[Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers of His Dark Materials seasons one and two.]
War. Authoritarianism. Religious bigotry. Hearing those topics, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out if someone was talking about our current state of affairs or the final season of His Dark Materials on HBO Max. It’s no secret that novelist Phillip Pullman’s trilogy is known for commentary that has gotten it banned from U.S. schools. And while the first two seasons of this adaptation did certainly dip their toes into those waters (religious and otherwise), this third and final installment takes Pullman’s views and practically beats you over the head with them. Admittedly, it can make the show—one entrenched in fantasy with talks of dæmons, angels, and traveling across the multiverse, but rooted in the notions of faith and love—feel a bit on the nose this time around. But it’s a quality sendoff nonetheless.
When we last saw Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) at the end of the second season, they’d been separated. Will went off to find his dad, John Parry (Andrew Scott), who instructed him to find and join Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and his army. Unfortunately, their father-son reunion was cut short when John was killed, leaving Will once again without a parent to guide him. To make matters worse, while he was gone, Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), found and kidnapped her. And in the final scene of the season, Asriel was speaking directly to the angels, pleading for them to join his fight against the Authority, which they agreed to do.
Cut to this final season, which puts a stronger emphasis on angels, heaven, and the freedom of choice than we’ve seen so far. It builds on the idea that the Authority has created an institution across all the worlds, intent on manipulating humans into thinking that they are serving not just some random angel but the creator of all living things. Sounds familiar, no? Especially with the Magisterium’s belief that Lyra is the reincarnation of Eve, the mother of all sin, it’s practically impossible to ignore what the series is trying to say about religious righteousness and the guise of doing evil things “for the greater good.” In short, the show spends a ton of time exploring this idea, especially when compared to past installments.
What’s more, with the deaths of John Parry and (thankfully) Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby at the end of last season, His Dark Materials season three thrives by focusing more on its central characters. We would have liked more witches—Ruta Gedmintas’ Serafina Pekkala simply does not get enough screen time this season—but by spending so much of the season on Will and Lyra’s battle against the Authority, the show neatly builds to an epic finale. It’s a culmination of everything we’ve seen so far: travel between worlds, dust, dæmons, and angels, all wrapped in a tiny little bow and covered in allegory.
And what we appreciate most about this season isn’t just that it reminds us to be wary of the institutions that claim to guide us. It also positions queerness as a tool that serves a greater purpose; it’s not something to shy away from but the very thing that can help humanity better itself. Obviously, we can’t detail what we mean by this (and we can only assume readers of the novel might know what we’re getting at), but to see queer characters propel a story that’s so heavy with religious allegory is pretty remarkable. There’s a particularly poignant moment when a character says, “you who judge are just afraid,” and we’re sure it will resonate with many long after the final credits roll.
Performance-wise, Amir Wilson and Keen are killer. We were a tad concerned about what the length of time between filming seasons two and three would do as far as how quickly they both grew up, but their aging works here, and the two have a solid chemistry. As for McAvoy and Ruth Wilson, both actors are afforded the chance to play with delicious moments as parents, ex-lovers, and warriors, and deliver.
This last batch of episodes is poetic, heavy with heart and soul, and provides a satisfying conclusion to a story that’s been (mostly) a joy to watch unfold. And it stays true to what unfortunately made Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy controversial in the first place—that is, that it drives home the theme to hold onto the people we love and who they are, and screw the institutions that tell us how to think or feel.
His Dark Materials season three premieres December 5 on HBO Max.