So I have some questions.
Not about the plot of “Æsahættr,” the final episode of His Dark Materials’ truncated second season. (COVID-19 prevented the filming of an eighth, Lord Asriel-centric installment.) That’s easy enough to sum up. To wit: Shortly after a confessional speech from Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon, she and Will realize they’re the best friends each other has ever had. But when Will goes off to reunite with his father, the shaman John Parry — whose mission to find the bearer of the Subtle Knife leads to both his death and that of his guide, Lee Scoreseby, at the hands of Magisterium troops — Mrs. Coulter shows up to kidnap her daughter Lyra, kill her guardian witch, and put her in a suitcase for ease of transport (I mean, I’m assuming).
Meanwhile, kindly Mary Malone successfully leads the feral children Paola and Angelica to an encampment where their parents can, presumably, be found. (Don’t ask why the parents abandoned them in the first place.) Witch-queen Ruta Skadi returns from a fact-finding mission to Lord Asriel, telling her counterpart Serafina Pekkala that the rogue aristocrat plans to wage war against the Authority Himself. (She also overhears some flying-monkey-esque cliff ghasts planning for the war to come.) And after a speech in which Asriel declares everyone is either with him or against him in the fight for “freedom and knowledge” against “deceit and prejudice,” the angels who’ve been speaking with our heroes through various means throughout the season join his team.
The end. But there’s so much more to say.
Throughout the episode, there’s a sense that the narrative economy is all out of whack. Who, for example, finally clues in both Mrs. Coulter and the audience that Lyra’s prophesied destiny is that of the biblical Eve? Not the shaman John Parry, not the witch-queens Serafina Pekkala and Ruta Skadi, not even Cardinal MacPhail and his alethiometer-reading underling Fra Pavel — it’s some redshirt witch getting tortured to death by Mrs. Coulter, one whom I’m not convinced we’ve ever seen before this episode, and whose name is a total mystery to me even now. A season full of stalling, just to get us to this undercooked moment, with the torture and death of a character who means nothing to anyone.
And how about that John Parry/Jopari guy and his balloon chauffeur, Lee Scoresby? What becomes of them at the end of their multi-episode (and in the case of Scoresby, multi-season) trek across multiple globes to find Lyra Silvertongue and the bearer of the Subtle Knife? They get popped by anonymous Magisterium goons, that’s what becomes of them. And for what? So Jopari can tell his son Will that the knife is the one means by which the Authority can be killed, before he himself is killed by a stormtrooper? Once again, this is surely information that could have been conveyed by someone else — by the knife’s previous bearer Terrence Stamp, by the witches who’ve declared war on the Magisterium, by fucking Iorek Byrnison the talking polar bear, I don’t care. Instead it falls to a dude who gets murdered — alongside his partner in crime, played by the extremely famous person Lin-Manuel Miranda — almost immediately upon revealing all this, like the punchline to a black-comedy joke. And since the show is basically devoid of humor, you can’t even read it that way if you were so inclined!
Then there’s the ostensibly rousing scene with Lord Asriel — and here we come to a problem not just with the series, but with the source material. It’s all quite exciting to see a random British guy rally literally angels to the cause of finding and killing God, doubly so since the source material is a young-adult novel, and who is in more pressing need of the message that God must be killed than young adults? What goes entirely unremarked upon by the scene, and which Phillip Pullman himself seems to have conveniently forgotten when he wrote this face turn for Asriel, is that the guy murdered a child to get to this point. This remains the case even when that child pops up for a few seconds in the episode’s baffling post-credits stinger.
- His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 6 Review: “Malice”
- His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 5 Review: “The Scholar”
- His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 4 Review: “Tower of the Angels”
The Scouring of the Lyra
If I felt like His Dark Materials was going to grapple with Asriel’s crimes and weigh them against his liberatory potential, a la Game of Thrones forcing you to confront Daenerys Targaryen’s bloodthirstiness even after she’s fought against an existential threat to humanity, or even a la The Lord of the Rings showing you the horrible shit that went down in the Shire while Frodo and friends were off questing, that would be one thing. But there’s no sign that this is the case, any more so than it was in the novels, in which Asriel and Coulter alike are given a free heroism pass more or less for being sexy — and how can you trust this show to wise up when, as seen in this episode, it’s capable of fucking up so many fundamentals?
If it seems like I’m being hard on a basically well-intentioned and well-made show… well, I probably am. Because I want to like the damn thing! I’m in the liking-things business, I wouldn’t even be a critic if I weren’t. As a matter of preference, I’m particularly in the liking-fantasy and liking-killing-God business, so you’d think this would be right up my alley. You almost have to try to screw that up… and yet screw it up His Dark Materials has. This despite lively and game performances from Dafne Keen, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Amir Wilson, Ruth Wilson, Will Keen, and Simone Kirby. This despite — and I can’t stress this enough — being about one randy British aristocrat’s mission to find and kill God. To get an enthusiastically lapsed a Christian as me to root against this clown is an achievement in and of itself. But that’s the story of His Dark Materials, I think. It makes the impossible feel far more laborious than any fantasy worth its salt ought to do.