His Dark Materials
Going into the His Dark Materials season finale, I had been wondering what lessons this version of Lyra is supposed to have learned through her travails. She never really trusted adults to begin with, so that was more of a confirmation than anything. And as we’ve discussed here before, Dafne Keen’s Lyra isn’t a liar, which scrubs any nuanced growth in that department; in this version of the story, it’s almost as though her main takeaway is, “Lying is good, actually, so you should get used to it.” Maybe Lyra has leveled up, swearing off adults as she and Pan barrel toward adulthood themselves, finally understanding that all she needs in this life of sin is her and her daemon. It’s hard to say whether that’s real growth, whether this version of the story is really even about Lyra at this point. All I know is that the best visual effects and the best acting in the world (because truly, both have been spectacular) do not an authentic, poignant adaptation make. The show certainly suffers from horrible timing on HBO’s part, but again, whose fault is that? Watching this show stumble while another from the same network just demonstrated exactly how the translation of a source text can remain faithful while also creating something beautifully new… it’s disheartening, to say the least.
The good news is, the finale shaped up to be a bit more thoughtful than its predecessor. Sure, the geographical blocking and the episode’s editing are both bizarre in a way that makes it hard to follow where anything is happening, and how exactly people and bears are getting from place to place. (How did the entire panserbjørne army just… appear from behind Asriel’s lab? And where were they hiding these massive fire-hurler catapults? In their exorbitantly animated coats?) Sure, we get a Chekhov’s gun in the first few minutes that is never actually seen again. (What was the point of giving Coulter a revolver?) And certainly, there’s something deeply fucked up and contrived, in a very Star Wars sense, about Asriel saying, “You don’t come from nothing, Lyra. You’re the product of something extraordinary,” as though she had ever worried about that, having known her entire life that she was high-born. (Only Roger, and maybe Iorek Byrnison, ever seemed to notice that Lyra was special outside of prophecies and narcissist-monster parentage.)
However! The series thus far has always proven more over-the-top family drama than coming-of-age condemnation of religion, so in these final moments it succeeds on those merits in spades. Lyra confronts Asriel about having lied to her about being her father, insisting that she would have been proud to be his child. James McAvoy does his James McAvoyest, bringing tears to his eyes, accomplishing something that neither book nor film were heretofore able to do: inject some form of humanity into the character of Lord Asriel, the megalomaniac to end all megalomaniacs. He’s never going to come back from child sacrifice (nor will Coulter; don’t let the show make you forget all the kid murder), and it’s clear that he’s been a deadbeat father Lyra’s entire life not because he’s had to be but because he wants to be; but at the very least, when he pulls himself back, cutting the conversation short by saying it’s getting “too sentimental” and because he “wouldn’t like to” continue, we get to see him lament the alternate path his ego drove him to abandon years ago.
When Lyra tries to give him the alethiometer, he gives it back, saying he doesn’t need it. She is indignant in the way only children are afforded, since after all, the Master never actually told her to bring it to him; she just assumed it was what she was supposed to do. If only she’d known enough to call Iorek and leave with Roger right then, in the middle of the night, rather than be convinced to stay until morning! While she and Roger bond over being virtual orphans (she makes him come into the bathroom backwards, signaling the onset of puberty and shame, I guess?) and snuggle into a blanket fort, Thorold is left to implore Asriel to at least say goodbye to his daughter before abandoning them both in search of “a bigger enemy. The enemy.” Yup. That’s God, folks. The man is on a quest to kill God, and he is prepared to sacrifice whatever and whoever he needs to to do it. Which is why his response, “No, I have work” is truly the funniest thing anyone has said this entire season. He’s got the ego to believe he can and will literally kill God, but when called upon to interact with his child for more than five seconds, it’s suddenly, “Oooh, don’t think I’m gonna be able to squeeze that in.”
If there’s one thing Asriel does know how to be, it’s a pedagogue. In a smooth ploy to separate the children, he wakes Lyra after they’ve fallen asleep to teach her the truth about Dust. He doesn’t know for sure, but it is an elementary particle that can be studied, and he’s pretty sure it’s not the physical embodiment of sin, which is what the Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter believe. Finally we get a little closer to calling out the Catholic Church outright, when they recite the Bible verse about Eve eating the apple from their version of Genesis: “And the serpent said, ‘You shall not surely die, for the Authority doth know that on that day that ye eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, your daemon shall assume their true form, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and—’” Here, Asriel says “Dust” and Lyra says “evil,” probably to indicate (but in no way made explicit) that Lyra has been taught a bastardized version, one rewritten by the Magisterium to better control people. If Asriel was a traditional villain in this story, this would be his “monologuing” scene: he outlines his plans to make a bridge to the city reflected in the aurora in order to find out what Dust is. It’s a pretty indulgent plan, given he just said it could also just be measured like any elementary particle, but again, the man’s a raving egomaniac, so. He also makes the mistake of mentioning that the severing of human and daemon creates a massive release of energy. Eventually he leaves, and she falls asleep, only to wake up to find that both her father and her best friend are gone. It takes her all of five seconds to realize what’s about to happen, and like her father, she leaves Thorold in the dust (Dust?) to pursue them.
