Welcome to The A.V. Club’s “Experts” reviews of HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is written from the perspective of someone who has read all three books in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and intended for an audience of viewers who have also read these books. While the main review will not actively spoil details from future books, there will be a spoiler-specific section at the end of the review, and the conversation in the comments will feature spoilers from all books in the series. For those who wish to avoid these spoilers, please visit our “Newbies” reviews.
Although there have been some elements of His Dark Materials that have given book readers reason to think back fondly on the choices made in 2007’s The Golden Compass (see: Bear Jaw), there is one particular choice made in the final edit of the film that means no true fan of the books would ever defend it as a successful adaptation of the core text. That choice, of course, was to completely remove the ending of the book despite it having been filmed.
We could spend an entire review parsing the reasons behind that decision, but there is no justification for it. I don’t care that Asriel’s actions reinforce his plan to wage war against God which caused producers so much anxiety, and I certainly am not concerned about the fact that the ending is too “dark” for a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. The ending of The Golden Compass is pivotal to the success of this story, and to leave it out is to deny viewers a proper understanding of the stakes of this world and the truth about the consequences of Lyra’s journey. And so even as the BBC/HBO adaptation of the books has stumbled at times, there has always been the confidence of knowing that there was no way they would make the same mistake New Line made over a decade ago. We were going to get the scene on the mountain where Lord Asriel murders Lyra’s friend Roger in order to open a door to other worlds and begin his war against the Authority.
“Betrayal”—referring, although fairly indirectly for an average viewer, to Roger’s death as the betrayal Lyra was destined to make according to the Master of Jordan College—does not shy away from the facts of this ending. Lord Asriel kills Roger in order to complete his experiment and open the portal to other worlds, with Lyra witnessing the horror before bidding farewell to her friend and vowing to avenge his death by searching for dust herself. The primary difference from the book is that Jack Thorne’s script doesn’t treat the specifics of the scene as a surprise. Asriel’s reaction to Lyra and Roger’s arrival last week heavily foreshadowed his plans for his daughter’s friend, and when the action shifts toward the mountaintop Lyra (inexplicably, without referring to the alethiometer) realizes exactly what Asriel is planning so that the audience’s focus shifts from “What is about to happen?” to “Is Asriel going to really sever Roger from his daemon?” I’m not entirely sure why Lyra jumped to that conclusion, but I wasn’t upset by how the clearer stakes reemphasized the gravity of Asriel’s actions. It makes it feel plausible (for a non-reader) that Lyra reaches Asriel in time and stops him, but the episode then commits to the darker truth to kickstart the story.
Dafne Keen’s Lyra was explicitly built for moments like her tearful farewell to Roger, or her steely dialogue with her father. Keen never quite got on the wavelength of the more playful sides of Lyra, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not still disappointed about that, but she is immensely skilled at capturing the devastation Lyra feels in this moment, and the determination it creates within her. The final shot of Lyra walking through the window is a stunning visual, but it also really does feel transformative for this character, and her work in the final scenes does far more than any of the exposition-heavy preparation for next season that’s scattered through this finale and last week’s episode. I would have made a range of different choices in terms of telling Lyra’s story, in particular as it relates to her relationship with Pan, but I can’t deny that these final moments landed like I’d always imagined, and successfully paper over the season’s issues to make me more or less excited about The Subtle Knife (although I think we can all agree it becomes a lot less subtle when we see Boreal get his answer from the alethiometer about the knife and the tower).
However, although the show committed to the book’s ending as I expected, I was still dumbfounded with the way this season actually ended. When the show introduced Will early—which the producers have suggested was partially due to child labor limitations making it difficult to film a full season if Lyra was central to all of it—it destroyed the surprise that opens The Subtle Knife, but it created a new opportunity to link these two characters’ paths together. I don’t think Jack Thorne ever figured out how to pace Will’s story effectively, but I was always a firm believer that it would be valuable if the season could end by promising that these two journeys were about to collide. The beginning of The Subtle Knife is frankly a bit awkward, and the idea that we could enter the second season knowing who Lyra and Will are and then watching them feel each other out registered as a productive change, and something that Thorne could use as a hook to bring people back for a second season.
