In the series finale, His Dark Materials finally finds some magic

Photograph by Courtesy HBO
Photograph by Courtesy HBO /

I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books several years back, before I knew that HBO was going to turn them into a series. They were charming, inventive and difficult, young adult books as concerned with ideas about freedom and the oppressive influence of organized religion as they were with two kids — Lyra and Will — going on a worlds-spanning adventure.

I liked the books overall, and was curious how HBO would handle the material. As it ends up, His Dark Materials took a difficult book series and turned it into a difficult show. The series is solid, with good production values, quality acting, and dramatic ambition, but it often felt…blocked, like it was circling an emotional core it couldn’t quite pierce, despite moments of inspiration.

And now we come to the final two episodes, which HBO has aired one after the other on the same night: “The Clouded Mountain” and “The Botanic Garden.” The penultimate episode throws a lot of flash and bang at us, but it still can’t quite crack that core. But the final episode, which sits with the characters as they grow into the people they will be for the rest of their lives, finally breaks through. “The Botanic Garden” is His Dark Materials as it always should have been.

Let’s get into specifics, one last time.

His Dark Materials review: “The Clouded Mountain”

When reviewing these two-episode blocks, I’ve generally lumped both episodes together, but “The Clouded Mountain” and “The Botanic Garden” feel distinct enough to treat individually. “The Clouded Mountain,” named after the floating fortress occupied by the Authority, is His Dark Materials as an action movie. This is the culmination of Lord Asriel’s efforts to free humanity from the yolk of religion, the battle that pits the forces of heaven against Asriel’s rag-tag group of witches, soldiers, and rogue angels. Are we ready for the fight to decide the fate of humanity?

Sure, I guess. It’s clear the producers want Asriel’s war to Mean Something, and To Be Important, but I don’t think they’ve ever sold that to us. In the books, Asriel is a remote figure who values his cause above all else, and Pullman doesn’t really try to make him deeper than that. The show did, but with a few exceptions, all the time we spent with him felt like time better spent elsewhere. The best thing about Asriel was his relationship with Mrs. Coulter, a character that came alive thanks to a steely performance from Ruth Wilson.

Asriel and Coulter take center stage in “The Clouded Moutnain” as they face down Metatron, the Authority’s regent in heaven. Metatron is a being of awe-inspiring power, and I liked how he looked in his towering angelic form. But he’s still an antagonist we only met one episode ago. It’s hard to be too scared of him.

And the show drains him of some of his power by having him spend the bulk of the episode in human form, played by actor Alex Hassell. What’s more intimidating: a malevolent being made of light who towers over you, or a guy with unsettlingly piercing eyes? It’s just not as cool.

That leads to another issue with “The Clouded Mountain”: His Dark Materials doesn’t have the budget or time to pull off a special effects-heavy battle episode like this. Bringing Metatron down to earth is just one example. We see hints of fighting on the ground, but only briefly, and at night where the show can hide how few extras it has on set. The battle between angels and witches in the sky is mostly reduced to different-colored points of light darting around each other.

And they’re nice-looking points of light! But I watched this episode after seeing Avatar: The Way of Water, a movie that is first and foremost about the visual splendor, and it just doesn’t compare. That’s not the show’s fault — His Dark Materials is a middle-grade HBO series and The Way of Water is a blockbuster movie over a decade in the making — but it can’t help but underwhelm.

But for all my kvetching, “The Clouded Mountain” does the best it can with the setup it has. It wisely features a lot of Mrs. Coulter glowering and screaming and smirking at the camera, allowing Ruth Wilson to suggest the depths of a monster who’s discovering her humanity and hating every minute of it. In the end, she and Asriel take down Metatron in a well-rendered sequence that makes plentiful use of slow-mo. But the real emotional fireworks happen back at Asriel’s camp, where Coulter’s golden monkey reaches out his hand to touch Lyra, and then crumbles away into dust before they can connect.

That golden monkey is the special effects triumph of the series, I’m calling it right now.

Episode Grade, “The Clouded Mountain”: B

His Dark Materials review: “The Botanic Garden”

Lyra and Will are mostly sidelined in “The Clouded Mountain,” showing up just long enough to reunite with their daemons before the action gets back to Coulter, Asriel, Metatron, and the other big movers and shakers of the story.

But they take center stage in “The Botanic Garden,” which is set after the Authority has been felled and humanity freed from His corrupting influence. Will and Lyra relax in the world where Mary Malone has been getting to know the mulefa for half the season. They search for their daemons, both Pan and Will’s unnamed daemon, who most often takes the form of a large cat.

