Warning: contains spoilers for His Dark Materials episodes 3.5 and 3.6.
It’s unkind to revel in someone else’s failure, but what a gift that this is The Amber Spyglass adaptation we got. It’s hard to imagine New Line Cinema’s defunct film trilogy getting anywhere near so much so right.
The Mulefa, the Land of the Dead, Marisa Coulter’s transformation… all of Philip Pullman’s weirdest and most beautiful ideas have been cradled on their way to the screen by this extraordinary creative team and cast. His story’s been translated in a way that loses nothing and heralds its most vital message: the transformative and rebellious potential of love and storytelling.
If that last part sounds at all hokey to you, know that it’s rendered here with zero schmaltz. Episode five ‘No Way Out’ is a horror movie with a surrealist setting, and actual monsters. There’s also a chilling realness at its heart – the Land of the Dead is a place that makes people forget they were ever alive. It divides them from their memories, their senses, and their pleasures. It isolates them, and its monsters – the harpies – whisper their most destructive inner thoughts back to them from the shadows, with no hope of anything ever changing. In short, it’s one of the greatest literary depictions of depression there’s ever been, and this stripped down version, with its desaturated ghosts and teetering cliffs of old possessions, did it total justice.
The episodes built their theme of exchange and community steadily and well. First, Lyra’s memories of Jordan College movingly brought Roger back to himself, and then the others were drawn to their laughter and vibrancy. By the time the ghosts pledged to follow Lyra, and Gracious Wings hungrily snapped up her new name, realising that true life stories are more nourishing than lies and wickedness, it was hard not to grin. Live, make bad omelettes, share your stories with others, and then live again as part of the universe? An unbeatable cycle.
On the subject of cycles, here’s another reason we’re lucky for this creative team to have adapted this book – they worked out the Mulefa and their strange mode of transport like a charm. The gorgeous, otherworldly creatures came across as just that. When I first read The Amber Spyglass years ago, I conjured up an awkward image of Mary’s new companions with their front and hind legs perched on two oily pods like a sort of… hairy elephant motorbike. What rubbish! Those conscious, straf-seeing beauties glide along like speed-skaters with a pod on opposite feet and the others for propulsion. Finally, it makes sense.
Mary’s Mulefa scenes were a gloriously colourful counterpart to the desaturated land of the dead. Their paradise world was such a lovely place to spend time, it felt like a dream gap year for Dr Malone, whose travel agent I’d very much like the number of.
Mrs Coulter can keep her travel agent’s number. The Magisterium’s cells were strictly not a 5-star experience, even if that bomb-exploding cliffhanger was. ‘No Way Out’ bid farewell to monstrous Father President MacPhail, who’ll be sorely disappointed when he realises that sacrificing his life for the Authority will gain him no rewards in death. What true stories will that man tell the Harpies? How he beat a woman to death, almost murdered another, waged war on a teenage girl and went insane with power? Actor Will Keen (father of Dafne) made MacPhail’s unravelling scarily convincing. From reaching his fingers into Marisa’s daemon’s cage, to slapping Father Gomez, to the fight with Mrs C (Monkey arms! Teeth!), MacPhail was a satisfyingly unhinged villain.
Mrs Coulter disabled the bomb to save Lyra, but MacPhail had a vengeful archangel in his corner. Metatron intervened to force that intercision blade down and trigger the DNA bomb, killing MacPhail and creating an across-worlds abyss that… just missed the girl. Not that Marisa knew, and so she spent the first half of episode six in mourning. It wasn’t required, as it turned out, but it was necessary, because of what it taught Marisa about herself. She thought she was incapable of love, but Serafina showed her she was wrong. Grief is proof of love, said the Witch (RIP Ruta Skadi, incidentally), and Eve wasn’t guilty of something shameful, but an act of great bravery and beauty. Marisa was a monster, but love changed her.
That much was clear in perhaps Mrs Coulter’s finest scene yet, right at the end, when she reconciled with her soul, admitted it was the best, strongest part of her and begged its forgiveness. What a speech, what a performance. Ruth Wilson, just when I thought you couldn’t blow my mind enough times.
All that, plus our first glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, a primer on Dust, and the return of Lewin Lloyd as Roger, Lin Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and Andrew Scott as Jopari, all players in a fantasy story being given the screen adaptation of its dreams.
His Dark Materials Season 3 concludes on Monday the 26th of December on HBO in the US. All episodes are available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK now.