his dark materials
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His Dark Materials: Betrayal review

And so here we are, at the end of a stellar first season that has been awe-inspiring and, occasionally, frustrating. His Dark Materials has been a definite improvement over The Golden Compass, in almost every respect, but as of the end of the last episode, comparisons between the two are no longer applicable.

I’m reminded of A Series of Unfortunate Events with this episode. Both book series had a film version made in the 2000s, but only got so far, the first three books in the case of Lemony Snicket’s work and only most of Philp Pullman’s first. The Golden Compass left audiences with an open but triumphant ending, but His Dark Materials keeps to its source material and offers no such hope. The final episode is explosive, traumatic, and for all that it’s possibly the show’s best episode to date that leaves us craving for more.

The Golden Compass left audiences with an open but triumphant ending, but His Dark Materials keeps to its source material and offers no such hope

So as expected we got a pay-off of sorts for bringing in elements of Pullman’s second book The Subtle Knife into this first season. Lyra and Will’s journeys do not match each other in their early stages, hence some dissonance in the past few episodes. While Lyra has had spectacular adventures and gone from the homely Oxford to the icy North and faced who she is, Will has coped with his mother and skirted around the edges of a conspiracy which he barely has any understanding of. But here we finally see the two come together as the episode closes not just with Lyra’s journey into a new world, but also Will’s. We don’t know what’s on the other side for either, only that they’re both leaving behind any certainty they know. It’s a beautiful way to end the season and with luck, Season 2 will be more focused when it brings them together.

The episode before it gets to that point however has some of my favourite scenes yet. Every time James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel is on screen with either Lyra or Mrs Coulter there’s an energy and a drive the show has sometimes lacked. His confusion and dismissal of Lyra verges on heart-breaking and Dafne Keen sells the pain of a girl wanting a father. McAvoy and Wilson, a pairing we haven’t seen so far have instant chemistry, you can see exactly why these two complex driven people fell for each other and even their daemons have chemistry which is a nice touch. We also get answers as to why Asriel is so opposed by the Magisterium in full and the episode does a good job of matching the
wider show’s stakes with those within the episode as the enemy gets closer. Between these scenes we get scenes of utter beauty as airships are set ablaze in the climactic battle and in the background the aurora is an ever-present spectacle, beautiful yet haunting.

While part of me wishes we could have seen more shots of bears using artillery – yes this happens – the show’s commitment to keeping the focus rigidly on Lyra continues to work as she is overwhelmed in the battle

The action here is kept to a minimum, but its character focused and works as Lyra is caught in a bombardment. While part of me wishes we could have seen more shots of bears using artillery – yes this happens – the show’s commitment to keeping the focus rigidly on Lyra continues to work as she is overwhelmed in the battle, a battle which is ultimately a backdrop to the true heart-breaking drama that ends the series. When the end comes, as all fans of the book knows it will, it delivers.

When the focus is on Will the episode is fine. He spends his time hiding from police and not much happens. In retrospect it looks as though the writers had a clear idea of how they wanted the show to end, as the moment at which it does is perfect, but the build-up is lopsided in favour of Lyra, who’s story is just more gripping and visually interesting. Will’s has its moments but there are far fewer of them, and it was always going to be a challenge pacing his story alongside Lyra’s, rather than waiting for it to come afterwards. In the end, Lyra’s story was always going to be stronger, as Will wasn’t in Northern Lights, so for him this was entirely prologue. How well the decision to bring his story forward plays out cannot be determined entirely yet. All we know for now is that as a final chapter in this first part of a much longer story, His Dark Materials has pulled it off with flying colours.

Previous Episode: The Fight to the Death

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