His Dark Materials has taken us on a bit of a roller coaster. Some of the episodes have shined, while others have missed the mark in a big way. The engaging and emotional season finale promises a brighter future for His Dark Materials. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks are no longer along for the ride.
“The Betrayal” is an example of what the first season of His Dark Materials should have been all along. The pace is solid, the scenes are gripping, and the stakes are high. It knows when to speed things up and, more importantly, when to slow things down. This episode doesn’t dump exposition in our faces—instead, the season’s remaining key plot points are dusted (get it) over scenes so as not to distract from the characters. Though there are still a few clunky moments—His Dark Materials is far from perfect.
Lyra (Dafne Keen) and her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) have found themselves in the home/research lab of Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). He’s made it clear he wants little to do with Lyra, even though it’s obvious he cares for her, but Roger is another story. It turns out that Lyra wasn’t destined to bring Asriel the alethiometer: She brought him Roger.
Much of the episode is spent in the lab during the hours before Asriel’s worlds-altering experiment. It’s been a while since His Dark Materials slowed things down long enough to give us this much space with its characters, and it was a refreshing change of pace. The scenes between Lyra and Asriel were particularly meaty. We only got a bit of time with McAvoy’s Asriel before the season finale, but it was enough to show us just how much he loves playing this character. Asriel may be passionate and driven, but he’s not heartless—he understands the cost of everything he’s doing. This is why he keeps trying to close himself off from his feelings. There’s one moment when we see him share a joke with Lyra about her mother, only for him to shut down and insist they stop their conversation. But you could still see the tears stinging his eyes.
There is one scene in the episode that could face some heat, the one between Asriel and Lyra about the nature of Dust. Before now, the series had hinted at the larger role of Dust and its connection to sin. But here, it’s all laid out on the table, in a way that embodies Pullman’s critique of the Catholic Church and using faith as a way to control people. Asriel tells Lyra the Magisterium views Dust as Original Sin, meaning the moment in the Bible when Eve accepted and ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He’s deeply critical of this story—in a way that, as someone who was involved in the church as a kid, made me feel that good old “religious guilt” was being a party to potential blasphemy.
“They have been trying to convince us for centuries that we are born guilty,” Asriel says in the show. “Is there any proof for this heinous deign, this shame, this guilt? No, not a thing. We are to take it on faith and the word of the Authority.”
Asriel points out that the story of Adam and Eve is nothing more than a myth, perpetuated by the Magisterium to make people subservient, and adds that the science of Dust should be learned and shared freely among the people. It’s a powerful statement with parallels to the science of evolution and climate change, and one I imagine will get some pushback from conservative Christian audiences—especially considering what else happens in the episode.
As Asriel gets ready for his grand experiment, Mrs. Coulter is heading to his research lab with the support and firepower of the Magisterium’s forces. This is another moment where the episode leans more heavily into its allegory of using faith as a weapon, as the soldiers are being prayed over by church leaders to “channel the Authority” during combat. Only the forces don’t make it in time—Asriel’s already kidnapped Roger and taken him to his mountain experiment. Thanks to one of the episode’s thankfully rare clumsy exposition dumps, Lyra knows he’s going to cut Roger’s daemon to create a massive energy force. What for, she doesn’t know. None of them do...until it’s too late.
Lyra rushes to Roger’s side with Iorek and his bear army. We get an intense action scene between the Magisterium and the bears, with bullets and bodies flying as a host of daemons soar through the sky preparing to strike. It looked great. Meanwhile, Roger is kicking and screaming in his cage as his own daemon runs around in a panic screaming that she “doesn’t want to leave” him. This was the emotional tension I needed in the Bolvangar episode, to feel for these children as they had part of their souls ripped from their bodies. I know part of that is thanks to Lewin Lloyd’s performance, which was really layered and nuanced, especially for a boy of his age.
Asriel gets ready to complete his experiment, which would sever Roger from his daemon to charge his machine. This was probably the most devastating moment of the episode. You see, Asriel’s machine isn’t like the one at Bolvangar. It doesn’t just fall like a guillotine blade. Asriel is forced to slowly and painfully yank the blade down as Roger pleads with him to stop. And you can see it in his eyes: Asriel knows he’s doing something unforgivable, but he refuses to stop. Lyra arrives right at the final moment. She shares a glance with her best friend, and then he dies. Rising from the space where his body lies is a great beam of light, shining into the Aurora, which then collapses and opens a door into another world.
You’d think this would be the big climax of the episode...but then you find out there’s almost 15 minutes left. Just enough time for Mrs. Coulter to show up and share an intoxicating scene with Asriel, as he asks her to join him to destroy the Authority, establish a “Republic of Heaven,” and save all the worlds from oppression. It’s all very adult, with their daemons caressing each other as the two share a passionate kiss. In this moment, it feels like they’re in a different show than Lyra but that’s kind of the point. In any other story, Asriel would be the hero, the prophet-like figure rising up against tyranny to lead the worlds to freedom. But this is Lyra’s story and the show always knows to keep her in the corner of our minds. Asriel may be opening the door to a new world, but all we care about is her—and Will, who’s spent the episode on the run from the police.
Mrs. Coulter ultimately refuses, saying she needs to focus on finding Lyra and keeping her safe (not knowing she’s merely steps away), and Asriel disappears through the door to his next grand adventure. But what about Lyra? She spends a few minutes saying goodbye to Roger—and I have to hand it to Keen for how well she expresses Lyra’s guilt and grief. Afterward, she and Pantalaimon decide they need to try and stop Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, and the Magisterium from trying to take control of Dust. They want to protect it and the only way to do that is through that door. Just as Will walks to the door that Boreal had been using all these years, Lyra heads toward hers. Lyra and Will, in parallel worlds that otherwise would never touch, enter the doors at the same time. Two strangers coming together in a way that will change the fate of all worlds forever.
The episode ends on the promise of a new world, and a better show. Overall, His Dark Materials failed to impress, but these final moments made me hopeful. We’ve gotten the rough patches out of the way and can focus on the characters, instead of spending most of our time being told a bunch of stuff while not understanding what much of it means. We might have to wait until season two to see if the series can dust off its rough edges, but I have faith we can turn things around.
As mixed as the show has been so far, I’m still grateful we live in a world where His Dark Materials has been given its own television show. If you’d told 12-year-old Beth she’d be seeing Will and Lyra on the small screen, she wouldn’t have known what to do with herself.
The scene where Lyra was in the bathtub and Roger offered to walk in backwards so he wouldn’t see her was sweet, and felt like a good character moment that we needed more of in this season.
Poor Thorold. He couldn’t catch a break.
Today I learned that Lord Asriel’s name is derived from “Azrael,” the name of the Angel of Death in some religious sects and lore. Also, this note I wrote about Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s scene seemed fitting: “Two great people absolute in their greatness trying to convince each other.”
I’ve got to give props for the final shot of the episode. The scene goes quiet over the wilderness as the camera pans up from Roger’s body to show the city in the sky. A reminder of what was sacrificed to make Asriel’s “great” moment happen.
Book comparison (spoilers): Yes, I recognise that it’s not revolutionary for a series about a literal war on god to include the scenes where Asriel dunks on organised religion. But considering 2007's The Golden Compass was so worried about pushback from Christians that it removed the religious themes altogether, including this part of the story was still a powerful choice.