His Dark Materials season 2 episode 4, a feminist analysis

His Dark Materials keep providing excellent episodes this season, so I’m continuing my analyses of them! Just as I’ve done these previous weeks, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books too, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

My first thought upon seeing the beginning of the episode was that surely the scene covering the history of the knife must be a deliberate reference to Lord of the Rings and the opening scene of the first movie when the history of the ring is presented. It was almost a bit on the nose, but I also thought it worked quite well to give the viewers the necessary information. I’m also guessing that the voice doing the presenting of the history is Xaphania, just as the beginning of episode one which I discussed on Girls Gone Canon. It makes sense that they’re trying to expand her role more and add her in throughout this second season. Speaking of angels, I would also guess that it’s her voice we hear when Mary is talking to the Cave in this episode. That scene is also brilliant, Simone Kirby continues to be amazing as Mary. The scene where Mary immediately refuses Boreal’s founding of their research because he hints at defence funding is perfect, and I love her for it.

Another part of the episode that I adored was Will and Lyra’s interactions throughout. They were funny and cute, and their dynamic in general is just perfect. My only minor complaint was the scene when Pan is comforting Will by stroking his head against Will. In book Lyra’s reaction to this is more subtle, and she doesn’t go into this explanation of how daemons generally don’t touch other humans. That whole part of the scene, the explanation, sort of took me out of the moment and the very specific mood of that scene (tenderness, caring, empathy, vulnerability). But except for that, the scenes with Will and Lyra were brilliant.

Speaking of daemons, the interactions between Lee and Hester while they were travelling via boat to find Grumman were brilliant. Hester trying to keep Lee’s mood up, Lee complaining about the environment, and the mosquitos especially. As someone who have spent a lot of summers in the north of Sweden (my family’s from there), which is quite similar to this landscape both in looks and in number of mosquitos, I can relate. I really appreciated Lee in general in this episode, and his conversations with Grumman/John Parry were very interesting, well-written, and moving. I look forward to their interactions going forward. John Parry also provides an interesting perspective on Asriel, saying that regardless of if you like him personally, he’s doing important work. I imagine I’ll have cause to return to this quandary later on in the season, but I’m not sure if I agree that we should focus on the greater good entirely and forget Asriel’s bad actions. 

Feminist thoughts

Continuing on this discussion of John Parry, one thing I noticed in this episode was how the show seemed to downplay some of John Parry’s connection to Tartar culture. While he in the books is seated in a what seems to be a traditional wood-framed, skin-covered hut, filled with different cultural symbols, and the Tartars around him show him clear reverence, in the show he’s alone in his little cabin. In The Subtle Knife describes the scene like this:

The headman stopped outside the wood-framed, skin-covered hut. The place was decorated with boar-tusks and the antlers of elk and reindeer, but they weren’t merely hunting trophies, for they had been hung with dried flowers and carefully plaited sprays of pine, as if for some ritualistic purpose.

‘You must speak to him with respect,’ the headman said quietly. ‘He is a shaman. And his heart is sick.’ (Pullman 2011, 209)

Later in the same chapter, when Lee and John Parry leave, the villagers “came out to touch Grumman’s hand, to mutter a few words, and to receive what looked like a blessing in return.”(Pullman 2011, 217) None of this is part of the show, there John Parry lives alone in a quite ordinary cabin, even if he seemingly has some form of tribal tattoos etc. This is an interesting choice in my opinion. My friend and fellow analysist of HDM (and ASOIAF), Aemy Blackfire has written about John Parry and the Tartars in her essay about Orientalism in HDM, which we also discussed this together in this video. Aemy writes about how the Tartars, unlike the Magisterium, don’t think that Dust is sinful, but have instead found ways of increasing their absorption of it, through trepanning. Aemy then goes on to write:

