The BBC is back with its second series of His Dark Materials; Caragh Medlicott completes her weekly reviews with a look at the series’ final episode, ‘Æsahættr’.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Reaching the end of series 2 of His Dark Materials, it’s easy to forget the feat it has achieved over the last seven weeks. It’s tackled the second book in Philip Pullman’s HDM trilogy, ‘The Subtle Knife’, and in doing so, opened itself up to a whole host of complexities that the first series was pretty light on. Its potent mix of Blakeian religion, quantum physics and high fantasy hardly make for easy live-action storytelling – even when aided by a HBO budget – but in totality, writer Jack Thorne (plus his writing team: Francesca Gardiner, Sarah Quintrell, Namsi Khan and Lydia Adetunji) have achieved something special indeed.
When juggling different worlds, numerous characters and major plot arcs to boot, keeping up energy is a big, if not the biggest, challenge. Over the course of the second series, HDM has had its ebbs and flows. Its final episode, ‘Æsahættr’, reminds us how huge the show’s scope is, and just how high the stakes really are. Major characters fall – including the beloved Lee Scoresby and Will’s father, Jopari. These sacrifices are trademark of Pullman’s source material which is relentlessly sharp and, despite the fantasy, honest with the children at whom it is aimed. Though the death scenes are heart-wrenching, they aren’t fawned over. This series finale further opens the viewer’s eyes to the brutality of the central battle that’s just beginning. James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel makes his first and only appearance of the series with an impassioned speech regarding the fight ahead; this might be the climax of series 2, but all engines are driving interest and attention to HDM’s third and final series.
For all its merits, the final episode sometimes concedes to a wobbly plot. Many of the witches – who should, surely, be inherently exciting – can often feel if not dull, then replaceable. Though there is apparently direction behind Will and Lyra’s journey with them, something in the static nature of their travel makes it seem more like idle loitering while the drama unfolds elsewhere. As Will continually tries to persuade Lyra that they should break ranks, you can’t help but pine for them to do so. The tender exchange of love and friendship between Will and Lyra is one of the episode’s best moments. Out on their own, there would surely be even more room for their friendship’s expansion (but alas, a difficult separation awaits by the episode’s close).
While the necessity of scene back-and-forth can sometimes suck out the tension from subplot strands, nothing could dampen the loss of HDM’s most charismatic aeronaut (Lee Scoresby) or quash the mystery of Mrs Coulter’s bizarre self-flagellation as she kicks and threatens her own daemon into submission. It is these moments which remind us that – for all the drama – it is the subtle and remarkable characters themselves who sit at the heart of HDM’s multiple worlds. A fact that is also readily apparent in the post-credits teaser. In keeping with the format, the flashforward only lasts a few seconds, but in that time we glimpse Billy – Lyra’s old best friend who was killed at the end of series 1 – calling out to Lyra in the dark. The emotional resonance that this brief moment packs in is a credit to not just to the authenticity of the characters, but the bonds formed between them.
Throughout the course of ‘Æsahættr’, old mysteries are resolved and new ones appear. Will finally finds his father (albeit briefly); Mrs Coulter learns of the prophecy regarding her daughter, Lyra; and the viewer discovers that the war about to commence is nothing as meagre as witches versus the Magisterium, but a planned takedown of The Authority. With biblical prophecies, armies of angels, and the “big man” Himself under fire – more writing challenges lie ahead in series 3.
There’s no doubt that the intention is to go in full throttle with the final series. Much like everything else in 2020, this second series was partially disrupted by the pandemic; a plan for a standalone Lord Asriel episode had to be scrapped. This taken into account, the overall series is even more impressive for what it’s managed in compromise (and by that I mean it doesn’t feel like a compromise at all). Series 2, if anything, improves upon its first installment while adeptly introducing new characters, themes and mind-bending multi-dimensions.
As a season finale, ‘Æsahættr’ ultimately hits a lot of sweet spots while agilely managing a top-level faithfulness to ‘The Subtle Knife’ (something mastered through artfully swerving bookish details unimportant to the cosmetics of a TV series). With a universe so dramatic, so effervescent, and so fantastical; His Dark Materials has taken top spot for Sunday-night escapism during these difficult autumn and winter months. From the sun-drenched, haunted streets of Cittàgazze to the gilded halls of the Magisterium’s headquarters, HDM has lived up to its big production credits with beautiful, atmospheric world-building heady enough to make you think you might actually enjoy living amongst its dangerous parallel universes. Little is tied up, much is left unsaid – and while I hope that next winter the need for such escapism is less acute – I’ll be eagerly awaiting the return of this particular adventure.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.