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His Dark Materials - The Enchanted Sleeper + The Break - Review

6 Dec 2022

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Episode 1, The Enchanted Sleeper

His Dark Materials is back for the third season; the COVID gap has meant that Lyra and Will look distinctively older than their second season selves, but it picks up on the brink of war – an all plot-driven episode that has the sides aligning to fight in Lord Asriel’s war against the Authority. We’re deep into The Amber Spyglass territory, the final battle: endgame. The Enchanted Sleeper splits up Will and Lyra – with both on their own journeys, and Asriel on his own – recruiting soldiers from a prison on a different world.

Two years since the ending of Series 2 meant that that the previously on segment at the start of the episode was a welcome one – even for someone who poured over the books obsessively growing up. The Amber Spyglass, out of all of His Dark Materials, is the book that I can recall the least – Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife I can recite almost page for page. But this episode catches up with Lyra – held captive by Mrs. Coulter and drugged so that she can’t fight back. Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel are both looking after their daughter in different ways – for Mrs. Coulter, it’s protecting her at all costs from the coming battle – keeping her on a remote island and warning the children of the village; who can communicate through sign-language, to tell their elders to stay away. From the start these scenes with Mrs. Coutler give you chills – and Ruth Wilson is excellent at delivering them. Her Daemon has avoided speaking to her for so long – and she’s aware that she has a lot riding on Lyra. Only an actress as good as Wilson can convey Mrs. Coulter’s sick, twisted fantasy with complete and total commitment – and she quickly wins over the child in the village – although Ama has her own suspicions that could spell trouble.

Everyone it seems is looking for Lyra for their own reasons. Will wants Lyra because they care about each other – and he’s enlisted the help of Angels, working for Lord Asriel, to do so. The race of the Angels and Will across the multiple worlds gave Will a reason to believe the Angels were there to help in the end; and I did like the shared chemistry that the couple had. The thought-provoking nature of the angels feels very much corresponding with the religious texts and the battle of freedom vs. faith is one of the core themes of The Amber Spyglass, so expect some heavy religious debate with plenty of morally grey antagonists thrown into the mix. The dynamic pairs Will up again with Iorek; and the ragtag band of Iorek and Will and the Angels go looking for Lyra by boat. It’s always good to see more of Iorek in any shape or fashion – and the characters deliver. But can they find Lyra before the Magisterium? She’s having visions of her own of the underworld and of Roger; her oldest friend – noticeably older than when we first met him.

The Magisterium wants Lyra because she’s the new Eve; the so-called Mother of Sin. To them – Eve represents the coming of thought and creativity, and Dust – and must be stopped at all costs. We meet Father Gomez (Jamie Word) – and Father-President MacPhail, played by Dafne Keen’s own father – Will Keen – to track down Lyra with the beetles that we’ve seen in the past. The inner-workings of the terrifying Magisterium suggest the sheer power of the Authority if we didn’t need a reminder – acting as the totalitarian law and order; freedom, thought is on the line – the direct contrast between Asriel’s army of multiverse soldiers – Angels, witches, fairies all – representing a united band of brothers.

The show excels at creating bonds between new and old characters and integrating the parallel worlds concept much better than anything else that’s tackled the multiverse has ever done so. I really liked how naturally His Dark Materials introduced Commander Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – a captured warrior fighting one of the Authority’s many arms, and Lord Asriel introduced here sets up the concept of other worlds from the perspective of a newcomer; freed from prison with an army of his own. Asriel’s the only one that’s not looking for Lyra – he has his own agenda – gathering reinforcements – and this feels like the deep breath before the plunge. Ogunwe has the charisma to rival Asriel and can act as a leader in the way that Asriel cannot. He’s eventually convinced by the power of Asriel’s other worlds – and the spirt of James McAvoy, who can win anyone over.

Episode 2, The Break

The Break was a fun, action packed and as usual, very plot heavy of His Dark Materials. If there has been one weakness about this show is just how plot-heavy the series has felt, it’s been entirely A-to-B with little room to slow down. But that’s expected in a third of a trilogy – remember how non-stop Return of the King was at this early stage? And make no mistake about it, if The Subtle Knife was The Two Towers, The Amber Spyglass is our Return of the King.

