‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 8 recap: What is it about Dust?

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His Dark Materials season 1, episode 8 concludes the first run of the BBC and HBO adaptation with a phenomenal translation of the conclusion of book one.

“Does she have a toothbrush?”

A seemingly insignificant question, but one posed by Thorold to Lord Asriel about halfway through the season 1 finale of His Dark Materials. But the answer to the query tells us everything we need to know about Asriel. His Dark Materials season 1, episode 8, “Betrayal” is one of reunions, of revelations, and as the title suggests,
of unintentional betrayal.

But, as Thorold’s question suggests, it also takes a step back from the fantasy, zeroing in on the human experience. Whether they are the experiences of a young girl facing her father for the first time and looking for some small glimmer of kindness; or a mother trying to reconcile her feelings for daughter with her own ambition; or a friend looking to his partner for safety and protection. These are all placed under the microscope as the narrative of the North comes to a close.

Just as reading The Golden Compass left these conversations for the final pages, so does Jack Thorne, who stated on Twitter following the BBC airing that this was a huge episode for him, one that he started early in the process. “I distinctly remember first reading the final chapter of Northern Lights. An ending which is that thrilling thing – both truly audacious & earned. One of the most astonishing pieces of writing I’ve ever read, tonight we try and do it justice,” Thorne wrote on Twitter.

It is both truly audacious and earned. And so is the finale of His Dark Materials. It’s grounded so deeply in the connections of these characters and how they challenge or enhance their convictions of belief.

‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 8 recap

The Magisterium wants your support

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The inaugural season of His Dark Materials brought the Magisterium into the fold in greater ways than the book did. Their presence on screen did not dominate the story, nor did it provide any answers to why and how the Magisterium’s control was something to be feared or challenged. Each week, this was something that stuck like a thorn in my side. The word ‘heresy’ was thrown around to describe the Scholars’ thinking, to describe Asriel’s work. Only we never knew what that work, or thinking, was in opposition to.

But as Father MacPhail and Mrs. Coulter travel to Asriel’s prison, he says, “We have fire power and belief.” And it clicked. We believe that the Magisterium and the branches of it — The General Oblation Board — are not on our side. The cardinals, fathers, and brothers sulk in dark corridors of the Magisterium, keeping knowledge locked away, every move played close to the chest. So, while my fear that audiences would see this as a weakness in the narrative loomed week to week, that secrecy was also an essential component.

It fuels the actions of Father MacPhail, Mrs. Coulter, even Fra Pavel to leverage what they know against one another, wielding them like weapons. But at each of their cores they all fear the same thing — the power of sin. Sin is the threat that they use to keep everyone in control: Organizations run to keep the people atoning for Original Sin, make them live in fear of not achieving what is best for them at the end of their lives.

Mrs. Coulter presses on Father MacPhail. She reminds him that no matter how high and mighty he may act in her presence, he is not free from sin. What is his sin? Greed, lust, envy? Marisa Coulter takes a lot of pains to ensure she is not an open book. MacPhail gets under her skin using Asriel as the prime example of her weakness — in his presence she melts, she cannot claim responsibility of her daughter.

What Mrs. Coulter hates she can dish back in heaps, and boy, can she read anyone to within an inch of their life. MacPhail wants that sureness of step, the conviction that she and Asriel find in their work. But he will always come short of that so long as he finds himself in her presence.

And as they scour Asriel’s lab, she makes short work of rendering him useless, choosing to explore the progress of Asriel’s calculations and make headway to witness his next move.

The Belacqua reunion

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Lyra’s father stood there, his powerful, dark-eyed face at first fierce, triumphant, and eager; and then the color faded from it; his eyes widened, in horror, as he recognized his daughter.

Quite the sentiment for a father who is seeing his child in what is easily one of the Top 10 places I would never want to visit. We have not seen or heard from Lord Asriel since he left on the airship from Oxford having secured the funding of the Magisterium. The conversations around the man — his past research, his current imprisonment — all fueled some inner fire inside Lyra to not only find and rescue him but become the daughter he wants her to be.

But this is based on emotion rather than fact. Lyra is thinking with her heart this entire time. She imagines the ideal North from the walls of her Oxford bedroom, one where her father will great her with open arms telling her how brave she was, how proud he is. Her fantasy and reality do not align.

There are two conversations to unpack. The first occurs when Lyra approaches Asriel alone in his lab hoping to deliver the good news: She has brought him the alethiometer. The second is when Asriel wakes Lyra up to explain what he has discovered about Dust and why it is so important.

