The final season of His Dark Materials wraps an ambitious and flawed adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s celebrated book trilogy of the same name. The show’s announcement was met with excitement from book fans, including myself, who were burned so brutally by the film adaptation’s abandonment of the darkness that is crucial to this story. To its credit, the show not only maintains the darkness of the original text but also makes the novels’ critique of zealotry in organized religion explicit – it’s hard to miss the dialogue specifically naming the Kingdom of Heaven. What the show lacks, however, is the sense of wonder that was present in the books.
That sense of wonder is there in sporadic moments. It’s most well-executed at the end of season one when Asriel (James McAvoy) kills Roger (Lewin Lloyd) and opens a portal to another world. The music, the visuals, and the performances all brought together a marriage of horror and wonder at the new world that suddenly lay before them. That feeling of awe wasn’t as present in the second season and is largely lost in the third, which feels like it’s a consequence of the show not being able to really commit to being an epic and not purely a coming-of-age tale.
The production necessitated that the first season not revolve entirely around Dafne Keen’s Lyra Belacqua. The team then decided to build Will’s (Amir Wilson) story in parallel to Lyra’s, which made sense at the time considering where the two ended up. But the focus didn’t carry forward equally between all the players that would be important in this final chapter, so from a structural perspective, the series felt haphazardly structured. Even with the production of season two being hampered by the pandemic, the structure is something that should have been more acutely factored into the writing of the third.
The nature of adaptation is a tricky thing, especially when it’s a second stab at telling the story after a largely disliked first attempt. It’s also tricky in that the people telling the story just might have different priorities than you, like different characters more, and make certain decisions based on production difficulties we as the audience are not privy to. The His Dark Materials team is overall too faithful to the text, at times sacrificing cinematic storytelling for the sake of recreating the narrative as written. Some of the changes are quite good – notably the behavior of Mrs. Coulter’s (an incomparable Ruth Wilson) monkey dæmon and Lyra receiving the news of her mother’s death – which makes the inert sequences all the more frustrating.
In keeping true to the text, there is often too much expository dialogue. Some of that is out of necessity, to be fair, but it also happens so often that it sometimes undercuts the excellent performances of its cast, who are more than capable (with one exception) of conveying the important pieces of story to the audience. And when the writers do take a step back and offer up that trust, it shows.
It shows most acutely in the show’s best performance and character: Ruth Wilson’s Marisa M. Coulter. She was an absolute scene-stealer from her introduction and the writers recognized the gift they had in Ruth’s performance. So the show decided to invest a lot in greatly expanding her role and that investment paid off big time here. Marisa’s journey from a religious zealot who experimented on children to a person who recognized the evil she had done, the evil of the system she had bought into, and decided to take it down; from self-hatred to self-actualization; that is an incredibly complex journey and Ruth Wilson made every second of it believable. Her character arc is the show’s most fully realized, believable, and affecting.
The same can’t be said for Lyra and Will, which is a bit of a problem as the two are the series’ main characters. It has sometimes felt like the writers and directors lose their grasp of who these characters are and in between scenes that are excellent in their own right, forget some of the building blocks that would allow for those scenes to really breathe. I’m thinking of how the show failed to efficiently capture Will’s relationship with his father (Andrew Scott) – which would have made their reunion here that much more impactful. Or how the series doesn’t allow for the relationship between Lyra and Will to properly breathe because it has so much else on its plate. Dafne and Amir are wildly talented actors and it is really to their credit that their fate is as emotionally affecting as it is in spite of the writing’s shortcomings in that regard.
The inertia comes from the expository writing, the writing team’s inability to decide just exactly what the scale and scope of the story are going to be, and direction that seems appropriately grand yet also inexplicably small. Some of that is budgetary, to be sure, but that really doesn’t factor into the scenes where the camera just makes a lot of bizarre blocking and framing choices that squeeze the emotions out of a scene instead of letting them shine. I’m sure there are reasons for these choices, but for me they created a sense of diminishment that clashes quite constantly with the epic nature of the story.
But for those flaws, His Dark Materials remains a story worth investing in. The performances (again, bar one) are exquisite and I will again reiterate that Ruth Wilson should be winning and being nominated for all of the awards for her turn here. The characters are more often than not compelling. And most importantly, the overarching story of the trilogy is particularly potent.
At its heart, His Dark Materials is the story of embracing feeling not just as a weapon against the forces of institutional oppression but for its own sake as well. Feeling love. Feeling sexual desire. Feeling the power that comes from knowing who you are. Zealous religiosity, here in the shape of the Magisterium, will stop at nothing to force you to stop feeling in any way that the institution of organized religion does not have control over. For in that feeling you discover that that power was within you all along and then what does the institution have over you? For reasons obvious, it feels like a story that is unfortunately all too prescient.
– Marisa and Asriel’s sacrifice in Episode 7 was absolutely gut-wrenching, which is particularly impressive considering the characters of those two particular, well, characters
– Lorne Balfe’s score throughout the show is sublime, but his “Into the Abyss” is a particularly haunting track
– This really isn’t the writers’ fault, but it’s hard to take a name like “Metatron” seriously in this universe
– The construction of Asriel’s Republic is one of those pieces that doesn’t entirely work in the show because the writers weren’t really able to decide how much of it they should explain so it becomes kind of befuddling in a way that it really shouldn’t
– Undoubtedly Phillip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, focusing on an adult Lyra, will be adapted but I hope it’s by a different team. This team’s take on His Dark Materials clicked and didn’t click for me and I would just be interested in what a different group can mine from this rich world.