His Dark Materials Season-Premiere Recap: Death Is Going to Die

His Dark Materials

The Enchanted Sleeper
Season 3 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

His Dark Materials

The Enchanted Sleeper
Season 3 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Peter Baldwin/HBO

Ah, December. The most wonderful time of the year … for killing God.

It’s been a whopping two years since we left the world(s) of Dust, though in Pandemic Years, it feels like the hiatus might have been six months or a decade. Regardless, when you’re trying to pull off the final chapter of His Dark Materials — without a doubt the most mind-bending, extravagant entry in the novel trilogy — there’s really no such thing as “too long.” If adapting The Amber Spyglass the right way required HBO to push this to 2025, that would have been perfectly acceptable.

Because this book has everything. Yes, we’ve still got the witches and the armored bears and (of course) the daemons of the past two seasons. But this season, depending on how close to the text we stick, we should also be getting harpies. And gargoyles. And pixies. And intelligent deer-elephant people on wheels. And magic helicopters. And, best of all, bitchy, gay angels. We’re going to several new worlds, too — including purgatory. Which is all to say that, while this final installment of the story is far and away the most profound (argue in the comments if you dare), that also means the stakes are higher than ever for His Dark Materials fans.

The two-episode premiere is heartening on that front. The few diversions from canon feel incidental, if not outright healthy: Mrs. Coulter’s shrine hideout in the Himalayas has become an abandoned stone chapel on the rocky coast of a German island. Ama, the little girl Coulter hoodwinks into helping her keep Lyra sedated, is no longer South Asian and superstitious, but white and deaf — a sight better than the vaguely racist characterization from the books. Coulter, who in the greatest of ironies has never been the “serpent” referenced in the Big Prophecy, happens to speak sign language. Her controlling, abusive obsession with “keeping Lyra safe” has reached a fever pitch; she insists to Lyra and Pantalaimon that repeatedly chloroforming them is “for their own good” as she and the golden monkey wait for “him” to come for them (not the “him” one might expect, as it turns out, but that’s for another recap). In her vulnerable state, all Lyra can do before she slips back into unconsciousness — back to the strange, dreamlike underworld where Roger’s spirit is trapped — is to stare as hatefully as she can into her mother’s eyes and say the most hurtful thing she can think of: “I will never be safe with you.”

One thing’s for certain: “him” isn’t the Magisterium. The Consistorial Court of Discipline’s new Father President, the former Father MacPhail, is about as equipped for executive leadership as you’d expect. In fact, the only element of his new job that he seems any good at whatsoever is delegation. It would almost be funny to watch him fumble around for recommendations from his underlings on how to deal with a growing sect of heretics if his insecurity didn’t result in the public maiming of anyone who even thinks about listening to said heretics.

That winning recommendation comes from the vastly more confident Father Luis Gomez, a quietly sadomasochistic underling played to perfection by newcomer Jamie Ward. (If there’s one thing this show has been unparalleled at, it’s finding actors who can be good looking and quietly terrifying in equal measure.) He probably didn’t need to physically intimidate alethiometer reader Fra Pavel into working harder, given the spyfly he eventually uses anyway is perfectly equipped to find Mrs. Coulter and Lyra, but seeing how obsessed he is with pain, it might have simply been for kicks. He also tells MacPhail that he’s been doing “preemptive penance every day of [his] adult life” to prepare himself for any atrocities he might get to commit on the job one day; his eagerness to be the one leading the charge to find Coulter and Lyra is muted but positively psychopathic. His daemon, an iridescent beetle in the book, is now a spider, which of course adds to the creep factor.

Now, I’m not saying the Church doesn’t need to be dealt with, because it does. What I will say, however, is there’s no good candidate for frontrunner in this so-called new rebellion. Asriel’s crusade for a “republic of knowledge” already smacked of Silicon Valley libertarianism last season, but now, in the Elon Musk Buys Twitter era … this stuff just hits different. Xaphania says “his ambitions transcend his kind,” but has she met many of his kind? What billionaire isn’t attempting to build something like the intention craft, that aforementioned magic helicopter meant to be powered by the driver’s thoughts? The Authority — organized religion — is a tyrant, sure, but one hopes for a better leader than a rich guy who says “death is going to die” with a straight face.

There are two more intriguing diversions from the text in Camp Asriel: the Gallivespians and Commander (formerly King) Ogunwe. The spritelike spies of the rebellion originally rode dragonflies; now they simply are the dragonflies, flying around with four entomic wings of their own. They’ve also become rather disciplined and effective fighters, which is certainly more useful but less funny. In the books, they’re described as not being particularly good at spying, outside of their diminutive size. (Their leader, Lord Roke, was a bit of a pompous dandy, in fact.) Nevertheless, their redesign is at least aesthetically cool — think Adam West’s Batman versus Christian Bale’s Batman — so it will be fun to see where else the adapted story takes them.

