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His Dark Materials - The Clouded Mountain + The Botanic Garden - Reviews

1 Jan 2023

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Episode 7, The Clouded Mountai
Episode 7, The Clouded Mountain

The penultimate episode of His Dark Materials opens with chaos at the Republic of Asriel. It’s the war to end all wars - it’s finally here – and Heaven has finally responded to Asriel’s threats – the capacitors are ready for Asriel. He wants to get the civilians out of the way – whilst using the capacitors for the abyss. The way forward all depends on Lyra however – if Metatron can control the children or their daemons, the future is theirs – which puts Asriel’s long-standing belief in science and fact at the mercy of prophecies foretold by witches as the Clouded Mountain draws closer. Everything is all down to Eve now; and the stakes couldn’t be higher – but it gives Asriel a plan – they don’t have to win the battle; they just must protect the boy and the girl and have them reunite with the daemons.

The concise, crisp writing of His Dark Materials sets out the mission objectives for the final two episodes brilliantly before the memorable credits even roll – and Lorne Balfe’s triumphant score is always a thing of beauty in whatever format – able to capture the epic scope of the series. I’m going to miss it, one way or another – like I’m going to miss spending time in this world.

Will wants to go looking for the daemons and leave Lyra in the sunny world; but Lyra doesn’t plan on leaving him just yet – there’s an out for both of them offered from the start; but it’s them against the world. Asriel’s plan to deploy the energy surge from the abyss might be powerful enough to destabilise the entire clouded mountain; and pull Metatron into the abyss with sheer physical force – to him, flesh is stronger than spirit – and Asriel was born to change the worlds. He’s still grappling with the destiny that he thought was his having shifted to Lyra’s – but he can, at the very least, buy her time. This puts Asriel and Mrs. Coulter on the same page for the first time since maybe the series started – parents motivated for the love of their child. But Mrs. Coulter warns Asriel of its dangers: it’s not just death, but eternal oblivion – and she believes that whatever he’s planning, it isn’t going to work they’re doomed. Rather than being told how everything’s going to end – Mrs. Coulter already knows how it’s going to end – her love for Lyra is her salvation, and at once her downfall.

The rallying cry for Asriel’s last stand showcases his motivational speech ability – it’s memorable and gives proper Return of the King vibes – I’m still in such awe of seeing the grand feat that Jack Thorne has pulled off in matching the sheer scale of The Amber Spyglass on screen – with Francesca Gardiner maximising Phillip Pullman’s potential on screen this episode. To Asriel, lives are beautiful and precious – they should not have to live under fear and oppression; even if they may no longer fear the fate of death – it’s not an ending, but a journey back into life. That’s what the battle has always been leading towards – creating a paradise here, on Earth - life confronting death. “We are free” – is such a triumphant moment for its characters – and it’s impossible not to get chills; all inspired by Lyra’s actions in the deep abyss – but that triumph is short-lived. The Kingdom of Heaven is nigh.

The Angels headed Asriel’s way are growing by the second – and he’s glad he doesn’t have to win this fight. Seeing the Witches assemble in the sky showcases the feat of the technical team behind His Dark Materials, you wouldn’t really complain if you were watching The Amber Spyglass in the cinema as a film. The sheer power of the Witches assembled – even against such a mighty foe as the Angels; is a delight – seeing the scale of the fight on the land and in the skies relishes the encounter in a way that rivals the best fantasy epics – clear cut and although obviously, a touch shy short of a full last charge of the Rohirrim a, a marvel that we even got anything close to looking this good on a BBC budget – remember, His Dark Materials has shied away from the combat before so this is nothing new – but to see it unfold left me in awe.

