His Dark Materials season 3 starts with slow, steady, solid premiere

His Dark Materials. Photograph by HBO
His Dark Materials. Photograph by HBO /

His Dark Materials is back for a third and final season on HBO and HBO Max. This one is based on The Amber Spyglass, the third and final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels. This is where a lot of the weirdest stuff goes down, from visiting the land of the dead to making friends with wheel-worshipping elephant creatures to confronting God himself. Will this be the big finish the story deserves?

As a fan of the books, I’ve been watching His Dark Materials since the start, and I’ve always been…whelmed. The show isn’t bad. The performances are generally pretty good, with Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter being a consistent highlight. It follows the rises and falls of Pullman’s books pretty closely, although the first and second seasons often had to stretch things out to fill up eight episodes. Since The Amber Spyglass is the longest of Pullman’s books, hopefully they’ll be less of that in season 3.

And indeed, the first two episodes — “The Enchanted Sleeper” and “The Break” get on a satisfying run by the end; I can see why HBO aired these two episodes as essentially one long movie, since the big finish at the end “The Break” is a satisfying action climax…mostly.

His Dark Materials season 3 premiere explained

Let’s briefly run down the plot before going further. The Magisterium is after Lyra because of a vague prophecy that holds that she is Eve, from the Bible, reborn, and must be stopped before she leads humanity into another fall. This prophecy is kinda loose in the books and looser on the show, but whatever. Mrs. Coulter is keeping Lyra comatose in a remote cabin, attempting to protect and control her at the same time. Will, armed with the dimension-rending Subtle Knife, is looking for her. During his search he meets up with the armored bear Iorek Byrnison, who is a welcome sight after he mostly sat out season 2.

Meanwhile, the scientist Mary Malone, urged on by the angels she met last season, wanders through another world trying to figure out her next step. And Lord Asriel, played by heavy-hitter James McAvoy, marshals his forces in the hopes of overthrowing the Authority, who is basically God.

It wasn’t until I wrote this out that I realized how sprawling this story had become. There’s a lot going on, and the show freely switches perspective every few scenes to follow a different character. It mostly works, although it still feels a little too…placid. There’s a nagging sense that things should feel more urgent. Maybe that’s because so many of the characters are directed by forces beyond our understanding — Mary through the I Ching, Lyra through the Alethiometer — or maybe it’s because they have to spend so much time explaining things.

Lord Asriel especially has a lot of information to impart to us about How All This Works. What are angels, exactly? What does the Magesterium do to people? Who is the Authority really? The show tries to compensate by turning him into an action hero, what with him crashing the intention craft and springing the freedom fighter King Ogunwe from jail in order to recruit him. That stuff is fun to watch: the intention craft, a kind of futuristic flying machine powered by the will of the person behind the wheel, is wonderfully rendered. When Asriel springs Ogunwe, presented here as a surrogate for the audience in that he doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s helped out by the Gallivespians, tiny warriors who fly through the air on little mechanical wings and stab people with poisoned stings. It’s a good time.

Then again, this Asriel feels a little discordant from the one in the books, who doesn’t get his hands as dirty. And while I like the special effects, the story demands more than what the budget can give. The intention craft and the Gallivespians look great, but Asriel’s camp — where there are supposedly gathered beings from multitudes of worlds who have come to fight the ultimate battle for the fate of every world — looks like…a camp. I wanted some impossible fortress worthy of Asriel’s impossible cause.

Asriel has always been a tricky character to get right. How remote should he be? How relatable? Is he an unflappable genius above human concerns or an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation? McAvoy and the writers split the difference to mixed results. My favorite Asriel scene in this one-two punch of a premiere was when he tortured the captive angel for information on the Authority. He was intimidating, charming, roguish, and a little unsettling.

His Dark Materials is still good, not yet great

The other big thread in these episodes is Will’s quest to rescue Lyra from her mother. I liked his meeting with Iorek Byrnison, mostly because I love Iorek Byrnison. Now that is a special effects creation that’s never let me down. There’s a scene during the climax where Iorek Byrnison rips Magesterium guys to shreds while they shoot at him from a zeppelin. It’s pump-your-fist-in-the-air exciting. Iorek Byrnison forever.

Okay, enough stanning for the no-nonsense talking bear. Will has a good showing, too. He finds Lyra with the help of the angels Balthamos and Baruch, who exemplify the show’s we-have-a-big-budget-but-not-that-big problem. They look cool when they’re in their purely angelic form, kind of like they’re made out of refracted light, and just sorta creepy when they’re played by flesh-and-blood actors. The intensity of their relationship doesn’t come across onscreen quite like it does on the page, but it’s there, and it’s appreciated.

Anyway, upon finding Lyra, Will must confront Mrs. Coulter. They share some great scenes where Will struggles to reconcile his knowledge that Coulter is a selfish monster with his longing for a maternal figure in his life. She messes with his head so much that he accidentally breaks the Subtle Knife! Happily, he’s still able to spirit Lyra away before the Magesterium closes in on Coulter’s hideaway, with assists from Iorek Byrnison and a local girl named Ama.

Like Asriel, Mrs. Coulter is a hard character to get a handle on. How genuine is her affection for Lyra? How much of what she says to Will is a real plea for help and how much is mind games? But actor Ruth Wilson adds on a layer of vampy slinkiness that McAvoy’s Asriel doesn’t have. Mrs. Coulter’s schemes in this episode mostly don’t work, but they’re fun to watch, like when she surprises Magesterium agent Father Gomez by clocking him in the head with a rock, followed by a pithy missive.

Father Gomez, by the way, is one of the weirder changes from the books. In The Amber Spyglass, Father MacPhail charges Gomez with hunting down and killing Mary Malone, which is important to their goal of preventing Lyra from carrying out whatever dark destiny they think she’s going to carry out. On the show, MacPhail takes this green priest and just…puts him in charge of the Magisterium air force? Kay.

But ultimately it’s nothing that can’t be overlooked. These two episodes are solid if a little meandering and bland in parts. They get a good roll going by the end. Hopefully that momentum will carry over into a strong final season.

His Dark Bullet Points

  • Another change from the book: on the page, Ogunwe commands Asriel’s forces and tries to rescue Lyra from Coulter’s care before the Magesterium can get to her. On the show, Asriel just zips to Coulter’s hideaway in the intention craft. Maybe it’s a budget thing, maybe it’s the writers wanting to give Asriel more to do, I dunno.
  • Like in the book, we get flashes of Lyra’s dreams, where she’s somehow communicating with Roger in the land of the dead. That’s an important section of the book. So far, it looks like the show is envisioning the land of the dead as a drab waiting room, which sounds about right. I hope they make it a little less colorful when we arrive.
  • Ama communicates with sign language in this version of the story, which is incidental but neat.
  • The Gallivespians are here, but their colorful dragonfly mounts are not. Ah well.
  • Another budget thing: in the book, the Authority’s regent Metatron fights Baruch right in front of Will. On the show, we don’t see Metatron at all, and Baruch fights a new angel character high up in the sky and seen by our characters on the ground from a great distance. He dies in both versions, though.
  • Mary Malone doesn’t meet the mulefa in this two-part premiere. I’m sure we’re all waiting for that.

Episode(s) Grade: B

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