His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials, like so many young adult epics, is supposed to be about children beating mighty odds to triumph over evil. The series’ good-versus-evil dichotomy is far less clichéd and more complex than others have been, but still, those absolutes are everywhere: you’re either with me, or you’re my enemy. Both Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel utter these words in this tepid conclusion to what is functionally the adaptation of The Subtle Knife. (Turns out, the sith aren’t the only ones who deal in absolutes.)
But there’s another battle being waged in this series, one that is equally important as the question of whether killing God will truly “end all wars,” even as it’s mostly ignored thematically, both in the books and now in the series. That battle is one of ends and means, and it’s on full display this week: How do the sacrifices we make color the triumphs that come from them? Is a republic of ideas really worth abandoning your child? What good is choosing your child, if you abandon all sense of right and wrong in the process? How righteous a crusader can one truly be if one is also a horrible dad? How good a mother can one be if one does monstrous things to remain so?
All of which is to say, fuck John Parry. The man was never supposed to be a hero; he was as flawed as any of the other adults in this multiverse. But at least in the books, you get a distinct sense that not being able to get back to his family took a toll on him, emotionally. You get the sense that he genuinely loves his wife and son, and that his absence from them began as a mistake and ended as a curse. Andrew Scott’s “Jopari,” on the other hand, is the most dispassionate, selfish character I have seen on television in a long time, in large part because neither the writing nor his performance seem at all interested in exploring whether that’s true. While Amir Wilson is breaking down in the most heart-wrenching performance I’ve seen in ages, begging his father to explain why any of this was more important than the simple task of taking care of his family, it’s all bouncing off Scott as his character continues to obsessively justify his work, and the fact that his son is the bearer.
“Will, I’m so sorry. But look what you’ve become without me!” says Parry, intoning those timeless, self-absolving clichés of the deadbeat dad. He grips Will’s neck, his shoulders, his arms, demanding his attention, but the only time he actually embraces his son is when taking the bullet that martyrs him, freeing him from the responsibility of atonement. (Maybe this John Parry is supposed to have foreseen his death, as he seems to have in the books, but would it have killed him and Sayan Kötör to be a little more discreet when running from the Magisterium’s forces? They are practically strolling along when that soldier spots them and pursues.) Whether it’s the writing, the direction, or both, Scott has become more sociopathic as John Parry than he ever was as actual supervillain Professor Moriarty. The only difference between him and Mrs. Coulter, as far as we can tell, is opportunity.
Mrs. Coulter has had a distinct downgrade this week, as well. The toxic, abusive mother that Ruth Wilson has so beautifully crafted is a broken record this week, even as she learns from the witch scout she captures in Ci’gazze that Lyra is Eve. (RIP, Lena Feldt.) In the books, this revelation shifts her mission yet again: in order to keep Lyra from “falling,” she decides she must kill her instead. Now, this could still be the ultimate conclusion our onscreen Coulter makes next season; plenty of filicidal parents have been willing to kill their child to “keep them safe” from any fate outside their control. But for now, she resolves again to “save” Lyra from the Magisterium at all costs, even as her dæmon expresses extreme reservations. This time when she screams and kicks him in the butt as they argue, the action feels like a cheap photocopy, a fucked-up Sour Patch Kids commercial parody of the terrifying violence she’s brought down on herself in episodes past. Furthermore, it’s unclear why the golden monkey doesn’t want to pursue this — he’s afraid of the spectres, of course, but is his resistance an attempt to steer clear of them for both their sakes, or a warning against Marisa’s Ahabian obsession? He’s a manifestation of her subconscious, so is it self-preservation, or a crisis of conscience? Whatever the case, with the help of the spectres (somehow) they find Lyra and Pantalaimon sleeping in the mountains while Will and Serafina are off on their own missions. Siccing the spectres on the last of the witches (also asleep, despite it being her one job to protect Lyra) she captures her, stuffs her into a trunk, and charters passage on a ship to take them all far, far away.
Even in the finale, the witches continue to be just sort of… there. Lena Feldt exists to share the Eve revelation and then die by Coulter’s hand. That other unnamed witch, who was attacked by spectres last week, is just fine until she falls asleep on the job and Coulter’s spectres finish the job. And Ruta Skadi returns to tell Serafina Pekkala of the “great war” Asriel is waging on the Authority, and of a mysterious macguffin called the Æsahættr. But none of them know what it is, and Serafina insists upon staying with the children, so Ruta leaves just as abruptly as she came. In past episodes, I’ve been somewhat disappointed by the witches’ transformation into vaguely magical exposition machines, but this week, I realize that perhaps this is for the best. Had they been expanded, given how the show has been going, it’s very likely they would have been vastly more sexualized — almost every time we meet a new witch in the books, we also learn of which man they’ve slept with or been spurned by. Canonically, Ruta Skadi sleeps with Asriel to obtain this intelligence, but doesn’t articulate this because the other witches know and the children have no idea what sex is. Canonically, John Parry is killed by an arrow from Juta Kamainen, a witch who was in love with him but whom he spurned because he was still in love with his wife. Given the choice, I think I prefer the show avoid these details altogether rather than make a horny, male-gaze-y mess of them.