Seeing the Spectres return and be summoned away from the soldiers by Mrs. Coulter and banished into ruins was full Leia in The Last Jedi, big bold, epic – the best Mrs. Coulter has been all series. Jack Thorne has such a skilled way at balancing the action – splitting it between Serafina and Asriel’s forces in the ground and Serafina’s daemon, who finds Pan on the surface – but how are Will and Lyra going to reach him through all of this? And don’t forget – Will’s daemon is lurking out there too. Luckily for them they’ve received help – from Commander Ogunwe. Ogunwe believes that the Angels can sense when Will uses the blade; and will know that they’re separated from their daemons. The journey to Asriel’s camp must be on foot – and he’s able to convince the relatively stubborn Lyra and Will to follow him, for now.

Pan is found by Serafina and we get to meet Will’s daemon for the first time too, a cat, for now – but they’re just as bitter that they’ve been left behind. Lyra puts doubt in Ogunwe’s mind – Asriel uses people, that’s all he does – but to Ogunwe, who was there for Asriel’s speech, it’s one proud father. But Metatron continues to weaponize creatures; this time – it’s the harpies of the Land of the Dead against Ogunwe and his troops who order Lyra and Will to the tower; the show borrowing inspiration from World War One as a conflict makes it a marked change for the battlefields, and the darkly shot battle sequences obscure the need for an abundance of CGI and create a sense of horror to rival the sheer spectacle of it all.

Metatron’s voice is completely seductive and whispers inside the voicers of the soldiers – getting inside their heads in a lethal; persuasive way. Strike down their enemies, and they’ll be forgiven – resist, and be damned. Mrs. Coulter is smart enough not to fall victim to the voice; but the eeriness of Asriel’s abandoned base creates a calm – slowly but surely, the Authority is winning. Which was the plan – all along.

And now, Mrs. Coulter gets to face to face with the Metatron – who takes an interest in her. To Metatron, Mrs. Coulter is an asset – to be converted; and Asriel is taken in without his daemon to what is presumably, heaven itself – the empty grand white halls; that pair the mother and father of Eve in the same universe, without a daemon – although Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is aware of what to do without her. As scheming as ever, Mrs. Coulter tries to pledge service to Metatron – but he’s smart enough not to be deceived by her. A cesspit of moral filth is a new insult, I must admit – and a creative one. Through Mrs. Coulter we get to learn about Metatron and who he was before he turned, ruthless but fallible. We’ve seen how seductive Metatron has been throughout this episode and to see him in the flesh – and Alex Hassell’s performance raises to match both McAvoy and Wilson – offering Mrs. Coulter a way to become an angel.

Harry Wootliff’s direction has been grand this episode and it’s a real feat having her on board. I loved both True Things and Only You and her feature film experience gives the characters the sense of empathy here. The anger of Asriel is shown by the sheer brilliance of McAvoy – who is consistent whether he’s playing Metatron or himself – calling out the man named Enoch that the Authority was before. The combat is swift, bloody, and brutal – and His Dark Materials wastes no time in propelling itself forward – testing Asriel and Mrs. Coulter to the limits; their faith and their commitment to each other – and it’s Mrs. Coulter who promises Metatron their deliverance.

Will finally gets to meet his daemon, but Pan is devastated – how could you bear it? He asks Lyra – as Asriel is pushed to the edge of the abyss. Just before Metatron can exact his vengeance; Will and Lyra escape with their daemons – and Mrs. Coulter’s ruse is revealed – as if anyone thought she’d betray her daughter; even for a second – it shows you the power of Ruth Wilson’s performance that you’re never quite sure where she’ll stand – and the monkey daemon activates the bomb put down by Asriel – bringing the walls of Metatron down around them; with both parents involved in a struggle against Metatron. Once again – oh my god, Lorne Balfe here – able to get the emotions out of everyone; plunging Asriel; Mrs. Coulter; and Metatron himself – into the abyss.

And just like that; heaven falls. We watch both Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s daemons die; fade away – and the emotion that the actors feel is complete on the screen. That’s how you do a send off. That is really, really how you do a send-off. Only the Witches can watch – Serafina in tears; as the survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Their world is free now – and the soldiers under Metatron’s spell are no longer captive. A new dawn comes with the passing of the cloud: and Lyra and Will emerge victorious. Asriel won – and we see Asriel’s Republic free in a new world; embracing a life of paradise that they get to live – and make their own as they so wish.