Instead, there is no hook. Lyra and Will both walk through windows into another world, but we don’t see where they end up, and I’m doubtful that any non-reader would presume their paths are about the cross. You could argue it is an ending comparable to, say, the first season of Lost, where they open the hatch but don’t show viewers what’s inside. However, I would argue that this kind of open-ended mystery only would have worked if they had not included Will’s story and Boreal’s crossings, which create the impression that windows only travel between Lyra’s world and Will’s world. And so while a non-reader might be investing themselves in the idea of Lyra and Will in each other’s worlds, they have no reason to anticipate that they’re about to end up in the same different world on the same journey, which to me is a far more interesting hook than the one on offer. Were they just not able to financially justify building Cittàgazze when it wouldn’t be used this season? Was there not the option of prioritizing the post-production on the early episodes of season two—which filmed earlier this year—to be able to create the promise of a team-up to sell viewers on what’s to come?
It’s a missed opportunity in a sea of them. That is, ultimately, what I would call His Dark Materials: a missed opportunity. It is not a failure, as “Betrayal”—like the season before it—avoids committing any sins of adaptation that would destroy the fabric of the story. There are parts of this episode that are actually really effective. For example, there’s an electricity to Coulter and Asriel’s reunion that speaks to Ruth Wilson’s tremendous work throughout and the energy of James McAvoy’s take on Asriel, and the subsequent conversation doesn’t shy away from the war on God to come (even if the show is being a bit fast and loose with the Magisterium as a whole, more on this in the spoiler section). They even gave us a moment of their two daemons interacting as they talked, a rare effort to explore how daemons impact how characters connect to each other. But I still couldn’t help but think how much stronger that would have been if the show hadn’t botched the implementation of daemons throughout the season. Does the show get credit for successfully evoking our appreciation for the books in particular moments if they haven’t done the work to allow non-readers to appreciate the story in the same way by failing to generate meaning beyond that?
On the subject of opportunity, in my view His Dark Materials’ problems originate from poor choices as it related to opportunity cost. It’s a concept central to the problem solving of making television, particularly an adaptation of an existing work, and it’s a difficult one to evaluate because we are mostly guessing at what problems they faced and what decisions those problems necessitated. And so it’s very possible that the writers had a conversation with their effects team about what it would take to include more moments between Lyra and Pantalaimon, particularly during this finale where they are long stretches where he seems to disappear entirely. And it’s plausible that the effects team told them how much it would cost, or how much time it would take, and they realized it would force them to cut corners in other parts of the show. It’s also possible this conversation never happened at all. But if the show is made up of dozens of these kinds of decisions, I’m not convinced Thorne or the producers understood the opportunity cost of their choices. It was like no one followed the thread to how—most prominently—erasing the daemons from so much of this world would make them largely incidental to the story at hand.
And this is what makes me nervous about next season, even after the show committed to this ending and delivered a resonant finale overall. Nothing about this adaptation generated faith—pun somewhat intended—in Thorne’s understanding of this story. If we take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Lee Scoresby as an example, the choice to introduce a younger version of the character wasn’t a bad one in my view, but it never paid off in any meaningful way. I mostly liked Lee’s scenes, but his final one was a terrible exposition dump with Serafina in last week’s penultimate episode, and the change never amounted to anything. Why have Lee profess the fact he loves Lyra to Serafina instead of, say, his own daemon, or even Lyra herself? Or Iorek, even? I could expand to relitigate a host of small and large decisions I dissected over the course of the season, but my ultimate conclusion is that I’m not convinced that Jack Thorne understands the story he’s telling, and that feels like such a fundamental burden on the future of the series.
