His Dark Materials Returns, as Consistently Inconsistent as Ever

His Dark Materials Returns, as Consistently Inconsistent as Ever

If you care enough about His Dark Materials to watch the season three premiere today, you know the score: It’s been just under two years since the second season finale of the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed fantasy trilogy aired. So it’s genuinely impressive how seamlessly season three begins, not only following up the story almost immediately after the events of season two, but feeling as if the show had continually kept filming instead of getting disrupted by the pandemic. Unfortunately, such a feat comes at a cost, and it’s that while season three shares the first two seasons’ strengths, it still has the same weaknesses.

His Dark Materials Returns, as Consistently Inconsistent as Ever

The other cost is that the two-episode premiere — “The Enchanted Sleeper” and “The Break,” although they’re smushed together into a single, double-sized episode — doesn’t ease viewers back into what’s happened at all. I assume a “Previously On” will air before tonight’s premiere, but even then, His Dark Materials could have held people’s hands more while they reentered a world (well, worlds) they last saw two years ago. When we last left HDM:

  • Lyra (Dafne Keen) has been captured and drugged by her mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), in a somewhat misguided attempt to protect her from the Magisterium, the church dedicated to enforcing the will of the Authority.
  • The reason the Magisterium wants Lyra is because of a prophecy that she is the new Eve, the “Mother of All Sin,” Sin in this case being freedom of thought, creativity, individuality, freedom, and the mystical substance called Dust. (Also, Angels are made of Dust.)
  • The Authority is effectively God, who has an equivalent of the Magisterium in every world to enforce obeisance, which is why Lyra’s father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) has assembled a group of warriors from throughout the multiverse, including witches, spy faeries, and the angels who refused to bow to the Authority’s… well, authority.
  • Meanwhile, Lyra’s friend Will (Amir Wilson), the bearer of the magical, multiverse-traversing Subtle Knife, was instructed to join Asriel’s army but instead travels the worlds, searching for Lyra, accompanied by two angels who’d really prefer he do the former.

To be fair, the premiere does dole this information out, just languidly. In fact, everything is languid; even if all the events that happened in two episodes were condensed into one, there’s still not a ton to tell. But let’s try, shall we?

Photo: Peter Baldwin/HBO
Photo: Peter Baldwin/HBO

Asriel takes a small craft through a portal (seemingly made possible by his clarity of mind?) to a world where a man is imprisoned. His name is Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Asriel frees him in hopes that he’ll command the anti-Authority forces, as well as bring along his army. When Ogunwe says he must stay to protect his people from the Magisterium equivalent of his world, who have forcibly had their souls removed (much like Asriel did to Lyra’s friend Roger to first travel to a new world, and the Spectres did to the adults in the world of Cittàgazze). When Asriel points out that the forces of the Authority are performing this monstrous act on every world, Ogunwe joins.

Back in the Magisterium, the increasingly squirrelly Father-President MacPhail (Dafne’s father Will Keen) sends the fervent Father Gomez (Jamie Word) to track down Lyra, which he does through the use of one of those tracker beetles seen back in season one. Mrs. Coulter has hidden Lyra in a small house just off the German Ocean, and has enlisted the help of a young, mute girl named Ama for help, although Ama gets increasingly suspicious about the sleeping girl kept inside.

Will, meanwhile, wanders to and fro, constantly followed by the angels Baruch and Balthamos (who are also lovers, incidentally). When Will suddenly realises if they can follow him from world to world, they can help find Lyra, Baruch heads back to Asriel, while Balthamos leads Will to Coulter’s house, where they randomly find and recruit Iorek Byrnison, the giant warrior/polar bear, on the way.

Unfortunately, when Baruch arrives at Asriel’s army, he’s attacked and killed by one of the Authority’s angels. He has just enough time to tell Asriel the Subtle Knife can be used to kill the Authority and its bearer won’t join the cause until he finds Lyra. Asriel captures and tortures the enemy angel, learning that Authority is no longer the real problem — he’s become too weak to rule, and the angel Metatron has become his Regent, which is to say he’s usurped control.

Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO
Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO

So everyone converges on the house — Will and Iorek, Gomez and his Magisterium soldiers, Asriel — but Will gets there first, leading to what is indisputably the best scene in the premiere: Coulter speaking with absolute honesty to Will about why she’s drugging Lyra. It’s to keep her safe, of course, but Coulter knows that Lyra would never consciously stay with her. Will knows it’s true, and Wilson allows Coulter’s heartbreak at the truth to become barely visible behind her glacial exterior. The hubris is that Coulter believes only she can keep Lyra safe, but her plea to Will to stay and help protect Lyra is as earnest as anything she’s ever said. And when Will turns her down, she’s genuinely shocked — shocked that now, knowing Lyra is (relatively) safe, he’s chosen to help Asriel as his late father asked him to do.

Of course, this is a clever ruse so that Will can use the Subtle Knife to sneak back into the cave from a portal to another world to spirit Lyra away from her mother and Father Gomez and the Magisterium, which arrives at the same moment. After failing to deceive Gomez, Coulter knocks him unconscious just in time to beg Will to take her with Lyra. “A girl needs her mother,” she says, without a hint of irony. In fact, Mrs. Coulter manages to distract Will so much as he’s trying to open a portal the Knife shatters, which is bad news for… basically everybody except the Authority and his forces. One of Asriel’s faerie spies knocks Coulter unconscious, Will and Lyra escape the house into another portal (with Iorek batting around the Magistrate soldiers sent to capture them), and eventually, Asriel shows up to see no Lyra, no knife, and no knife-bearer — just his unconscious ex-wife.

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

If that sounds like a lot, it’s not, at least when stretched over the course of two hours. Really, by the end of the episode, very few things have changed: Asriel gets a general, Will rescues Lyra, the Subtle Knife is broken, and Asriel ends up in a room with Coulter, which may or may not lead to an interesting confrontation later.

His Dark Materials the TV series has always faithfully adapted Pullman’s novels, as out-there as they become. But it’s never managed to capture the depth of the author’s prose. In the books, Will’s long trek to find Lyra and Coulter’s silent guardianship over her daughter are filled with interior monologues which are rich on the page but end up basically as an episode-length montage on screen. It’s like the show is taking photos of the books — you can see Pullman’s incredible worlds and story, but you can’t experience the expanse within them.

But that’s a problem that has dogged the entirety of His Dark Materials TV series. It would have been nice if the two-year hiatus had allowed the showmakers to improve, but it’s hard to complain too loudly when the series is so thoroughly meeting the expectations it formed in seasons one or two. But I know The Amber Spyglass, the novel upon which season three is based, only gets crazier towards the end. So we’ll see what His Dark Materials has in store…

Image: HBO
Image: HBO

Assorted Musings:

  • In case you didn’t know, HBO will be airing two episodes per Monday evening, meaning the season finale (aka episodes 7 and 8) will air on December 26.
  • Probably the most egregious thing the premiere failed to explain was Mary (Simone Kirby), who’s still using sticks to travel through the worlds. It took me a long time to remember her deal, which is basically searching for Lyra, but without any urgency whatsoever. She makes her way to General Ogunwe’s world where she meets a few soldiers who are almost certainly spies for the Authority, given how quickly Mary is to tell them everything she knows about the show’s plot.
  • By killing the Authority, Asriel plans to kill death itself. I only vaguely remember some of this from the books, so we’ll talk about it more in a later recap.
  • Why does Will close the door he uses to get inside the house? He could have taken Lyra through there and been in and out in seconds. Really, all it served to do was give the story a chance to break the Knife. It irritated me greatly.

Want more Gizmodo news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water. 

Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

It’s the most popular NBN speed in Australia for a reason. Here are the cheapest plans available.

At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.