Episode 8, The Botanic Garden

There’s still the odd few mysteries left as we head into the final episode; even with every victory so far – and it’s great to see the show give Will and Lyra a chance to spend time and take a moment to breathe – it doesn’t seem real to Will, that Metatron was defeated. Lyra’s grappling with Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter being her parents and why they did what they did – when viewed for their lens, they were right; but now it’s clear that they were doing the right thing, whilst what Asriel wasn’t doing was forgivable, Lyra doesn’t hate him anymore. Will has been at Lyra’s side more than both her parents, and the two bonding at the pool is some much-needed downtime in the calmness of it all – thanks to the brilliance of Harry Wootliff – these visuals and the on-location shooting – the rare break from the excellent Cardiff locations – really leans into it all.

Pan’s having plenty of guilt about not being near Lyra, however – what if it never feels the same as to what it did before? They’re safe in that world; they believe – but there’s still the dangers of the Magisterium lurking about, strangely absent out of all the factions from the final battle. And Mary Malone – the serpent; someone else who Lyra and Will need to meet according to the Compass. Both Pan and Lyra are examining their weird relationship from their own perspectives – Pan’s worried, but Lyra knows he’s safe.

We’re in Mary’s world now – not Will’s; but where she’s spent much of this season, separated from the main cast. The reunion is optimistic and full of hope – the warm embrace of the two shares their connection from the second series. Mary has that infectiously likeable personality that she shares with just about anyone, easy to get along with and easy to like. Both Mary and Will have come from the same world to bond over – and to Lyra, it’s her favourite – the relaxed and down-to-Earth open prairie of it all feels like a home. Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution according to Mary – and this final episode allows the characters to embrace in the understanding of Dust and whether it was sin – but in fact; it’s the spark that means we’re alive: consciousness. It’s just as good or bad as we are – and occupies everyone. Age and experience give you more of it – and Mary wastes no time in catching Lyra and Will up to speed; showing them the dying trees ravished by the dust disappearing from the world – thought and imagination going with it. This is the price of their victory – dust needs to return. Some great discovery would enable the world and the world of the Mulefas to be saved.

Sometimes you forget how much characters know and don’t know and Mary’s only now, this late on – finding out about daemons which tells you something – but it’s good to get a reminder that on Will’s world; actual nuns can exist too. We get to find out Mary’s motivation behind leaving the nunnery – at a conference in Lisbon on particle physics; which she was celebrating – and met someone – sharing the same butterflies that she felt when she was at school; and couldn’t bear to go back to the convent after that. Would anyone be better off if she promised not to fall into temptation again? The answer is no – and nobody would. There was nobody there to reward her for being good; punisher her for being bad – liberating in every sense of the word. This scene in itself was so beautiful, great for showcasing Mary Malone’s character and giving her a sense of newfound purpose and direction in life – devoting much of the final episode to her story and a calmer moment after action packed penultimate episode – feels like a wise call; and allows His Dark Materials to once more embrace that shared empathy and connection that it was lacking at times – showing two innocents what it was to dare; to dream – something so small and ordinary: love – never so small to those discovering it for the first time. Mary also gets the offer of being able to see her daemon if she wants it – from Serafina – and it’s such a rewarding journey for her too; one of the show’s most important characters.

Father Gomez believes that the serpent’s tongue must be cut out – and isn’t showing any mercy in his dedicated quest – what remains of the Magisterium on his world remains unknown – what is its purpose now? His Dark Materials gives a good effort at always making the VFX feel immersive and creative in the way that they do so – every animal looks completely believable here; naturally interacting with the beautiful landscape around them – but danger is close at every turn; a shared moment of kindness between Will and Lyra – and yet more swimming, is watched – Gomez having a sniper rifle trained on her; is told no – by a mysterious voice of an angel – who tells Gomez that they are not on the same side. To the Angel; Gomez is their servant – an act of devotion to rid the world of sin. But the Angel itself is a familiar face – and love takes a million forms, and those who judge are just afraid. Balthamos fatally crushes Gomez’s daemon, but also dies – vowing not to take the life of an innocent child but has the promise of seeing his own loved one again.