Lyra approaching Asriel plays out very much like a child waiting for validation from their parent. Mrs. Coulter was certainly not going to give it to her, too busy wrapping her in silks and forcing her to read. Asriel, though frustrated with her antics at Oxford, was also always slightly amused by her spirit when he visited under the guise of her uncle. And at least he did not want to cut Pan away from her.

Despite his gruffness and frustration at her presence, he does seem to relax a bit as she stands there smiling at him. She is comfortable in his company, allowing her to push past his mood and question him hoping that she can regal him with her adventures. There is some hope when he asks, “I understand you arrived here on the back of Iorek Byrnison?” But he does not melt into her story, instead turning to criticize her for leaving the safety of where he left her.

We’ve seen how good Lyra is at reading a room and playing the right role for the crowd in His Dark Materials. In episode 3, she got the Gyptians on the boat to the North. In episode 4,she enlisted Iorek and Lee on their mission.

And in episode 7, she tricked the king of the panserbjørn. So when she realizes that Asriel is not going to step into parent-mode she asks him point-blank: “Why did you lie to me about being my father?”

Digging the knife even further, she says she would have been proud to have Lord Asriel as her father. McAvoy’s face does the work of a thousand pages of emotional backstory in three seconds before he turns the conversation to her mother.

“Your choice in women is almost as bad as your choice in bears.” Lyra really trying here to build her own bridge for Asriel to cross. But sentimentality is not something he deals in dismissing her for crying, telling her she is better than that. Only this time it not the uncle who will leave her, but her father who is once again shutting her out of his life. And when he does try to take come ownership — calling her Lyra Belacqua — she rejects his claim over her, calling herself Lyra Silvertongue. Afterall, the bear is her true guardian.

The second conversation goes a bit better after Thorold tells Asriel to at the very least say goodbye to the girl before running off to finish his experiment. And here is where the concerns of the Magisterium come to light.

In the book, these two conversations happen back to back with Asriel flustered just dancing around Lyra’s tales of bears and aeronauts. Separating them gives a bit more meaning to Asriel the father. He chooses to wake up Lyra and give her this information, yet it is the time with him that she truly desires.

What is Dust?

His Dark Materials 1x08 asriel

Dust, according the Magisterium is physical sin raining down upon the souls of humans. Thought to possibly be connected to the time when daemons reach their final form, Dust is pulled from the pages of the Bible. When Eve took the bite of the apple after being tempted by the serpent, her daemon settled and Original Sin was born.

As Lyra and Asriel recite the words from the Bible, Lyra replaces the word Dust with evil, further proving Asriel’s point that the Magisterium want to keep Dust out of the minds of the public. If Dust can be seen and studied, then the people who take the shame and guilt on faith will begin to question the Authority. As Asriel says, they need to keep us on our knees.

Though Lyra is intrigued by this concept, she is decidedly certain that severing a human from their daemon is not the way to study this concept. Asriel is intrigued to learn that Lyra was spared the procedure when Mrs. Coulter called for it to stop, a moment that will mean a bit more later in the episode.

But the release of energy released from severing a child and a daemon is immense, and what Asriel is proposing will only cost the life of one child and one daemon. But Lyra is spared those details.

When Asriel poses the question, “What is the most important question we can ask?” Lyra replies, “Where does Dust come from?” His nod and admiration for his daughter shines through, “There you are.”

He wants her inquisitive mind, focused and unfeeling. Concentrated on the facts before them so that she too can see the path he is on without any interference.

And thus, he dismisses her with the reminder that the Master did not send her to him. She built that in her head. But he also adds, “You did not come from nothing, Lyra. You are the product of something extraordinary. Goodnight.”

Any lingering doubts you have about McAvoy being the perfect Asriel for His Dark Materials can be put to rest.

Up on the mountain

The machine at Bolvangar was contained in a facility, the result of funding and years of work convincing people that this was the right thing to pursue for the protection of mankind. But Asriel’s cages are exposed, haphazard, and the blade shines against the aurora. There is no masking what is about the happen and Asriel must be fully involved from start to finish. Separation was a key component of Mrs. Coulter’s design — the children were kept behind glass and metal, controls were operated from another location, the daemon and human were blocked off, and most important, it was quick.

Here, Asriel has to use the full force of his body to lower the blade of his machine, facing the screaming child in his cage as his daemon pleaded with him to stay with her. For all of Marisa Coulter’s talk, she always kept that air of detachment. For all of Asriel’s marching and boisterous speeches, there was never and there is now no way to deny his conviction to his mission to find the source of Dust.

