SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details about tonight’s His Dark Materials Season 2 finale “Æsahættr” on HBO.
His Dark Materials wrapped up its second season, rife with exciting alliances and the return of original characters, with a dramatic buildup to the final installment of Phililp Pullman’s fantasy trilogy.
Taking directly from the events of Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, the series’ sophomore finale unveils the biblical prophecy around Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keene). A witch, held against her will by Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and her new Spectre allies, reveals that Lyra’s true name is Eve, unveiling the potential for a second Fall of Man. Fearful for her daughter’s fate, Mrs. Coulter, joined by Magisterium forces, ventures deep into the world of Cittagazze to thwart any attempts of fulfilling the prophecy.
The stars continue to align in the season finale as Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), requested by angels to play the prophecy’s serpent, also makes her way through Cittagazze to find Lyra.
While “Æsahættr” highlights a number of brand-new alliances – including Lord Asriel’s with the angels – the season finale also bids farewell to one of the series’ more exciting relationships.
Caught in the middle of Mrs. Coulter’s search for Lyra, the devoted, sharp-shooting aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) loses the battle against Magisterium guards in an attempt to buy Andrew Scott’s Jopari (a.k.a. Jopari or Stanislaus Grumann) some time. However, Jopari’s fate isn’t too dissimilar for after briefly reuniting with his son and urging him to fill his purpose in the prophecy, the powerful and enigmatic shaman falls victim to a Magisterium soldier’s attack.
The emotional episode concludes with sacrifice and several reunions, some more tragic than others. While Serafina Pekkala attempts to resurrect Lee Scoresby and Will mourns his father, Lyra’s back in her mother’s possession and Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) urges the angels take his side in the impending war.
Viewers patient enough to stick through the credits will be rewarded with the appearance of a once-dead Roger (Lewin Lloyd) and clues of Lyra’s whereabouts.
Deadline spoke with His Dark Materials showrunner and executive producer Jane Tranter about the Season 2 finale. Read the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.
DEADLINE: The season comes to an end hinting at The Amber Spyglass and the battle set to unfold in the final installment. How did your conclusion of The Subtle Knife compare to what Phillip Pullman described in his books?
JANE TRANTER: There are a few tweaks that we made. Asriel confronting the angels that we have at the end of the season, that’s not in the books, in The Subtle Knife. What Phillip does with Asriel in The Subtle Knife is Asriel is much talked about and we dramatized that. Where Asriel is talked about, we have that scattered in across the episodes.
But he doesn’t have that Asriel ending, and we put that in because we were, with Phillip Pullman’s permission, intending to do a standalone Asriel episode, which would have played out as episode number four in a run of eight. And because of Covid, we weren’t able to do that.
Three things occurred. One was James was all kind of ready to go. He was costumed up. We knew what we were doing with him. He was aware where he had come from in that missing episode and where he was going to, and we thought we might as well build on that sort of feeling that James was creating for Asriel.
Secondly, we wanted to lean forward to the next season and just remind an audience that a major part of the final season is Asriel’s journey and just have him begin to look forward rather than often what you do in an end-of-season episode is kind of look back and conclude.
I think the third thing was that we just felt at the time that we did this, it was July / August when we put that Asriel beat together, and at that time we felt that the things that Asriel had to say to the world were really important and relevant, understanding that this would be transmitting later in the fall. We felt that a kind of rallying cry to the things that really mattered in life would be important and we wanted to take that opportunity to do it.
DEADLINE: In addition to the battle between Lord Asriel and the Magisterium, the third and final season will explore the biblical prophecy around Lyra Silvertongue. What does that prophecy mean?
TRANTER: So the prophecy with Lyra is really clearly explained in season three. In Season 2 , we learn about the prophecy. In season one, we learn that the child’s important. We learn that the child will have a boy with her, and we learn in Season 2 that the witches are very sure of the importance of Lyra.
By the end of Season 2 , we learn that Lyra is essentially Eve and at the end of season one, we learn that Dust was basically sin, original sin. Season three then puts those two things together and makes clear what Lyra’s place as Eve in the prophecy is. We also learn in Season 2 that the angels asked Mary Malone to play the serpent. So all the cogs are turning without actually spelling it out that this is essentially an inverted adaptation of Paradise Lost. Everything is coming together for every box to be ticked and explained.