Speaking of messes, R.I.P. to Lee Scoresby, by far this series’ biggest stumble and a character who deserved far better than what he got. Everything that needed to be said about why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee didn’t work I’ve said in past recaps, so I won’t waste time repeating myself. But all of those reasons added up to a heroic, bittersweet death scene that felt anything but. Not even Hester got the satisfaction of curling up on her human’s chest to comfort him as they go. (There is some human-dæmon physical contact in this episode, but it’s wasted on Pan sleeping on Lyra’s forearm.) This, in itself, is a tragedy: that one of the story’s most beloved characters should die and his once biggest fans should feel almost nothing about it. I, for one, am so sorry for our loss. (Don’t worry, though, HDM rookies and LMM stans—he’ll be back next season.) At the very least, it looks like he got all of the soldiers except the one that Sayan Kötör kills when he shoots Jopari, so that’s 0-4 for the Magisterium’s zeppelins.
Even Lyra lets us down this week, to an extent. Everything she says is uncannily mature in a way that undermines the fact that Lyra is still a growing child, however close to puberty. “What I’ve learned is that we make mistakes,” she says very seriously to Pantalaimon. Later, when he expresses anxiety about not being ready to change, she replies, “I don’t think anyone ever is,” in a solemn tone that would be far better suited for a parental figure who has actually done some changing. Before we’ve even ended the second season, this Lyra has become weirdly cynical, leaving no room for childlike fear or insecure self-doubt, both of which we see in abundance in Will. Will, at least, remains an absolute joy to watch; the scene from The Subtle Knife where, with Lyra seemingly asleep, Will and Pantalaimon talk about bravery and how much the children care about each other is still crushingly adorable, even as its dialogue is again copied almost exactly from the text. Had this been any other show, I might have been aghast at the brazen literalism of him putting his dead father’s coat on and throwing up its hood — thus taking up his father’s mantle — but alas, this is the series that still insists they’re not criticizing the Catholic Church. Any subtlety we might have enjoyed has been a bug, not a feature.
To drive this point home, enter James McAvoy’s single day on the His Dark Materials set this year. Asriel has reached a desolate universe. As Will notices his fingers are healing, as Serafina Pekkala whispers an incantation over Lee Scoresby’s body, as Iorek Byrnison watches the icebergs collapse into the sea, the biggest megalomaniac of all literature intones his heroic plea to the angels who once rebelled to fight alongside him in his quest to kill god. “My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in his name,” he says. “Those who seek to divide in order to control, and who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right, rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge, and in place of deceit, intolerance, and prejudice, I fight for the possibilities of understanding, truth, and acceptance … But I tell you this now: there is no neutral ground. You are either for me, or you are against me. Now, which is it? You’re out there, I know you are. Answer me!”
Book fans will notice that his motives in this monologue have clearly been tweaked to be more 2020-friendly, or to endear audiences to the righteousness of his cause. Asriel is the multiverse’s most annoying libertarian — he’s obsessed with “freedom” and “truth” ideologically, while still being a massive dick to everyone around him. Until this speech, he’s never shown even a passing interest in a world built on “care and need,” probably because he’s an impossibly rich white man with a manservant and funding from an all-male college who abandoned his pregnant lover after killing her husband in a duel, then abandoned their child, then lied to that child about his identity for the first decade of her life. It makes far more sense that he’d suggest replacing “deceit, intolerance, and prejudice” with the “freedom of knowledge.” Why bother attempting to humanize his vision when clearly he’s only ever been interested in creating a world that better suits him? It makes me wonder whether the showrunners of this series really have an opinion about characters like Asriel and Parry, and more generally the morality of the “great war” on the horizon next season. Do they really believe these men’s ends justify their means? That this war is something that needed to happen and that victory actually, literally means peace on Earth forever? And if they really believe that, can they faithfully articulate just what that will cost everyone else? For the sake of this series, even if it only succeeds in copy-and-pasting the books for the rest of it, it will be imperative that they do.
• In another completely anticlimactic scene, Mary Malone simply drops Angelica and Paola off at their adults’ camp in the mountains. They don’t even bother getting close enough to confirm that they’re still alive — as we’ve seen, the spectres also hunt in the mountains — and Mary simply continues on her way without the complication of two lonely tween orphans. A terrible waste of a poignant opportunity to expand the source text (which I can’t help but point out was set up in the first place by one of the show’s women writers, Lydia Adetunji). When we leave her, she’s following a trail of mysterious blue flower petals, confident thanks to the I Ching’s assurance that she’s on the right track.
• Some will no doubt complain about how same-y and artificial the “canyon” sets of the last few episodes have looked, but I would have taken a thousand more of them if it meant we’d gotten more meaningful character development against their backdrop.
• If you’re wondering WTF was going on with those Mordor-looking bat people, those are cliffghasts. They look and sound evil and kind of random when Ruta Skadi comes upon them in this episode. You’re not wrong: in the books, their conversation about Æsahættr and the coming war takes place between an elder and the wide-eyed children of the nest; it’s far less doom-y and serves to remind the reader that terrifying though many creatures in these worlds are, unlike the spectres, they’re still sentient beings just trying to feed their families. (They’re better parents than Lyra’s or Will’s, at any rate!)