The Break wastes no time with picking up two threads – the significant chunk of the episode revolves around Will’s plan to get Lyra out of Mrs. Coulter’s cage. He gets to talk to her and she manages to talk to Will and get him to at least see her point of view; again, the master manipulator – but Lyra is irredeemable to Mrs. Coulter’s belief, every word that comes out of her mother’s mouth is a lie. Mrs. Coulter tries to keep her there but when the Magisterium find them; she’s forced to let Lyra go – begrudgingly – with Will, as the pair escape the island. It's a tense, action-packed episode that makes the most out of the location it was filmed on – the horror of the airships descending from the skies rivals the sight of the Empire in Andor, for example – The Magisterium are just as sinister an organisation.

We get to learn that Roger is in the mythical Land of the Dead – Lyra’s been haunted by dreams of Roger all season, and it’s the one place that Pan cannot go. Daemons have been used less and less throughout this series which has been one of the few issues with its adaption from the source material – it’s rare that you’ll see many of them on screen anymore, but the show is branching out into daemon-less worlds; so that’s only to be expected. Plus the budget for the daemons is beyond even the lavish budget that’s thrown His Dark Materials’ way. All of Asriel’s army building has been done with the aim of grabbing the attention of the Authority – provoking him out of Heaven to get any kind of reaction. With the help of Ruta Skadi, they’re going to keep going until they get there – dust is key to provoking him and Asriel gets the chance to use dust as a weapon on a captured angel – who is taken hostage after Baruch leaves a message – passing away but warning him that they have found the bearer of the one who can destroy the Authority and his regent – Will, who’s on his way to Lyra.

The result of Baruch’s death is felt by Balthamos – and after introducing such an interesting couple to kill them off so early on is harshly brutal – we barely got the chance to know Baruch – the character almost felt like a plot device rather than a character – the weight of his sacrifice left me cold rather than devastated; but hopefully that gives Balthamos more time to shine here as one of the traitor Angels who has sided with Asriel. The chief of them all is Xaphania, who’s now consorting with humans – but is annoyed that Asriel found Baruch’s death so meaningless. Everything to Asriel, almost like the series itself – is structured around getting to the final battle – that final conflict – that it’s left precious room to develop the side characters. The Angel captured is Alarbus, newly introduced, who reveals that Enoch is no longer Enoch but Metatron – not a Transformer but a Regent nonetheless. Episode 2 is very much more of the same from wherein Episode 1 left off – army building – not just on one side but two. His Dark Materials is putting itself in a very precarious position where audiences are expecting a big final battle – and it has to deliver on its budget; otherwise the show will face an uphill climb. But so far everything has been excellent – and I have faith in Jack Thorne and his team.

The goal of the Authority is to establish an inquisition of all living beings to complete their submission to heaven; per Alarbus – but he’s quick to remind Asriel that he’s so insignificant that he’s not even known to the Authority. Egotistical bragging or desperation? Dust may be the key to provoking Metatron – and both beings we’ll get to see before the end.

Episode 2 reintroduced us to Dr. Mary Malone, one of the main characters of The Subtle Knife, who is also world-hopping of her own. She’s on the same side as two soldiers of the resistance in an abandoned base; and whilst they’re being hunted by aircraft, they’re quick and smart enough to avoid them. It’s good reintroduction to Mary who hasn’t crossed paths with anyone significant yet, but the soldiers are able to learn from her about the girl, Lyra – that they’re looking for, and convince her to stay a little longer.

Even Mrs. Coulter recognises that Lyra free; eventually – is better than Lyra in the hands of The Magisterium, and stalls Father Gomez who finally catches up with her before having a change of heart and wanting to accompany them on their mission – purely driven to look after Lyra. After provoking Will into shattering the Knife; the pair are able to escape – not just from Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium but also Asriel, who shows up, like Father Gomez, too late.

And now Lyra and Will are on their own again. Against the world. Or should that be worlds? It’s certainly enough to pick up the emotional heft that the largely cold premiere was lacking, and whilst we’ve had time for the slower pace of The Subtle Knife in the past, none of the beloved quieter moments like watching Paddington have since been recaptured yet. This feels like one long slog at first – with beauty in the locations but none in the character – the cliff hideaway and the Land of the Dead look like big screen spectacle locations that you’d pay to see in the cinema; but much of the character moments come down to the strength of the acting and the characters involved. Hopefully now the stage is set His Dark Materials can give us an edge to its characters and remind them that there are some things worth fighting for.

The stakes are higher than ever – and it’s delivered with all the thrills that one might expect. The show will air on HBO in the US between now and December 26 with two episodes each week; but all episodes will be available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer from the 18th of December – I’ll be airing my reviews to match the US dates but will review the final set as a whole when they air in the UK. Expect the show to also air weekly on BBC One in addition to its iPlayer debut.