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In its Final Season, His Dark Materials Becomes One of the Century’s Best Fantasy Shows

The HBO series luxuriates in small moments that make its universe feel real.
  • Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson in Season 3 of His Dark Materials (Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO)
    Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson in Season 3 of His Dark Materials (Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO)

    It’s a compliment to say the third and final season of His Dark Materials isn’t meant for newcomers. Even Season 2 of HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s beloved fantasy novels made room for the uninitiated, finding organic ways to introduce helpful exposition as its ambitious story unfolded. Now, however, the focus has moved entirely to the complex beauty of the universe the show has so carefully created, as well as the battle to save it. Longtime viewers should savor the luxury of a series that gives them time to take in all the facets of this sprawling tale and trusts them to follow along.

    But for those who do need a refresher: The series centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dafne Keen), whose ability to read a device called an alethiometer sends her on a universe-hopping journey to save the world. Along the way, she encounters a legion of enchanting characters, but mostly, the series is concerned with recontextualizing biblical stories through an atheist lens. That becomes even more important in the final installments, which are driven by the idea that Lyra is the new Eve. It's because of this that the oppressive religious government known as the Magisterium wants to kill her, something that the loyal and brave Will (Amir Wilson) will go to any lengths to prevent. But this is no damsel-in-distress yarn. Instead, the show focuses on Lyra's emergence into adulthood and how often establishments are terrified of girls becoming women.

    As always, the series accompanies its narrative ambition with cinematic storytelling. Gary Shaw's gorgeous cinematography makes each universe we visit feel infinite, textured, and filled with possibilities. The adventures of a nun turned astrophysicist named Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) are shot with vibrant color and an impressive sense of vastness as she connects with enigmatic and intelligent elephant-like creatures known as Mulefa. Lyra's trip to the world of the dead is dark yet glittering with the fiery life of the souls who reside there.

    Many shows have elegant visuals, of course, but His Dark Materials has always had a unique willingness to let us luxuriate in its environments. While there's plenty going on in the action-packed final season — including a war between heaven and earth, a knife that can kill gods, and a literal biblical angel — the patient storytelling makes the viewing experience feel akin to the best of the British TV miniseries tradition. These adaptations of beloved novels — many by the BBC, which co-produces this series with HBO — are well-known for their world building, letting viewers immerse themselves in, say, the steeple-filled kingdom of Gormenghast or the cobwebbed attics of Great Expectations. Here, we’re invited to lose ourselves in an eclectic array of locations: echoing halls of the dead, sun-drenched citadels, and the multiverse-spanning war that connects them all.

    The final season also brings to mind the storytelling of Hayao Miyazaki and the creators at Studio Ghibli. From Whisper of the Heart to Nausicaa, the films of the Japanese animation house take their time in a way that often feels radical. Characters regularly sit and do nothing, looking to the sky or just breathing as leaves fall. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Miyazaki described it by saying, "We have a word for that in Japanese. It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally." His Dark Materials embraces that concept. As Mary Malone explores the world of the Mulefa, she often sits in silence taking it all in. Lyra spends much of the early episodes sleeping and dreaming. We watch her do the former for longer than you might expect, and during the latter we follow her as she walks alone through darkness.

    It makes sense for the series to be so layered, as Pullman's recognition of the existential nature of childhood and children is arguably why the books have had such longevity. The final season keeps that intact as Lyra goes on a journey which brings her to terms with her own mortality and those of the ones she loves, as she literally ventures into purgatory in order to allow herself and the souls of the dead that she has lost to move on. It's in these more esoteric moments that the extra storytelling space truly pays dividends, as it gives both the audience and the characters time to follow unexpected and complicated paths. From the outset, Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), has been a villain. The same can be said of her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy). Both have murdered children, yet in the chasm between the morally black and white, the final episodes see them both reach for some kind of redemption and maybe even a modicum of forgiveness as they realize their daughter is at the heart of something magnificent and massive.

    The vastness of the universe and how we are intricately connected to it, whether by fate, family, fortune, or simply the atoms we share with stars, is something His Dark Materials innately understands. It wants us to think about that as we linger in dimly lit corridors or wide open plains. By now, viewers likely trust the show enough to step into the unknown. Their reward is one of the best fantasy series of the 21st century.

    The first two episodes of Season 3 of His Dark Materials premiere Monday, December 5 on HBO. Two new episodes drop Mondays through December 26.

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    Rosie Knight is an award-winning journalist and author who writes about TV, Films, and comic books. You can hear her each week as she co-hosts Crooked Media's flagship pop-culture podcast X-Ray Vision. 

    TOPICS: His Dark Materials, HBO, Amir Wilson, Dafne Keen, Hayao Miyazaki, James McAvoy, Philip Pullman, Ruth Wilson, Simone Kirby