His Dark Materials hits a bittersweet high note in Episodes 303 and 304

Image: His Dark Materials/HBO
Image: His Dark Materials/HBO /

HBO is releasing episodes of His Dark Materials two at a time for its third and final season. It feels a little like they’re trying to burn through the rest of a series that, while well-made, never quite caught fire with audiences. The show has always been solid and sturdy, but has rarely been exhilarating or moving.

That said, the two-episode blocks have sort of been working for me, because it ensures that we end on a high note. The premiere was a little sleepy as we caught up with Lyra, Will, Asriel and the rest of the characters in this dimension-hopping, but the second episode ended with a tense  confrontation between many of our principle players, some of whom came in war zeppelins. It was a nice one-two punch, or rather a feeble slap followed by an uppercut.

I got a similar feeling from “The Intention Craft” and “Lyra and Her Death.” The first episode is a slow affair that spends a lot of time on Mrs. Coulter adjusting to her new surroundings in Lord Asriel’s Republic of Heaven, which is what he calls his military base in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels. Aside from the fact that his camp doesn’t look nearly inspiring enough to be involved in a war against God and all his angels — Mrs. Coulter is kept in what looks like an empty shipping container, hardly awe-inspiring — the scenes here just never pick up much momentum. It’s fun to watch Mrs. Coulter talk her way out of danger from a group of people who should by rights want to kill her, but when she steals the titular Intention Craft at the end of the episode, I was ready for a new adventure.

And she gives us one in “Lyra and the Her Death,” where she goes back to Geneva to visit her old friends in the Magesterium. Really, the dynamic is very similar to the one in Asriel’s camp. Once again, Mrs. Coulter is neck deep in dangerous waters surrounding by people who think she’s betrayed them. But I was much more entertained watching her manipulate Father President MacPhail and talk down to Father Gomez than I did watching her putter around Asriel’s place.

I enjoyed watching Mrs. Coulter brandish her enormous brass balls as she strutted into highly classified areas with no armor but her confidence…and that it worked! I enjoyed her immediately bosses around Lord Roke, the Gallivespian sent by Asriel to spy on her/help her out. I enjoyed how the show is keeping two things about Coulter in mind at once: that she’s a loathsome, manipulative liar and that she loves her daughter completely. And I loved that Ruth Wilson sells me every inch of the character; she’s been the show’s acting MVP from the start and she still is.

By the end of the episode, Mrs. Coulter has failed to destroy a bomb the Magisterium plans to use to destroy Lyra. She’s in a corner. I’m sure watching her try to claw her way out will be fun.

The land of the dead

Meanwhile, Lyra and Will set about repairing the Subtle Knife after it broke last episode (thanks a lot, Mrs. Coulter). For this task, they seek out master armorer Iorek Byrnison, who is a delight whenever he’s onscreen. His presence is so huge and straightforward and booming and loving, and the special effects team has done a wonderful job bringing him to life. He’s not really there, but I feel the love between him and Lyra whenever they’re together.

As for the interplay between Lyra and Will, it’s sweet, although it feels a bit like it’s marking time. Maybe because I’m rereading the books right now and I know that Will agrees to go with Lyra to the land of the dead post-haste, because he would do just about anything for her, but I found their pontificating on their next course of action a mite bit tiring.

Things really pick up when Will inevitably gives in and decides to accompany Lyra to the land of the dead so she can seek her friend Roger, whom Asriel killed back in the season 1 finale, and make amends for her part in his death. The land of the dead isn’t quite as eerie as I was hoping — they picture less like a fog-shrouded liminal space and more of an industrial waiting room — but the mood still gets you.

As a book series, His Dark Materials likes to explain a lot of its fake science, probably too much. Dust, lodestone resonators, DNA-based directional bombs…none of it’s real, and the books linger on the specifics just long enough for us to become aware of that. There may be mechanisms that keep the land of the dead running, but the show (and the books) wisely steers clean of explaining them. This is just a strange half-world where you can summon your own death to your side, where dead-eyed souls walk past you without knowing where they’re going, and where a kindly boatman waits to take you to the other shore. The show sits in the mystery and I like that.

But these episodes are really all about the ending, where Lyra must travel to that other shore…and leave Pan on this one. This was, bar none, the most painful moment for me to read in the books, and I think the show does a great job of capturing it. Lyra isn’t just saying goodbye to her shape-changing friend; she’s parting with her own soul, abandoning the truest and best thing about herself, all so she can help someone else. It’s growing up, and it hurts.

Also Pan is an adorable little fuzzy buddy and it’s painful to watch him whimper and stare with big glassy eyes as his soulmate leaves him behind. This is why people can’t stand to hear puppies whine or babies cry. Oh, my heart.

Meet the mulefa!

Mary Malone has been on an especially slow burn this season. She’s dithered around for a couple episodes instead of doing what every fan of the books wants her to do: meet the trunked, wheel-riding mulefa, an intelligent species from another world!

And it finally happens in “Lyra and the Her Death”! Although granted, we only get the barest glimpse of the creatures before we cut to black. At first I was upset they don’t look weirder (where’s the diamond-shaped skeleton?), but I’m trying to keep in mind what a daunting task the design team had in front of them. For now, I’m enjoying Mary’s complete bewilderment and looking forward to more.

His Dark Bullet Points

  • Apparently Lady Salmakia does not go to the land of the dead with Lyra and Will like she does in the novels, or if she did, I didn’t see it. That’s a shame of a change, since the Gallivespians go through some interesting developments down there.
  • In the books, your death is always of the opposite gender, like your daemon. On the show, Lyra’s death is a girl. Just FYI.
  • Poor, put upon Doctor Cooper. That’s a nice little supporting part for Lia Williams.

Episode Grade for “In Intention Craft”: B-

Episode Grade for “Lyra and Her Death”: A-

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

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