Lyra Silvertongue and her friend Roger Parslow have been through a lot: being kidnapped, narrowly escaping a magical lobotomy at their hands, meddled in ice-bear politics, staying one step ahead of the ruthless Mrs. Coulter and her Magisterium goon squads. Now they’ve reached the mountaintop sanctuary of her father, Lord Asriel, whose experiments with the substance called Dust have marked him for death. Faced with all this trauma and turmoil, what do these two brave souls do?
They make a blanket fort.
Of all the beautiful, terrible things we see in His Dark Materials‘ season finale (titled “Betrayal” for reasons that will be apparent), this is moment that lingers the most. For all their courage, Lyra and Roger are still just kids. When they want to feel safe in this strange stronghold, they build a little fortress of their own, eating sandwiches while reminiscing about how their friendship has changed their lives.
And nothing drives home the horror of what happens afterward than the sight of Lyra frantically reentering the blanket fort at one end and emerging from the other side, alone. Roger is nowhere to be found. He’s been duped into following Lord Asriel to the site of his greatest experiment: the release of a tremendous amount of energy, capable of tearing a hole through the fabric of his universe and creating an entry into a whole new one. And to unleash and harness that energy, Roger has to die.
To be clear, there’s a lot else that goes on in this final hour. Lord Boreal learns that Will Parry is destined to lead him to the top of a “tower of angels,” where he will find a knife of mysterious importance. Meanwhile, the boy himself finds his Lordship’s secret portal between their two worlds and steps through to escape the police on his trail. And before those horrible final moments, Lyra has some difficult conversations with her father, a role he never wanted and still does not accept. He turns down her gift of the alethiometer, saying he doesn’t need it even if it is powered by Dust.
It’s that substance that’s really on his mind. While he may not treat Lyra as a daughter, he clearly respects her enough to explain what’s really going on. The Magisterium, he says, believes Dust is sin. The fact that it doesn’t attach itself to people until puberty has associated it in the eyes of the priests with the story of Adam and Eve. In this world, the first woman’s daemon settled on its final form only after she ate the serpent’s apple. To the religious organization, it’s all tied together, and they aim to eradicate it all to cement their tyrannical control. Lord Asriel, though, has set his sights on a more powerful enemy: the Authority, this world’s term for God.
“You don’t come from nothing, Lyra,” Asriel says after explaining all this. “You’re the product of something extraordinary.” It says something about the talents of young actor Dafne Keen that in several head-to-head scenes with James McAvoy, she makes her character seem every bit as extraordinary as she’s cracked up to be.
But as Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium attack, triggering a brutal battle with Iorek Byrnisson and his ice-bear army, Lyra finds that Roger has gone off with her father. All the exposition he dumped has tipped her off: sever the boy from his daemon, unleashing the energy required to pierce the membrane between worlds.
To the show’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from showing the terror Roger experiences when he sees the cages prepared for him. “I’m sorry this is happening to you,” Asriel says, “but in war there are casualties, and believe me when I tell you that this is a war, one that will free humanity forever.” He speaks with the confidence of a true believer, every bit as fanatical in his cause as his enemies. His faith in his cause is an unbreakable cage all its own.
And there’s no quick death for Roger, either. Asriel visibly struggles as he lowers the blade between the two cages, giving the boy and his daemon time to grieve what’s about to happen to them. It also gives Lyra just enough time to climb the mountain and reach her friend’s cage. She looks him right in the eyes just before the blade drops.
For all the horror, the visual effect unleashed at that moment is seductively beautiful. A huge beam of light rockets into the sky, peeling back reality like curtains to let the sun of another world shine through. It’s then that Mrs. Coulter catches up with her ex, who attempts to seduce her into joining his war against the Authority. Their shared narcissism, and their willingness to sacrifice innocents, unite them. So does good old-fashioned lust, which is clearly still in play between them. But Coulter opts to stay behind, for Lyra’s sake.
The girl, however, wants nothing to do with her mother. She hides among the mountain crags just long enough for Coulter to depart. Now she has a quest of her own: protect Dust, no matter what “grown-ups” say about it. In a gorgeously luminous shot, she and her daemon enter the open portal, leaving their world behind.
It’s a down note for the season to end on, to be sure—a far cry from the rousing feeling you might want from your fantasy epics. And who could blame you?
But a fantasy that explores what happens when adults recklessly disregard the needs of children, and how children fight back, just might be exactly the fantasy we need right now. It’s hard to know quite how to feel about His Dark Materials, but it does make you feel a great deal. Until we reach the other side with Lyra next season, that will have to be enough.
Previously: The Right to Arm Bears