DEADLINE: Season 2 dives deep into Will’s character development and purpose. What were some of the changes you made in his narrative arc?
TRANTER: So one of the changes we made in season one was we introduced Will Parry in season one and Will Parry doesn’t arrive in the novels until the very start of The Subtle Knife when Phillip Pullman changes the point of view. Pullman suddenly starts from Will’s point of view and he goes back in time and he explains how Will has just killed a man and is on the run.
What you see happen to Will in Season 2 is you see Will grow and you see Will grow as a boy who is carrying kind of several burdens around with him. One is he’s been a caretaker for his mother and he’s had to leave his mother for a greater purpose. Will fears the Knife and Will fears what the knife might require him to do, but nonetheless he, like Lyra, knows that somehow, he’s connected to something bigger than himself in the world and is sort of propelled forward.
Lyra and Will come together, they complement each other. Will is steady where Lyra can sometimes be more spirited, and Lyra has absolute conviction where sometimes Will might doubt more, or vice versa actually. Together they’re bigger than the sum of their parts, which again is part of the story of season three.
DEADLINE: How did Amir develop his character and find the fighter in Will?
TRANTER: Will was a complete natural really. I mean he’s got enormous on-screen charisma. He’s highly intelligent. He has a terrific understanding for character. Amir and Dafne had a chance to meet each other before we started filming. The first piece of filming we did was establishing the Will Parry strand for season one. We actually shot that in July 2019 and then we moved Amir straight on to starting to shoot Season 2 in August 2019. So it was almost like Amir had a run-up to the bigger role in Season 2 through filming that piece in July.
It’s big character growth for Will and ultimately at the end he has to witness the death of his father. As a young actor, Amir had to go to dark places, but he just did it with such skill. The scenes between Will Parry and John Parry are some of my favorite, and I think are what make the finale of Season 2 such a blindingly brilliant episode.
DEADLINE: Season 2 introduces and quickly takes away Andrew Scott’s John Perry. How did HBO’s version of Pullman’s character, and his relationship with Lee Scoresby, compare to what’s described in the book?
TRANTER: It’s very, very similar. In the books is that you get a stronger sense of John Parry’s third identity, which is Stanislas Grumann. You build of a slightly greater sense of who Stanislas Grumann is than we actually had time for. We mention him, obviously. He kicks off the entire trilogy in our adaptation with Asriel pretending to present the head of Stanislas Grumann to Jordan College. But the iteration of John Parry as “Jopari” is really similar in spirit to what was in the book.
In the book, Jopari was living more in a kind of community, and we had him more as a shaman out there on his own. But that sense of bromance between the Lee Scoresby and John Perry, the idea that they kind of put their lives in each other’s hands and that they both tackle that through a sense of higher purpose. In Lee Scoresby’s case, a sense of love for Lyra and in Joe Parry’s case, a sense of determination to pay off the sacrifices of living away from his wife and son. It’s almost like he is determined but determined to pay that off, to make sure that that was the right decision for the sake of the world. He must get this knife to Asriel and help Asriel fulfill what Asriel’s got to do.
So the two men, they’re on different quests but they’re both equally determined, and that lovely jokiness. I mean those scenes with Lin-Manuel and Andrew Scott, I must say it was hilarious filming them. They just are such a great pairing.
DEADLINE: Was the reunion between Will and John always supposed to be that short lived?
TRANTER: Yes. I mean that’s the terrible tragedy. In the books, Jopari is killed by a witch not by a Magisterium guard. We just carried on with that kind of magisterium threat story, but it happens in exactly the same way that he’s with Will and they’re talking and they’re reconnecting and he dies suddenly and unexpectedly in that kind of most ironic of ways.
DEADLINE: How did filming Season 2, set in a fantastical world beyond anything in our own reality, differ from the first?.
TRANTER: One of the big differences between season one and Season 2 is in season one every episode is really a different location and you kind of burn the bridges of those locations as you go. Episode one is set mainly in Jordan College. Episode two in Mrs. Coulter’s flat. Episode three in Gyptian barges, etcetera. You rarely go back or if you do you don’t go back for very long.
