His Dark Materials Book to Screen Analysis: Episode 8 Season Finale ‘Betrayal’

Episode 8 Spoilers


If there was one episode this season that was an almost perfect adaptation of the source material, then Betrayal was it. We saw plenty of dialogue from the books, dæmons on-screen, a zeppelin-filled sky and a bridge to another world. The expectations for this chapter have always been high. It is the place that The Golden Compass film dared not go. After the enjoyment of good triumphing over evil, the destruction of Bolvangar and the defeat of Iofur Raknison, in a magical place of armoured bears and cowboy aeronauts, the reader/viewer is forced to confront reality. There was no heartfelt reunion between father and daughter, because the leopard never changes his spots. Asriel is all about Asriel, and Lyra will again be alone.

Betrayal was a tightly-focused episode, featuring only Lyra’s family; Asriel, Thorold, Mrs. Coulter, Roger and a brief appearance from her true father figure Iorek Byrnison. It opened with her parents, Mrs. Coulter loading her gun to the strains of Father McPhail’s rousing speech to his troops, and Asriel looking over his calculations while Stelmaria urges him that “it’s time”, to murder. After the credits we return to Asriel and Lyra’s reunion, where James McAvoy continues the humanisation of Asriel. This was a long discussion in the books and has been divided into two scenes here. The first diverts from the original text a little by giving us a glimpse of Asriel’s pride in his daughter, sharing a joke with her before withdrawing back to his usual cold self, declaring that he won’t be drawn into sentimental conversations. Again we see that desperation for love in Lyra’s eyes that we saw in the first episode where she begged Asriel to take her North with him. She defies Asriel by refusing his name and taking the name Iorek gave her, Silvertongue, but Asriel is unmoved, and the hope fades from her eyes again.

We then see Mrs. Coulter indulging in some self-flagellation at the expense of her dæmon before McPhail barges into her room. After the usual jockeying between them, McPhail mentions that he knew Mrs. Coulter when she had an affair with Asriel. “An ambitious young woman with a good marriage, well on her way to quite some position, and then that man came along and you…melted in front of him”. When Mrs. Coulter denies that she ‘melted’, McPhail responds with “You don’t even claim responsibility for your child.” before sitting down and facing her with a stern look. This is a curious response, considering illegitimate children were generally looked down on (remembering Lyra’s world is at least a century behind ours in terms of society). Generally the child would have been adopted out, for Mrs. Coulter to take responsibility for Lyra would have meant being shunned by her peers for the rest of her life and a loss of position in the Magisterium. For McPhail to judge her for that, over the adultery and resulting death of her husband, is an interesting take. Mrs Coulter tries to respond with mocking him about being sinless, but then she almost aligns herself with Asriel, telling McPhail “You want what Asriel and I have, a sureness of step, a conviction, but you…you lack it.” before returning to her usual boorishness declaring she is the best weapon McPhail will ever have.

I have loved the easy and natural affection between Lyra and Roger in the series, and Dafne Keen and Lewin Lloyd are particularly tender with one another. Lyra’s class position is not really a feature in the series (it is not a feature in the books either, but is mentioned occasionally) and I think this was a good decision on Jack Thorne’s part. No one is going to enjoy a Lyra that expects help getting dressed or grows angry when challenged by a stranger because she is an ‘aristocrat’. So when Roger says “I’ve always liked it that we were the same. Orphans.” it demonstrates that, even though Roger has to serve her breakfast, Roger considers them equal, because Lyra has always treated him as equal. It has only been in the first and last episodes that Roger and Lyra are shown spending time together as the normally would, and of course this makes is particularly traumatic when they are sundered.

There is a lovely moment showing Pantalaimon and Salcilia frolicking together while Lyra and Roger have another heartfelt discussion in their tent. Asriel later fetches the sleeping Lyra out of their bed to have one last discussion with her about Dust. If you were looking for an explanation of Dust this is as close as you will get for now, this is how people in Lyra’s world understand it. This was a a stand-out scene in the book and a stand-out in this episode. There was a heart-stopping moment when Asriel almost seems to be challenging Lyra to come with him, but she pulls back and says she has done her part. This is another interesting change, and for the better, it shows her independence and that she places Roger over Asriel.

Some fans are wringing their hankies for Mrs. Coulter, and sighing over her and Asriel embracing next to eleven year-old Roger’s corpse. The last tension-filled twenty minutes of the show packed a lot of information in. While Ma Costa has told Lyra all she needs to know about her heritage, this episode has given us a glimpse of why Mrs. Coulter fell for Asriel and how alike they are. Anyone feeling romantic about the pair after this episode might think about all the children Mrs. Coulter experimented on so she could blame her own ‘sins’ on dæmons and Dust, or that Asriel never sought to take another path to fulfil his needs, despite the absolute trauma he was causing his child. Asriel tells Roger he was a necessary victim of war, just like any oppressor who forces people to their deaths in the name of ‘war’, but is unwilling to sacrifice themselves. He took his daughter’s best friend right under her nose, and he led him to his death with lies and manipulation. The strange adoration for the pair obviously owes much to Ruth Wilson and James McAvoys’ performances, a few tears, an embrace between two evil bastards, and people are tripping over themselves to forgive the pair of them and hope they live happily ever after.

