With so many fantasy series once deemed “unfilmable” now making their way to the screen, it’s easy for His Dark Materials to become an afterthought in the discussion. Sure, the small-screen adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy doesn’t have the centuries- and galaxy-spanning sprawl of Foundation, but we’re still talking about a show in which several characters have a physical manifestation of their soul (daemons) in the form of talking animals. As if that weren’t challenging enough from a production standpoint, the series hinges on the existence of parallel worlds, and, most controversially, the source material ends with the heroes effectively killing the Judeo-Christian concept of god. (No wonder Pullman’s trilogy spent years as one of the most banned books in the United States.) But while His Dark Materials is imbued with bold and wondrous ideas, much of the show has been the opposite of what most fantasy adaptations strive for: It’s felt ordinary.
In its first two seasons, the HBO and BBC coproduction excelled when it didn’t lean on the more fantastical elements of Pullman’s trilogy. To paraphrase Tyrion Lannister, the show found its footing during great conversations in elegant rooms about the nature of free will, religion, and fate. The problem is that His Dark Materials only grows more ambitious and flat-out weird as it approaches its endgame, culminating in a battle over humanity’s future that features literal angels. If the series struggled to meaningfully incorporate daemons alongside their human counterparts—a feature that, while probably related to the VFX budget, diminishes their importance in the story—it was hard to be optimistic that it could pull off angels and the introduction of otherworldly creatures like the mulefa: benevolent, elephant-like beings that move around their home world by using giant seedpods as roller skates. (Like I said, Pullman’s trilogy takes some really strange turns.)
The third season, picking up at the start of Pullman’s final book in the series, The Amber Spyglass, finds our tween heroine Lyra Belacqua (played by Dafne Keen) being drugged against her will on a remote island by her fiendish mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who convinces herself it’s the only way to keep her daughter safe from the Magisterium: an unholy cross between the Catholic Church and an authoritarian regime. The Magisterium believes Lyra is the reincarnation of Eve, and that she must be killed before she’s tempted by the (presumably metaphorical) serpent. As our other protagonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) desperately searches for Lyra, she dreams of her deceased best friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd) asking for help from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), Lyra’s absentee father with a savior complex, gathers forces from across the multiverse to wage war against the Authority: an angel who declared himself deity and ruler of all worlds.
Much of Season 3 builds up to the fight between Asriel’s army and the Authority, which makes sense—when a show’s got McAvoy in a manbun, it has no choice but to use him as much as possible. But the conundrum with Asriel is that, while he’s a key figure throughout Pullman’s trilogy, he mostly exists on the periphery of the story. (McAvoy was originally set to appear in a stand-alone episode of the second season, but it couldn’t go forward due to production challenges during the height of COVID.) In Pullman’s texts, the quest to attack and dethrone god takes a backseat to Lyra and Will traveling to the Land of the Dead to free lost souls like Roger from a bleak, unending purgatory.
It goes without saying that adaptations must make compromises and narrative adjustments in the journey from the page to the screen. For instance, it was a smart decision for His Dark Materials to reveal the existence of parallel worlds early in its first season so that important characters like Will could be introduced sooner. (In Pullman’s trilogy, much of that information is saved for the second book, The Subtle Knife.) But Asriel’s expanded role in Season 3 doesn’t offer anything too meaningful to the story so much as it adds excess bloat: Until the divine battle actually commences in the penultimate episode of the series, he just keeps lecturing different characters about why it’s so necessary that they fight. It’s a similar dilemma to the show’s incorporation of a subplot within the Magisterium via Father Hugh MacPhail (Will Keen), who spends most of the final season reiterating to colleagues that they must do whatever’s asked of them in the name of the Authority. All told, His Dark Materials was devolving into derivative conversations in elegant rooms.
Thankfully, these issues rarely plagued the central story line following Lyra and Will, which hews the closest to Pullman’s text. Once the duo reach the Land of the Dead—it’s admittedly convenient that Will bears a knife that can open and close doorways between various worlds—His Dark Materials stirs up the kind of emotions that are a hallmark of the source material. In particular, Lyra’s painful decision to separate from her daemon Pantalaimon (Pan for short) in order to cross into the Land of the Dead taps into the profound nature of the human-daemon relationship. Essentially, Lyra has to give up a part of her soul on the journey to the underworld—one that looks like an adorable pet, no less—and His Dark Materials treats the moment with the requisite pathos. (As a book reader, knowing they will eventually be reunited doesn’t make the moment any less devastating.) What’s more, for those of us familiar with the first two installments of Pullman’s new sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, Lyra leaving Pan behind has serious ramifications for their relationship: an internal struggle of the self that plays out externally.
