Title: His Dark Materials Season 3 (BBC One/HBO Max – 2022)
Creators: Jane Tranter & Dan McCulloch
Writer: Jack Thorne
Cast: Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, Simone Kirby, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Will Keen, Ruta Gedmintas, Jade Anouka, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jamie Ward, Lewin Lloyd, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Simon Harrison, Amber Fitzgerald, Chipo Chung, Sian Clifford, Jonathan Aris, Andrew Scott
Voice actors: Kit Connor, David Suchet, Joe Tandberg, Sope Dirisu, Lindsay Duncan
This review is based on all eight episodes of His Dark Materials Season 3 and may contain spoilers for the first and second seasons of the series.
Let me tell you about His Dark Materials, the series that has become one of my all-time favorite fantasy series since it first premiered back in 2019. Three seasons have been made, each based on one of the novels in British author Philip Pullman’s award-winning fantasy trilogy. And since I turned the first page, the worlds in which this fantastic tale unfolds have gripped me and never let go. With my love for this story so evident, this might be a different review than usual.
His Dark Materials is the story of Lyra Silvertounge and her dæmon Pantalaimon and their journey throughout the many worlds of the universe toward her destiny and the fulfillment of a prophecy. On the surface, it might sound like any other generic fantasy, but Philip Pullman’s His Dark Material is anything but. Before we examine the third season of this fantastic adaptation, it is a good idea to look at what His Dark Materials is, and what it is not.
As we have established, His Dark Materials is Philip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels. The first was released in 1995 and quickly became an award-winning best-seller. Two books followed: The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000. The story takes place across a myriad of worlds but begins in one very similar to ours, with many of the same names, nations and history. There are metaphysical differences, most notably that a person’s soul and true nature take the form of an animal called a dæmon. This entity is both friend and conscience, reflecting the person’s mood and staying with its human for life. The dæmon will also change shapes frequently before it settles in one form when the human reaches adulthood. They can not be apart without severe consequences, and one can not live without the other.
It is in this world we meet the 11-year-old orphan girl Lyra Belacqua, who lives with the staff of Jordan College in Oxford. Her dæmon, often in the shape of an ermine, is Pantalaimon. The story of the first book, The Golden Compass, starts when Lyra receives the titular item, an instrument that tells her the truth and reveals secrets. Lyra and Pan follow their mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel, towards the North in search of the secrets of Dust, an elemental particle that many would like to keep secret.
Because this world is controlled by the evil and fanatical Magisterium. Imagine the Catholic Church. Now arm them to the teeth and add a hint of fascism. The Magisterium is also looking for Dust, but to stamp it out and eliminate it entirely, as they believe that Dust is the same as Sin. And when they realize that Lyra might have an important role to play in the events to come, they send her mother, the manipulative agent Marisa Coulter to find her.
The next book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, follows Lyra and Pan’s journey into another world. They arrive at a strange, deserted city on the coast, with a mysterious tower in the center of it. Here they meet Will Parry, a teenage boy from our world who has found his way through a portal. Lyra and Will team up, and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, an instrument that can cut open doorways to other worlds.
The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife correspond to the first and second seasons of the series, while the third season, The Amber Spyglass, adapts the third book in the trilogy. As you might know, this is not the first adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novels. An unsuccessful attempt was made in 2007 to turn the books into a trilogy of films, but the resulting first part adapted only two-thirds of the first book. It is an interesting film in itself, with big names like Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman in the roles of Lord Asriel and Marisa Coulter. But adapting a series of novels like His Dark Materials, with its lofty ideas and often controversial themes, into three films would never work. The project was binned after the first film, The Golden Compass, not only performed poorly but also got backlash from certain conservative and religious parties in the US, despite downplaying the book’s overt critique of religious institutions and their abuse of power.
This has resulted in a lot of controversies, and as a result, Christian organizations in the US have long wanted to ban Philip Pullman’s books, as they, according to the author himself, celebrate, not lament, the loss of innocence.
I will write more about the worlds and backgrounds of His Dark Materials in a separate article later, as I’m only scratching the surface here, so stay tuned! But for now, let’s take a look at the third season of the show.