But mostly they just hang out. The mood is relaxed, unhurried. Will and Lyra steal glances at each other while they’re sleeping, while they’re swimming. At the center of the episode is a moving story from Dr. Mary Malone, who remembers the moment she decided to stop being a nun: she met someone she liked at a conference. She got a taste of passion, of longing, of love. Who would be better off, she asked herself, if she went back to her room, said her prayers, and didn’t act on these feelings? Who would be better off if she didn’t give into temptation?

Mary left the church that day and never looked back, deciding instead to experience all life had to offer, including the pleasures of the flesh. Will and Lyra listen to this story. The next day, they kiss. Mary has played the serpent and tempted these two young people into acting on their affection for each other. And in discovering the rapture of love — emotional, spiritual and physical — Lyra and Will commit an act of creation so powerful that it draws all the Dust that had been fleeing the multiverse back to earth. The trees in this world are restored. Human imagination, creativity, and joy can remain. Lyra and Will’s decision to embrace life, what the Magisterium called sin, saves the universe.

Finally, the themes of the story dovetail with the events. Pullman’s books keep them in delicate balance, but the show has always felt like it’s fighting to reconcile the big ideas — about orthodoxy, about hierarchy, about sexuality and knowledge and the melancholy happiness of maturity — with the actual story about talking bears and angelic coups and DNA-based directional bombs. But here it all just works. Lyra and Will are story and theme wrapped up in one. They give into temptation and save us all. It’s beautiful.

The languid pace helps. Francesca Gardiner’s script lingers on moments of intimacy and director Harry Wootliff draws them out. Again, it’s form and function working together rather than against each other.

In the Botanic Garden

But like all great stories, His Dark Materials doesn’t stop at the happy ending. There’s a fall from the fall, an afterward where summer turns to autumn and our heroes take their final step into young adulthood.

Once again, the exposition is uncommonly clear, perhaps because it’s tied so closely with the emotional journey of our main characters. Lyra and Will can’t stay together. They are literally from different worlds, and someone from one world cannot stay long in another, or else they get sick and die like Will’s father John. (This is a point I wish they underlined  more.) Nor can they hop back and forth between their two worlds, because all the doors opened with the subtle knife must be closed. Otherwise, all the Dust that Lyra and Will summoned back from the Abyss will eventually leak out again. Humans may be able to use their imaginations to create enough Dust to compensate for the Dust drained by one doorway, but there’s already a door open that can’t be closed: the one leading out from the land of the dead. Keeping that open is more important than Lyra and Will’s love.

That Lyra and Will choose to part rather than undo the good work they did in the land of the dead is the ultimate sign of their growth. There’s no selfishness there, which wouldn’t be the case if they were still children. They choose instead to work through their pain. His Dark Materials gives convincing Romeo & Juliet vibes, but if Romeo and Juliet were mature enough to know that there are things in this world more important than their own happiness.

The final montage has Lyra and Will each visiting a bench in the Botanic Garden in their respective versions of Oxford for an hour once every year, so they can be together and remember. It’s a heartbreaking, well-earned ending.

His Dark Bullet Points

  • In Pullman’s book The Amber Spyglass, Mrs. Coulter tempts Metatron down to the edge of the Abyss, which she and Asriel wrestle him into. On the show, Coulter brings the abyss to him. Same diff.
  • Near the end of “The Clouded Mountain,” Lyra and Will stumble on an ancient angel sealed in a mysterious cube. He cowers in fear and then disintegrates. This is the Authority, the angel who claimed to be the creator whom Metatron supplanted. I wanted a bit more of this moment, but I like that it was included from the books. And I suppose it’s cool that they didn’t over-explain it.
  • As in the book, Balthamos — the angel Will met early in the season — pops up to kill Father Gomez, who was trying to assassinate Mary before she could tempt Will and Lyra into saving the world, and then dies himself. And as in the book, it’s kind of…I dunno, a conflict where we don’t really need one? Although in the book the payoff is bigger because Father Gomez has been hunting Mary for the entire novel, whereas here he only set off on his mission a couple episodes back. It’s fine.
  • I like that they kept in the bit where Serafina Pekkala teaches Mary to see her own daemon, a bird. Simone Kirby has been excellent as Mary since the first time she showed up. She might be the most book-accurate casting on the show.

The credits hint at potential further adventures for Lyra and Pan, adapted from Pullman’s followup trilogy The Book of Dust. I don’t know if HBO (or anybody) will make a show out of that. I don’t know if I’d want them to. But I am happy with the way His Dark Materials has ended. It wasn’t the best of shows, it wasn’t the worst of shows, but at least it went out on its strongest note.

Episode Grade, “The Botanic Garden”: A

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

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