Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Talk about being careful what you wish for. So, says His Dark Materials, you found the previous two episodes so plot-heavy they lacked a bit of emotion? Wallop. Have a scene so painful you’ll never again be able to board a boat without thinking of the girl who left her soul behind.
Pan shrinking from the pain of rejection as Lyra walked away from him was almost too much to bear. As were his whimpers when he padded up and down the edge of that jetty, and Lyra’s agonised yells as her boat was pulled through the water, away from that part of her. It’s always been Lyra and Pan, since the very first time we met them. Now, it’s Lyra alone, on this final journey.
Even if Pan didn’t understand the sacrifice Lyra made for Roger, the viewers did. That’s because this series always keeps character front and centre. Jack Thorne’s adaptation understands that you can decorate a plot with as many fantasy doodads and exotic settings as you like, but story lives in people and relationships, and these two episodes were rich in that.
Take Asriel. This was the first time it felt as though we really got under his skin, and it took the presence of Marisa Coulter to do it. Their scenes in ‘The Intention Craft’ were filled with revelations. Why is Asriel so scornful of Marisa’s love for Lyra? Because he’s jealous. Or at least that’s the impression James McAvoy gave when he put his hand around Ruth Wilson’s neck. Asriel wants Marisa’s devotion and is maddened that she’s given it to their daughter and not to him. This is a man – ironically considering his mission to kill God – used to being worshipped, something Marisa pointedly needles him about in their electric scenes together.
Asriel’s also in denial – as Stelmaria and Mrs Coulter know full well – about his own feelings for Lyra, and suppressing them under all that heroic change the world stuff. It was satisfying to finally witness more of Asriel’s conflict, and the obvious chemistry he shares with Marissa. That ‘you are my prisoner’ rope stuff was… not for children’s ears. Can you imagine the fanfic? I daren’t look.
As for Mrs Coulter, her character and its conflicts remained as fascinating as ever, from her violent tamping down of feelings when she received her mother’s trunk (always better for us to imagine the childhood pain that created that woman than if her suffering were all laid out), to her trotting around the Magisterium like she owns the place and playing every game to her advantage.
Well, almost every game. Eventually, Father President MacPhail got too high on his own supply and channelled all the misogyny of his church to rebel against the woman he so clearly lusts after, and therefore despises and blames for his desire. Marisa’s arrest just goes to prove once again that a woman who shores up a system that hates women is by no means exempt from that hatred. This show cuts deep.
It cuts deep into the wrongs of those worlds and ours, but also offers hope from the one place hope springs eternal – young people. ‘The Intention Craft’ gave us scenes of Asriel and Marisa side-by-side with scenes of Lyra and Will, and the implicit comparison was revealing. The grown-ups lied and point-scored and aimed to injure each other, while the kids’ conflict was handled with altogether more emotional maturity. Lyra wanted one thing, Will wanted another, and through honest, difficult communication, they landed on a solution and came out of it closer. The adults could learn a thing or two.
Young adults is a better description of Lyra and Will now, three years on from when we first met them. The distance travelled, and the increasingly romantic nature of their relationship was acknowledged in a nicely underplayed way with their “You seem different”/ “So do you” / “You’re staring” exchange. Once again, understatement beats overtly confessional.
Lyra’s hard-earned wisdom came to the fore in two scenes in this double-bill. The first was her spot-on speech to Iorek about doubt being necessary and the real problem being people, like her parents, who never entertain it- an excellent point to make in a story about dismantling oppressive religious structures. The second time came when she told her Death that she didn’t want to be exceptional, she just wanted to be good and to help someone. If the fate of the worlds has to rest on the shoulders of one person, who better than her?
About Lyra’s Death – just when you think this story has been emptied of beautiful weird ideas like daemons, out tips another and another and another. This one’s a comfort too, in that each person is never alone but has a companion through every moment of their life, and who, when that life is finished, is there to usher them away from it. Like most things in this story, frankly it poses more questions than it answers (see also: the Gallivespians, and Mary’s new trunky friend), but it snags on the mind in a most satisfying way.
Similarly satisfying was the vibe in the existential waiting room world Will cut a window into with the newly repaired knife. The drab, Soviet-era look and desaturated tones created just the right, bleakly satirical atmosphere, against which Dafne Keen’s earnest performance popped like an accent colour.
So, at the half-way point, where are we left? Will and Lyra are off to find Roger in a land from which everybody keeps telling them they won’t be able to return, Mrs Coulter awaits intercision at the hands of the Magisterium who are planning to use her severance to trigger a bomb to kill Lyra, and Asriel has just torn apart an angel to get the attention of Metatron and take his war to the next level. It’s precarious, it’s exciting, and most importantly of all after these emotion-packed episodes, it now also feels like it matters.
His Dark Materials Season 3 is airing weekly on HBO in the US until Monday the 26th of December. All episodes will arrive on BBC iPlayer in the UK on Sunday the 18th of December, as well as airing on BBC One.