'His Dark Materials' Delivers A Real Mother Of A Season Finale With "Æsahættr"

One of my favorite things about His Dark Materials is how it starts off as a fun children's fantasy with an occasional smattering of theological rage and despair, before it goes full-tilt "If God exists, why don't we kill him?" "Æsahættr," the finale of the extremely successful second season of His Dark Materials, is all about that turning point. After a rousing penultimate episode last week, His Dark Materials delivers on revelations and fateful meetings with the season 2 finale, which marks the beginning of the end of this grand story.

Mother of All

Following the Spectres' attack on one of their witch guardians, Lyra and Will insist that the witches leave to protect themselves, but Serafina is determined to do her duty by Lyra. However, Serafina is willing to play things a little more cautiously, sending her two fellow witches out on separate quests: one to scout the path ahead, the other to head back to Cittàgazze, to warn a man they had spotted earlier in the city. But she is most cautious of Will's knife, which she eyes warily after seeing its effect on the Spectres. While her two witches are off on their separate missions, a bedraggled Ruta Skadi (poor Jade Anouka, drastically underused this season, with little else to do but glower) returns to Serafina to report what she's learned: Asriel is building forces assembled from all the worlds to fight against the greatest Authority, but he won't be able to defeat him without the help of a mystical weapon she heard a group of cliffghasts speaking of, the Æsahættr. Just as quickly as she arrived, Ruta Skadi leaves once again, to join forces with Asriel and potentially find this mysterious weapon. A weapon that belongs to none other than...Will!

Poor Will is put through the wringer this episode. Struggling with the pain from his severed fingers and struggling with his visions of his dad, Will has no one to turn to but Lyra, which he secretly reveals to Pan in a quiet, whispered conversation between the two of them while Lyra sleeps — or pretends to sleep, smiling at Will's confession that he trusts her completely. Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen show their incredible chemistry in the sweet, small moments scattered throughout this episode, but even they struggle with some of the unsubtle dialogue that writer Jack Thorne (working without a co-writer for the first time this season since the first episode, and it shows) saddles them with. Lyra at one point ponders whether she's "changing" because of Will, and it's all too clear how her prophesied "fall" will play out. (Subtext? Thorne's never heard of it!)

Another area that Thorne is unfortunately not very skilled in: exposition. And oddly, there's quite a bit of it in this episode, despite being packed with about 75% action. That's because we get the final part of the prophecy about Lyra's "true name" that was so heavily hinted in the last episode. Mrs. Coulter learns the name from the witch who had returned to Cittàgazze, whom Mrs. Coulter tortures for the information with the help of a Spectre. Just before the witch's daemon is about to be eaten by the Spectre (in a peculiarly disturbing scene without being especially gruesome), she reveals to Mrs. Coulter that Lyra is "Eve, the mother of all," whose fall will bring about "the end of destiny and return free will," which shocks even the unflappable Mrs. Coulter. "This time she must not fall...I'll see to that," she concludes, dragging her unwilling daemon into her scheme in a scene that is ripe to be unpacked (the internal conflict, the self-hatred it represents), but which I don't have the capability to do at the moment. But unquestionably, Ruth Wilson's performance as Mrs. Coulter, lent so many more layers this season but as inscrutable as ever, is a knockout as ever, and the image of her standing at the top of the tower while controlling the Spectres is breathtaking.

Father of Mine

Meanwhile, making their way to Lyra and Will from the other side of the mountain are Lee Scoresby and Jopari, who emerge relatively unscathed from Lee's crashed balloon. But they must make haste: the Magisterium is still hot on their tail, and Jopari's cryptic shaman powers can only guide their way and not protect them from bullets. It doesn't take long before Lee and Jopari are under fire (Andrew Scott getting the cool hero turn right before chaos descends), which leads to Lee getting shot in the foot and the pair of them taking refuge behind a pile of borders. In a moment of noble self-sacrifice, Lee demands that Jopari forge on ahead to find the knife bearer and swear that he will make the bearer protect Lyra.

It's a sad end to this duo, who we only saw for a short time together, but who were always really enjoyable to watch together (Scott's zen performance matching well with Lin-Manuel Miranda's cornball adventurer). But Miranda finally sheds the cheese to his performance in his final stand-off with the incoming Magisterium forces. "Remember the Alamo?" he jokes to Hester, who is perhaps the one element out of step with this genuinely moving scene. Lee and his fast-talking daemon Hester always made for a fun screwball-lite dynamic, but something about Cristela Alonzo's slightly goofy delivery took me out of Miranda's straightforward performance, as he makes his impossible last stand against an army with only 6 bullets in hand. Lee's death scene is quite beautiful — as is the added effect of a panicked Serafina feeling his call of distress — Miranda calling on all his acting skills to deliver the heartbreaking line, "Don't you go before I do," to Hester before she evaporates into a cloud smoke while a single tear falls from his blank eye.

But Lee's death is just an appetizer for the fateful climax of the episode, as Will, Jopari, and Mrs. Coulter all make their way through the rocky terrain of the mountain. Will and Jopari's meeting is fantastic (Scott proving that he is an actor, and the talented Wilson holding his own against the thespian) — Jopari's shell-shocked expression and slight stumble when he realizes that the knife bearer is his own son is immensely satisfying. Unlike in the book, we get a full emotional reconciliation between Will and his dad — along with some of that dreaded exposition, as Jopari explains to Will his duty as the bearer in the coming war. But thanks to Scott and Wilson's strong performances, and the emotional weight that we feel having waited for this reunion all season, the scene really works, right down to the terrible irony of Jopari promising that they'll go home right before he takes a Magisterium bullet for his son. Will is shattered at having his father ripped from him right after he's found him, but his day is unknowingly about to get a lot worse, as at that exact moment, Mrs. Coulter and her Spectres had killed the last witch watching over a sleeping Lyra, and snatched her daughter back.

The episode ends on a bittersweet note, Will putting on his dad's coat to stand at the cliff to be a brooding hero while a greyer, battletorn Asriel (James McAvoy, long time no see!) calls on the angels to join his fight in a triumphant and inspiring monologue — one very much at odds with the tragic fates we've seen all of our characters meet. But we do get one enticing tease for next season: an after-credits scene in which Lyra sees a ghostly vision of Roger.

After last week's thrilling build-up to the season climax, "Æsahættr" is a bit too burdened with exposition and these clunky lines of dialogue to be a totally satisfying conclusion, but it does the job. The momentum of this whole season is strong enough to carry "Æsahættr" through some of its clunkier moments, and the performances are all outstanding as usual. Best of all, it gives us one of my favorite second-installment endings in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back: victory that feels more like a loss, and triumph overshadowed by tragedy.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • Everyone is dying and being betrayed this episode, and Mary is just vibing and hugging newly redeemed kids (good for Angelica!)
  • It's hilarious that they got Phoebe Waller-Bridge on board to record like three lines total.
  • How did Mrs. Coulter haul Lyra into the trunk by herself? Is there an unseen scene of the Spectres helping her with luggage?
  • I don't love the design of the angels' they look a little too perfect and statuesque, but we haven't gotten a good look at them yet.