When we again meet Lyra (played by Dafne Keen) in season three of His Dark Materials, she has been taken captive and drugged by her mother, Marisa Coulter (played by Ruth Wilson). Will Parry (played by Amir Wilson), having become the chosen bearer of the Subtle Knife in the previous season, travels through worlds in search of her.
Meanwhile, the Magisterium is under new leadership and ramps up the search for the one they believe can topple them: Lyra, whom they believe to be the new incarnation of the Biblical Eve, and the source of all Sin. Assassins and fanatical troops are deployed in the hunt.
While this has been going on, Lyra’s real father, Lord Asriel (played by James McAvoy), has gathered to him an army in preparation for his war on the Kingdom of Heaven. Humans, rebel angels and witches and other creatures are ready to assault the Authority (what we call God) in his stronghold. The goal is freedom and free will, as The Authority and His regent, the Metatron (played by Alex Hassell), have deployed organizations through the myriad of worlds to put an iron fist on the free will of all beings. In Lyra’s world, it is the Magisterium. And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come to the conclusion that in our world, it is the Catholic Church and other monotheistic religious institutions.
As a fan of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, I was nervous about how this series would end. Remembering The Golden Compass from 2007, I was afraid that the producers and writers wouldn’t go “all the way” with the author’s controversial themes, even though the first two seasons were nothing short of amazing in my book. But it is in the third book, The Amber Spyglass, that these themes and lofty ideas come into play.
But yes, YES! They did it. They went all the way. Of course, this being an adaptation, there will always be shortcuts and changes from the source materials. But they did it! James McAvoy rages against organized religious institutions and abuse of power as he prepares his armies for war. Simone Kirby, playing the ex-nun and scientist Mary Malone, spends time with the strange, elephantine Mulefa as she calmly studies Dust and tells our two young heroes how she lost her religion and chose to follow her passions instead, inspiring them to do the same – a scene that was censored and changed in the US versions of the novel. And the war against the Kingdom of Heaven is both epic and mythic in scope!
As with the previous two seasons, the third season of His Dark Materials won’t spoon-feed you exposition but presents a universe that will reward those who have read the books while still being approachable to those who have not. That said, certain scenes are lifted straight out of the novel that has hardly any explanation in the series, and I wouldn’t blame anyone’s confusion. However, as a fan of the books, I loved that they included these scenes.
I will say this, though: If you enjoy the series or not (and this is especially true for the third season), it will depend on whether you accept and believe in the concept of Dust and dæmons. There are long dialogues about particles, consciousness, death, love and freedom and how it is all connected. There is a strong theme around the struggle to protect one environment and climate, especially around Mary Malone and the Mulefa.
As with the first two seasons, there are also certain scenes that I can only describe as emotionally overwhelming and others that hit like a sledgehammer. Your mileage may vary, depending on how invested you become in the story’s ideas, themes and, most importantly, characters, be they human, dæmon, panserbjørn or otherwise. The bond between humans and dæmons and how it is represented, strained and even broken, is the one aspect of the His Dark Materials that never fails to leave me in tears. They can not live without each other, and when one dies, the other die. When forced apart, it is pure anguish and despair from both. These scenes hit hard!
The third season of His Dark Materials is an amazing end to a completely unique series. It is a series that, to me, hits home on all points. It gives us an epic Campbellian hero’s journey inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost while at the same time turning the tired, old fantasy cliches of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on their heads. His Dark Materials is a brave, human and believable story about bravery, rebellion, friendship and freedom. It is a mirror held up to our real world and lives.
His Dark Materials also has a great cast with many memorable performances, from onscreen humans to the voice actors and puppeteers behind the digital creatures such as dæmons and panserbjørner. It is a world I really don’t want to leave, but we are reaching the end of the series and of Lyra’s story.
But do I have to leave? In an interview with the series’ executive producers Jane Tranter and Dan McCulloch, I asked them if they are considering adapting Philip Pullman’s next trilogy, The Book of Dust. And the answer surprised me. They don’t want this to end either, and there are talks, only talks for now, as Philip Pullman has yet to finish the third novel in this new trilogy. But this means there is hope that we can return to Lyra’s world sometime in the future. And that makes me very happy.