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Warning: contains spoilers for ‘The Enchanted Sleeper’ & ‘The Break’
Season three of His Dark Materials is the twist of the kaleidoscope that drops the glittering elements of this mad tale into their final shape. Here’s when it stops setting up and solving mysteries and solidifies into a story about the fight between independence of mind and religious tyranny. You know, all that silly fantasy stuff.
There was zero room for silliness in this opening double-bill, which was a solemn two-hours filled with weighty pronouncements and grave discussions. Dafne Keen’s Lyra being unconscious for most of it, plus not much Mary, and no Lee Scoresby (for obvious reasons) made it a very serious affair lacking warmth or humour. Well, what’s warm or humorous about killing God?
That’s Lord Asriel’s plan. After proving the existence of Dust and the multiverse – both of which are hypocritically denied by the Magisterium – Asriel is gathering an army to storm the Kingdom of Heaven, destroy the Authority and free the worlds from the oppressive yoke of theocracy. To do it, he needs Will’s knife (the only weapon able to destroy immortal beings), which means he needs Lyra, the daughter he protests is not the messiah, just a very naughty girl.
That growl from Stelmaria (now voiced by Victoria Hamilton) was a good moment. No other series can dramatise the conversations characters have with themselves as well as His Dark Materials, because no other series has a concept as weird and perfect as daemons. Stelmaria growling at Asriel in frustration at his pretence that Lyra means nothing was a glimpse into his emotional conflict, and a tiny counterpart to all of that manly speechifying.
There was a lot of that after Asriel and his Gallivespian comrades broke Commander Ugunwe out of Temple prison and recruited him for the Republic of Heaven. Asriel made grand promises and declarations while running around fighting guards, pulling levers and twisting dials. He’s going to free minds and end death and all that Dr Frankenstein stuff. Madman, genius, and… egotist – note the possessive pronoun in ‘My Republic of Heaven’. Is he facing an Icarian fall?
Mrs Coulter’s emotional conflict wasn’t so much glimpsed as on flashing panoramic display in this two-parter, thanks as ever to the stellar work of Ruth Wilson. The line delivery of the episode was her answer to why she was keeping Lyra drugged: “Because she hates me, Will, and if I woke her she’d run”.
Brutal honesty there, from the queen of lies and manipulation, and surprisingly poignant given that seconds later, the evil glint was back in Marisa’s eye after she stumbled on the guilt Will feels about his mother. To punish Will for not succumbing to her charms, Mrs C pushed that button until his concentration broke and so did the knife. After that, he was worthless to her, and any pretence at them forming a trio of power was instantly dropped.
Knowing what Mrs Coulter is capable of when it comes to children made her scenes with Will and Ama back-straighteningly tense. Don’t drink that tea, Will! Don’t follow her down those steps, Ama! All the previous work done in building her dangerous character paid off in those quiet, intense two-handers.
Not just quiet but almost silent, thanks to Himalayan Ama being tweaked from the book to make her deaf and European. That sign language opening was a refreshing change of volume that encouraged us to lean in and absorb the detail and atmosphere – a useful contrast to Asriel noisily and literally crashing into the episode. (And of course Marisa Coulter can speak BSL. She’s evil Santa who uses every trick in the book to make herself appealing to children, from her gentle smile to her luxurious clothes and soft, bouncing hair.)
Marisa was given the double-bill’s only moment of levity too, with her quip about strength after smashing Father Gomez in with that rock. Father Gomez, shudder. Just when you thought you’d seen every month on the Magisterium’s Calendar of Creepy Zealot Priests, in walks Mr July. Young and dishy rather than angular and sinister, Gomez is a new flavour of unhinged evil and all the more disturbing for it.
Also new are Angels Baruch and Balthamos, understandably clothed for television, but still satisfyingly alien to look at. As ever with this concentrated version of Philip Pullman‘s expansive and richly populated novels, we hadn’t spent enough time with them for Baruch’s death to make a real emotional impact, but that’s the sacrifice of fitting this much story into so few episodes. The invention of Archangel Alarbus (Baruch’s killer, who was tortured by Asriel), is a neat solution and shortcut to the Kingdom of Heaven storyline – as was that beautiful opening animation.
There was plenty of beauty, from Marisa’s cliff hideaway, to Will’s travels and Lyra’s surreal dream-visits to the Land of the Dead. The need to squeeze so much plot into the runtime though, has sacrificed a little emotion, and in these episodes, any comfort or warmth.
That only came once Will and Lyra were reunited and silently holding hands in their final scene. That moment between two kids who should be chucking popcorn into their mouths at the next Paddington film instead of bearing the weight of the worlds on their shoulders, was uncomplicated breathe-out love in a double-bill filled with loss and dysfunction.
A promising return then, if an emotionally chilly one, for this epic drama. With massive landscapes and even bigger ideas, His Dark Materials is back in business.
His Dark Materials Season 3 will air in double-bills on Mondays on HBO in the US between now and December 26th. All episodes will be available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer from Sunday the 18thof December, as well as airing on BBC One.