HOOOOOO BOY. Get ready for a quote-filled recap people! You guys know how much I love quoting the show (and the books), and this episode was a doozy. We just reached the His Dark Materials Season 2 finale, and this recapper has a LOT of thoughts! Most of them good, but some of them a bit critical. As always, you will get an even more in-depth comparison to the books, but for now, let’s look at “Æsahættr” itself. (I would also like to take this moment to say that I have never been able to pronounce that name correctly, and even after hearing it, I still struggle.)
It was revealed during their SDCC panel this year that His Dark Materials Season 2 was actually supposed to have 8 episodes, with one singular standalone episode that featured Asriel (Jame McAvoy). But then the whole world stopped and we got hit with a pandemic. So, I entered Season 2 prepared to not get any of Asriel. After all, he only really appears in Ruta Skadi’s retelling of her visit to him. But, wow wow wow. That ending was fantastic and I’m glad we got to see a bit of that episode, even if it was only for a few moments.
It’s clear to me that the standalone episode was likely meant to be placed in the Episode 7 slot, given the fact that Ruta Skadi wakes up on the side of the cliff in this episode. This happens on her way to Asriel in The Subtle Knife. I assume we got this little sliver of info because it would split Ruta and the other witches away from Serafina and her own mission. It would have been great to see all of the things that that episode could have given us – meeting and speaking with angels, Ruta and Asriel conversing, meeting the rebels from other worlds who have joined Asriel in his fight. The potential is endless, but hopefully, Season 3 will fill in some of the blanks.
Speaking of Ruta Skadi, I never thought I’d say this but the show has actually made me like the witch I used to dread seeing. Book Ruta Skadi is nearly unbearable, but I do enjoy Jade Anouka‘s version of the character. After she overhears cliff ghasts talking about Asriel’s rebellion and the importance of Æsahættr, she positions herself to Asriel’s cause. She knows the importance of defeating the Authority. “In every world, agents of the Authority are committing injustices,” she says and this is true, it is also what makes me like her. It doesn’t seem like she’s doing this because Asriel is doing it and she wants to be close to that glory, but rather because it is the right thing to do. So, she goes on a search for the Æsahættr, not knowing that it’s a few feet away in the hands of Will Parry. Oh, the dramatic irony.
My main criticism of the episode is its pacing. Even though Lee’s final scene still brought me to tears, as did John Parry’s last moments with his son, the episode could have made it even more gut-wrenching. The sudden cuts from one storyline to another messed with the rhythm of the finale.
At least one scene that wasn’t ruined by the editing was the scene plucked from the book where Will speaks to Pan instead of Lyra. This is such a fantastic moment and it means a lot not only to Will and Lyra but their development as characters and their relationship with one another. Will is awakened by a dream of his father speaking to him. I actually have liked this subtle detail of John Parry reaching out to the knife bearer, not knowing it’s his son. It ties the two beyond just their final scene together. Anyway, Will wakes up afraid and sees Pan by his side.
“She thinks your the bravest fighter she’s ever seen, as brave as Iorek Byrnison, king of the armored bears,” says Pan.
“Iorek Byrnison? That’s a compliment. But I think Lyra’s even braver than me.”
“She can be, but sometimes she’s not.”
“She’s the best friend, I ever had, you know that? Not that I’ve had many friends.”
“You’re her best friend too.”
This conversation had me jumping with joy because I was so afraid they might have cut it out. This is a moment where Lyra’s feelings change for Will. She is awake but speaking through Pan. She’s revealing her own vulnerability in this moment. Never forget that Pan is Lyra and Lyra is Pan. Speaking to Pan is like speaking to Lyra through a telephone. And, never forget that Lyra is still recovering from the loss of Roger. His death and her own ignorance of Asriel’s plan have left her guilty and cautious.
When Will is eager to move on on their own in order to find his father, Lyra tells him that she is afraid of losing him. She can’t be brave because she’s terrified she’ll let Will down if they go off on their own without the witches. In this conversation, Will lays it out plain for Lyra. “You haven’t let me down,” he says. “You’ve made me stronger, Lyra. I’ve made you stronger. But we need to go on our own, without them. This is our journey now.” And Will is right. Even is Lyra is still cautious, she acknowledges to herself that she is changing in someway. Yes, being with Will has changed her and he affects her, but the change is also natural. She is approaching puberty, and as she notes to Pan, “Once I change, you’ll stop changing.” Soon, Pan will settle, and she will become an adult.
Elsewhere in the hills outside Cittagazze, Paola and Angelica arrive at the campsite where their adults are and part ways with Mary Malone. Sadly, Mary’s contribution to the episode felt really lackluster. It feels like she got a couple of moments here and there to remind us that she is there. I’ve no doubt that the blue flower petals are meant to lead her into the other world that she’ll have to find, but if they had cut those scenes and we got more of Asriel’s episode, I would have had no problem with that. Basically, nothing happens, so, let’s continue on.
