Mrs Coulter’s Magisterium shock troops approach by airship and Stelmaria informs Lord Asriel that it is time. Lyra is surprised to find that Asriel still doesn’t want her there. He shows remorse when Lyra confronts him about his claim to unclehood, but when they are about to connect meaningfully, Asriel becomes cold and turns away. He rejects Lyra’s alethiometer and reiterates that he never called himself a father. He won’t be one to Lyra now.
Mrs Coulter and Father MacPhail discuss Asriel’s research. She insists that the priest doesn’t want to see Asriel’s conclusions. He tries to shame her as a fallen woman who abandoned her child. She turns the tables and reveals his envy of her full life.
Boreal discusses the results of his alethiometer divination: Parry discovered a knife in a tower surrounded by angels and that his son would lead him to it. While Fra Pavel is confused by the results, Boreal knows exactly what to do. Back in our world, Boreal talks to his tracker, furious and dismayed that Thomas is dead and that Will was allowed to escape. It is then revealed that the tracker is DI Waters, and will be using the powers of the police to locate Will. Talking to His daemon, Boreal muses that the Tower of the Angels is not just a legend and that Will is the key.
Roger and Lyra discuss why Asriel was so pleased to see the former. Roger insists that parents are more trouble than they’re worth and that they can pretend to be orphans again. Pantalaimon and Salcillia play while Lyra and Roger discuss consulting the alethiometer and decide against it. They agree that they have changed one another’s lives and share one last happy evening being careless, orphaned children.
Then Asriel comes to say goodbye to Lyra. He tells her that the Magisterium believes that dust is actual, physical sin. He then recounts their world’s version of Genesis 3:4. We learn that Adam and Eve’s daemons only settled once Eve ate the apple and that the Magisterium has translated “dust” as “evil” thereby adding their own moral conclusions to the text.
Lyra realizes that Mrs Coulter was attempting to preserve the sinless souls of children. Asriel is surprised to learn that Mrs Coulter held back. He then tells Lyra that he intends to follow dust to its source and find out what it is. Telling her that he is glad she came, he also says she is the product of something extraordinary.
Thorold tries to get Lyra to safety but once she realizes that Roger is gone she puts it all together. Asriel is going to intercise Roger to produce the energy necessary to power his gate across worlds. Lyra calls for Iorek and his bears to intervene.
Mrs Coulter, MacPhail and the Magisterium break into the lab. She sees his calculations and realizes that he is headed for the aurora. Thorold knocks out MacPhail and tries to threaten Mrs. Coulter. But she insists that he will not hurt her. When he refuses to talk, she gives him an out: leave and she will go on to the aurora with the troops.
At the summit of the mountains near the lab, Asriel begins to set up his device. Roger discovers the intercision cages and is trapped. The bears and Lyra engage the Magisterium airships which bombard them with a hail of gunfire. Iorek pushes through the battlefield to get Lyra to the summit. They reach a narrow bridge and say a tearful goodbye as Lyra must cross on foot and alone.
Asriel tries to comfort Roger saying that though he is to be a casualty of war, it will end in the freeing of humanity. He readies the device. Lyra sees her father’s experiment and approaches. She manages to take Roger’s hand just before intercision. The blade comes down and Lyra is blown back by the energy field. Asriel’s device forces the energy upwards into the aurora. A gate opens.
As a triumphant Asriel is about to enter, Mrs Coulter meets him at the summit. Asriel tells her it is the end of centuries of the Magisterium’s abuse and oppression. He invites her to come with him and fight against the Authority. Asriel assures her that they “can take this universe apart and put it back together again.” They kiss. He wants her not to lie about their ambition. Mrs Coulter admits that she wants to be with Lyra more than she wants to explore the next world and leaves. Asriel steps through the gate alone.
Lyra awakens to find Roger dead, her father gone, and her mother at the scene. She hides until the latter has passed and goes to mourn the former. She and Pan realize that without him they are truly alone. The only thing left is to find out more about Dust and stop her parents from controlling it. They promise Roger that he won’t have died in vain.
Will passes by the park where Boreal’s gate is, careful to avoid the police. He finds a cat who walks through it. He walks through his gate as Lyra walks through hers. In the gloom of the North, Roger’s lifeless body still on the summit, the phantom city is visible through the aurora.
I will admit that I vastly preferred this episode over the one that came before and it might be the best of the season or at least very close to it (I am particularly fond of the second episode). But, in watching it, I was struck by a profound sense of frustration for what seemed liked missed opportunities elsewhere in the season.
First and foremost among those missed opportunities is some real world building. It was important to keep Asriel’s plans secret as well as the prevailing theories of Dust, but when he and Lyra recite their version of Genesis 3, everything felt like it came together. The specific religious bent of the Magisterium was made clearer. The fact that “the Authority” refers to God in Lyra’s world was made text. And the deeply Catholic nature of the Magisterium was also referenced. There seemed to have been little effort beforehand to set these things up which must have been confusing to non-book readers. Knowing that Thorne was capable of this kind of organic exposition made its absence earlier all the more disappointing.
But, as she has this whole season, Ruth Wilson really made the most of her scenes. Between telling MacPhail that he was full of envy to her talking down Thorold by reminding him of how badly Asriel has treated everyone around him, she really made a case for being the very best thing on the show and, if I am being honest, one of the few reasons I want to see more of it.
The “previously on” as well as the episode title both seem to be too stark in reminding us that Lyra will be betrayed by her father. That was probably a done deal from the moment Asriel was excited to see Roger at the end of last episode, but this felt like something so obvious, that non-book readers would have been unnecessarily spoiled. It’s a bit of a shame, because I think Lyra’s realization of Asriel’s betrayal was well handled in the episode itself.
Furthermore, Asriel’s betrayal is handled really interestingly once Mrs. Coulter arrives on scene. Where Lyra laughingly discounts her mother in her initial conversation with Asriel—“Your taste in women is as bad as your taste in bears”—the episode makes it clear that Marissa is, in fact the more loving parent. In my piece on Mrs Coulter I tried not to say that Asriel and Marissa were equally bad. I think it is pretty clear that she is the more interested in preserving fascism. But this episode does not hold back in saying that Asriel not only wants to keep Lyra safe and distant, he genuinely possesses no interest in being a father to her. Lyra’s parents reunion at the summit is a complex and exciting set-up for future dynamics wherein Lyra’s better parent is also the more fundamentally monstrous.
But Asriel’s vainglory is great and it was wonderful to finally see that terrible moment realized on screen after the Golden Compass film in 2007 cut that ending over negative audience reaction. His line that Lyra is born “from something extraordinary” is so wonderfully self-serving and deliciously true to character. Asriel may be an anti-oppression freedom fighter but he is also the absolutely worst dad imaginable.
The reveal of Boreal’s tracker as a police detective was pretty good. I was not expecting to get anything else on him and figured he was previously unnamed because of his relative unimportance. Making him an authority figure with real power in our world ups the stakes rather well and lent some extra drama to the end of Will’s storyline.
The last tableau, with Roger’s corpse illuminated by the gate and the stark emptiness of the landscape was really wonderful and haunting. It serves as a great metaphor for Pullman’s ultimate thesis as well: great scientific and theological accomplishments are built on the backs of dead children and nothing can separate those things from one another.
So what did you think? Was this a satisfying end to season 1? After the holidays I will have a proper article assessing the entirety of the first season and my ultimate feelings on the series thus far but for now, let me know what you thought about this last entry.
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.