His Dark Materials ramps up the weird in Episodes 305 and 306

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

His Dark Materials continues to do a solid, respectable, serviceable job of adapting Philip Pullman’s quirky novels for the small screen. Neither of the latest two episodes, “No Way Out” and “The Abyss,” quite punched me in the gut like “Lyra and her Death” did at the end when Lyra and Pan were forcibly ripped apart, but I’m enjoying the journey now that we’re near the end. Sh*t is getting weird, and that’s a good thing.

We pick up with Lyra and Will as they enter the shadowy land of the dead. They encounter the souls of the deceased, who have pallid skin, hushed voices, no hope, and nothing to do, forever. We’ve all seen depictions of the afterlife in movies and TV, whether it’s a radiant paradise or a fiery hell. Pullman’s vision of a bleak purgatory is rarer, quieter and scarier, and I think the show does a good job capturing the muffled terror of a place like this.

And although the episodes struggle to lucidly explain how everything is connected, Lyra and Will’s trip through the land of the dead does a good job of illustrating why the Authority must be stopped. Everyone gets sent to this blasted non-place when they die? No matter if you did bad or good? What a crock! I understood why the old woman was so angry with the Authority and why she and so many others chose to follow Lyra and Will.

Not everything works in these bits. The show must not have had the budget to depict whole flocks of harpies like in the books, so we basically just get one: No Name, the harpy who saves Lyra from falling into the Abyss in the second episode. I also thought Lyra striking her deal with No Name (or Gracious Wings, as Lyra named her) didn’t have the impact it should. Lyra is changing what happens to everyone after they die; it should have more punch than this.

But overall, I loved the mood down here. I also loved the low-key jealousy radiating off Roger once he meets Will and sees how close he’s gotten with Lyra. Roger may be dead, but he’s still holding a candle for his best friend. We also get the returns of Will’s father John Parry, played by the always-dependable Andrew Scott; and Lee Scoresby, played by Lin-Manual Miranda and his disappearing-reappearing Texas accent.

Mary Malone learns to speak alien wheel elephant

Up top, the most interesting bits are probably Mary’s adventures with the mulefa. They’re cut down significantly from the book, where Mary has interactions with a whole village of these creatures, I imagine for the same reason the show didn’t show us skies full of harpies: they didn’t have the money.

Still, what we do get is compelling, particularly the montage at the top of “No Way Out” where Mary slowly learns the mulefa language. I really liked how they subtitled Mary’s Mulefa friend Atal so we knew what Atal said, and then had some of the words fall away to convey that Mary wasn’t getting the whole picture. I like that Mary accepts all this matter of factly. ‘Of course I’m going to help these sentient elephant creatures fix their wheel trees.’

That said, I wish the show spent more time exploring the ecology of the mulefa and explaining why exactly they’re dying out, instead of cutting out all the details from the book about the relationship between the mulefa, the wheels, the trees, the oil and Dust. His Dark Materials often skips over nuances like this. I get that it’s not thrill-a-minute stuff, but they chose a weird story to adapt and I think they have an obligation to adapt it weirdly.

His Dark Materials introduces us to God

Finally, we follow Mrs. Coulter in Geneva as she tries to stop the Magisterium from detonating a bomb that will blow up Lyra. Ruth Wilson is magnetic as always as she tries to talk her way out of one corner after another, and finally gets into a knock-out, drag-out cage match with Father President MacPhail…although that does raise the question of who exactly this show is for. The violence is brutal in a way you might see on a watered down HBO show, but elsewhere in the narrative we have witches and talking bears. His Dark Materials is so strange that way.

Anyway, MacPhail is planning to sever Mrs. Coulter from her daemon, which will provide the energy for the bomb to work. She manages to get out (RIP Dr. Cooper), but MacPhail willingly takes his place. The machine still doesn’t work, but at the last second, we get some divine intervention as Metatron, the Regent of Heaven, activates the device and blows a hole in reality.

So far as I remember, this doesn’t happen in the books. I don’t mind it, mainly because I like the depiction of the Metatron. He’s supposed to be the big bad of this series, so why shouldn’t he play a more active role. We get a glimpse of him earlier and he cuts a memorable figure. His Dark Materials is often called an atheist work, and that’s really driven home here through Lyra and Will’s journey through a lie of an afterlife and by the ruler of heaven being a capricious douche.

That said, I don’t quite get why Metatron would want to open a hole in reality that would suck up all the Dust? Aren’t angels made of Dust? En, whatever, metaphysics have never been this show’s strong suit, which is a shame since there’s so much of them. I’m hoping for a loony finale that stands by some of the characters we’ve come to like, from Lyra to Will and even Mrs. Coulter, who thanks to Ruth Wilson has been impossible to hate.

His Dark Bullet Points

  • In The Amber Spyglass, Father Gomez is dispatched to hunt down and kill Mary Malone very early on, before even the Magesterium descends on the cabin where Mrs. Coulter is keeping Lyra asleep. On the show, he only starts off on that journey now, in penance for offending Father President MacPhail. Not sure why they changed it. Maybe so we wouldn’t forget who he was between appearances?
  • Iorek Byrnison makes a brief appearance in “The Abyss,” hassling Lord Asriel for being a crappy dad and person. The point of this scene is for Asriel to discover that Lyra is staging a prison break in the land of the dead. I’m not really sure how he gets that from what Iorek tells him, but pretty much anytime Iorek shows up onscreen is a highlight. The show does a great job of capturing his power and ferocity.
  • By the end of the episode, both Asriel and Coulter are united in their desire to protect Lyra and Will. As often happens on this show, it’s not entirely clear how they got from point A to point B on this one, but they present a formidable front.

Episode 5 Grade, “No Way Out”: B+

Episode 6 Grade, “The Abyss”: B

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

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