The battle going on in the background is soon forgotten when Pan shouts to Lyra that Asriel has Roger in a cage like the ones at Bolvangar. While I watched Lyra climb that mountain to Roger my first thought was that the audience who hadn’t read the books assumed Lyra would get to Roger in time. It was the cruellest blow, and for book readers as well. The scene in Northern Lights is somewhat muddled, while we can hear Roger shouting for Lyra, the scene ends in a tussle with a shelf of snow collapsing underneath them all, but in Betrayal we see the full impact of Roger’s death, some of the terror we were expecting from Lyra and Pan at Bolvangar. The petrified voices of both Roger and Salcilia assaulting our senses, the blade coming down horribly slowly, the look between the two best friends just before Roger is torn from life, Asriel’s crazed glee at his accomplishment, all ending in heartbroken Lyra realising she has (inadvertently) betrayed her best friend, the betrayal the Master of Jordan warned us about in the first episode, while Pan searches the cage fruitlessly for Salcilia.

Dafne Keen is at her best in Betrayal, and particularly here, when all of confident Lyra who “enlisted the witches, fought the Magisterium” has been stripped away, she has led her best friend to his death, been abandoned by her father and left to hide from a mother she despises. When she cries to Pan that they will be alone, he reminds her that they have always been, except for Roger. That Lyra’s parents left her an orphan while they pursued their ambitions, in the guise of keeping her safe. And as Lyra takes the bridge into another world, Roger’s body lays splayed on the mountain, a reminder of what her parent’s ambition has done, and that the Magisterium and Asriel are really no different.

Book to Screen:

Spoilers for Chapters 21 through 22 of Northern Lights only. Want to read along? Read pages 359-395 of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass.

Thorold, Asriel’s manservant, was given more to say in this episode, he is the only available adult to challenge Asriel about his treatment of Lyra, and this he does. Later when he is accosted by Mrs. Coulter, she evokes the name of the Authority, and he winces, Thorold looks pained. Even though he has no respect for the Magisterium the mention of their creator gives him pause. There is a division between Asriel and Thorold, not only in terms of Master and Servant, but in terms of Thorold’s belief in Asriel’s work. In Northern Lights it is Thorold who wakes Lyra to tell her he thinks Asriel has gone mad and that he needs a child to finish his experiment. Thorold can’t stomach the thought of murdering a child, especially his daughter’s best friend, in the name of Asriel’s greed. Perhaps it’s feasible to suggest that although Thorold thinks the Magisterium is corrupt he still fears the Authority and being complicit in Asriel’s sin. Or perhaps he just knows murder is evil.

Although they tried to cram as much in of Lyra and Asriel’s conversation as possible a lot was left out. Viewers only need a rudimentary understanding of Dust at this point, and Asriel gave a good speech about the evils of the church. But this is, if you are taking the time to read along, a fascinating discussion between father and daughter and well worth reading. There is an interesting reference to castrati, children who were castrated by the church before they reached puberty to keep their soprano singing voices, as a precedent to Intercision, as a little cut. Asriel also reveals that Mrs. Coulter was widely travelled and had, for example, seen dæmons cut from their humans in Africa to create zombi, and that Intercision was her idea. Mrs. Coulter had made the connection between Dust and dæmons settling and the Oblation Board was entirely of her devising. Asriel has loftier ideals though, which has always made him a more sympathetic to the reader. Marisa Coulter wants to rid the world of sin as a zealot and self-hater. Asriel wants to rid the world of darkness.

Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”

There was a curious change from the text in Lyra’s final moments in her own world, where she tells Pan that she fears being alone. In the book Pan reassures her that they will never be alone, and Lyra thinks, not like poor Tony Makarios, she and Pan will always have each other. But in Betrayal Pan tells her they have always been alone, as if he wants to drive home the point that Lyra doesn’t need Asriel, and that Mrs. Coulters clumsy attempts at motherhood are too little, too late.

Spoilers for His Dark Materials Trilogy

Click to reveal spoilers

Will and Boreal’s story has been weaving in and out of the episode and overall they have done well introducing Will and having the viewer invest in him before his larger story is revealed next season. Boreal is given more clarity in the series, he is a bit of a bland villain in The Subtle Knife, an unremarkable grey-haired man who only seeks the Subtle Knife as an object for his collection. In His Dark Materials Boreal brims with purpose, he is self-interested again, but he is obsessed with Stanislaus Grumman. Last week I wondered how he would hear about the knife, this week it was revealed to him by Fra Pavel from his alethiometer, although Boreal muttered that the rumours must have been true. I think that Boreal will meet the same end that he did in The Subtle Knife, poisoned by Marisa Coulter, probably framed as a serious threat to Lyra and allowing her to capture Lyra shortly after.

We saw plenty of CGI in the season finale and I hope this can continue, as we have a lot of supernatural beings to be introduced in Season 2. Hopefully we will see witches in plural (and I have seen two unnamed witches cast on IMDB so far), the Spectres and Angels. Even the Cittàgazze itself and the tower will require a lot of CGI work. But they have plenty of time and let’s hope a larger budget. Betrayal showed us what they were really capable of creating visually and they have their work cut of for them in The Subtle Knife.

But I had better see Lyra burning that omelette.

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