His Dark Materials Season Finale: “Betrayal”

His Dark Materials James McAvoy & Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (HBO/BBC)

Shots are fired & Lyra suffers an unimaginable loss in a sober end to a solid debut season.

One fascinating (and unsettling) thing about His Dark Materials is how even the good people, those working on the side of peace and freedom, all too easily use children as pawns and means to an end. Lyra (Dafne Keen) is forced to deal time and again with the fallout of adults keeping secrets from her, then expecting her to just process the information as soon as she gets it. Even the good-hearted Gyptians are all too eager to practically put her in charge of the whole missing children rescue operation. A question arises over who really (if anyone) has Lyra’s best interests at heart in “Betrayal,” the unsettling season finale.

Lyra has come to set Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) free, but it’s a tense reunion. He seems far more dismayed than relieved to see her, but eventually gives her (and the audience, who desperately needs one at this point) an explanation as to what “dust,” the substance he’s spent years researching, actually is. Or at least, what the Magisterium thinks it is, and why they’re so afraid of it. “They think it’s sin falling from the sky, infecting our souls with evil,” Asriel explains, which gives an interesting dimension to Mrs. Coulter’s mission. 

“She’s trying to save our sinless souls,” Lyra says. It’s a chilling statement — to Mrs. Coulter, it’s better for children to be empty husks than be exposed to something that might fill them with lust or greed. It’s a sinister twist on such real-life groups as One Million Moms, who protest any depictions of LGBTQ+ relationships in media in the name of “protecting” children.

Speaking of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), despite her continuously letting Lyra slip away, let alone her questionable loyalty, she still has the rest of the Magisterium eating out of her perfectly manicured hand. In “Betrayal,” Father MacPhail (Will Keen, Dafne’s real life father, though they have no scenes together) attempts to mock Mrs. Coulter about the powerful Asriel still holds over her, but she gets in close enough to him that his lips start trembling, and she deftly gets the upper hand in the situation once more. 

The thing is, MacPhail is right: Asriel does still have that strange sort of power over Mrs. Coulter that only a person who is absolutely wrong for you can have. As pointed out, she gave up her marriage because she loved him, and gave up her child because she wanted to protect him. Even now, her machinations seem less in the name of doing the Magisterium’s work than sneakily allowing him to continue his research. Maybe she thinks the worst of “dust,” but part of her wants Asriel to be right.

Asriel does still have that strange sort of power over Mrs. Coulter that only a person who is absolutely wrong for you can have.

Asriel being proven right comes at a terrible cost, however. If his creepy grin upon the appearance of Roger (Lewin Lloyd) at the end of last week’s episode didn’t fill you with a sense of foreboding, then probably an evening of Lyra and Roger finally getting a chance to relax and just be kids for a little while after experiencing non-stop danger will. One thing His Dark Materials does well, and “Betrayal” particularly so, is depict the platonic sweetness of adolescent friendship. Despite the assumption that they should have crushes on each other, Lyra and Roger’s relationship is far more sibling-like, as illustrated when Roger respectfully backs into the bathroom while Lyra takes a bath, not even so much as sneaking a peek. They cling to each other, both of them lonely children who’ve suffered trauma and spent too much time with no one to look out for them. They’re like two miniature soldiers after a war.

That it’s Asriel, whose approval and love Lyra desperately wants, who tears the only real, constant relationship she has away, makes for the “Betrayal” of the episode title. He’s all too aware of Mrs. Coulter’s experiments with separating children from their daemons, and knows something she does not — that doing so can open a gateway to the other world, our world, and bring us closer to “dust.” Roger is collateral damage in “a great war that will free humanity,” as Asriel callously forces his daughter’s only friend into a cage and separates him from his daemon, killing him in the process.

It’s a shocking moment, particularly since Asriel seems to feel no guilt about killing a child, let alone how it will affect Lyra, his own child. The best he can come up with is an insincere “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” as if it’s not him who’s doing it. After a failed attempt by the Magisterium to fire on the compound, Mrs. Coulter shows up in the immediate aftermath, and it turns out that she and Asriel both still have feelings for each other. Asriel wants her to cross over to the other world with him, but Mrs. Coulter turns him down with another shocking reveal — she’d rather stay behind and try to be a mother to Lyra. It seems unlikely, particularly considering the whole “her dad killed her best friend” thing, but Mrs. Coulter, unaware that Lyra has been watching the whole time seems sincere enough. Asriel, without looking back or seemingly the slightest concern for what will happen to Lyra, steps through the gateway and disappears.

One of the most gripping parts of His Dark Materials is watching the children in it hold themselves together and try to be adults, while real adults engage in an endless battle of wills. Lyra could easily fall back on her grief for Roger’s death as an excuse to give up and refuse to keep fighting. She’s a child, no one would fault her for it. Instead, she says her goodbyes, and decides to follow Asriel through the gateway, with only her daemon by her side. Her plan is to beat Asriel to the dust, and make all his work, all the pain he’s caused result in nothing, no glory for him. She enters the gateway, as the veil between her and Will Parry’s world grows so thin they can just about see each other through it.

Random Thoughts:

  • For a show that seems a little chilly and detached at times, this was a deeply moving (albeit very bleak) ending to an occasionally uneven season. Killing a child in a TV show tends to come off as a cheap shock tactic (looking at you, The Walking Dead), but here lends an unexpected level of seriousness to a plot that could easily be silly. Neither side in this “great war” is messing around.
  • Thankfully it looks like Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra will soon cross paths with each other in season two, because that B-plot was getting a bit dull.
  • Considering the unpleasantness of her experience while filming Showtime’s The Affair, it’s a pleasure to see Ruth Wilson, who isn’t as known as she should be to American audiences, get to flex some real acting muscle without being exploited.
  • Poor little dead Roger with a single tear on his cheek! “Betrayal” really sticks it in and breaks it off.
  • This week in Mrs. Coulter fashion: her fur-trimmed trench coat. If I was Asriel I’d want to explore the heavens with her at my side too.
  • And that’s it for the first season of His Dark Materials! While I obviously would have gotten more out of it if I had read the books, this was a compelling watch that doesn’t play it safe or dumbed down with its YA literature audience. Dafne Keen brings the same fascinating edge she brought to Logan, and I look forward to the inevitable confrontation scene with Asriel, because, let’s face it, that dude has it coming.
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