Meanwhile, the Magisterium has rallied its adorable army to stop Asriel. As the zeppelins containing the God Squad approach, Coulter and MacPhail have a little chat. He apparently knew her long before she met Asriel (which explains her brazen sexual harassment, I guess?), and sneers at how her love for the man made her weak, and upbraids her for having abandoned her child. (On this, he has a point.) “So what is your sin?” she counters. “Lust? Greed? No…it’s envy. You want what Asriel and I have. A sureness of step. A conviction. But you? You lack it. I am the best weapon you’ll ever have.” It’s such a bitchy, mean-girl response that it almost cheapens all the spectacular work Wilson has done thus far with the character. But it’s enough to cow MacPhail into letting her accompany him to Asriel’s lab, where they’ve just missed his departure for the summit. Thorold gets one moment of heroism, surprising MacPhail with the butt of his rifle, before Coulter traps him like a fly in her web, almost literally petrifying him with threats of handing him over to the Magisterium, allowing her to escape in pursuit of her ex.
Below — or is it above? Beyond? Where is any of this happening? — the panserbjørne forces are beset by the zeppelins, and by Paratroopers for Christ who skydive alongside their hawk daemons. The whole thing is a fancy use of CG money that looks cool and certainly ~adds drama~, but once again demonstrates how little interest this show apparently has in showing rather than telling the emotional significance of the human-daemon relationship. Lyra and Pantalaimon, who have been cowering against a rock formation as gunfire and bombs rain down on the bears, are scooped up by Iorek and spirited away from the battle, toward the peak where her deadbeat dad is about to murder the only real family she’s ever known. It’s curious that the Roger we’ve just spent several episodes reimagining as a traumatized kid who will likely never trust an adult again, much less a parent, would just believe Asriel, that Lyra is on her way and they’re going ahead to set up a “surprise” for her, but Stelmaria is pretty terrifying, so let’s go with that. Iorek reaches a narrow ice-bridge on the ascent that he’s too big to cross, so it’s just them now. They part, Lyra kissing him on the snout; the insulting bit last week notwithstanding, Iorek Byrnison has generally been well done and I’m very glad to still love him as much as I do by the end of this season. (Lee Scoresby? Not so lucky.) After another few seconds of unnecessarily contrived drama as Lyra and Pan cross the ice bridge, they scramble up the far side of the peak — only to reach Asriel’s DIY intercision cage containing Roger and Salcilia at the precise moment their life is snuffed out. (Remember, patient death was the kink the Bolvangar doctors were attempting to iron out of the process.)
“I’m sorry this is happening to you,” Asriel tells Roger, right before he murders him for his own gain. “But in war, there are casualties, and believe me when I tell you: this is a war, one that will free humanity forever.” Amazing! Lord Asriel might be a better character on-screen than he is on the page, if only because it really takes watching a man say these things out loud to understand what a perfectly feasible monster he is. The Magisterium may be the oppressor, but Asriel is the living embodiment of every man who believes himself to be humanity’s savior. How many times over the past few years have we heard a version of “I’m sorry this is happening to you” from self-important, power-drunk men actively committing the crimes they’ve deluded themselves into believing are beyond their control? To make matters worse, Asriel’s ends are achieved, which in a mind like his entirely justifies Nazi-grade child murder: the burst of energy as Salcilia disappears (in a far more unnerving puff than we’ve seen before, I might add, like the popping of a balloon) shoots into the aurora above, rending the fabric of space-time and creating a tear into another universe.
Mrs. Coulter’s perfect timing strikes again: she appears moments later, ostensibly to stop him, but MacPhail’s comments seem to have been solely about setting up this scene. Asriel again monologues, this time to convince the mother of his child to renounce the Magisterium and join him in his quest to wage war against the Authority and “create a new Republic of Heaven.” (See? Megalomaniacs will never stop at killing God. They always want to become God.) He kisses her passionately, a perfect recreation from the book with a little extra this is manipulation subtext mixed in. “Lie about whatever you want,” he says. “But do not lie about your ambition, your work, or who you truly are. You used to want to change the world… Come with me and we will change them all.”