That being said, though, I found this finale striking and at times thrilling, and if it had ended with Lyra and Will meeting in Cittàgazze, I wonder if it would have been enough to override my objections to so many of the choices and embrace the show’s future wholeheartedly. But in the end, rather than embracing what felt like a real opportunity to create a moment only the television adaptation could generate based on the choice to move Will’s story forward, the show settled for recreating the novel’s cliffhanger without really acknowledging either the opportunity of doing something different or the consequences of not building to this development in the same way. And I suppose it’s a perfect microcosm for a season of television that was executed as though the producers had read enough of Pullman’s series to deliver a close facsimile of the plot, but not enough to understand what was important to the heart and soul of His Dark Materials.
And knowing that they’ve already filmed a second series with these decisions in mind makes it hard to be deeply optimistic that their approach will evolve come season two.
- I hadn’t watched the recreations of the film’s ending, but I was reminded that the choice to have Lyra walk into the door without ever confronting her parents is a change, and makes it a little bit less reactionary. I don’t mind the change, exactly, but it does make the final scene a bit more introspective than intense.
- I liked the idea that Lyra claims Silvertongue as her last name in defiance to Asriel, but I chuckled that she claimed she “enlisted the witches,” when in fact she apparently only enlisted a single witch. I don’t know if that was a budget problem or just something they wanted to keep until the second season, but turning Serafina into a flying-smoke-assassin thing and writing out any other witches in her clan wasn’t worth whatever it saved them.
- There was a definite lack of daemons in parts of the episode, but I did love when Roger’s daemon was also walking backwards into the bathroom while Lyra was in the bath (which was a nice scene in general). I think it was a mistake not to have Roger talking to his daemon more, as it made the idea of separation kind of lost in the conclusion, which was more just “Roger will probably die.”
- I’m still perplexed at Mrs. Coulter’s role in the Magisterium invasion. Was she in charge? Was Father McPhail in charge? What kind of power did she have? Did she know that they were going to fire indiscriminately at the bears and potentially kill Lyra, which she had been so vehemently against so recently?
- As I noted last week, the show is doing a bad job of articulating Will’s reaction to killing a man. We get some of it when he’s in the restaurant and the cop comes in, and he’s on his phone searching to see if it’s in the news, but it feels like we’re missing a scene of him working through his feelings and expressing the panic that seems necessary here?
- I was confused by the scene where Boreal gets the reading from the alethiometer and he’s all confused, like “Are you sure it said a son?!” I realize that I already know how the pieces come together, but he seems almost confused, as though he isn’t smart enough to immediately put two and two together. I don’t know if they thought viewers wouldn’t be able to make the connection if his logic wasn’t discussed out loud, but his inability to grasp the concept without clarification was bizarre.
- This brings our journey into His Dark Materials season one to an end. I wanted to thank everyone for reading before we get into the spoiler section, since I know at least some people (based on the comments) have been just reading the rest of the reviews. I don’t think the show lived up to my expectations, but I was really pleased with the dialogues we were able to create in these comment sections, which covered some really great ground across a wide range of different responses. I’m certainly too invested in the story as a whole not to tune back in when the second season debuts (which could technically be before next fall, depending on scheduling), but I do think I’ll enter that season with lower expectations of the show itself, but high expectations for the discussions it will inspire.
Is His Dark Materials the TV show making an explicit argument against organized religion?
I was really curious watching Asriel’s monologue to Coulter, wondering how far they were willing to go. A lot of the language is there (a new republic of heaven, for example), he’s explicit that his war is with “The Authority,” and that the idea of dust is tied in with Adam and Eve, and so I think it is now impossible for anyone with even passing knowledge of the creation myth to say the show isn’t at least critiquing that aspect of religious thought.
However, the Magisterium was depicted early in the show as a generic authoritarian government, and the idea that their corruption emerged from their ties to religious doctrine is never present: instead, I would argue, the most logical reading is that religion was corrupted by power, as opposed to being itself a form of corruption. It’s clear that the show is committing to the religious dynamics of this story, and Lyra as another Eve, but I can’t shake the way the show’s lack of clarity on what the Magisterium actually is muddles everything.
If the show commits to the angels (they’re super cheap, they’re like a shimmer in the air most of the time), then I think the door is still open to go all-in on these elements of the story, but the religion side of things is another case where the show feels non-committal despite a lot of the groundwork being laid.