'His Dark Materials' Season 2, Episode 7 Recap: "Æsahættr"

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

In last week's recap, I mentioned that the original plan for His Dark Materials Season 2 was to do eight episodes, the last of which was still unfinished as of the premiere date due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During the series' Comic Con at Home panel over the summer, the production said they wanted to finish the final episode and release it as a standalone at some point in the future. But with the arrival of  "Æsahættr", it seems that plan may have gone out the window, as the shot footage from that lost episode, featuring James McAvoy's Lord Asriel, turns up in this episode's closing moments instead.

John Parry: Argue with anything else. But do not argue with your true nature.

One can understand the decision. As much as a bonus float episode would have been excellent, a "bridge" as it were between Seasons 2 and 3, the third season was not yet greenlit when the second premiered. Moreover, not having your A-list star in the second season at all is not done. But the result was that the finale, especially the last ten minutes or so, suddenly became wildly uneven as the show packed in what amounted to a McAvoy cameo on top of the episode's original ending. And that's a shame because up until that point, the finale was packing a hell of a punch.

Death always helps with that, of course, and this was an episode that killed off a lot of excess characters who have no place in the final novel. Last week, the series offed Lord Boreal; this week, it took out not only all the excess witches but Lee Scoresby and John Parry, giving both actors great death scenes in the process. Once again, I feel the desperate need to apologize to Lin-Manuel Miranda for not believing in him; his last stand at the alamo with Hester was up there with his face-off with Coulter, and I cried my eyes out as both of them passed on.

As for Andrew Scott, in the end, his character doesn't get much screen time, but boy did he make the most of it. His scene with Amir Wilson, as it hits him his son is the knife-bearer, was some great one on one character work. Wilson went toe-to-toe with him, too, saying all those things most kids are never brave enough to speak to a parent who abandons them. And the best part is that when push comes to shove, Parry isn't Lord Asriel — Asriel would have killed Lyra to open that window when it came down to it, and everyone knows it. Though there are parallels between Will and Lyra's father, when the man with the gun shows up, It's Parry who takes the bullet to save his child.

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

One has to wonder if Mrs. Coulter would have done the same. She certainly means well. She'll kill anyone and anything that stands in her way of "saving" Lyra. Shockingly, that even goes for her own soul, her Golden Monkey, who she threatens for the first time. Like many of the Coulter details, this, too, is an addition, one that's drawn from the recent Pullman sequels, where a character beats his own daemon. It's a deeply disturbing scene, and it's one of the few times I felt like the show gets closer to getting daemons right, again, due to Ruth Wilson's performance. She's threatening a part of herself here, the part that knows trying to stop a child from growing up is impossible. But Marisa's going to do it anyway.

Contrast that with Mary, happily bopping around in this new world, utterly unaware there's an entire war going on around her. Where Coulter is kidnapping Lyra and stuffing her in a footlocker, Mary is willing to let children go where they will and when they will, trusting them to be safe. And where men are dying in these mountains, she's debating I Ching philosophy and contemplating blue rose petals. Though the series shows viewers Mary was protected by the Angels last week, it almost feels like she's saved by her innocence, as free in this world as Lyra once was back home.

The episode also confirms the witches are being treated as useless now that they've served their primary plot function this season. It was a little shocking to realize how much of an idiot Serafina looks for thinking she's somehow supposed to be part of Will and Lyra's story. (She's supposed to protect Lyra, who is supposed to protect Will. Doesn't it feel like an extra person is trying to insert themselves into this relationship?) And of course, it's all for naught, as Serefina shoves off to give Lee a proper burial and manages to miss both Will leaving and Lyra being kidnapped. But I suppose there's no convincing a fool to stop trying to assume they are essential. 

(Photograph Courtesy of HBO)

But there's no getting around that all of this was suddenly (and rudely) bigfooted by McAvoy's arrival. I thought the scene with Ruta odd when she returned to Serefina, seeing Asriel only off camera and reporting about the cliff ghasts. (The cliff ghast scene I also found confusing.) But I chalked it up to "Well, he's in this lost episode we'll see later that will explain it all." But then he suddenly *arrives,* in a speech that is filmed solo, with a lot of CGI help. It was...awkward. I get why the show felt the need to shoehorn it in, spell out that Asriel is going to war, that Will has the weapon he needs, and that the Angels have agreed to help. But it felt very tacked on.

It also didn't help that after weeks of calling it the Subtle Knife or just "the knife," that both of its other names, both teleutaia makhaira and the Æsahættr, just popped up out of nowhere. I've always liked Æsahættr; it makes the knife feel of a piece with the alethiometer. It also helps disguise to the characters that they're all looking for the same thing — Ruta has no idea that this weapon and the knife Will carries are the same. Useful in the moment, but tossed around so carelessly, audiences might not have followed.

As for the final moments, as a reader of the novels, I knew Will and Lyra would wind up separated, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. (Also, the show has been poorer for it every time they function solo, so for its own sake, I hope this is foreshortened. If you missed it, please go back and watch to the end for that post-credits scene with Roger. If I'm right, this is Roger calling out for help that will eventually lead Will and Lyra to the Land of the Dead next season. And a tantalizing promise of things to come.