His Dark Materials season 3: Ambition transcends Mankind

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The eagerly anticipated final series of His Dark Materials finally arrives. Based on “The Amber Spyglass,” the final novel in Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy, in the closing chapter of this epic fantasy series, Lyra (Dafne Keen), the prophesied child, and Will (Amir Wilson), the bearer of The Subtle Knife, must journey to a dark place from which no one has ever returned.  As her father’s great war against the Authority edges closer, they will learn that saving the worlds comes at a terrible price. 

His Dark Materials has always had exceptional visuals to match the beloved plot and opening the season is the backstory of the Creator aka Metatron (Alex Hassell) that would have no doubt taken place at the season 2 finale had the episode not been cut due to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Metatron is not the creator of humanity, just a ruler of the angels. It seemed important for the series to establish early on that this was not a fight against God and religion, but a story about the fight for free will. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) leads a group of rebels, including angels, out for revenge, in his Republic of Heaven to fight The Authority for free well and is described as a man whose ambition transcends humanity.

The first half of the season makes up for the lost episode of season 2, but expands by laying the foundation for the conclusion. There is a lot of build-up that can be a bit of slog to get through, particularly when a lot of time is misspent focusing on the Magisterium and Hugh McPhail (Will Keen) and little on the more intriguing Father Gomez (Jamie Ward) which is shame, given an intriguing and sinister performance from Ward. The few moments that Father Gomez is in, he is exceptional and commands an ominous presence that matches Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson). The angels are an interesting addition to the series as they fight for their freedom against the tyrannical rule of Metatron, who deems conscious beings to have become dangerously independent.

The build-up of the final season starts to pay off around the fourth and fifth episode as Lyra is about to enter the Land of the Dead and Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) finds herself in paradise of the Mulefa world. While both are in different worlds, they are focused on the same goal and each must sacrifice something more. For Lyra, fans will remember season one and the betrayal she felt when she unknowingly led her best friend Rodger to his death at the hands of her father. That was not the great betryal prophesied. An utterly heart-breaking moment when Lyra must leave her daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) as he begs her not to. You will feel the pain and the betrayal from Pan through Kit Connor’s harrowing and touching performance. There was so much done with the voice work, visual effects and puppetry that catapulted the emotion and sets the tone for the rest of the season. Knowing what is to come because of this from the sequel book The Secret Commonwealth adds to that hurt but is another example of how beautifully and expertly woven together the writers combined and respected Pullman’s work without taking away from the material they work with. While the Land of the Dead is bleak, hopeless, and lost, the Mulefa world is bright and warm, much like Simone Kirby’s performance. Moments shown of Mary learning the Mulefa language contrasts beautifully and heart-breakingly to the land of the dead, one being what paradise was promised and the other being the cold reality of the afterlife. There is a calmness and tenderness that comes out of Simone Kirby’s performance, along with a subtlety that conveys such passion and affection that no other character has. The most iconic moment of Mary’s in the book is when she gives a speech about marzipan; it is altered in the series but still captures the raw emotion and revelation as well as pleasant surprise about Mary’s character; that is a change from the book, but one that fits and is welcome. Each world has a distinctive look and feel, a challenging task given the volume of worlds, themes and characters each show. With daemons being one of the focal points, however, daemons are barely seen aside from the main cast.

Book fans will be happy with the portrayal and inclusion of Balthamos (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Baruch (Simon Harrison) open the series trying to take knife-bearer Will to Lord Asriel but Will’s loyalty will not allow him to relinquish his search for Lyra. The scenes of Will and the angels, although limited, remain true to the source material, but fall flat, as if there should have been more time spent with the angels and Will. Fans of the novel series will remember moments where Will and Balthamos bond as the angel pretends to be Will’s daemon to help him navigate Lyra’s world as they search for her. Unfortunately, this scene is omitted as is most of the relationship and moments between Will and the Angels. That cannot be said for Asriel and Marisa, who share most of their time together, and as they do, the chemistry sparks through the screen and leaves you wanting more of the two of them together. Speaking of Lyra’s parents, they have not exactly been the best for her, with the worst parent award going to Asriel. That is not to say throughout her life Lyra has not had strong parental influences and this all comes to ahead in this season. There is a satisfying moment when Asriel tries to recruit Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) for his cause, only to be put on his backside and in his place by the polar bear king. I cannot recall if that is in the book, but it is a moment that will stand out as memorable and one of the more entertaining.

While religion and the fight for free will is the main theme for the season, it works in perfect tandem with the overarching theme of grief, loss of innocence, growing up, love and sacrifice. The moments in the land of the dead are the most touching of the entire series, with moments of tenderness and harshness. If you have ever experienced loss, the episodes in the land of the dead may be a challenge to watch for the raw emotion and the writer’s ability to channel loss, grief, and regret into such a beautiful but painful episode. The moments in the episode are reminiscent of season one as Lyra tells her and Rodgers story to the ghosts. There is a lot of regret in these moments and a rarely discussed feeling called saudade; an emotional state of profound nostalgic longing for something or someone that one cares for, and a repressed knowledge that it may never be had again or attained. The later half of the season masters the tricky task of saudade, particularly when Lyra and Will confront the ghosts of their loved ones. Lyra does not know Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) died in the previous season finale, and Dafne Keen’s raw emotion, as she finds out, is done subtly but carries the heavy emotional weight. Those emphases, as with the feeling of saudade, at Lee’s last moment on screen. Lin’s last line is one that has stuck with me in the books, and when I say it hits hard, emotionally, it does.

With an ensemble cast there are always standouts, but in the final season of His Dark Materials, every cast member delivers weighted performances. McAvoy is the perfect Lord Asriel with a fierce determination to match his performance, and when paired with the incredible performance of Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter, they have intense chemistry, particularly in the second to last episode. Joint leads Dafne Keen as Lyra and Amir Wilson as Will Parry navigate the relationship blossoming between the two as they shed their childlike selves for the sake of others, and as their bond deepens, their feelings grow. There are two montages that involve Will’s knife that capture their bond in both beautiful and painful ways. Wilson proves repeatedly the complexity of Will Parry with every actor with whom he is paired. With a layered performance, Wilson brings increasingly to Will with every second and captures the themes of the books and series particularly in a touching moment between Will and his father John Parry (Andrew Scott) as he wrestles with what expected of him, disappointment, acceptance, and a longing for what could have been. Joining the cast for the final season is Alex Hassell as Metatron, the self-titled creator, and although he is not seen until the final episode, everything about him dominates with authority and intensity from the voice to when he is finally shown.

If you have not read the books, or it has been a long time since you read them, the themes carry over magnificently from the source material and credit to the entire cast and crew for honoring a beloved and complicated story of religion, free will, sacrifice and growing up. However you discover the world of His Dark Materials, this season is a satisfying but devastating close to an epic series that will break your heart but fill you with longing and satisfaction. The ending feels so perfect of saudade, a longing for what you can never have. That is not to say there are not flaws; the angels should have been given more time, as should have Father Gomez, who seems more of an afterthought despite a powerful performance.

For the MVC, there are multiple contenders and pairs, with each character easily championing the title. Lyra could have it for her determination, and sacrifice, Will for his loyalty but after consideration it would jointly have to go to Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon, for the wrenching performance and emotion, but also to Mary Malone for how warm and kind she was in guiding Lyra and helping with her fate.

His Dark Materials final season airs on HBO Max from 5th December and BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 18th December.

Season 3 was screened for review.


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