The Gallivespians form the vanguard in a run on a prison where Ogunwe has been locked up by agents of “the Temple,” a totally new iteration of the Magisterium in a totally new, daemonless universe. (We’re really bending over backward to avoid condemning evangelical Christianity here, huh?) Previously a king from Asriel’s own world — his cheetah daemon made it easy to see how the two men got on — Ogunwe is now a commander of his own guerrilla resistance with two daughters. One has been “severed” by the Temple, which Asriel uses as emotional fodder for his recruitment campaign. (It’s all very “as a father of daughters.”) Ogunwe is extremely skeptical, which, can you blame him? He was just busted out of jail by a white Montessori granola dad with an automatic weapon and a talking snow leopard and some fairies who is now raving about fist-fighting God. Watching the guy blow a hole in the fabric of the universe does make a compelling case, and he ultimately joins their holy war.

And finally, the award for best plot adaptation of the episode goes to Will, Iorek Byrnison, and the goddamned bene elim. I mean that literally: Baruch and Balthamos are rebel angels from the kingdom of heaven, allied with Asriel to overthrow their oppressive ruler(s), the Authority and his “dark angel” regent Metatron. Good ol’ Baruch and Balthamos have been on a mission to find Æsahættr, which of course Will has been using to scour the multiverse in vain for Lyra and Mrs. Coulter. Balthamos, in particular, is one of the best characters in the entire series, on account of being the bitchiest character possible for absolutely no reason. He just shows up out of nowhere, annoyed and in love. (Who among us, really?)

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith was perfect casting as Balthamos. His bored expressions — coupled with those eerie blue eyes he and Baruch both have — give him the perfect blend of otherworldly aloofness and unlikely humanity, despite never having been one. (Baruch, as we learn later, was human once.) After some squabbling, mostly between Balthamos and Will (also annoyed, also maybe in love?), Baruch cheerfully volunteers his grumpy boyfriend to guide Will to Lyra, kisses him goodbye, and flies to brief Asriel on Aesahaettr’s whereabouts.

For his troubles, Balthamos gets to witness perhaps the most Aesopian moment of the series: the showdown between Will and the king of the panserbjørne. The townspeople of a seaside fishing village have captured one of his bears, and Iorek Byrnison is terrorizing the townspeople in an attempt to get her back. Using what Lyra has told him about the armored bears, Will steps in to challenge Iorek in single combat, which only sounds absurd to the bear king until Will slices through the supposedly impenetrable sky metal of his helmet like it’s Jell-O. He concedes, and the grateful villagers release his bear. He’s clearly not at all surprised to discover afterward that this tiny human is friends with his favorite tiny human of all time: Lyra Silvertongue. He’s all in.

Field Notes

• Poor Xaphania, being forced into a spooky prologue. I’m begging Hollywood: Not every fantasy adaptation needs a Galadriel! Let it go!
Jamie Ward’s Twitter bio says he’s a “sensible driver,” which is in itself very unsettling, IMO. I bet Father Gomez considers himself a sensible driver, too.

• There’s something about the tools of modern warfare rolling up on my magic show that really rubs me the wrong way. Why are we fighting celestial beings with drones and AK-47s?

• It’s also quite funny that an episode-long recruitment campaign about toppling the patriarchy to end all patriarchies ultimately hinges on two fathers bonding over “protecting” their daughters, but that’s on Men Writing Stories, I guess.

• Onscreen, it’s unclear why Iorek and his bears are anywhere near the village in the first place. For some reason they ignore the easy, canonical explanation: In The Amber Spyglass, the armored bears are migrating south because the icebergs of Svalbard, where they once lived, are melting. That’s right, climate change has forced Iorek to move his people from the Arctic to the Himalayas, where he runs into Will tracking Lyra and Mrs. Coulter. [Britta from Community voice] I can excuse the assassination of God, but I draw the line at climate change.

• Also among the plot points tragically lost in translation: Iorek, whose people are starving due to a plummeting seal population, literally eats Lee Scoresby after Serafina Pekkala preserves his corpse and relays his location to the bear. Would’ve paid extra to see this play out.

• One thing I absolutely adore about this show is how much it relies on what I described in my notes as “the settiest sets that ever setted.” As a longtime Star Trek fan, I believe cheesy set dressings force TV shows to take their stories more seriously, because they force the audience to focus on the performance rather than their obviously fake environs. Actors and directors can’t take believability for granted when the set is studio-apartment size, as it clearly is with the war camps and last season’s Cittàgazze. I only wish they’d done it more often, if only to save some money for a living daemon here and there.

• Speaking of daemons, can we overthink the golden monkey for a sec? The unnamed, silent animal of Marisa Coulter’s soul continues to suggest a backstory far darker than I ever really picked up on in the books. This is pure conjecture, but if one were to follow the logic, her daemon’s nonverbal nature coupled with her sign-language fluency suggests Marisa herself might have been nonverbal at some point in her childhood. If true, considering how abusive and emotionally unwell she is as an adult, I don’t think I want to know why.

His Dark Materials Season-Premiere Recap: Death Will Die