A compelling case for someone who just insisted to their child that their work was not only a necessary evil but all they had to offer the world. But Marisa Coulter has suddenly changed her tune about motherhood. It seems the destruction of her death camp and the rejection of her child have changed her tune: “But our child is in this world,” she tells him. “And my place is with her. That is not a lie.” “You want that?” Asriel asks disdainfully, and at this moment, when he refers to Lyra as “that,” I hate him very much. “I want her with everything I have,” Marisa replies. “This is your journey, not mine.” She turns away and back down the mountain, presumably to spin up some lies to a revived MacPhail about how she was too late, and Asriel and Stelmaria step through the gate.
At the same time, Boreal has been checking in with his remaining lackeys. Fra Pavel has gotten back to him with an answer from the alethiometer. In response to the question, “What did Grumman discover?” it said, “There’s a knife in a tower surrounded by angels,” and that his son will lead Boreal to it. Though Pavel doesn’t know about Grumman’s real identity, Boreal sure does, and now he’s positively vibrating with predatory determination — and with the thought that the Tower of the Angels described in religious texts is real. He sends the “Pale-Faced Man,” who it turns out is a cop, puts out a BOLO for our boy, who has been on the lam, hopping from buses to nondescript cafes to neighborhood parks. He slips into one of the latter when he sees two officers strolling down the street, and is greeted by a tiny cat. Because he’s a good boy who just can’t resist a good kitty-scratch, he approaches, but it runs off; he follows into the bushes… and realizes it’s gone through what looks like a window… into another world. (Now, is it Boreal’s window into his own world? The series would suggest yes, but the books suggest something different. We’ll have to wait and see.)
Lyra has watched her parents reunite and part from below. She emerges when they’re both gone to drag Roger’s body from the cage, and here Dafne Keen proves why she landed this part, as she sobs over his body, blaming herself for his death, lamenting to Pan that she wasn’t able to apologize or even say goodbye. Pan (stoic almost to the point of disingenuousness, not to mention still not touching Lyra) suggests they ensure his death is not in vain by setting out to beat Asriel to the punch. “We thought [Dust] was bad because grown-ups said so,” he says. “What if it isn’t? What if it needs protecting?” “Do you know what that means, Pan?” she says. “We’d be alone.” “We’ve always been alone,” he points out. “Apart from Roger.” Finally, finally, she picks him up — almost awkwardly, as though he’s not literally part of her? — and the final lines of the book play out: “So Lyra and her dæmon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.” Now with Will’s story added in, Lyra steps through her doorway right as Will steps through his, creating a nice little echo of the bit in the opening credits where they’re both climbing stairs opposite each other.
So here we stand — like Lyra and Pan, in their Interstellar vortex of space-time — at the precipice of uncharted territory, beyond the reaches of the 2007 film. The story to come is only going to get more and more complex. It will require a grasp on the source material and its DNA that’s nothing short of virtuosic to really pull off what eventually becomes an otherworldly meditation on existence itself. I haven’t written off the possibility that it could happen yet, but this first season has committed enough serious blunders to (perhaps fittingly) rid me of any naïveté I may have had going into this show. I want so deeply to be proven wrong, truly. (Before Watchmen, I would have said it was impossible.) But thus far, His Dark Materials has been a story about growing up that ignores what makes this particular telling so special, a story about a 12-year-old girl that has shown only minimal interest in exploring her interior life, save what the actor has brought to the role. If it continues to be written by one man and directed by a few more (one female director the whole season? Yahoo!) — if it continues to prioritize shiny stunt effects over the relationships that comprise its beating heart — expecting magic feels like a real gamble.
• Toward the beginning of the episode, Stelmaria studies Asriel’s calculations with him, and now I can’t stop thinking about the fact that daemons can read and do math.
• Give the lighting designer all of the awards for this episode. Asriel’s aurora-adjacent lab is lit like a sexy mermaid party and gives the whole hour the dreamlike quality it hasn’t necessarily deserved, but surely warranted. The lighting was its own character, and I for one was buoyed by its presence.
• When Asriel looks smolderingly over his shoulder at Lyra… and then pulls his glove off with his teeth? That’s the moment I knew this show was trying to end me, personally.
• Poor Thorold, one decent human being in a sea of monsters. His inquiry about a toothbrush is heartbreaking.
• LOL at MacPhail calling the blanket fort “some sort of … encampment,” and the fact that he came all this way to get knocked out for the duration.
• What are Coulter and her daemon doing when MacPhail first disturbs them? Is it self-harm, inflicting pain on the monkey? Some form of angry, tantric masturbation? This mystery will haunt me for weeks.