For an episode that promised heavy soldier action, much of the His Dark Materials finale is surprisingly muted and contemplative, as Lyra confronts her father and he tries to explain what he’s been doing.
It’s an explanation that rings a bit hollow once he gets to the point of murdering his daughter’s best friend to achieve his goals. If there’s been one defining theme of this season, it is perhaps a strong argument for nurture versus nature in terms of raising children. Lyra is sweet and good-hearted, and her parents are monsters. By the end of this episode, the more reliable parent turns out to be the one who has previously murdered a bunch of children, but has not done so in this episode. And Lyra’s father, who has at least been present in her life up to this point, not only kills Roger, but completely abandons his daughter. There is an unpleasant gendered nature to the paths taken here—Lord Asriel is so committed to his quest that he leaves his kid, whereas Mrs. Coulter has been so transformed by her brief exposure to motherhood that she gives up on adventuring to stay behind with a child who hates her.
She also acts in ways that are completely contrary to everything we’ve seen from her so far. The brief scene with Thorold starts with her seeming like she’s going to kill him, or at least hand him to the guards, and the remainder of it is passed in uneasy tension about what she’s going to do to him. It’s almost a bit of a letdown when she just gently tells him that Asriel has always been reckless, and that she’s going to leave Thorold behind with Father MacPhail. Then later she just lets Asriel go? She’s spent all season maneuvering around the Magisterium based on her hatred of him, only to have a brief check in with him on a mountaintop and walk away. Of course, it’s totally possible that she’s been nursing this affection for Asriel all this time, but there isn’t really a ton of character work to suggest that this is who Mrs. Coulter has secretly been all this time she’s been screaming into the void, abusing workers, and murdering intruders at her home.
And the big fight sequence that was foreshadowed in the last episode and then shown here is confusing. The reasons we’re given for why the Magisterium and the bears are fighting are pretty thin. It’s not even clear the bears are defending Asriel in that moment. And if Mrs. Coulter is so excited about motherhood, why does she tell her gunners to fire on the bears, a group with whom she knows her daughter likes to associate? It’s like the episode needed a battle sequence, so it had one. What is accomplished in this battle sequence? What do the bears think they’re fighting for? How did Mrs. Coulter end up alone on that mountaintop when she was traveling with a large group of soldiers? It’s not like Asriel’s location was a secret.
Meanwhile, in our world, Will wanders aimlessly before heading into a portal. That’s it. The entirety of the Will plotline is wrapped up when he walks into a portal. We don’t even get the satisfaction of him running into Lyra. If the suggestion is that these two are fated to interact in some consequential way, as suggested by both the opening credits and Will’s prominence all season, shouldn’t his storyline have involved a little more story? He’s been so isolated that we don’t even really know much about him as a person. Lyra’s natural chattiness and friendship with Roger meant that she was perpetually bouncing ideas off of people, whereas Will has been so monosyllabic that it’s hard to know what he’s thinking as he walks around avoiding police officers.
Generally, this season has suffered from an inability to let organic developments happen. We’re told who is important, like Serafina Pekkala, far in advance of her actual appearance, which is then quite brief. It all seemed like a mad dash to get to the big final scene on the mountaintop, but much of the lead up, in this episode was oddly laggy. For a man we’re supposed to believe feels some degree of pain and regret about murdering a child, Asriel spends much of this episode in a quiet, contemplative mood at odds with his all-consuming ambition and awareness of what he’s about to do.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t elements working in the finale—the somber, quiet mood was a nice break from the constant danger of earlier episodes. And in the season as a whole, Lyra has continued to be a determined, affecting protagonist, and it’s easy to get caught up in whatever adventures she finds herself on. She’s spent virtually the entire season taking some awful hits, from discovering who her parents are and that they still don’t really want her, to losing Roger, the one person she could trust to love her.
As she and Will presumably work their respective ways towards each other going forward, it would be nice to see the show give them the room to be human, instead of moving them from set piece to set piece. They’re clearly on a quest together—maybe they could spend some time getting to know each other?
- “Are you crying? It’s unnecessary.” Father of the year, once again.
- Father MacPhail says there is “some sort of encampment living area,” thus giving off strong “I have never interacted with a child” vibes.
- Will being 15 seems a lot older than Lyra, who generally acts like an actual child. I had assumed he was younger.
- This show really wants its deeper philosophical points about organized religion to land hard, but it’s a little hard to care about Asriel’s politics after all the Roger killing.