'His Dark Materials' Season 1 Finale Recap: "Betrayal"

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

I often group Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials with George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire when discussing its impact on the fantasy landscape. That's because both play on the same stereotype of the genre — the heroic white male whose plot armor and heart are both so thick, they can never do wrong or die. In Martin's opening novel, A Game of Thrones, he kills Ned Stark three-quarters of the way through. It's a shock when that happens (much like it is on screen in Game of Thrones' first season). Audiences are prepared to accept his survival at all costs, even when reality says otherwise. Martin's twist was merely recognizing it.

His Dark Materials takes much of the same tack in the first book, The Northern Lights (or in the U.S., The Golden Compass). Lord Asriel is, in Lyra's eyes, the hero, and despite all evidence to the contrary, the audience is willing to accept it. Mrs. Coulter is the terrible mother figure, the evil witch from fairy tales. Viewers are supposed to understand both Asriel and Coulter are ambitious people who were too alike to ever last as a couple. But the assumption is still that Lyra's version is semi-correct. We are primed to blame the woman for sin and see the man as the hero.

The opening to this final episode, "Betrayal," plays into those assumptions. Lyra has begun to see through some of her father's crap  (Her "It's been quite a journey to get here," response to his questions about Iorek is hilarious, as is her jibe about his taste in women and bears.) But there's still a great deal of hero worship. That she's come all this way to give him the alethiometer - which is *hers* - simply because he, as an adult male, should have it, speaks volumes about the gender dynamics at play here.

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Despite all that, the show isn't as willing as Game of Thrones to hide the twist in plain sight. Instead, it puts it front and center and dares us to pretend it's not happening along with Lyra. Roger insists Asriel's behavior spooks him. "He looked at me like he was a wolf." It also lays the sentimentality on thick, finally using daemons correctly in the scene that follows. The daemons play happily on the floor, like a pair of kittens tease fighting and snuggling, representing what their souls are doing while Roger and Lyra are in the tent. One can only hope that Season 2 gives us more of that. 

Asriel takes Lyra to his lab, giving the show one last chance to spell out Dust to the slow people in the back, complete with biblical quotes to ground this all in the Christian faith. The Magisterium used to ignore Dust until it was discovered it only settled during puberty, which is why the Cardinal, Mrs. Coulter, et al., have drawn a direct connection to original sin and Adam and Eve. (In this world, Eve eats the apple, and her daemon settles.) Asriel's role here, at least as he explains it to Lyra, is the curious scientist. The alethiometer works through Dust, but why? And how? Daemon-cutting is also a massive source of energy, which leads to more questions.

That last bit is significant because when Lyra wakes up and discovers Asriel and Roger left, she realizes the burst of energy cutting Roger would produce will open the doorway Asriel seeks. Lyra putting two and two together lessens the shock. But the sequence where she goes after them, only to find herself under attack from the Magisterium, is well done, including Lyra's response to finding herself in the middle of a battlefield, which (unlike so many fantasy adventures) feels age-appropriate. She melts down in terror in a crevice. Iorek has to rescue her and pull her out of the battle where she's frozen in fear. 

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Meanwhile, in our world, Will is on the move. Boreal is back, having gotten an answer from Fra Pavel to his alethiometer question from the other week, "How can I find what Grumman discovered?" Pavel says: "There's a knife in a tower surrounded by angels. His son will lead you to it." Naturally, Boreal is now pissed Will bolted after the events of last week, and worse, Thomas is dead from that punch-and-fall that happened, leaving DI Walters as Boreal's only right-hand man.

Instead of Asriel with a knife without warning, the same cutting device seen at Bolvangar is dragged out, and Roger shoved in. Lyra is merely too late to save him. The explosion throws her down the mountain, leaving Asriel alone with his doorway, and Coulter walking up to join him. James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson get the erotic charge out of discovery very right. What they don't get is how insane Asriel is. He wants to find God, and overthrow him. Thet's partly the language: "A new republic of heaven" sounds all well and fine. But it doesn't have the same impact as "pull down heaven and make it anew with Marisa Coulter as his queen." It also loses Marisa's excuse of "My child is here, I have to stay" which is her trying to appease a complete nutcase who thinks he's off to kill God.

Lyra is left alone, to confront the reality that both her parents are utterly horrible, mad people. In that, at least, the show gets it right. She's going through the doorway to save the world from her father, with no idea what's on the other side. But here the show steps away from the books too. Instead of Lyra tumbling out to the traffic island where Will is hiding from the cops, both step through openings into the multiverse. Which world will they wind up in when Season 2 picks up? The world will have to wait for 2020 to find out.