his dark materials betrayal review

Well, this is it folks. We have come to the end of the first season of His Dark Materials. It’s been a journey full of ups and downs as the HBO fantasy series attempted to forge its own identity and grapple with reading ahead. And while it’s uncertain whether His Dark Materials was able to set itself apart from the rest of the prestige fantasy series pack, it was at least interesting and — at-times — outright weird. But the final episode of season 1, “Betrayal,” is the turning point for the series, as it heads into yet-unadapted territory in its second season (which is currently filming, for those worried that this little-watched show wouldn’t get renewed).

The Enemy Has Changed

As Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium soldiers prepare for battle in full SWAT gear, Asriel and his daemon Stelmaria are preparing for a new war. “We have found a new enemy,” Asriel tells his longtime servant Thorold (Gary Lewis) after he asks him if they should be concerned about the encroaching Magisterium forces. “The Enemy.”

Asriel is, of course, referring to God, the only authority more powerful than the Magisterium, which rules with a tyrannical hand in the name of the Authority. I like that we’re getting a fuller picture of Asriel’s goals from the start — as opposed to in the books, when we’re in Lyra’s POV grasping at straws and seeing only a small part of Asriel’s heavenly war. But with all the talk of war that this series has had in the past eight episodes, they better live up to it.

But this episode offers a nice balance of Asriel’s lofty god-killing ambitions and the small, sweet moments that Lyra shares with Roger, and even with Asriel. The long-awaited reunion between father and daughter doesn’t disappoint, as both are more weary and wizened than before. “Your choice in women is almost as bad as your choice in bears,” Lyra quips, drawing a rare smile out of Asriel, who promptly shuts the conversation down, rejecting his moment of sentimental weakness. Angered, Lyra tries to hand him the aletheiometer, which he also rejects, leaving her fully disillusioned with him as a father. I remember being on the fence about James McAvoy‘s performance as Asriel in the first episodes, not thinking him to be ruthless or cold enough, but I’m now on board with his tortured duality — rejecting his familial connections in order to pursue a greater cause. In the words of one other “great man,” he has infinite work to do.

Family Matters

Frustrated with her reunion with the father she thought she had idolized, Lyra decides to leave first thing in the morning. But after all the fast-paced action of the past few episodes, His Dark Materials slows things down to let us revel in Lyra and Roger’s sweet and awkward friendship. Noticing Lyra’s unhappiness with her father, and feeling uncomfortable with the greedy way Asriel had stared at him before, Roger offers to be her only family, and they spend the night giggling in tents and being generally adorable. The show is certainly laying on these sweet moments thick (right before it will all be ripped away), but it’s a welcome reprieve from the show’s nonstop plot.

It’s in these quiet moments that the show finally answers those befuddling questions that it posed at the beginning of the season: what is Dust? Why should we care? Asriel answers those questions a heart-to-heart with Lyra in the middle of the night, McAvoy managing to deliver exposition better than any of the past monologues we’ve had before — perhaps because he tells it like a bedtime story, and Dafne Keen is a rapt listener. We learn that Dust is an element that the Magisterium has decided is the source of Original Sin, and that Asriel seeks to build a bridge to the city in the sky and destroy it. But Lyra refuses his offer to join him, and goes back to sleep. But she is suddenly woken again by a frenzied Thorold to find Roger missing — the realization dawning on her that Asriel will sever Roger from his daemon to create the bridge.

Stairway to Heaven

The Magisterium storm into Asriel’s laboratory just after Lyra had hurried out to stop Asriel, charging up the mountain on Iorek’s back. As the raid his lab, Mrs. Coulter’s notices Asriel’s formulas and his fixation on the aurora, piecing together his plans. When Thorold knocks out Father MacPhail and points his rifle at her, Mrs. Coulter appeals to the god-fearing man in him and smoothly talks her way out of the situation. I’ve raved about Ruth Wilson all season, but you can really believe that she could talk her way out of the barrel of the gun — so charismatic and chilling she is. But she lets Thorold go and gathers up her fleet of zeppelins to pursue Asriel up the mountains — soon spotting the pack of bears that are shepherding Lyra. Mrs. Coulter’s forces open fire and Lyra is forced to go on alone, tenderly bidding Iorek goodbye.

Meanwhile, poor dumb Roger had been led up to the highest cliff by Asriel with the promise of a “surprise for Lyra.” Distracted by the gunfire below, he’s grabbed by Asriel, who tosses him in a rickety version of the cages from Bolvanger. Asriel apologizes but launches into a zealous rant about how Roger will be the first casualty in a “war to free humanity forever.” In a grand, suspenseful sequence, Lyra rushes to the cage as Asriel slowly lowers down the blade that will sever Roger from his daemon; Lyra just reaching a panicked Roger in time to touch his fingers and gaze tearfully into his eyes before the blade comes down and the blast of energy sends Lyra flying. It’s a striking scene — the beam of light shining up to the heavens, emitting a heavenly glow. It’s a glow that becomes the dramatic backdrop for Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s intense reunion (McAvoy and Wilson, the two strongest players of the series, radiating chemistry and animosity in equal measure) and for Lyra’s tearful cradling of Roger’s dead body. Asriel pleads with Mrs. Coulter to join him in his crusade, but she shakily refuses, choosing to find and protect Lyra — who, unknowingly, his hiding right around the corner.

As Lyra cries over Roger’s body and tries to sort through the confusing events, she decides with Pan that her new quest is to follow Asriel and find out the true nature of Dust. This is a wonderful final scene from Keen, whose vulnerable delivery of, “We’d be alone,” is incredibly childish and heartbreaking. The series ends with a nice parallel shot between Lyra and Will, who had spent the entire episode dodging police and Boreal’s accomplice, and had traveled to Oxford to discover the same shimmering doorway that Boreal had been using. On both sides, the two of them timidly walk through their respective gates and enter a brave new world.

It’s an intriguingly open-ended ending for the first season of His Dark Materials, which has very much depended on the audience being invested in finding out the answers to the confusing questions it had posed at the beginning. But I like that the final episode of season 1 ends on a quieter note, with moments of action only peppering the stretches of introspective exchanges. And while the season finale only poses more questions, I hope that audiences will be invested enough to keep watching as things get even weirder and more ambitious. I know I am.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • I love the spotlight of the daemons in this episode — from Roger’s daemon echoing his movements when he walks into the bathroom, and later playfully leaping around with Pan, to the intimate caressing of Asriel and Coulter’s daemons as the two of them slowly melt into each other.
  • I’m not sure how I feel about Will finding the same path that Boreal uses — will that not make Boreal’s search for him easier? And does that mean Boreal has been traveling through the world of the city on the hill the entire time? It potentially complicates future events, but perhaps it will pan out.
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