The lost Asriel chronicles: His Dark Materials showrunner discusses the cut James McAvoy episode
James McAvoy returned to Wales in March to film a special episode of His Dark Materials. As season 1 was based on The Golden Compass, the first book in author Philip Pullman's trilogy, season 2 was based on The Subtle Knife. While Lord Asriel, McAvoy's character, remained absent from that novel beyond a name drop here and there, showrunner Jane Tranter and writer Jack Thorne had plans to show what he was up to in the story's periphery. Principal photography wrapped just before Christmas 2019, but they assembled the crew again for one more episode to make an even eight for the season. Then the pandemic hit.
Tranter jokes that McAvoy showed up for about five hours' worth of work only for the production to be stalled because of conditions presented by COVID-19. The executive producer would later reveal during the virtual Comic-Con event for the show in June that they ultimately scrapped the Asriel-focused episode from the season 2 order. "Maybe at some point in the future we can revisit it as a standalone, but essentially our adaptation of The Subtle Knife had been complete," she said at the time.
With the latest finale now out in the world, Tranter offers a few more details about what could've been. Season 2 picked up shortly after the events of season 1, with Lyra (Dafne Keen) walking through the portal opened by Asriel into Cittàgazze, a city ravaged by entities called spectres that attack adults and feed on everything that makes them human, leaving them as empty shells of their former selves.
"What we wanted to do was actually explain the story of Cittàgazze, how the town was deserted and Asriel's role in that, and what happened to Asriel and where he goes and why," Tranter tells EW. "That missing episode [took place] three days before the start of season 2. So you flash back three days and then you catch up with where season 2 started."
Some material from this lost episode survived. The final moments in the season 2 finale reveal that Asriel has tracked down the angels to recruit them for his war against God himself, the Authority. Though it at first appears Asriel has just been calling out into the void, they arrive: winged beings of light materialize to pledge their allegiance. "The angels were interesting because the Torre degli Angeli [the Tower of the Angels] in Cittàgazze is so seeped in angelic history," Tranter explains. "So we had to design the angels before we actually got around to thinking, 'And now we're going to visually do the angels.'" We have Tranter's daughter to thank for the design of these beings, which come with two sets of wings sprouting from their backs.
The angels have a minimal presence in season 2. The first instance is subtle: The premiere episode begins with a voice stating, "Lord Asriel has torn up our sky and left the world in chaos. The witches believe this is the start of a powerful prophesy, one that could destroy all existence or make it anew. It is time to prepare, to draw sides." These words belong to actress Sophie Okonedo, who portrays the angel Xaphania, leader of a group of angels who rebel against the Authority. Okonedo's voice returns more prominently in the fifth episode, "The Scholar," to address Dr. Mary Mallone (Simone Kirby) through the Cave. Xaphania finally appears among the angels in the finale. Just as the witches were sprinkled in season 1 before taking a larger role in season 2, Tranter promises that "the angels are a very, very significant presence" for season 3, which adapts The Amber Spyglass. "We trail them [in season 2] so that they are a forthcoming attraction."
Now that development on season 3 is in full swing, with a 2021 production start date in mind, Tranter isn't so sure about returning to this Asriel episode. "If we were to ever look at that episode again, it would be a complete one-off special," she says. "I don't know if, by the time we've done The Amber Spyglass, what the appetite would be for that the further away you move from The Subtle Knife. It's very intwined with all the mythology of that world. It felt like a subtle way of answering all the questions the audience had about Cittàgazze, about spectres, about some of the mythology. So, I don't know."
Either way, this isn't the last we've seen of Asriel.
His Dark Materials