Major finale spoilers! This is for UK viewers who have already streamed the entire THIRD season on bbc iplayer.
Some family TV shows exist to sell toys. Or to fill gaps between pocket money-targeting ads, and to profit from cross-promotional product placement. Not this one – and not only because it’s shown on the BBC, historic producers of children’s drama that values young minds for their creative, and not their consumer, potential.
His Dark Materials exists to spark imaginations and excite debate about life’s most profound questions. It talks down to no-one, is accessible to everyone, and passes on a message that’s fundamental to everything fiction and drama are: tell stories. Because stories can be a key turned in a prison door lock, and a jolt of shared experience that makes the listener bolder. As bold as Will and Lyra, who listened to a story and saved the worlds.
Season three’s final episodes show what a remarkable adaptation of a remarkable book series His Dark Materials has been. They were so rich with ideas, let’s dive in to revisit the ending’s key moments.
Ending Metatron’s Purgatory in the Land of the Dead
Metatron (the archangel who ruled in the ailing Authority’s stead in the Kingdom of Heaven) wanted control over the lives of mortals, and achieved it in part through fear, by controlling their deaths. His religious institutions spread the idea that suffering and piety led to a reward in the afterlife while rebellion and sin led to punishment. Those concepts were a lie designed to control the worlds. Really, everybody who died under Metatron’s reign ended up imprisoned in the Land of the Dead, existing as a ghost of their living selves and tormented by harpies who preyed on their worst memories and inner thoughts. It was an infinite, cruel nothingness – unending purgatory.
Lyra and Will ended that purgatory by staging what Asriel proudly described as a “prison break”. Will cut an escape window out of the Land of the Dead into another world through which the ghosts could pass to freedom. As each stepped through, they were freed from torment, their atoms dissipated and became one with the living world once again.
The harpy Lyra named “Gracious Wings” had saved her from falling into the abyss because of the memories Lyra had shared about her childhood with Roger and travels with Lee and Iorek. It wanted to hear more. (“It was the stories that tamed her, our stories.”) So from now on, the recently dead will pass through that land, where they will tell the true tales of their life (liars would not be able to pass) to the harpies, who learned from Lyra that stories are much more nourishing to them than the torment they’ve been meting out for centuries. A beautiful solution.
Lyra and Will’s Sacrifice
The worlds though, were still ending because Dust was escaping through the many windows the knife’s previous bearers had cut between them. Angel Xaphania explained that every window open must be closed to stop the Dust (which is a manifestation of conscious thought, experience and creativity) from leaking away. If people stayed conscious and creative, one solitary window could remain open, said Xaphania.
Lyra and Will knew that the open window had to be the one they’d created in the Land of the Dead to free the ghosts, and so they sacrificed their own happiness to leave that one open and close the ones that would let them be together. (Will’s father had told him that nobody can survive for long in a world that isn’t their own). They sacrificed their own desires in exchange for releasing the dead’s souls back into the universe.
In Lyra’s Oxford, the teenagers said an emotional goodbye and Will and Mary went back to their world. Will broke the knife so he wouldn’t be tempted to use it to return to Lyra. Every midsummer’s day at midday, each visited the bench in their Oxford’s Botanical Gardens for an hour so they could be together across the worlds.
When Lyra made the important coming-of-age choice to express her love for Will, she lost her the natural ability to read the alethiometer, which had been part of her childhood. To read it again, she has to rely on books and study. We learned through captions that both teenagers went on to live full lives. Lyra became a scholar who went on to have more great adventures, and Will, always good with a knife, became a surgeon.
Asriel and Marisa’s Redemption
Asriel’s conflict in Season Three was his refusal to accept that he wasn’t, as he’d always believed, the chosen one destined to save the worlds, but his daughter Lyra was. Lyra was special because, as Iorek told Asriel, she was everything Asriel was not (him being a Dr Frankenstein-esque tunnel vision madman driven only by ambition, not – as Lyra was in her quest to help Roger – by love).
Asriel’s extreme rationalism and refusal to accept other ways of thinking was shown to be almost as destructive as the Magisterium’s dogma in Season Three. That’s why, when Asriel faced Metatron in the penultimate episode, the angel took Asriel’s form. He was a man who had never faced up to himself, or taken responsibility for his wrongdoings – murdering Roger, abandoning Lyra… Metatron was a seer who could read people, and so used Asriel’s inability to confront his own darkness against him by appearing in his form.
