There is a certain irony that the final two episodes of His Dark Materials, the TV adaptation of Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy novels, aired one day after Christmas. On December 25, one of the world’s larger religions celebrated the arrival of its messianic figure, while tonight, a bunch of soldiers, angels, witches, and a very self-centered scientist banded together to destroy organized religion throughout the multiverse. It’s an awkward pairing, but in a way, it’s perfect for the series’ fascinating, flawed, moving, and absolutely awkward culmination.
When we last left Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson), they had murdered death by creating a door from what was essentially the Authority’s holding cell back into the (well, a) real world where they could disperse into Dust and become part of the universe. It was great work, but it was also basically a side gig for them, and now they have to head to Asriel’s great camp, find their daemons (yes, Will has one now), then… do whatever it is they’re supposed to do to save the world.
Asriel (James McAvoy), a man of science, is quite bitter to learn his lifelong war against the Authority is going to be nothing more than an attempt to distract Metatron (the Authority’s regent, and the angel who’s really in charge) to his daughter can fulfill a prophecy. That said, it ends up being a hell of a distraction: As “the clouded mountain,” which gives the penultimate episode its title, of Metatron’s forces roll over the base, the way the sky seems to fill up with stars is an impressive visual, given that we know they’re Metatron’s angels, ready to murder all those who yearn for free will. Then it gets into a Star Wars-style fight of whizzing lights and lasers.
Here’s the problem with Asriel’s distraction—it’s also distracting us from what really matters, which is what Lyra and Will are up to, which is mainly wandering around Asriel’s camp, successfully not getting pulled into the main conflict. It’s busy work for them, even after they find their daemons, because they immediately send them away somewhere safe so they can… we’ll get there. And big action set-pieces aren’t His Dark Materials forte anyways, but just went they get too tiring the show recalibrates to give us the real fight.
Having weaponized the Abyss Metatron created, Asriel plans to find Metatron (Alex Hassell) and physically tackle him into it. When Metatron pulls Asriel into the Kingdom of Heaven, however, it’s an easy matter for the archangel to morph into a second Asriel, and begins beating the hell out of the original.
But Metatron has a second plan.,too Metatron is intrigued by the “cesspool of moral filth” that is Mrs. Coulter (Rita Wilson), a human that has truly recognized the darkness inside herself. So he invites Coulter inside as well and tempts her with immortality as an angel. It’s another killer scene for Wilson, who has to strike Coulter’s total emotional honesty—for instance, her hatred that her love for her daughter Lyra makes her so weak—so that Metatron cannot see the deceit that lies in its core. Because, of course, while she may hate that her love makes her weak, she would never give that love up.
When she asks to see the beaten Asriel, Asriel is dumb enough to think she’s truly betrayed their daughter‚ but smart enough to quickly realize his mistake, and the former power couple power-tackle Metatron off the kingdom of heaven, into the Abyss, just as Mrs. Coulter’s monkey activates Asriel’s weapon, destroying them all. The trio’s slow-motion fall looks goofier than it is affecting, but it’s more than balanced out by Coulter’s monkey’s sad, plaintive look at Lyra as it fades to dust and all the vivid, conflicting emotions fill Lyra’s eyes as she effectively watches her mother die.
Discovering her mother’s sacrifice is only one of the two narrative reasons why Lyra and Will have been wandering around the battlefield instead of following their daemons to safety. The second is that so they can find a large, strange, translucent box with someone inside. When Will uses the knife to cut it open, they see a horrible, wrinkled old man who immediately crumbles into Dust. It’s the actual Authority, the one Metatron usurped and trapped, but if Lyra and Will realize this they couldn’t care less. Instead, they head to Mulefa World to find their daemons.
And that’s where the real final episode, “The Botanic Garden,” begins. Pan is still miffed at having been abandoned at the river of the dead, and stays close to Lyra but refuses to reunite with her. Will’s cat daemon seems to be taking Pan’s lead. But narratively, they’re separated so that Lyra and Will can fall in love and kiss.
The episode is leisurely to the point of listlessness as the pair walk and frolic and swim and develop a burgeoning physical attraction to each other. They meet Mary, who’s just been hanging out to be the new Serpent to Lyra’s second Eve, but her “temptation,” such that it is, is simply a story: She used to be a nun who went to a scientific conference, fell in love, and realize it made her feel more alive than praying ever did. It’s a strange way to have a total loss of faith and an even stranger way to “tempt” a teenage girl into having her first kiss, but it works. Lyra and Will kiss and... that’s it, it seems.
…except. If you’ve read the original novels, or you’ve read between the lines of the Bible, you know Adam and Eve did more than just kiss. And like the books, His Dark Materials stresses how Lyra and Will have moved from “innocence” to “experience.” Their daemons lose the ability to transform, a sign of coming of age mentioned back in the first season. After their “kiss,” Mary sees their suddenly riddled with Dust, which isn’t strictly original sin but the metaphor had been made constantly.
I don’t really know what the answer for His Dark Materials was going to be here; it’s a Young Adult story that admits teens have sex, which HBO might have been okay with, but co-producers the BBC presumably weren’t. And thus it is awkward. But so much about the way His Dark Materials wrapped up is awkward. Couldn’t have Lyra just birthed Dust back into the world without Asriel’s fight against the Authority, and vice versa? Why were we told the Subtle Knife was the only way to kill the Authority, but then Asriel and Coulter were able to push him off a ledge? What purpose did it serve to give the Authority a regent, when the Authority was already an angel taking credit for creation?
I don’t have answers to these questions, and neither does His Dark Materials. But the ending still worked for me, and I’ll tell you why: Because when the Angels tell Lyra and Will all the windows have to be closed and they’ll have to return to their own worlds lest their daemons get sick and die, and their heartbreak is, in a word, heartbreaking. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and Keen and Wilson elevate a traditional YA tragic love story into something incredible. They manage to convey their total sense of loss, their desire to project some kind of strength at their forced parting, while somehow preventing it from feeling hokey even when they’re making childishly overwrought vows to sit on the same bench in their respective worlds for the same hour, every year. Did I cry? Hell yes I did.
And so, His Dark Materials comes to its consistently inconsistent end. Will it go down as one of the greats? No. But I think the entertainment world is a bit richer for having it in it. The hosts of heaven may feel otherwise, however.
- Gomez showed up on Mulefa World after Metatron was gone, wandering around forever, found Lyra, and was immediately murdered by an angel. Worthless.
- If you wondering how you recognized Metatron, you might have seen him as Vicious on Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop.
- I need a long break from writing TV recaps.
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