In this way, the Tartars have a kind of mysticism and knowledge that the West does not possess. This is reminiscent of the exoticization of Middle Eastern and Asian peoples, seeing them as having some kind of “ancient wisdom.” Will’s father, John Parry, is himself an orientalist trope. He meets with different Arctic peoples, and eventually meets the Yenisei Pakhtars, a Tartar tribe. He learns their mystical ways and becoming a shaman, is given an Asianized name (Jopari), and becomes a Tartar “by initiation,” being trepanned. This trope of the white man learning the mystical secrets of Asian peoples is widespread in popular culture. We see this in the movie The Last Samurai (2003) as well as the Netflix show Marco Polo (2014), and in accounts from Westerners who traveled to the East such as Marco Polo’s writings and the book Seven Years in Tibet (1952), which was later made into a movie (1997). These fictionalized and semi-fictionalized accounts give Western audiences a window into exotic and otherwise incomprehensible cultures. These accounts also reinforce confidence in Western (men) to learn the secrets of the East and take what is useful from it. (Aemy Blackfire 2020)

I think the show manages to mitigate this harmful trope a bit by not connecting John Parry’s shamanism as clearly to this other culture, and not having this other ethnic group essentially worship him. On the other hand, it completely erases the Tartar people from the narrative, which is unfortunate. The only view the viewer gets of them is from season one, when they kidnap Lyra. To have a bit more of a nuanced view of them would had been nice, but preferably one less exoticized than the view the books present.

The next part of the episode I want to discuss is the backstory of the subtle knife that is presented, as well as the story of the guild of the alchemists. As the person/angel/being narrating that opening sequence says about the alchemists’ usage of the knife: “They kept its powers secret but had a choice. Use this Knife for the benefit of all existence, or just for the benefit of their own.” (His Dark Materials 2020, 1.16 min) Essentially, the alchemists used this one resource to get more resources for themselves, dooming the rest of the people in their world in the process. When I guested on Girls Gone Canon’s episode about episode one of this season, I compared what the alchemists did to colonial capitalism, gathering resources for their own ruling class while exploiting other worlds and not caring what happens to those around them. I then compared this to theoretical writings by Jasbir Puar (2009), who I’ll write a bit more about further on in this text. But watching this week’s episode, and hearing this quote, also reminded me of some more classic critical theory; Marxism. Now, before anyone goes ahead and yell at me for supporting communism and the Soviet Union or whatnot, I want to make clear that Marxist theory is not necessarily the same as communist politics. While the politics are (supposedly) based on the theory, far from everyone who uses Marxist theory would support a communist society (especially not those supposed communist societies which became corrupted and authoritarian). Marxist theory has been incredibly influential for most social sciences, Marx was a sociologist after all, and his writings analysed society and social situations. While not all of his theories can be applied to a contemporary society, and should not, a lot of it is still useful for analysing power differences in society, especially class based such. At its core, Marxist theory argues that in a capitalist society, the capitalists exploit the workers to make as much profit as possible (Boglind et. al. 2014). At the same time, those in power (the capitalists in a capitalist society) shape the ideologies (politics, religion, science, art etc) to support this status quo (Marx & Engels 2007/1845, 84). This is why different forms of unequal societies can persist, despite their seemingly obvious flaws. An example of this Lyra’s world would be that their church argues that since they’re working according to God’s will, and support Him, they should be in charge. Similarly, one can imagine that the Alchemists had a high position back in Citàgazze’s golden age, and that their seeming wisdom legitimised their power. But just as the continuous expansion of capitalism in our world hasn’t been without consequence, so was it for the alchemists and Cittàgazze. Their invention of The Subtle Knife and travelling to new worlds to steal treasure (from those who had actually worked and produced them), created a crisis; the spectres. This reminds me of what Marx and Engels wrote about how capitalism continually creates new crisis for itself:

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. (…) The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them. And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones. That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented. (Marx & Engels 1848, 17)

Just as the sorcerers and capitalists in this example, the alchemists of Cittàgazze bring down the system by the very tools they create to control it. The fate of Cittàgazze shows that a society with such an unequal distribution of power and resources is ultimately doomed.

