“The Botanic Garden,” the series finale of HBO and BBC’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is a late contender for my favorite TV episode of the year. Over three seasons, the His Dark Materials show has had its high points (whenever it embraced the books’ metaphysical weirdness, everything to do with Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter) and its lows (effects and directing issues hurt the first season in particular), but it completely stuck the landing when it came to the ending, which is as beautiful, romantic, and utterly devastating as the final chapters of The Amber Spyglass were.
While much of the finale’s quality can be attributed to faithfully carrying over what already worked in the source material, “The Botanic Garden” also includes what is perhaps the show’s most thoughtful adaptational change from the source material: it makes Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) a lesbian.
Dr. Malone’s role in the show’s story is much the same as it is in the books: a scientist and former nun from our world who, after crossing paths with the universe-hopping heroine Lyra (Dafne Keen), sets out on a multiverse-traveling adventure of her own, where she uncovers the secrets of Dust/Shadows/Dark Matter and ends up playing the “serpent” to Lyra, the prophesied “second Eve.” Playing the serpent involves telling her personal story, about how long-suppressed romantic feelings led her to question being a nun and a Christian at all, to Lyra and her companion Will (Amir Wilson). The only difference is that in the book, these romantic feelings are for men, and in the show, they’re for women.
The His Dark Materials show made several efforts to diversify its cast from the books, most of which involved colorblind casting. Several major characters who were presumed white in the source material were played by actors of color in the show, including Amir Wilson as Will, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and Ariyon Bakare as Lord Boreal. The tradeoffs for this colorblind approach were sacrifices in cultural specificity: the Gyptians were no longer an analog to the Romani people but a multiethnic band of outsiders, and instead of an African king, Ogunwe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) was changed to the commander of an army of unspecified location (if his troops were still meant to be African, then it’s time for some Mean Girls quoting).
While these diversification efforts mainly meant a change for a wider range of amazing actors (and also Lin-Manuel Miranda) to star, changing Dr. Malone’s sexuality is a change with more thematic import. While her story was always a critique of traditions with negative attitudes toward pleasure, changing the gender of her crushes intensifies these issues by highlighting how said traditions are significantly more negative towards queer pleasure. Her being interested in a man seems a natural reason to quit being a nun, but being interested in a woman seems a more likely reason to leave the faith entirely.
The fact that TV-Malone’s story has the exact same impact on Lyra and Will as book-Malone’s did is itself a pointed rebuttal to the pernicious homophobic myth of the queer “groomer.” Right-wing opposition to the acceptance of LGBTQ+ people has commonly been framed as accusing queer adults of “grooming” children into queerness. So here in His Dark Materials, you have a lesbian whose prophesied role is to lead these two important children into “temptation”—and it turns out that simply means helping these kids admit that they’re very heterosexually in love with each other. Talking about being gay doesn’t turn Lyra or Will gay, as homophobes claim it would, but it does make them more comfortable being open about who they are: a perfect illustration of the positive value being exposed to queer people’s stories can have for all young people regardless of their personal identity.
Pullman’s novels already featured some significant gay characters: the angel couple of Balthamos and Baruch (played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Simon Harrison in the show). Both characters end up dying, Baruch being the first major character killed off in The Amber Spyglass, so the book could be criticized as fitting the much-criticized “kill your gays” trope. In the context of the year 2000, however, including a heroic gay couple at all in a children’s/YA book, let alone a pair of angels whose love is instinctively understood as pure and beautiful by the straight male hero, was just one of many ways the His Dark Materials trilogy was downright radical (needless to say, J.K. Rowling could never). That my Twitter timeline isn’t filled with Balthamos/Baruch fanart from the Good Omens crowd feels like a sign of failure on the part of HBO’s marketing team.
Balthamos’ final scene in the TV series, in which he kills Lyra’s would-be assassin Father Gomez (Jamie Ward) before fading into Dust himself, plays with added strength following Dr. Malone’s story. Speaking to the misguided priest trying to rid the world of sin, the angel offers a firm corrective to Gomez’s theology, stating, “Desire is not sin. Love takes a million forms—each of them beautiful, each of them worthy.” The heightened inclusivity of the TV adaptation heightens the power of this message, a message that—in an age where bigots are feeling more and more emboldened—is one that desperately needs to be heard.
Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic
Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist
and a regular contributor to Looper and CBR, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.
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