Television

In Season 3, His Dark Materials Finally Found the Way to Tempt Readers Who Love the Books

And the ending wrecked me.

Lyra and Will lying on a beach in His Dark Materials.
HBO

Even someone who has read Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass four times, profiled its author, and co-hosted a podcast about the TV adaption of the fantasy trilogy to which it is the conclusion—even someone like that can find the novel confusing. Pullman is fond of quoting Raymond Chandler’s tip for stymied writers: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” But as Pullman himself has admitted, if you keep resorting to complicating your plot with fresh dangers, you can wind up with a room full of armed men and no clear idea what to do with them.

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This crowded scenario faced the third season of the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials: the culmination of an epic story with dozens of characters, spanning not just continents but multiple universes. Reading the novel requires constantly reminding yourself of which world the characters are in at the moment and which of multiple possible objectives they’re pursuing. There’s an operatic confrontation between Asriel and the regent angel Metatron that ends with a very Miltonic plunge into the abyss—all of which registers as a conventional action-packed climax—but in fact the big battle scenes are really just a distraction to permit Lyra to “fall” in another sense, an event whose full metaphysical impact remains a bit opaque. The Amber Spyglass isn’t muddled, exactly, but it is muddling.

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In the first two seasons of His Dark Materials, showrunner Jack Thorne’s simplifying impulse often reduced the richness of Pullman’s epic to an elementary level more accessible to casual viewers. Characters were forever explaining their intentions and goals when these were either obvious or more intricate and ambivalent than the script indicated. Pullman’s trilogy is in large part about the danger of reducing the world into crude binaries of good and bad, both an indictment of authoritarian religion and an object lesson for those who think you can’t tell a ripping adventure yarn without black hats and white hats.

In its third season, His Dark Materials finally strikes the right balance. Viewers have banked enough familiarity with concepts like daemons to understand, for example, how agonizing it is for Lyra to leave Pan behind to journey into the land of the dead. The limits of CGI have meant that the intensely physical relationship between human and daemon has never been properly conveyed by the series, but Pan has become enough of a constant that any viewer can grasp how much the parting costs Lyra. Plus, the shot of Pan in his pine marten form, craning after the vanishing Lyra on the ferry dock, is guaranteed to slam all the buttons of anyone who tears up at abandoned-animal stories.

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The sort of details likely to preoccupy fans of the books—how will the series portray the mulefa, with their diamond-shaped skeletons? How will it orient the narrative in space and time while it zips around five different universes?—turn out to be a lot less perplexing than expected. The mulefa have been rendered as long-legged tapirs with face paint, and while their use of seed pods as wheels is never fully developed, that’s fine. The creatures do what they need to do in Mary’s story by showing her not only what dust is but that it’s possible to have community without dominance or exploitation. And besides, they are beautiful.

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At its best, this season of HBO’s His Dark Materials helped me see something I’d never quite realized before: that in its conclusion and at its heart, this is the story of two tragic couples, not one. Readers know and love the connection between Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson). But Thorne has lavished the series’ attention on Asriel (James McAvoy) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), and in the third season this pays off, deepening the child’s-eye view provided by the books. Although powerfully drawn to each other, these two adults can come together only in sacrificing themselves to save Lyra, an act made achievable when each turns their worst trait—his arrogance and her deceitfulness—to a higher cause.

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The performances, by McAvoy and Wilson, remain as fine as ever. She cares about nobody but herself (at least until she realizes how much she loves Lyra), and he cares about everybody, which in the end amounts to the same thing. Pullman’s Asriel is a glamorous, Byronic hero whose revolutionary fervor conceals a core of selfishness, but McAvoy’s Asriel is a more cautionary figure. When he reveals to Mrs. Coulter that he has captured an angel and is torturing it for information, even she is a bit shocked at how far he’s gone. Asriel is on the side of right, a freedom fighter, but his zealotry has made him the mirror image of his enemy. (After all, don’t the angel, his commander Metatron, and the Magisterium also believe they have humanity’s best interests at heart?)

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The corrective counterpart to the grandeur of Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s story is the humble intimacy of Lyra and Will’s. Lyra’s reasons for insisting that they postpone their part in the multi-universe rebellion to travel to the land of the dead have always seemed a bit weak. If Roger had died thinking that Lyra was complicit in Asriel’s plan to kill him, her determination to apologize to him would make more sense. She inflicts a lot of pain on both Pan and Will to tell a ghost something he already knows. But her conviction that it is important to do right by a person Asriel dismisses as “the kitchen boy” is part of what distinguishes her from both of her parents.

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The series’ ghosts are disappointingly material, solid enough to hug. One concept from the books that doesn’t get enough play in the series is Pullman’s celebration of the physical world and of flesh itself, a fleeting and vulnerable thing that is nevertheless fascinating to, and coveted by, both the dead and the angels. In the novel, Mrs. Coulter uses her sexual allure to seduce Metatron into trusting her, reminding herself that Genesis 6:2 recounts how ardently the “sons of God” desired the “daughters of men.” In the series, Asriel explains that having a body gives human beings a strength surpassing that of the angels, but by that point he’s hardly a reliable narrator, and Mrs. Coulter’s interactions with Metatron are sadly unerotic. Instead, the angel admires her for her ability both to summon and to disperse spectres, underexplained powers that she doesn’t fully possess in the novel.

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Nevertheless, one of the loveliest scenes in the series to harp on this theme comes when Mary “tempts” Lyra by telling the story of how she left her religious order. In a flashback, Mary sits at a long table under a Mediterranean sun with a convivial group of scientists. She notices her own desire for one of her companions (in the novel it’s a man, in the series a woman, which somehow seems much more appropriate to Mary). The woman offers Mary a sweet, and in that moment a long-buried memory of the feeling of being in love floods back to her. She knows she cannot live out the rest of her life refusing to ever feel this again, and asks herself why things would be better off if she fled, confessed, and swore never to be tempted again. “Will anyone be the better,” she asks, “for making me miserable?” The scene ends with a shot of Mary’s discarded crucifix necklace sliding between the cushions of her chair.

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It’s moments like these—including the awkward, tender, magical transition in Will and Lyra’s relationship, inspired by Mary’s story—that ground the cosmic conflict of Pullman’s trilogy in the precious ephemera of everyday life. If the series doesn’t always articulate this idea effectively in its most fantastical sequences, its footing is very sure where it counts, as Mary recalls her joyful loss of faith and Will and Lyra fall in love. The series handles the story’s ending equally well. Pullman concludes with Lyra consoling herself with a grand vision of people across the universes working toward a true Republic of Heaven. Thorne wisely dispenses with this anthem in favor of a montage that reflects what most readers have always cared about the most, indeed have likely played out in their imaginations already: Will and Lyra, year after year, returning to their bench in the botanic gardens, together and alone. Their loss, so enormous, is both the price of the earthly love that Pullman celebrates and the thing that makes it glorious. That ending wrecked me, and it was perfect.

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