After last week’s episode ended with Lee’s balloon plummeting toward the earth, we pick right back up in this episode. Grounded, Lee and John Parry must travel on foot. John directs them west toward a canyon to find the bearer, but the Magisterium is closing in on them. The final airship was not taken down and not long after they make for the canyon, the Magisterium show up guns blazing. This chapter in The Subtle Knife is probably one of the saddest scenes in the entire trilogy, and even with my gripes about editing and cutting this episode, I cried like a baby watching Lee Scoresby face off in his last stand against the Magisterium.
Getting hit in the leg, Lee can’t move as fast as John Parry, so he’s made the choice to hold off the onslaught so John can make a run for it. “Just remember your promise, I love that little girl like a daughter,” Lee says to John as he leaves. I’ll note that John actually didn’t keep his promise to Lee. He never tells Will that he needs to protect Lyra Belacqua. Yes, getting the knife to Asriel will theoretically protect them all, but I’m just saying, Lee was pretty exact in his terms. Anyway, John promises and Lee must face a slew of Magisterium forces while injured and low on bullets.
It’s not so much the firefight in the scene that is heart-wrenching, but rather Lee’s conversation with Hester. I like that they bring in Lee’s morality in this episode, even if we only get a glimpse. Lee is an adventurer not a soldier. As he tells his daemon, “I don’t like taking lives, Hester.”
But she reminds him, “It’s ours or theirs.”
“Theirs or Lyra’s,” Lee says. This is all for Lyra. It’s not about a prophecy or fighting the Authority, just plain loyalty and love for Lyra that keeps Lee fighting and that is enough to make my eyes water like we’re cutting onions. Combine that with the devastating sight of Hester panting on the ground and I’m done for the night. Remembering Serafina Pekkala’s cloud pine in his final moments, he calls to her. As Lee takes his last breaths, he tells Hester, “Don’t you go before I do!” Shout out to Cristela Alonzo for her amazing voice work as Hester. Her voice really added the right amount of sass and flavor to Hester and without it, I don’t think this final scene would have worked as well. Serafina senses Lee’s and flies to him, but ultimately arrives too late. She says her final goodbyes to Lee and prays (?) over Lee’s body. More dramatic irony.
With Serafina leaving Lyra and Will behind, we reach the final arc of the episode. Will is awakened by his father’s beckoning in his dreams and he walks off without Lyra to follow the call. In the canyon that we’ve seen glimpses of in Will’s visions, Will is finally reunited with his father. I have a LOT of thoughts about this scene. Most of them will go in the book comparison, but a very very selfish part of me actually loved seeing Will and John Parry share a real conversation. After years of wondering just what John Parry would have asked his son, had he gotten the chance to, we finally get it here.
John asks about Elaine and is surprised to see his son is the knife bearer, but Will is dealing with a lot of shocks coming his way. He is frustrated by John and demands to know why his father never came back to them. “Do you have any idea how hard mum found it without you? Thinking you were dead?” he demands of his father.
“I couldn’t get back to you. I tried everything. And in trying, I got a better understanding of these strange worlds. An understanding I could use to actually help people.”
“And you chose these people over your family?” Will says, exasperated. For John Parry, who has grieved the loss of his family, he’s come to peace with his inability to go home. For Will, this is all fresh and new. Sure, he’s known he was going to see his father again, but that can’t compare to the reality. John is much like Asriel, in learning more about the universes, he sees the bigger picture. It’s not just about one person or even one world, it’s about every person in every world. As long as the Authority has power, there will never be free will.
Yes, he loves his son and wife, but his aspirations and goals have expanded past just returning home. John passes this obligation on to his son. The fate of many worlds now rests on Will’s shoulders. The Subtle Knife is the only weapon that can destroy the Authority and Asriel needs to know this. Even if Will wants to reject the weapon, he can’t. This is what he has been tasked to do as the knife bearer. Even as John promises that they will go home when all is said and done, would John be able to return back to Will’s world? Would he be able to adjust back to life with Elaine in suburbia? It’s difficult to say.
And, unfortunately, we’ll never know. As John speaks with Will, one of the final Magisterium soldiers approaches and shoots John, killing him. God damn it, Sayan Kötör, you couldn’t fly just a bit faster? With his final breath, John Parry looks at his son and directs him toward his task. “The night is full of angels, they will guide you now,” he says, before he dies. It’s a painful end, but far more cathartic for me as an emotional Will stan than the ending in The Subtle Knife – if you know, you know.
“Argue with anything else, but don’t argue with your true nature.” These fateful words stay with Will as he finally dons his father’s mantle – both literally, by putting on his jacket, and figuratively. It’s implied that Will is likely going to take his father’s words to heart. I’m not entirely sure what is going on with his hand and that injury, it played a much more prominent role in the books. Similarly, I’m assuming we’ll find out in Season 3 what his reaction is to Lyra being gone.
Speaking of Lyra, Mrs. Coulter finally finds out in this episode the specifics of the prophecy surrounding her daughter. After torturing and ultimately feeding a witch to the spectres, she finally learns that Lyra is Eve, “the mother of us all.” Except Lyra is Eve, before the fall. Mrs. Coulter has been obsessed with protecting Lyra from sin, in earnest, and after learning this, she becomes even more determined. Her storyline is rather short in this episode, but we do get an amazing scene between her and her daemon. Nothing has made me want to read The Secret Commonwealth more than these scenes between Mrs. Coulter and her daemon.