While it’s a shame that His Dark Materials couldn’t replicate the intimacy between Lyra and Pan with the other human-daemon pairings in Pullman’s novels, at least the show nailed the one that mattered. In fact, that distinction epitomizes the highs and lows of His Dark Materials in miniature: Even if it struggled to flesh out its ensemble, the series successfully captured the essence of Lyra’s and Will’s character arcs, and perhaps that’s what’s most important. Nevertheless, the climactic battle between Asriel and Metatron—the powerful, arrogant regent of the Authority—occurs in the penultimate episode with barely any involvement from its young protagonists, which might catch non-book-readers by surprise. Far from confronting the Authority themselves, all Lyra and Will end up witnessing is the angel’s withered form in defeat before it fades away in front of their eyes. (Metatron, meanwhile, is dragged into an eternal abyss by Asriel and Marisa, whose sacrifice to protect their daughter doesn’t necessarily negate them being the worst parents ever, but is touching nevertheless.)
The destruction of the Authority, coupled with Lyra and Will freeing the undead from purgatory so their spirits can reunite with the living world, sets the stage for His Dark Materials to narrow its scope in the series finale, “The Botanic Garden.” Taking place almost entirely in the idyllic world of the mulefa, Lyra and Will can finally relax and enjoy one another’s company. (The closest thing to conflict in this episode is Lyra mending her relationship with Pan.) In a short span of time, Lyra and Will have shared life-changing experiences and come of age: a potent recipe for the two heroes to fall in love.
It’s this romantic spark, and the characters acting on their urges with a passionate kiss, that leads to the clever subversion of Eve’s giving in to temptation—instead of being viewed as a sin, it’s more akin to freedom. The love between Lyra and Will drives home one of the key themes of Pullman’s trilogy: We should question any institutions that tell people how they should think or feel, and simply follow our hearts. Or, as the anti-Authority angel Balthamos (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) tells the rogue Magisterium assassin Father Gomez (Jamie Ward), who tries in vain to complete his mission of killing Lyra: “Desire is not sin; love takes a million forms, each of them beautiful, each of them worthy.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean His Dark Materials is finished putting its characters (and the audience) through the emotional wringer. All those openings between worlds have deprived them of Dust, the mysterious substance at the heart of the series that represents conscious thought and is essential to life throughout the multiverse. (When the Magisterium conducts appalling experiments on children to rid them of Dust’s “sinful” influence, the children either die or become lifeless shadows of their former selves.) If the many worlds are going to survive, all the doorways must be closed with the exception of the one leading out from the Land of the Dead. In other words, Lyra and Will can’t be together—even if one of them agreed to live in the other’s world, they can’t survive outside of their own for too long.
The fact that this revelation comes almost immediately after the characters profess their love for each other is why I’ve jokingly referred to Pullman as a sadist fueled by the tears of his readers. But for both the books and the series, it’s also the perfect bittersweet ending. Lyra and Will aren’t just faced with a harsh reality in which they suddenly can’t be together: The end of their journey doubles as the moment marking their transition from childhood to adulthood. (Aside from its overt religious allegory, Pullman’s trilogy may be the defining young adult fantasy series about the internal experience of puberty.) Lyra’s and Will’s maturity is underlined by their ultimate acceptance of the situation and the understanding that it’s in service of something far greater than themselves—protecting the multiverse—even if it comes at the expense of their own happiness.
Knowing they can never see each other again, Lyra and Will make a pact: They agree to live their lives to the absolute fullest, and as a way of staying spiritually connected, they’ll spend an hour on a bench at the Oxford Botanic Gardens of their respective worlds every midsummer’s day. (The whole “promising to have enriching lives even though we can never be together again” predicament has serious Titanic energy, which would explain why I’m still crying.) And so the final moments of His Dark Materials show Lyra and Will honoring their word, year after year, on the same bench—literal worlds apart but connected all the same.
After featuring angels, witches, talking armored polar bears, otherworldly elephants with DIY roller skates, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as a [checks notes] Texan aeronaut who was previously portrayed (way more accurately!) by Sam Elliott, His Dark Materials ending on a self-contained tween romance might seem out of left field. But while the fantasy elements of Pullman’s trilogy were an irresistible hook—who wouldn’t want their own daemon companion?—they were always in service of larger ideas relevant to our reality. For those who must grapple with the oppressive thumb of institutions, religious or otherwise, there is nothing more powerful than the freedom of choice.