Review: ‘His Dark Materials’ Season 3 Premiere

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His Dark Materials have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My eldest sister opened this beat-up copy of The Golden Compass with yellowing pages and a half-torn cover, which stood next to two new, shiny sequels. She was obsessed and pushed them onto me when I was in sixth grade. I read them with just as much ferocity. The adventures of Lyra, her daemon Pan, and Will were exciting, even if some of the religious tones of the series were over my head. That didn’t stop me from loving every second of the adventure and I found myself sad there were only three volumes before it was over.

So when a reboot series was announced at HBO, I was initially hesitant because one attempt at adapting the first novel wasn’t the most tremendous success. However, once His Dark Materials arrived, it was safe to say that the series was in good hands. His Dark Materials is now in its third and final season, with the final episode episodes adapting the last book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass

The last season ended with the universe on the brink of all-out war, and our heroes scattered to the wind. So where does the story pick up in the His Dark Materials season 3 premiere? The last adventure promises to bring tons of action, lots of suspense, and even possibly a few tears. However, did the two-part premiere deliver on the epic promise from the end of last season? 

[Warning: spoilers from the His Dark Materials season 3 two-episode premiere]

Our heroes divided in His Dark Materials’ season 2 finale

The third season’s premiere finds all our major players exactly where the second season finale left them. In those closing moments of the previous season, Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson), the two heroes of our story, were separated as Will is summoned to his missing father, Parry (Andrew Scott). The reunion serves more as a plea from Parry, who instructs Will to join the ranks of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), as Will and his magical knife could sway the war. Ultimately their meeting is cut short, as Parry is killed although not without a final push to Will that destiny awaits him and the angels will guide him to Asriel.

His Dark Materials season 3 premiere promotional poster
Promotional poster for His Dark Material season 3. (HBO).

Making matters worse, in a story running parallel to Will’s reunion with his father, Lyra has been kidnapped by her mother Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Mrs. Coulter promises to protect Lyra, however, appears to have drugged Lyra and hidden her in a trunk, as the two journey to somewhere remote. Paired with the final story of Lord Asriel meeting with some angels who pledge their loyalty to Asriel, who wishes to bring down the Authority.

Picking up these threads in His Dark Materials season 3

The third season continues from these three separate storylines, as our main characters begin circling one another. In a voice-over during the opening sequence, audiences learn that a major war is brewing in the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a false God on the throne, who is actually just an angel who rules over the Kingdom of Heaven and the mortal world along with a dark angel. Lord Asriel, a great warrior, is assembling an army against this false god, in a battle for free will. Part of the voice-over is also information known from the witches’ prophecy, reborn Eve is somewhere in the world, with the witches believing that to be Lyra.

While all that information is known from points throughout the first two seasons, the voiceover really sets the tone for what is to come in the rest of the premiere episodes and season. Things are ramping up quickly for our heroes, as war is coming whether they like it or not. Will’s goal when we see him again is to find Lyra before he joins Asriel in this battle, much to the annoyance of the angels instructed to find him. I love the loyalty you see in Will towards Lyra, as well as the growing feelings between the two.

Asriel continues prepping for the pending war, which involves him traversing multiple worlds to find the best warriors for his side. There’s a panicked energy to Asriel’s story, as the coming battle looms over him. He also seems eager to find Lyra, though not because he truly cares for her. Not even because he thinks she’s the second Eve as the witches predict. Truthfully it’s to find Will for his knife, a tool that can tip the balance towards Asriel against the Authority.

Lyra and Mrs. Coulter His Dark Materials
(L-R) Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) from the season 3 premiere. His Dark Materials (HBO).

Mrs. Coulter, who wants her kidnapping of Lyra to seem noble, is anything but. Having taken Lyra to a shack in the middle of nowhere, she hopes to stay off the grid. Whether Mrs. Coulter really wants to protect Lyra or has something else up her sleeve, there isn’t really a strong indication. All you can discern is that her motive isn’t pure in the slightest. As the two premiere episodes continue to play out, a vindictive and manipulative side to Coulter comes out once again, with one scene, in particular, giving me chills.

Lyra’s story comes back to the season two finale, specifically the post-credit scene. In her drugged state, she continues to seek out Roger in the shadowy location. It turns out that Lyra, in her drugged state, is crossing over to the land of the dead. I would imagine that has some serious implications later one.

As the season begins, the three stories remain separate, however as the story progresses, major steps are taken to bring our heroes back together. There is a ton of ground to cover for eight episodes, although HBO does a great job of wrapping up the story in a satisfying conclusion. There’s one scene, near the end, that was so shocking to witness I gasped out loud. For the excitement alone I won’t spoil it, but I hope you have a similar reaction when you see it too.

The good and the bad in the His Dark Materials season 3 premiere

As someone who loves reading just as much as I love movies and television, I appreciate how faithful His Dark Materials is to the source material. Many of the scenes and interactions felt ripped right from the page and painted onto the screen. That being said, the series feels different enough to still be exciting. Granted it’s been years since I’ve read the books, but it felt like I was discovering something new all the time. Scenes I had in my head from the books were more vibrant in the show, with rich colors and stunning visuals. Some of the shots felt more than just a television show, but a work of art. 

While I’ve enjoyed this season so far, it’s important to understand that these beginning episodes of season three are more character-driven than action driven. Not to say there isn’t action, although the episodes are a bit slower than some of the previous ones. Those already hooked on the series might not notice or care about the slower pace, but casual viewers might find it difficult to watch. That being said, the promise of a bigger story coming quickly for our heroes helped make the pace easier to swallow.

James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson are standouts

I think part of the impressiveness of this adaptation is the acting behind the story, with so many of the actors giving top-notch performances. James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson stood out as Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, with roles that are some of their best, which is saying something as both have played exceptional parts so many times before. 

James McAvoy in His Dark Materials season 3CR: HBO
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials season 3 (HBO).

They took characters who in the book are clearly antagonists and gave them more depth. In the series, they are severely flawed individuals, however, it’s not as clear cut as to call them the villains of His Dark Materials. Both Asriel and Mrs. Coulter think they are doing what is best, although the audience is never sure about their true motives. Are they thinking about the greater good, or just for themselves? It makes them so much more interesting and these two actors play these characters absolutely perfectly.

Final Thoughts on His Dark Materials season 3 premiere

These season-opening episodes were a good beginning of the end. Following The Amber Spyglass, our heroes are in the final stretch of this story. The pacing was a bit slow, but the psychologist in me enjoyed the human interactions that came in these first two episodes. I would definitely suggest catching up on previous seasons if you are a bit behind, you’ll want as much backstory as possible, but this season is definitely some fantastic television that you shouldn’t miss out on.

His Dark Materials airs on Mondays on HBO. Have you watched the season 3 premiere? What are your thoughts? Let us know on Twitter. And if you haven’t already, check out our review on Willow, another new fantasy show!

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