His Dark Materials season 1 premiere recap: Welcome to Oxford!


His Dark Materials introduces us to Oxford in a near-perfect pilot.

From the opening credits, there’s a feeling like His Dark Materials is ready to step into the hole that Game of Thrones left. The series is expansive with a lot of fantastical parts only mentioned without being seen. Philip Pullman’s beloved novel has been adapted before for the film, The Golden Compass, where it was criticized for not being accurate by readers as it tried to appeal to mainstream viewers. Make no mistake, HBO leans in heavily to Pullman’s imagery including the critique on religious organizations and people in power.

Note: There will be no book spoilers discussed in this recap. 

Who is Lyra Belacqua?

More from Show Snob

The first version of Lyra we meet is actually an infant. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) delivers his niece through a massive flood to Jordan College where he invokes “scholastic sanctuary” for her. The Master (Clarke Peters) is confused and tries to refuse because the college is a place to learn not for children to be raised. Sadly, Asriel ominously says that it’s the only place Lyra will be safe from the world before abandoning her.

Flash forward twelve years later, Lyra (Dafne Keen), is still at Jordan’s College where she’s become the rambunctious troublemaker. Alongside her daemon, Pantalaimon (nicknamed Pan and voiced by Kit Connor), her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) and his daemon Salcilia (voiced by Eloise Little), they run throughout the college for fun. They wind up in the crypt beneath the university, where Lyra gleefully jumps out of an open casket to scare Roger. He’s terrified of the area, and can’t understand how Lyra isn’t disturbed. Ultimately, he’s willing to overcome his fear so long as Lyra is alongside him.

We learn a bit about daemons here as well. Every person is born with one, however, the kids’ daemons are able to transform into any animal. They eventually settle on a final form, thus solidifying the journey from childhood to adulthood. Also, daemons apparently disappear upon the death of their human.

Lord Asriel’s Return

In the flash-forward, it’s revealed that Asriel has been in the North on a mysterious expedition. Apparently he’s gotten all he needs from the journey after getting caught in a particularly bad storm. Now it’s time to return to Jordan College, where he hopes to get funding for more of his scholastic journeys.

There are only two things getting in the way of that. For one The Master is terrified of whatever Asriel has found. He goes so far as attempts to poison him when he believes no one is watching. Thankfully, Lyra snuck out of class when the Librarian was distracted, and manage to warn her Uncle before anything happened. Despite saving his life, Asriel’s daemon Stelmaria (a snow leopard voiced by Helen McCrory) couldn’t care less. Neither can Asriel, he sees his niece as a minor annoyance and an opportunity.

He shoves her into a cupboard so she can spy on The Master in case he mentions something called “Dust”. Lyra is more interested in what her Uncle has to say though, and she carefully maneuvers herself to view his presentation to the scholars of Jordan College. There, Asriel reveals that his journey North shows that Dust is only attracted to adults, not children. Also, the Aurora Borealis is surrounded by Dust, and when it’s revealed then a city in the sky can be seen. While The Master is nervous about losing scholastic sanctuary and getting arrested for heresy, the rest of the scholars aren’t as sure. One of their own lost his life trying to get to the bottom of everything, and ultimately Jordan College gives Asriel his money.


While Pullman has always said the Catholic Church wasn’t specifically the inspiration behind his Magisterium, His Dark Materials really leans into the imagery. To be fair, most readers picked up on the Church symbolism in the novels and people who are offended by the choices in the adaptation most likely weren’t going to be interested in the rest of the series.

At the Magisterium, Father MacPhail is furious upon learning what Lord Asriel has been up to. He’s even angrier that Jordan College would give money to his cause, pointing out that “scholastic sanctuary” doesn’t protect them from heresy. As the pilot goes on, it’s clear that “scholastic sanctuary” is just a way to limit the real academic learning the college permits. Yes, they can learn there but nowhere near what they should be allowed to do.

The Magisterium will undoubtedly play a part in Lyra’s life, considering The Master spoke about a betrayal coming. He has been warned of a great journey she must embark on and while the Librarian hoped they could keep her safe within Jordan College, The Master knows better. He says all they can do is “be scared for her” and “be scared of her”.

Mrs. Coulter Takes the College By Storm

The Golden Compass is far from a perfect movie, but Nicole Kidman put in a memorable performance as the antagonistic Mrs. Coulter. Ruth Wilson takes on the role now and has difficult shoes to step into. From her introduction, she plays the role of a seductive force incredibly well. She strolls into Jordan College in a velvet suit, turning the eye of every person there. Including Lyra, who is immediately smitten with the woman as well as her tales of adventure.

After an evening of fun, Mrs. Coulter officially offers Lyra a job as her assistant where they will travel to London. This is the perfect opportunity after Lyra is once again abandoned by Lord Asriel because she was looking for a way out of Jordan College. However, her only request is that Roger comes with them because he’s her only friend and an orphan as well. Mrs. Coulter agrees to these terms, and even accepts a hug from the young girl.

It could just be me, but there’s something sinister behind Wilson’s smile as Mrs. Coulter. Nevertheless, she’s good at charming those around her and Lyra has already fallen into her web.

The Gobblers

Alongside Lyra’s story, His Dark Materials checks in with the local group of gypsies in Oxford. Tony Costa (Daniel Frogson), officially becomes a man and is at his ceremony where his daemon has taken his official form. However, his brother Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt), runs off after his brother complains about him being clingy. Their mother, Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), encourages him to look after Billy but it’s too late. “The Gobblers” as they’re called kidnap poor Billy despite his tiny squirrel daemon trying his best to protect the boy.

John Faa (Lucian Msamati), travels to the gypsy camp to help aide the search for Billy but he knows the truth. Apparently, sixteen kids have been kidnapped from gypsy camps but the state police couldn’t care less. He thinks they’re being taken to London, so he ends the search party to go look. Ma is horrified because she wants to believe her son has just wandered off. His Dark Materials does a good job showing how it’s easier to overlook those haunting stories until it happens to you. The gypsies can’t afford to ignore the looming threat of the Gobblers anymore because they are no longer just a dark fairytale.

Sadly, Billy isn’t the only victim snatched in the pilot. After Lyra’s chat with Mrs. Coulter, poor Roger is taken as well. The episode closes with him banging in the trunk of a car, and it’s unclear where he’s being taken to. It’s especially heartbreaking knowing just how much Lyra and Roger care for one another. He believes in her so fully that he’s willing to hop on board any plan she suggests even when it makes no sense logically. Now, it’s her turn to save him.

Heading to London

His Dark Materials closes out with Lyra officially deciding to depart with Mrs. Coulter. She doesn’t have many options since Mrs. Coulter promises that she’s the only way to find Roger. In fact, she knows the Gobblers are in London, thus confirming what John Faa already knew. Before she leaves, The Master gives Lyra an “alethiometer”, one of six devices ever made. He makes her promise never to show anyone and that it will show her the truth.

Next. Top 30 villains in television history. dark

While the alethiometer won’t reveal where Roger is, hopefully, she will find more answers in London. The pilot is still a massive success for HBO, beautifully shot and acted. If the season keeps up with this quality, then His Dark Materials could very well be the next big hit for the network.

What did you think of the premiere of His Dark Materials? Be sure to tell us in the comment section below!