Warning: contains spoilers for His Dark Materials Season 2
This is where it’s all been leading. Lyra, daemons, Will, the discoveries about Dust and other worlds… everything has been building towards this point, when Lord Asriel’s army of rebels will try to take down the oppressive Authority and replace the Kingdom of Heaven with a Republic. Season three will adapt Philip Pullman’s expansive and inventive third novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. We’ll meet Gallivespians, Mulefa, Angels, Harpies and the Almighty himself. We’ll travel all the way to the Land of the Dead. Prepare for things to get weird.
If needed, here’s a reminder of the major season one action (the bears, the North, the General Oblation Board’s cruel Intercision experiments at Bolvangar, and Lyra’s discoveries about her mother and father), and below are the broad strokes of season two.
Both of those seasons are currently available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on HBO Max in the US, but if a full rewatch is out of the question, then this is what we need to remember ahead of the final run.
After Lyra’s father Lord Asriel killed Roger to open a window between worlds, Lyra and Pan followed Asriel through and ended up in Cittàgazze – a city where all the adults had either fled or been turned into soulless husks by Spectres (floating creatures attracted to ‘Dust’ and so only attack adults, because children aren’t surrounded by the elementary particles). There, Lyra met the daemon-less Will, who’d run through the window from his Oxford to escape Lord Boreal and the police after he accidentally killed Boreal’s lackey. Boreal regularly travelled between Lyra and Will’s worlds in search of artefacts including the Subtle Knife, to which he hoped Will’s father Col. John Parry – who disappeared years earlier – would be able to lead him.
Lyra’s alethiometer told her to seek ‘the Scholar’ to learn more about Dust, and so Will took her to his Oxford to do that. There, she met physicist Dr Mary Malone, who was studying dark matter/Dust using a quantum computer. When Mary hooked Lyra up to the computer (a way to communicate with Dust, much like the alethiometer), she was astounded. Through it, Mary learned that Angels were Dust, and rebel Angels had spent centuries guiding human discovery as revenge on the tyrannical Angel known as ‘The Authority’ (or monotheistic God, worshipped by the Magisterium), who wanted humanity to remain ignorant and subservient. An angel instructed Mary to pass through the Oxford window into Cittàgazze, where Angels would protect her from being attacked by Spectres, and to use the I Ching to communicate with them on her journey to help Lyra.
In Will’s Oxford, Lord Boreal had stolen Lyra’s alethiometer and forced Will to retrieve the Subtle Knife to get it back. So in Cittàgazze, Will and Lyra entered the Tower of the Angels and Will won the knife in a fight (losing two fingers in the process) and was declared its next Bearer. He learned how to use it to open and close windows between worlds used it to try to steal back the alethiometer, but were discovered by Boreal and his lover Marisa Coulter – Lyra’s mother. Lyra and Marisa’s daemons fought savagely and Lyra and Will escaped with the knife and the alethiometer. It told Lyra that Will’s father was still alive and they had to find him.
Will’s father John Parry had lived in Lyra’s world for years as the shamanic Jopari (also: explorer Stannislaus Grumman, whose frozen head Asriel mistakenly thought he presented at Lyra’s college in his presentation on Dust). Aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who’d helped Lyra and co. to escape from Bolvangar in season one, sought out Jopari because he was rumoured he could lead him to a powerful object (the Subtle Knife) that could protect Lyra. Lee joined up with Jopari and they travelled to Cittàgazze in search of the knife, not realising that its new bearer was Jopari’s son Will.
Lyra is the subject of an ancient Witch prophecy that her mother Mrs Coulter, and the Magisterium, spent the season trying to discover. They allowed Mrs Coulter to torture a captured Witch for the information, but Queen Ruta Skadi flew in to mercy-kill the Witch before she could reveal it. Ruta also stabbed the Cardinal, who was later euthanised by Mrs Coulter who wanted the more malleable Father MacPhail in power. MacPhail declared war on the Witches, and was voted the next Cardinal, but made powerful enemies in the process.
Using the alethiometer, the Magisterium learned that Lyra is the new Eve, destined to be tempted by ‘the serpent’ in the Garden of Eden, and the future of all the worlds would depend on her choice. The Magisterium declared war on Lyra and sent soldiers to kill her before she could fulfil that prophecy.
Thus, everybody converged on Cittàgazze: Boreal and Mrs Coulter, Lee and Jopari, the Magisterium soldiers and the Witches, all in search of the Subtle Knife and the girl who would change everything. There, Mrs Coulter demonstrated the ability to repress her humanity so deeply that Spectres did not attack her but became her servants. When she didn’t need Boreal any longer, she poisoned him for keeping Lyra from her, and used a Spectre to torture the Witch’s prophecy about Lyra. Realising that the Magisterium would try to kill Lyra, she drugged and kidnapped her to keep her safe from them.
Lee Scoresby and his daemon Hester were killed by Magisterium soldiers and died heroes, giving Jopari time to meet the Bearer of the Knife/Will and briefly reunite with his son before Jopari was also shot dead by the Magisterium. Before he died, Jopari told Will that he had the only weapon in all the worlds that could destroy the Authority and that he must take the Knife to Lord Asriel to play its part in the coming war.
And finally, in a post-credits sequence, a sleeping Lyra heard the voice of her best friend Roger in the Land of the Dead, asking for her help…
What is Dust?
Conscious elementary particles that surround adults and are common to every world. In ours, it’s called dark matter; in Lyra’s, it’s called Dust. Angels are made of it, and it can be communicated with via the alethiometer, Mary’s quantum computer and the I Ching. While officially denying its existence (and that of other worlds) the Magisterium and Mrs Coulter conducted cruel experiments to try to rid the world of Dust, which they viewed as evidence of sin. Severing a child from its daemon before they reach adolescence stopped Dust from settling on them, but essentially turned the severed person into a soulless, subservient zombie, showing that Dust is essential to consciousness and freedom of thought.
What is the Subtle Knife?
Here’s how the prologue to Season 2 episode 4 explains:
Three hundred years ago, a guild of philosophers became curious about the bond between the smallest of atoms. They forged an instrument. A knife, that in the hands of the right person, could cut the very fabric that joins worlds. They christened that person “the bearer” and the knife they called “the subtle knife”. The guild built a tower in the city of Cittàgazze. A monument to the knife, which they hid within it. They kept its powers secret but had a choice, use this knife for the benefit of all existence or just for the benefit of their own? They chose badly, stealing trinkets to fatten their own pockets. A strange, evil force crept out from the shadows, Spectres. And then came Asriel’s great tear in the sky and with it came a mass flood of Spectres, a pestilence. Those that survived fled. The subtle knife was born of hope but used with greed and yet, in the right hands, it could still save us all.
What is Witches’ Prophecy About Lyra?
That’s answered in detail, and in reference to Philip Pullman’s books, in this article. The short version is that the Witches believe that Lyra is destined to be the new Eve (as in Eve from Judaeo-Christian theology). A serpent has been summoned, Lyra will be tempted and the choice she willingly makes will alter the future of every world, and the future of destiny itself.
His Dark Materials season 3 will air in double bills between Monday the 5th and 26th of December on HBO in the US. All episodes will arrive as a box-set on BBC iPlayer from Sunday the 18th of December, as well as airing on BBC One.