That great discovery that restored dust to the worlds was Lyra and Will – the flow of dust slowing down and returning to normal; the prophecy fulfilled with the love of Eve healing the worlds. It’s a beautiful moment – hope sparking in darkness, the triumph of love over organisation and chaos – all in harmony once more. Freedom has been a big part of His Dark Materials’ whole agenda – and it really has you believe in that sense of discovery – Mary’s role of the Serpent has now ended – but the two can no longer stay in the same worlds – they’ll have to return to their own universes – it’s a heartbreak that we all; book readers at least – knew was coming – but to reach this chapter is such a wonderful moment of triumph that basks in the beauty of it all – with Kirjava, Will’s daemon, now named – and Pan – returning to their humans as they’re forced to separate – losing each other but being reunited – Pan settling as a pine martin, finally – brings a sense of closure to the series that was never going to end in any other way. And just like that – Will gets to meet Kirjava – a cat – for the first time.

Each time the knife makes a cut the flow of dust is disrupted and darkness gets the chance to be released – a plague, a spectre – Will’s been making spectres every time he’s been cutting through worlds. They can’t leave the windows open – and they must choose worlds to be in – but can’t live in others’ worlds for long, their daemons won’t survive. And there it is – the breaking of the two – that followed their moment of happiness together – pure heartbreak – the promise of a reunion in the afterlife. Lyra can’t even read the Alethiometer anymore – a true sign of age, perhaps – it’s not broken anymore, she’s now changed and grown up. The knowledge still exists, but this time, she’ll have to regain it by work.

You have to hand it to the creative team – His Dark Materials is such a triumph – the rare perfect book adaption that pulls off everything that set it out to do. The finale brought real touches of The Doctor/Rose’s farewell in Doomsday (no doubt inspired by Pullman's work, in part), the greatest love that you share being the one that you’re most prepared to die for – is what Mary tells Will; but it’s something that it’s much more romantic to live for it. Not just having these moments of happiness but letting characters seize the future is something that His Dark Materials absolutely needed to get right – and I think it really did – a closed loop if it were a beautiful way no less to say goodbye. I’ll miss this wonderful show – and it feels so odd saying this given it still feels very odd in the first place given that we’re even at The Amber Spyglass at all – let alone The Subtle Knife, let alone an unbastardised version of Northern Lights. The series ends on such an optimistic, yet heart-breaking note that fully realises these moments from His Dark Materials - Will and Lyra get the promise to move on from each other – but will return in their own worlds for an hour every year to ‘meet’ at the same bench; with Will breaking the knife as soon as he goes through the worlds. Lyra trying to imagine what Will looked like when he’s older will never not draw you to tears – and it’s a tremendous performance once again by Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen, sure to be megastars – the final kiss before departing backed to the end by Lorne Balfe’s dazzling score. And just like that – it’s it; a new adventure begins at the closure of the old one. With Will in his own world – him and Mary the only ones with visible talking daemons. The final montage of Will and Lyra before the shattering of the knife punctures hearts once more – and we get a postscript, as to what the characters have been up to since: dust comes back into the worlds they’ve left behind – making them whole again – and yes, we do find out what happened to these characters going forward: Will returns home to his mother – grows up and becomes a Doctor, and Lyra’s return to Jordan College promises more adventures with both her and Pan – the montage of both characters growing up in their own worlds and becoming older a thing of marvels in its own right.

After watching so many failed adaptions come before it, His Dark Materials; at the second time - has got it absolutely spot on. The benchmark for all future adaptions to be judged upon - Rings of Power and House of the Dragon absolutely need to take note.