As sad as we feel for that little golden monkey daemon, we are actually pitying Mrs. Coulter in the same moment. Like Lyra and Pan, the two are one. Her hatred for the golden monkey’s fear of the spectres and perceived weakness is connected to her own self-hatred. Similarly, the mystery of how she is able to separate from her daemon might simply be the result of immense self-harm. After all, we know that when people are too far away from their daemons, they feel immense pain. Without anything to suggest that Mrs. Coulter has undergone some kind of ritual like the witches, the more tragic reality might be that she has simply become numb to the immense pain of self-harm.
Determined to keep her daughter safe, she tells her daemon, “We have to do whatever it takes to keep her safe.” And when she says that, she means it. The spectres lead her to Lyra, too easily. And with Serafina gone off to help Lee, and with Will with his father, Lyra is perfectly set up to get snatched by Mrs. Coulter. Killing the last witch guarding Lyra, Mrs. Coulter grabs her daughter and quite literally locks her away. The final shot of Mrs. Coulter shows her with a giant leather chest and inside is a sleeping Lyra. Talk about being a toxic mom. Mrs. Coulter is admittedly pretty crazy sometimes, but this has been a fantastic season for Ruth Wilson, so I can’t help but love her, even when she’s at her worst.
On the topic of awful parents, let me direct you to that particular voice over. I’ve heard enough of the Sandman audible to recognize it. I didn’t want to hope, I didn’t dare dream, but there he is! Standing on a smoldering battlefield, his face dusty and looking world-weary is the commanding figure of Lord Asriel Belacqua. It isn’t apparent who is beseeching in his monologue until the end, but damn does it leave an impact. His words are as follows:
“I have struggled through many worlds to arrive here, but you know this. I have sacrificed things, things I did not want to. My fight is not with you, but you are the last obstacle between me and my enemy, and if I must, I will raise arms again. My fight is with the Authority and those doling out cruelties in his name, those who seek to divide in order to control, and who have built worlds founded on privilege and divine right, rather than care and need. I fight for freedom of knowledge, and in place of deceit, intolerance, and prejudice, I fight for the possibilities of understanding, truth, and acceptance. But I cannot win these things alone, I will need help and support, from you and all those who have rebelled. Let us be united in heart, soul, and deed, and together we can build a Republic of Heaven above and a Republic of Ideas below. Worlds in which the scars of history can be healed. Better worlds, where the privilege of freedom becomes the right of all peoples. But I tell you this now, there is no neutral ground, you are either for me or against me. Now, which is it?”
It is so in character for Asriel to literally scream up into the heavens and demand answers from angels, literal beings of dust who have affected human existence since the beginning. But despite the slight wavering in his confidence, the angels soon shimmer into life and the scene is just stunning. “We stand with you, Asriel Belacqua,” the voice of Xaphania (Sophie Okonedo) proclaims. And with that out of the way, it’s time to prepare for war.
Shout outs this season also go to the fantastic voice actors who brought life to the daemons. Kit Connor for voicing Pantalaimon so perfectly, David Suchet for voicing Kaisa, the incomparable-but-rarely-heard Phoebe Waller-Bridge for voicing Sayan Kötör (I’LL GET MY HOT PRIEST/FLEABAG WHERE I CAN GET IT), and even the amazing Helen McCrory for showing up and literally only saying one word as Stelmaria. We love a cameo from our favorite Peaky Blinders star.
Of course, even with one scene, James McAvoy killed it as Asriel. Ruth Wilson was mesmerizing and a marvel. I also have very strong feelings about Andrew Scott and his scenes with both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Amir Wilson. I have my criticisms, but I loved getting to see these characters brought to life by such talented actors.
Another revelation this season was the improvement in CGI. I had a particular issue with the daemons of Season 1, but wow, this season knocked it out of the park. From the golden monkey to Pantalaimon, even to the brief shot of Stelmaria, there was a huge step up in quality. Similarly, the spectres were perfectly creepy, with their amorphous forms, and particularly that last scene of them hovering over the witch had my skin crawling. The brief shot we got of cliff ghasts was impressive and I know that we’ll get more of them come Season 3.
Oh, and did you think we forgot? THAT POST-CREDITS SCENE! Yes, we really buried the lead, but wow did you stick around for the post-credits? Did you see that familiar face? Yes, it is Lewin Lloyd‘s Roger! Book readers will immediately know what’s going on as Roger calls for Lyra’s help, his face shadowed in a dark vignette. “Roger,” Lyra calls back. “What is this place?”
I could go into it more, but you’ve got the break between this season and the next to read The Amber Spyglass, so it’s up to you now. Take up my mantle, dear reader. And I will happily catch you all when Season 3 rolls around for more emotional and dramatic recaps.
Watch all of His Dark Materials now on HBO Max!