But in Season 2 we are very Cittagazze based. Obviously Phillip pulls from things that he had seen but it’s a complete fantasy place that exists in a different world. So whilst Cittagazze could feel like a deserted Mediterranean / Turkish kind of town somewhere, it’s completely and utterly made-up.
Our amazing producing designer, Joel Collins, felt that the best way to do that was just to build Cittagazze our studio and in our studio car park where the dining truck in the makeup caravans and everything were parked. he turned that into the exterior of Cittagazze and then one of our other studios introduced some exterior and some interior just so we had some weather cover because in Wales it rains a lot and there we had it. No one could believe it. When we walked around that town it just felt so real. Every shot because it was like everyone had run suddenly from the Specters, every shot still had its loaves of bread or its bottles of wine or its half-eaten meals all out. It just felt like such a living, breathing town. People joked about kind of moving in there for the duration of filming.
I think it was important to make it feel really real so that it felt like a very solid place because it’s a kind of double fantasy or triple fantasy. One is a town which doesn’t exist in our world. It exists in a different world. Two, it’s completely deserted. Three, there are all these things called Specters moving around it. There are a lot of fantastical elements that you’re building up there and a lot of backstory and the whole story of the Knife and the whole story of the Guild. So we felt it was important to make Cittagazze feel as real and grounded to the actors as possible so there was nothing in their performance that felt that it was reaching for something. It was all absolutely their under their feet.
DEADLINE: How did the Covid-19 pandemic and related shutdowns affect the season’s end in terms of its feel and pacing? You’ve previously mentioned this “brooding anxiety” that came with the editing.
TRANTER: That missing episode was going to really flesh out the story of the Knife, the story of the Guild, the story of the Specters and the creation of the Specters. What we had to do was look at the episodes we have and check the information in the episodes we had and re-edit.
We built up a sequence, a visual effects sequence at the start of episode four that essentially told through image and a voiceover about the history of the Knife in order to put it into as much context as possible, and we lent into the witches and we lent into other characters really helping us.
But I think that crushing it from eight episodes to seven did give it a feeling of great intensity, and I think that added to the sense of brooding anxiety that I’ve spoken about. You had to put more information than would organically have been there in those seven episodes. I don’t think it harmed it. I think it gave it a really kind of exceptional, intense, compelling feeling. It was slightly different for sure but I think probably, weirdly better.
DEADLINE: The eighth episode, which was cut due to Covid-19, follows Asriel’s journey up to the angels. What are your plans with that chopped episode?
TRANTER: We definitely want to include it in the third season because the third season is an adaptation of the end of Spyglass and that’s a whopper. We really just need to hit the ground running with that and get on with it. It’s something that exists as a standalone. Season three will just be The Amber Spyglass.
DEADLINE: What are you most looking forward to when you start shooting season three and what The Amber Spyglass has in terms of its plot?
TRANTER: I’m so looking forward to shooting the Lyra and Will story. I really love it in television series where an audience grows up with its young leads. We’ve been filming this now across a four-year period. Those artists, Dafne Keen has changed and and Lyra changes in Phillip Pullman’s novel. So I’m really looking forward to telling that story about the growth of that relationship.
I’m really looking forward to having proper time with Asriel and understanding what his mission is and what makes him tick and see the lengths that Asriel is prepared to go to, to see his will enforced.
Mrs. Coulter I think is one of the most enigmatic, deliberately so, female protagonists in literature and certainly on the television screen. And we begin to understand her more not because Mrs. Coulter finally understands what she’s been looking for all this time and I’m really looking forward to telling that story.
Mary Malone, obviously, and the journey that Mary Malone goes on, which is kind of incredibly exciting and the experience that Mary Malone has.
More witches. There are new beings, which I am not going to do a spoiler on but there are many more worlds and we are meeting many new people in season three. I always say that my favorite novel in the trilogy is the one I’m currently working on. I’m currently working on The Amber Spyglass. It is my favorite novel in the trilogy. I think the audience have got a real treat in store.