in the early 2000s about how big, unwieldy works of literature needed to be adapted as sprawling HBO series were answered. Having said all that, what we've ended up with are shows that are dense in mythology that require some degree of homework in order to feel fully versed in their universes.

    This, of course, was the case with Game of Thrones as well, so it's not like there isn't a successful precedent to point to. When that show debuted, viewers who'd already read the books were huddled in their own corners, whispering about foreshadowing and developments to come, occasionally doling out information to the drooling masses who only knew the TV show. (Eventually the show's narrative surpassed the book's narrative, at which point those smug book readers got what was coming to them, but that's another story.)

    Whether you're new to the world His Dark Materials, or just need a refresher into this fascinating and complicated mirror vision of our own world, here's what you need to know to navigate the show's first episodes.

    Where Does His Dark Materials Take Place?

    This is where you'll find it helpful to consult the title cards at the beginning of the episode. "This story starts in another world," the pre-script begins. "One that is both like, and unlike, your own."

    Setting aside for a moment that curious wording of "starts," we can say that the world of His Dark Materials is recognizable as England, albeit a steampunk version of Victorian England, where steel zeppelin airships are the dominant form of travel and a Great Flood has criss-crossed cities like London and Oxford with canals. It's an age where adventurers and explorers venture into the wilds of the North, where we're given to understand that a great many fantastic and fearsome things reside (Lyra, our main character, makes a passing mention of armored bear, and: yes, please). It's also an age where intellectual institutions like Oxford fight to maintain their academic sanctuary status while under the thumb of the all-powerful Magisterium.

    What Else Is Different About This World?

    There's one distinction between this world and ours that's so significant that the show thought it necessary to put it in the very first title card. It's time to talk about the daemons.

    Daemons — or "dæmons" as they are often written — are "the human soul [that's taken] the physical form of an animal." These animals are constant companions to their human; they can talk and run and jump and do all sorts of stuff. Mostly they keep counsel with the human they're attached to. "The relationship between human and dæmon is sacred," say the title cards. In childhood, your dæmon can change shape into any kind of animal it wants to, but upon reaching adulthood, it settles on one animal. Does this mean that this world has a lot of scurrying creatures underfoot and birds perched on shoulders? Yes. Yes, it does.

    Who's In Charge of This World

    "The world has been controlled for centuries by the all-powerful Magisterium." It's our old friends the title cards again. We only get to see small glimpses of the Magisterium as His Dark Materials begins, but it's clear that this is a repressive, theocratic regime. The model for the Magisterium is clearly the Catholic Church, and much of the intrigue of the first episode concerns Lord Asriel's explorations up north constituting a heresy against the Magisterium.

    Who Are the Main Characters?

    Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen): The show's main character is a young girl living under academic sanctuary at Oxford, having been placed there by her uncle, Lord Asriel. We're told at the beginning that the witches who live up in the north, beyond the reach of the Magisterium (HBO really loves a show with a great, unknowable northern territory!), whisper of a prophecy, of a child with a great destiny. During the great flood, we're told, that child was brought to Oxford. So the show isn't even pretending that Lyra isn't this child-of-destiny, which is nice. Lyra's daemon is named Pantalaimon ("Pan"), which usually takes the form of an ermine (weasel) or moth.

    Lord Asriel Belacqua (James McAvoy): It's Lord Asriel who we see in flashback leaving his niece, Lyra, at Jordan College at Oxford as a baby. Asriel wears many hats in this society: He's part of the aristocracy, but also an academic and explorer. His journeys up north have had him studying the Northern Lights as well as a mysterious substance known as Dust. For these explorations, he's committed a heresy against the Church/Magisterium, making him a very dangerous and controversial figure to have around. Asriel's daemon is a snow leopard.

    Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson): Mrs. Coulter is a beautiful, sleek figure of power within the show's universe. She takes an immediate shine to Lyra, and Lyra to her, perhaps seeing in Mrs. Coulter a woman who could stand out among the drab surroundings of academia and boast about being as much an adventurer as Lord Asriel. But she's also a calculating and severe woman who is most definitely aligned with the Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a monkey.

    Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd): A young kitchen boy at Jordan College and Lyra's best friend.

    Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff): Ma Costa is a matriarch among the "Gyptian" people. Her son, Billy, gets abducted in the first episode by the Gobblers.

    Sorry, "Gobblers"?

    Right! So there's a group out there called the Gobblers that many will deny even exists, and they're abducting children. For what purpose will only become clear as the season moves along.

    What Else Awaits Us Later in the Season/Series?

    Oh, lots! If you've watched the trailer, you know that the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter are ruthlessly out to get both Lord Asriel and Lyra. We've yet to meet snow-cowboy Lee Scoresby, played by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, not to mention those ARMORED POLAR BEARS who will then FIGHT EACH OTHER! But that's a few episodes away yet.

    If you can manage to get a handle on who's lurking about and plotting the demise of whom, well, you might have a good time with this. Much like Game of Thrones, this universe can feel pretty impenetrable … until it's not. And on the other side of that veil, there's a whole new universe of enjoyment.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: His Dark Materials, HBO, Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson