His Dark Materials episode 8 review: an epic finale

His Dark Materials series one goes out with a bang and the promise of even better to come. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers. 

1.8 Betrayal

Before anything else, the feet have to be right. Whether you’re performing a dance move or throwing a jab, everything springs from the feet. In this finale, His Dark Materials was able to pull off balletic pirouettes and land every punch, all because, months ago, it put itself in a solid stance by casting the remarkable Dafne Keen. 

Keen is remarkable. She has been throughout, but she’s especially so in this finale. Episode eight gave her a series of long, quiet, emotional two-handers – the kind of scenes that leave an actor nowhere to hide. Through clever editing and canny direction, there are tricks to make young actors (any actors, for that matter) look good. Fleeting moments can be captured and given meaning where none was intended. None of that went on here.

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Keen gave a sustained, nuanced performance, making us feel everything that Lyra felt. Anger, hope, vulnerability, fight… Sensitively directed by Jamie Childs, speaking the wise words of Jack Thorne and Philip Pullman, she glided through those moments with honesty and heart. Whether paired with James McAvoy’s intense, Byronic Lord Asriel, Lewin Lloyd’s loveable Roger, a computer-generated bear or a corpse, Keen is a dream. 

So was this episode, with its combination of high-stakes action and character development. The raid, the bears, the air attack, Lord Asriel’s cruel betrayal, Lyra’s pursuit … it all moved along like a juggernaut – loud, weighty and relentless, with an orchestral score to match. Cleverly though, in between the action, time was set aside for quietness, even for a bit of light before the darkness. 

That light came from the love between Roger and Lyra, which shone in two scenes – one in the bathroom (God really is in the details: witness Roger’s special knock code on the door, Salcilia’s little hind quarters wiggling their way in backwards, and her paws twitching in her sleep later on – lovely work from the Framestore animators) and one in the improvised den. How rare and heartening to see those two kids do something as everyday and child-like as build a fort and have a picnic. 

There was a dread purpose to showing all that love and affection of course – to make us feel even more wretched about Roger’s desperately sad death. (No, Salcilia, we didn’t want to leave him either.) Even knowing it was coming, that played so painfully. How bereft you’re made to feel about deaths you were expecting to happen is the measure of any good adaptation. Call it the Romeo and Juliet test – if a production can sweep you up in their love story so much that you hope maybe this time, the young lovers are going to make it, then you know it’s doing things right. 

This episode did plenty right, and not just with Lyra’s character. The scene between Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter, shored up by Father MacPhail’s earlier exposition, answered so many questions about their relationship. She really did melt in front of him. (Spot the golden monkey nuzzling up against Stelmaria? The very first glimpse of affection from Mrs Coulter’s daemon) And Asriel clearly does believe that Lyra is the product of something extraordinary. Forget child-murder, that kiss alone was powerful enough to tear a hole in reality. 

Mrs Coulter choosing Lyra was a pivotal moment for her, building on the chamomile tea work done in episode six, and the minute detail Ruth Wilson put into her performance in episode two. What a complex creation she is – pulling her daemon’s hair as self-harm one minute, oozing imperious arrogance the next, and then, the real surprise: a desperate declaration of love for her daughter. She turned down Asriel’s offer to build a new republic of heaven with him because she wants Lyra with everything she has. Pity for her that Lyra thinks she’s pure evil and has just skipped across the universe.

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Lyra isn’t the only one on the move. Will’s story culminated in him passing through the window Lord Boreal has been using to step between the two versions of Oxford. Now there’s a knife and a tower of angels in the mix, and the door to book two has been pushed wide open for the next series. It’s been cleverly done, this splicing of stories. Though Lyra’s world has always the more exciting, Will’s has been stitched in neatly around its edges, lending a thriller edge to this fantasy tale. This week’s genre revelation being that the baddie helping Lord Boreal is a bent copper, that fink. Where’s Ted Hastings when you need him?

With nothing from Lee Scoresby or Serafina Pekkala, and a brief but touching goodbye to Iorek, this episode was pleasingly focused on just four main players – Lyra, Roger, Asriel and Mrs Coulter, with a tiny bit of development for servant Thorold. (“Will you say goodbye to her? It’s the very least you could do.” Well said that man.)

Playing out against epic, Romantic scenery, it left us with on the same image that started this whole affair – a glimpse of the sparkling city in the sky captured in Asriel’s photograms. We’ve come satisfyingly full circle, with worlds upon worlds to go.  

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Fight To The Death, here.