Lyra watches this all play out making final contact with Roger through the cage as she witnesses her unintentional betrayal of his trusting spirit. She rescued him from Bolvangar for sure, but they rescued each other long before he was taken. They kept finding one another, but his belief in her was how he lost his life. And their last lines to each other over sandwiches in a tent where they could pretend to be anywhere sticks even harder:

“I like that you changed my life,” said Roger.
“I can’t promise I won’t stop changing it,” replied Lyra.

Lyra did change is life forever, but for the worse.

As she lies in the snow following the burst of energy that ended her friend’s life, but began her future, her parents share a moment on the mountain top. Marisa Coulter and Asriel Belacqua are both filled with chaotic energy. But they are yin and yang in each other’s presence. There is a balance between them, a marriage of equals if you will. One moment I am grateful His Dark Materials kept is how this is reflected in the affections of their daemons, how they embrace one another.

Asriel’s war is not with the Magisterium, they are simply pawns on the board. He wants to take on the Authority and create a New Republic of Heaven. When she refuses his request to join him, he demands the truth of her. She can lie about whatever she wants to him, but not this. And when Marisa Coulter turns away from him to stay with Lyra, “I want her with everything I have,” he turns away and takes the bridge he finally built out of their world.

Leaving two worlds and finding another

As Asriel disappears and Mrs. Coulter steps down the mountain, Lyra is left with a choice. Return to Iorek and begin her journey back to some semblance of a life presumably among the Gyptians, or go into the unknown. She takes Roger’s body into her arms and as she holds him, she realizes that finding Dust is more important than finding who she belongs to. So long as she belongs to Pan and is living in Roger’s name, then she will be content.

So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.

Will Parry follows a similar path in this episode as he finds himself on the run from Lord Boreal and his team of one. The remaining informant turns out to be a detective inspector who puts out a missing person’s bulletin for Will. Boreal is less concerned with the letters stashed away in Will’s pack now that he has answers from the alethiometer. Fra Pavel has read an angel, a baby, and marionette symbols, translation: There is a knife in a tower surrounded by Angels and John Parry’s son will lead you to it.

Boreal has held it together quite well this entire season, providing a steadfast counterpart to the often unhinged energy of Mrs. Coulter or the doubts of Thomas. Here, armed with knowledge, he begins to falter in his assuredness. If the son is missing then so is the only key to finding Grumman. But while Boreal has his men scouring Oxford and the surrounding area, Will has found his own way out and into a new world. Just like his father, he steps through the void curious but unafraid. Whatever awaits him on the other side cannot be as bad as what he is up agains in this one.

What he saw made his head swim and his heart thump harder, but he didn’t hesitate: he pushed his tote bag through, and then scrambled through himself, through the hole in the fabric of this world into another.

Final ‘His Dark Materials’ season 1 thoughts

His Dark Materials had to accomplish a lot in its first season. Although the series and the film are apples and oranges, there was no denying that it had to not only surpass the movie but improve on it tenfold.

And it did. Nothing is going to be perfect, but this piece of art carved its own space that lives in harmony with the novel. Something that I think few adaptations, save for Good Omens, have done over the years.

One thing I constantly struggled with, yet I’m happy with the choices the directors and writers made, was to keep to the amount of information given on the pages of the book but tell it in new ways. This allowed for those moments with Mrs. Coulter where Ruth Wilson was able to run away with the character as she dangled on the edge of her apartment balcony or sat in silence with her daemon. There were added words here and there, but mainly added feeling.

On the other hand, there is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby. I enjoyed the first look at the aeronaut, how he was Miranda in all the ways we know and love, yet able to give new life to Scoresby. But as we drifted away from him in His Dark Materials episode 4, the rest of Lee’s presence felt like the series was trying to convince him (and us) to stick with it.

He became a scapegoat for exposition — just pile all the narration about why Lyra matters on him and send him off into the skies. But there isn’t much more contextually to give Lee off the pages of The Golden Compass which makes building some of these characters into fan-favorites a tough task for anyone stepping in to adapt the material. When you have someone, who has so much to give, I think it’s always going to feel cheated in the final edit.

Overall, the first season was a hit in my book. The VFX and level of detail that went into creating the daemons and eliciting connections with their human counterparts was executed to perfection. It almost made me forget that I was once incredibly upset that the alethiometer was square.

For more on His Dark Materials season 2 check out our news hub!

His Dark Materials season 2 is expected to premiere in 2020.

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