Unlike Asriel, Marisa was an expert at controlling her mind and emotions (which is how she learned to control the Spectres in Cittàgazze, by suppressing the soul that they would have fed on – believed to be a sad legacy of her abusive childhood). Marisa used that power to trick Metatron into thinking she would join his side and betray Asriel and Lyra. She led the angel to Asriel, so they could both join in the attack against him. They seized him and leapt into the abyss, sacrificing themselves to save Lyra, and the worlds she was destined to save in turn. At the moment they seized Metatron, Marisa’s daemon (who represents the best of her – her human emotions that she suppressed and tormented for years) felt it and triggered the capacitors Asriel’s soldiers had placed inside the abyss, using the energy coils to create a surge that tore apart the Clouded Mountain from which Metatron ruled.
Does that sacrifice (they knew they were consigning themselves to oblivion in that abyss) redeem Marisa for her wrongs at Bolvangar or Asriel for Roger’s cold-hearted murder? Perhaps not. Perhaps Marisa dissipating the soul-eating Spectres and saving the army from their cruel attacks weighs in her favour. What’s important is that Mrs Coulter’s and Asriel’s final act was motivated by love and not self-interest, which is a redemption of a kind.
Father President MacPhail, Father Gomez, the Abyss and the Bomb
By the end, Hugh MacPhail and Father Gomez’s zealotry had turned them into concentrated symbols of the Magisterium’s unhinged desire for control and power. Self-harming MacPhail in particular embodied the church’s misogyny when he turned on Marisa – the object of his ‘sinful’ lust – and called her a weak, emotional woman. He also bludgeoned Dr Cooper to death, fulfilling Marisa’s promise that the Magisterium turn on their own.
Believing that they were performing an act of devotion to the Authority that would secure their eternal reward in heaven (the existence of which had been proven a lie by Lyra and Will), the holy men failed in their attempts to kill Lyra. MacPhail sacrificed his life by severing himself from his daemon to trigger the Lyra-seeking bomb, which Mrs Coulter deactivated but Metatron fired from the Kingdom of Heaven. The bomb didn’t kill Lyra, but opened the abyss that ran through every world, into which Dust was sucked, accelerating the leaking-out process. Metatron wanted to punish the mortals by taking away Dust from their worlds, which had been conferred on them by rebel angels centuries before. As he said “Dust shall we drawn into eternal darkness once more, that which was given shall be taken away.”
Gomez was killed by the angel Balthamos before he could shoot Lyra in Mary’s Mulefa world. Balthamos, whose lover Baruch had been killed by Alarbus earlier in the story, crushed Gomez’s daemon and made the powerful LGBTQ+ speech: “Desire is not sin, love takes a million forms, each of them beautiful, each of them worthy.” Well said.
When Lyra and Will repaired the flow of the dead back into the living universe, the once-powerful Magisterium was left impotent, without their former means of control.
The Authority in the Crystal Box
When Marisa’s daemon activated the anbaric coils that brought down the Clouded Mountain, and Metatron was wrestled into the abyss by Asriel and Marisa, a crystal box fell to Earth. Seeing somebody inside, Will used the knife to cut into it, only for the person in there to fall apart and scatter into the winds.
That aged, suffering creature was The Authority, the original angel (a former man, like Metatron and the others) who claimed the throne of Heaven and took (according to Asriel) undue credit for the creation of the worlds centuries earlier, before appointing Metatron his regent. That disappearing figure was the last vestige of religious oppression in Lyra’s world. She and Will had finally freed him, using the knife as prophesied to ‘kill’ an immortal.
Mary the Serpent
As part of its critique of religious oppression and control, His Dark Materials inverts traditional stances on the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In mainstream Judeo-Christian mythology, Eve gave into temptation by the Devil in the form of a serpent, and ate an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in an act known as Original Sin, bringing a legacy of sin upon humanity.
His Dark Materials’ inversion of that story makes the whole thing positive. Eve doesn’t bequeath a legacy of sin, but consciousness, experience and creativity (symbolised by Dust). It’s not a “fall” but an elevation, a proper act of creation, because without consciousness, we’re nothing. As Xaphania tells Marisa “All Eve did was dare to experience, it’s an act of bravery, of great beauty.”
When the Angels say that “a serpent has been summoned” to tempt the new Eve/Lyra, that serpent is Dr Mary Malone. Her role is to tell the life-affirming story of how she left the church and its oppressive self-denial for the love of a woman (Mary’s a lesbian in the TV series), which sparks Lyra and Will’s recognition of the love they feel for each other. When the teenagers express that love/eat the forbidden fruit, they draw Dust/consciousness and experience upon themselves, reversing its flow out of the worlds. In Xaphania’s words, Mary the Serpent “showed two innocents what it was to dare”.
Mary is one of the most important characters in His Dark Materials, not just for her role in Lyra’s temptation, but because she embodies the series’ message about the power of telling stories, and its anti-Magisterium, anti-Asriel philosophy that humanity mustn’t assume mastery over nature, but seek to learn from it, and listen to the stories it has to tell as well as telling our own. Beautifully done.
All episodes of His Dark Materials seasons one to three are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.