We’re living in an unprecedented era of fantasy television. From Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Powe and The Wheel of Time to Netflix’s The Sandman and HBO’s Game of Thrones, there’s never been a better time to be a fan of this genre, as both streamers and prestige cable networks turn to some of fantasy’s most famous and popular titles in search of their next big hit. Stories once deemed unadaptable are finally making their way to our screens, and generally looking great doing it.
On paper, a show like HBO’s His Dark Materials should have been a slam dunk. Based on Phillip Pullman’s bestselling trilogy of the same name, its mix of magic, adorable talking animals, and philosophical debate about the nature of sin and humanity as well as the purpose of religious belief is precisely the sort of thing that makes this genre so fascinating. Its dense, multiverse-crossing narrative is virtually made to inspire in-depth fan explainers and theories and its richly drawn characters inhabit every shade of gray. So why is the HBO adaptation of this story just…okay?
Admittedly, Pullman’s story is incredibly complex and complicated, and maybe a three-season series—meaning that a max of eight episodes each was dedicated to the events of novels The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—was never going to be able to fully unpack all the intricacies of this world of daemons and Dust. But as the series wraps up with a third season that arrives a bit like a cast-off Christmas gift, its final episodes often feel like the show is going through the motions of finishing a story without really having something to say.
While Season 2 of His Dark Materials represented a clear step forward from its first, its third and final outing fizzles rather than builds to something truly meaningful or even especially interesting to watch. To be fair, The Amber Spyglass is definitely the strangest of Pullman’s novels, with an even more overt religious allegory that recontextualizes the idea of the Fall of Man as a natural and perhaps even good event. (On the show, this includes everything from the late-in-the-game introduction of the Authority, its angels, and a literal realm called Heaven to the idea that Lyra represents a prophetical rebirth of Eve.) The story delves into the sort of complex philosophical issues that may lead to great debate, but that don’t necessarily translate quite as well to a visual medium, if only because it means so many episodes hinge on little more than extended exposition dumps, montages involving various forms of reading, and people repeatedly explaining things to one another.
Season 3 initially picks up where the second left off: Everyone’s searching for a missing Lyra (Dafne Keen), who’s basically being drugged and held prisoner by her mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) in the name of “protecting” her. Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) is gathering literal soldiers—including the tiny Gallivespians who ride around on insects— for his campaign to bring down the Authority and free the multiverse from oppression. Passing through world after world on the hunt for his friend, Will (Amir Wilson) meets some angels (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Simon Harrison) who encourage him to join Asriel’s fight. And astrophysicist Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) finds herself in the mysterious city of Citagazze, using yarrow sticks and I Ching divination to determine her next move and trying to communicate with the strange band of children who live there.
The third season ticks off all the necessary narrative boxes—characters die, events take place, twists are revealed—because those are the things that happen in Pullman’s novels. The lush production values mean the world of this story has never looked better, and the season is packed with some truly incredible and occasionally jaw-dropping visuals. (And the mulefa are as adorable as everyone wanted them to be.) But something feels off about the whole thing, and the show has somehow lost much of the sense of propulsive adventure and overall cohesion that helped Season 2 feel like such a necessary course correction.
The promised grand battle between good and evil ultimately takes a much different path and those who may have looked forward to an epic face-off between the angels of the Authority and Lord Asriel’s rebels will likely be disappointed by the scope of the events that do occur. And, much like in The Amber Spyglass itself, the series’ multi-episode detour into the Land of the Dead brings almost all the larger story’s momentum to a grinding halt in the service of a thorny moral debate that feels weirdly unconnected to the rest of the season. (And, unfortunately, also makes Lyra really unlikable for an extended period of time.)
Thankfully, the series’ cast remains outstanding throughout. Keene and Wilson’s chemistry is such that it makes Will and Lyra’s most ridiculous choices in the name of staying close to or finding one another believable, McAvoy finally gets to fully lean into Lord Asriel’s most bombastic tendencies, and Wilson, clearly the series’ MVP at this point, is positively ferocious as a Mrs. Coulter finally unleashed. It is Lyra’s mother, fittingly as she has consistently been the show’s best character, who gets what is this series’ most complete and interesting arc, and her journey of self-discovery and self-actualization is basically worth the price of admission all by itself. (Although Wilson and McAvoy’s insane chemistry with one another runs a close second.)
At the end of the day, Season 3 of His Dark Materials is…fine. Fans of Pullman’s novels will love the opportunity to see the world of his books brought to such vivid and detailed life onscreen, and its final episode is a rich and heartfelt coda to all that has come before, with Keene and Wilson at their absolute best together. But it’s hard not to wonder what a version of this series that was more willing to take more risks, that dared to be something more than a paint-by-numbers recreation of the major events from the books, might have looked like.
His Dark Materials Season 3 premieres Monday, December 5 on HBO.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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