This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers and references to the plot of The Subtle Knife.
Did you stay until the end? All the way to the end, after the production names and notices about the support of the Welsh government and tax credits from the Hawaii Film Office? Then you saw him – a hint as to where this fantastic (in all senses of the word) tale is heading.
Lyra has spent season two tormented by guilt over Roger’s death and wishing she could have done more to help him. Now it looks like she’s going to get the chance. First, of course, she needs to get out of that trunk and her mother’s clutches, but as Mrs Coulter noted earlier in this run, Lyra has a tendency to escape traps…
Just as this agile adaptation has a tendency to avoid them, from the fast work season two did to absorb the loss of an episode caused by the pandemic, to its confident weaving in and out of the source material. Whenever the series has concertinaed the timeline or invented scenes not taken from the books, it’s made for a more satisfying story.
The death of Will’s father, for example, was more powerful for coming via an anonymous Magisterium bullet instead of (as in The Subtle Knife) the over-complication of a vengeful, spurned witch. Setting their reunion in daylight and therefore letting Jopari recognise Will as his son almost immediately rather than seconds before death, made his exit slightly less cruel than it is in the book. It also created a neat symmetry between Lee and Jopari’s heroic deaths; both men died sacrificing their life for a child they love.
If only Covid-19 hadn’t forced production to scrap that planned standalone James McAvoy episode, season two might have enjoyed perfect storytelling balance. As it was, this impressive finale wobbled a couple of times when Lord Asriel’s absence was missed. It seemed odd for his meeting with Ruta Skadi to have happened off-screen, particularly when she’d flown off promising to bring him back with her. Asriel’s recruitment of the rebel Angels – exhilarating though that scene was – also felt anti-climactic when we already knew them to be allies through their dealings with Mary.
Still, that was some speech by Lord A, in quite some surroundings. Before we move on, let’s take a moment to shake our heads in collective disbelief and acknowledge that this is what TV looks like now. From Andy Pandy to Pebble Mill to… measureless volcanic landscapes and shoot-outs in vertiginous tropical canyons. This finale couldn’t have looked better.
The episode had more than just looks going for it. Jack Thorne’s script took care to leave room for emotional beats, from Will and Pan’s tender campfire exchange (that’s such a novel dynamic to witness – the relationship between a person and the soul of someone they love), to Mrs Coulter’s silent and desperate discovery of Lyra’s winter coat – shed like a skin and left behind so many episodes ago, a reminder of how far our hero has come.
Then there were the performances. Asriel aside, Jopari has probably had the least screen time minute-for-minute this season, but a little of Andrew Scott goes a long way. His finest work was Jopari telling Will that they’d both go home when all of this was over. Saying those words, he suddenly became the father to a young son, lying for Will’s sake while knowing that he was making an impossible promise. So it proved to be, when that bullet came. This casting team really have yet to put a foot wrong.
Season two was really Will’s story, and Wilson was equal to everything it asked of him. Seeing Will literally take up his dad’s mantle when he put up the hood on that totemic coat felt a little bit legendary. A quiet superhero moment in the midst of all the pain and loss.
Speaking of which: how far they flew! Lee and Hester had a classic hero’s exit, holding off the enemy until the mission was complete. There was no mitigation of the book’s cruelty here, with Serafina arriving too late to save Lee, just as always. Lee radiates warmth as a character, and his final moments were as moving as they were sad. RIP, aeronauts. You got the job done.
As did Mrs Coulter, who’d spent the whole season trying to discover who her daughter really is and finally found out: Lyra is the new Eve, the mother of all. It’s her destiny to be tempted by a serpent, and the fate of all the universes rests on whether or not she succumbs.
How are we already here? It feels like only a moment ago Lyra was being quizzed on Eve and the Garden of Eden in a Jordan College classroom. (She snuck out of there too, if I remember.) That’s the mark of a true epic – the greatest journey, in the blink of an eye. I can’t wait for the next step.