A more contemporary scholar writing about capitalism and power is Jasbir Puar (2009). A central aspect of her writing is how patterns of inclusion and exclusion produces life and death for different peoples and groups. She calls this the “bio-necropolitical collaboration” and argues that this process works to strengthen or weaken certain bodies in society, and thus gives bodies different “prognosis time”. Basically: what kind of resources you have, and which resources society will make available to you will determine how long you can expect to live, how long your prognosis time is. At the same time, your value for society (especially in a capitalist society) is dependant on your prognosis time since this determines your “capacity” (how much work you can do, essentially). Your capacity might increase if you get support from society, if you get more resources for instance. On the flip side, if you don’t get that sort of support, you instead get increasing debility, as Puar calls it. Essentially, if you get support you get increasing capacity (and are seen as more valuable), if you don’t get support you get increasing debility (and are seen as less valuable). This then impacts your prognosis time, your lifespan essentially. Now, who gets more support in this world of bio-necropolitical collaboration is of course not random. It’s generally white rich able-bodied cisgendered heterosexual men in the Global North (or some sort of combination of those social categories). If you’re a white cis man who’s a CEO for a big American company for instance, you will get a ton of support and access to medical care etc if you need it. But if you’re a woman in Bangladesh, working in a sweatshop to produce the products that this white man’s company sells, you’ll not get the same support when your body is worn down by the tough working conditions. This same type of logic becomes incredibly clear in HDM in Cittàgazze. The Alchemists have the subtle knife which protects them from the spectres, the plague that they’ve released on their world in their search for more resources for themselves. By intending to give themselves a bigger capacity for a long luxurious life they have sentenced the rest of their world to ever increasing debility. They have significantly shortened the prognosis time for the rest of the populace in this process. And then Asriel comes around and shortens that prognosis time even more with his multi-world man made climate change.

Dusty thoughts

I don’t have that many dusty thoughts this episode, but something that I happened to notice was a parallel between Mary’s conversation with the Angels and a part of The Secret Commonwealth (Pullman 2019). In The Secret Commonwealth, when Lyra meets the Furnace Man he tells her about how his father would have conversations with immortal spirits, and he then goes on to tell Lyra that he knows who she is because she’s famous in the world of the spirits. Lyra then asks what spirit is, and he replies that “spirit is what matter does” (Pullman 2019, 416). This is strikingly similar to the response Mary gets when talking to the angels (a form of immortal spirits). From the episode: “From what we are, spirit. From what we do, matter.” (45.08 min) The same quote appears in the The Subtle Knife too, when Mary has this discussion. I do wonder what this is supposed to tell us about what the Alchemists (such as The Furnace Man’s father) are up to. But they seem to be up to something spirit and Dust related.


Aemy Blackfire. 2020. “Orientalism in His Dark Materials.” Aemy Blackfire’s blog. November 15, 2020. https://asoiafchineselit.wordpress.com/2020/11/15/orientalism-in-his-dark-materials/

Boglind, A., S. Eliaeson och P. Månson. 2014. Kapital, rationalitet och social sammanhållning (Edition 7:1). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. ”His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx” Podbean, November 16, 2020. https://girlsgonecanon.podbean.com/e/his-dark-materials-season-2-episode-1-the-magpie-city-featuring-lo-the-lynx/

His Dark Materials. 2020. ”Tower of the Angels.” HBO, December 1, 2020.

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. (2007/1845). ”The German Ideology.” In Classical Sociological Theory, eds. Calhoun C., J. Gerteis, J. Moody, S. Pfaff & I. Virk, 82-85 Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Marx, Karl & Friedrich Engels. 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Available online here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf

Puar, Jasbir K. 2009. “Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity,” Women & Performance: a Journal of Feminist Theory, 19:2, 161-172

Pullman, Philip. 2011. The Subtle Knife. London: Scholastic.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

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