A Betrayal Opens Up a New World in the 'His Dark Materials' Finale (RECAP)

HisDarkMaterials_Ep8Asriel
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[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 8, "Betrayal."]

"Parents are more trouble than they're worth," Roger (Lewin Lloyd) states at one point in the epically grim season finale of His Dark Materials. If we're judging the actions of Lyra's (Dafne Keen) parents — Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) — then it's hard to disagree with the young kitchen boy. Throughout the series, Asriel and Coulter have lied, manipulated, and even murdered, all in the name of the supposed greater good

While Asriel and Coulter share a ruthless drive and ambition, they hold wildly opposing worldviews. Coulter subscribes to the Magisterium's theory that the mysterious Dust is a sinful substance. As she told Lyra back in episode five, Dust takes shape once a child reaches puberty and leads to "a life of sin, guilt, and regret." This is why she sanctioned the cutting experiments, removing a child's daemon as a way to prevent Dust taking hold. According to Asriel, this is nothing but a fallacy, a way for the Magisterium to oppress, control, frighten, and "keep us where they want us, on our knees." 

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I criticized His Dark Materials last week for skipping over the opportunity to ask some interesting philosophical questions in regards to Iofur Raknison's desire for a daemon. I'm pleased to see the finale has no trouble grappling with some pretty weighty material, particularly concerning theological ambiguities. The first half of the episode is essentially Asriel providing Lyra an alternative view of the world. He tells Lyra of how the Magisterium tied Dust to the story of Adam and Eve and "original sin," and how this has been used for centuries "to convince us we're born guilty," despite the lack of proof. 

Those are some meaty topics for a family-friendly fantasy drama, but it's the kind of thing Phillip Pullman's novels were praised for. It's also perfectly fitting for our current world of #fakenews and media spin, where our governments obscure the truth and decry anyone who dares question authority, orthodoxies and received wisdom. It's understandable why Asriel's research into Dust and other worlds would be of concern to the Magisterium, as it could completely topple the foundation of an entire belief system. So, of course, the Magisterium would send an airship army to stop Asriel's discoveries going public.

His Dark Materials Coulter

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But let's not make a mistake in thinking Asriel is the good guy here. This isn't a black and white situation. "[Asriel's] never treated any of us well," Coulter tells Thorold (Gary Lewis), Asriel's assistant. She's not wrong. Asriel's obsession with finding the truth has turned him into a cold and cruel person. We see that in the way he treats Lyra, ending their conversation before it gets "too sentimental." He refuses the alethiometer that she risked life and death to bring him, claiming not to need it. "And you call yourself a father?" Lyra says. "That's the point, I've never called myself a father," Asriel responds.

You could say Asriel's heartlessness is a form of protection. He doesn't want his daughter involved in the dangers of his work. And he does tell Thorald to protect Lyra while he's gone. But is that enough in and of itself, especially when he can't even bring himself to say goodbye to her? "It's the very least you could do," says a clearly unimpressed Thorald. And would a man that loved his daughter do what Asriel did to her best friend, Roger? No matter the end-goal or the greater good, what Asriel does to poor Roger is incredibly distressing, and its consequences are sure to reverberate for a long time to come.

In a highly-entertaining and dramatic conclusion, Coulter and the Magisterium soldiers arrive at Asriel's mountain hide-out and begin reigning down fire from the heavens at the armored bears below. It's not an overly long sequence, but it's far more effective than last week's disappointing polar bear showdown. There's a real sense of chaos and destruction. Meanwhile, Asriel makes his way to the top of a mountain with a confused Roger in tow, while Lyra gives chase on Iorek's (voiced by Joe Tandberg) back. But Lyra doesn't make it in time to save her best friend, who is shoved into a cage and cut from his daemon, Salcilia.

"In war, there are casualties, and believe me when I tell you, this is a war, one that will free humanity forever," Asriel states. The daemon severing releases a burst of energy, which opens up the night sky and creates a portal between worlds. Coulter tries to stop Asriel from going through, but he uses his slick words to change her mind. "This light is the sun of another world," he tells her, promising her no more darkness and suppression of knowledge. Asriel asks her to come with him; to work with him. "We can take this universe apart and put it back together again." But Coulter can't do it, this world contains everything she needs — Lyra. "I want her with everything I have," she states as Asriel leaves.

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This is a really distressing ending. It's the second time this season the show has killed off a child. Lyra holding a lifeless Roger in her hands, and blaming herself for everything that's happened, is heartwrenching to watch. The friendship between the two orphan kids was so genuine and believable and is one part of the series the show has absolutely nailed — which is what makes this ending hit so hard. "I like that you changed my life," Roger tells Lyra earlier in the episode over a bedtime snack of jam sandwiches. "I can't promise I won't stop changing it," she replies with a smile, having no idea how dark that phrase will become by the episode's end.

But if there is hope to be found here, it's that Lyra and her daemon Pan (voiced by Kit Connor) are not about to let Roger's death be in vain. They have a new mission now, which is to stop Asriel and find Dust before he can. And so, Lyra puts on a brave face and enters the portal, at the same time that a runaway Will Parry (Amir Wilson) enters a portal in his dimension. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until season two to see if their paths cross. 

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His Dark Materials has been a mixed bag of a first season. It started slow and had difficulty in building its world, but somewhere around the half-way point, the action really picked up. Once the characters moved North, the world became more fantastical, and the story surprisingly somber, at times tapping into some really profound moral questions. It sometimes missed the opportunity to dig deeper into its themes, but when it did, it elevated the material, helped by the consistently brilliant performances from Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson. It's a show with the potential to really break-out in its sophomore season.

His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO