I remember when The Golden Compass came to theaters. I know I saw it because I was a projectionist and had to screen the print, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember anything about the film. Perhaps that’s why that when I first heard about HBO doing a TV series adaption of the beloved book series His Dark Materials I wasn’t all that thrilled. I’d never read the -adult series, and considering the amount of awful YA film and TV adaptations that have bombarded us for nearly two decades, it played a role in squashing any excitement I may have had in different circumstances. I was definitely pessimistic about watching the show, but when I finished Season 1, I was excited about where the next season would take us. I loved the characters, the daemons and the worlds that the show took us to. Not since Stranger Things had I been more excited about a new series. Season 2 was a step up from the first season, and I absolutely loved what the show was delivering. There has been a bit of a wait for this third season; after all COVID did get in the way of the show’s production, and the delay can dampen the excitement for others. But with sSeason 3 now here, would the final eight episodes be enough to wrap up this pretty great storyline about the multi-verse and the war set to be waged between man and the Authority?
Season 3 opens up with a bit of a time jump with Lyra (Dafine Keen) being held captive by her mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). We want to believe that Lyra is being held for her own protection and that her mother has finally seen the evil of her ways in the past, but we’ve seen in the past she simply can’t be trusted. The Magisterium continues to establish themselves as the big bad of the show as they are wanting to hunt down Lyra because they believe she is the girl in the prophecies who will bring ruin to all the worlds. Then there is Will (Amir Wilson), who is trying to find Lyra, though to help him in his search he teams up with an angel and Iorek (Joe Tandberg), our favorite polar bear. Then we also have Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), who continues her journey to better understand dust, though to be fair, considering all the peril we see just about every other character experience, her journey seems more like a simple vision quest that leads her to strange elephant-like creatures with wheels on their feet … yeah, this show can get weird. Then of course there is Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who seems to be hell-bent on waging war against the Authority, and he doesn’t seem to care who he loses or may die because of his actions.
While the show has always had its religious themes and has never shied away from how the author felt about organized religion, this final season definitely doesn’t pull its punches and can be pretty blunt at times about how it feels about the church. This could certainly upset many, but at the end of the day I hope people can remember this story is all based on a work of fiction no differently than The Lord of the Rings.
This season definitely takes a dark turn. While in the “care” of her mother, Lyra has dreams about Roger (Lewin Lloyd), her best friend who died previously, and she feels responsible for his death. She believes she needs to travel to the Land of the Dead to help him. Will comes along on this journey, and I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this story thread. We spend a lot of time in this world, at least three episodes, and while I enjoyed most of it, I couldn’t help but be reminded that this is the final season and we’re supposed to be building for a final climax of events, but here we are watching Lyra and Will talk to dead people. Part of my frustration comes from a decision Lyra makes so she can travel to the Land of the Dead that for the first time got me to genuinely despise the character. Trust me, you’ll know what I mean when it happens, and though the show tries to rationalize things, it seems like it is breaking its own rules as it goes to service their plot. It’s also weird how the Magisterium wants to call Lyra the next Eve (the harbinger of sin), yet the story that unfolds is more about Jesus releasing the trapped souls of purgatory, so shouldn’t they see her as the good guy? This is where I wish I knew nothing about religion going into this series, because it just gets confusing, and because it exists in a multi-verse, well, rules don’t have to apply to it.
Mrs. Coulter seems to want to atone for her actions as we see her do everything that she can to protect her daughter. Ruth Wilson has been fantastic in this series, but this season she delivers her best performance and really has the best character arc of the entire series. Her interactions with her daemon this season are so well done, especially when you consider her daemon doesn’t speak; oh, and it is a CGI character. As for Lord Asriel, this one was a bit of a misstep, because though we see him prepping for war and torturing an angel, despite him supposedly being the leader of the good guys, he’s kind of a piece of crap of a human. I feel this was intentional considering at the start we believed Mrs. Coulter was supposed to be evil, but we see her evolve, and at first Asriel was good, but he seems to just have corrupted himself with his desire to conquer the Republic of Heaven. Then there is that battle at the end; yeah, pretty cool, but seemed to be lacking when you consider this is the epic showdown between the universes, yet the battle seems to be smaller than the battle of Gettysburg. I’ll just blame that on budget restraints and not enough time for all the CGI, but I really expected some polar bears vs. angel action, but no dice.
The biggest win for this season goes to Lyra and her relationships with Pan (Kit Conner), her daemon, and with Will. At the heart of the story, I feel it has always been about the bonds of friendship and the sacrifices that are made along the way. This season has some heart-wrenching moments that really make this show stand out from any other YA series. There was a point I nearly stopped watching the show. I had to take a break from it because it upset me with the decision they made. Sure, they walked it back, but it definitely impacts the characters down the line. And then there is the final episode. It is more like an epilogue to all that has happened and is almost its own mini-story. It’s so sweet and heartbreaking, but it was what the show needed to give it the series sendoff that it needed. It doesn’t happen often, but this is one of the rare times I feel show came to an end and I thought its conclusion was perfect. Breaking Bad and Justified are a couple others I feel that pulled off this feat. Sure, it may not be how you expected or wanted, but I can’t imagine it being done any better.
His Dark Materials is presented in the aspect ratio 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 20 mbps. This is a show that pretty much every episode is delivering a new variety of visuals that are a blend between what is shot on a set and what is created with CGI. Season 3 continues to take us to new worlds with a variety of color palettes. The one that stands out this season is the Land of the Dead. There are a variety of filters used as we go into this new world starting with greens and yellows up to the point where we get to this actual place where the dead are and color is mostly stripped away and the black is dark oil and is the absence of light and life and suits what the creators were trying to convey. The effects seem sharper this time around, and the daemons look so lifelike it’s amazing to know these are simply puppets before CGI is applied. Textures come through beautifully, and the details in the set designs are captured well here. Even in low-lit shots, things look pretty good.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 track is what you’d expect from an HBO production of this size. Each episode is like it’s one isolated movie, and the audio touches reflect that. The score is one of the big standouts for me; whether it’s the thrilling action or its melodic theme, it helps immerse you in this gigantic fantasy world. While there are not as many big action pieces in this season, the moments where there is action are balanced well. There isn’t really one standout moment where I can applaud the sound design, but it is consistent throughout. The dialog is always clean, and the score is never overpowering.
There are no special features.
This last season just doesn’t quite have the rhythm that the first two did. While it is a lot of fun, this season is a bit bleaker and lacks some of the whimsy that made the first two seasons what they were. There are some great moments in this season. The Land of the Dead you’ll either love or hate, but it will make an impression. I love many of the characters we’ve met and lost over the course of the series, and I wish there was at least one more season to spend with them all. This is a fun series to binge; this is just about the biggest-scale TV series I’ve seen that’s on par with The Mandolorean and Stranger Things. If you are looking for a show that’s fun for the whole family but doesn’t treat its audience like 6-year-olds, this is definitely worth checking out.