Lin-Manuel Miranda unpacks the heartbreaking finale for His Dark Materials season 2
Warning: Spoilers from His Dark Materials season 2, episode 7 are discussed in this article.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has been preparing for this moment ever since reading the works of author Philip Pullman. And yet, like everyone else who knows what happens in The Subtle Knife, the second installment of the His Dark Materials book trilogy, watching the events play out on screen in the HBO and BBC fantasy-drama was another experience entirely.
The season 2 finale, which aired on HBO Monday a week after hitting U.K. airwaves on the BBC, saw the deaths of two characters. Well, four, if you count their daemons. The seventh episode — one short of the initial eight-episode order because of pandemic filming complications — adapted "Alamo Gulch," a location from The Subtle Knife and one of the most tragic chapters in the novel. Lee Scoresby (Miranda) was ferrying John Parry (Andrew Scott) in his balloon to find the bearer of a mystical reality-cutting blade when they were set upon by the Magisterium's forces. Crash landing in the woods, they are forced to fight. That's when Lee makes the ultimate sacrifice so that John can fulfill his mission. He takes a bullet. Then another. And soon the Texan and his arctic hare daemon, Hester (Cristela Alonzo), take their last breaths. John and his daemon, Sayan (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), followed soon after when he takes a bullet to protect his son, Will (Amir Wilson).
What follows isn't exactly what you would call an exit interview. His Dark Materials was recently renewed for a third season, which will adapt the events told in The Amber Spyglass, the book trilogy's final installment. And everyone who's read that novel (spoiler alert) knows it deals with the world of the dead and the inhabitants Lyra and Will discover there. So, while Miranda discusses his journey as Lee with EW, leading up to his final moments in the material world, the actor addresses a possible return for season 3.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At the risk of ticking off fans of another popular fantasy series, it seems your watch has ended.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Haha! Yes. Hodor. Please. Hodor.
What was your reaction when you found out that Lee would be going out in this blaze of glory? And then what was it like acting it out?
Well, my first reaction was back in 2005 when I read the books. I had that in the back of my mind when I said yes to the gig. I'm gonna have to do one of the most heartbreaking deaths in literature, or at least in the literature that I’ve read. So, I think a part of me has been preparing since I signed on for the gig. One of the things that’s so affecting about it and the genius of Philip Pullman is every death in this story is two deaths. We haven’t just gotten to know Lee, we’ve gotten to know Hester and their relationship. I think that’s the extra twist that you never see coming. It’s heartbreaking in the book, and I hope we did it a bit of justice.
I also found something really beautiful about this moment. Everybody in Lyra’s world who has a daemon comes with this blessing that they are not alone in their final moments on earth. I was curious if you had any thoughts on that for Lee.
Pullman wrote a book called Daemon Voices where he wrote a series of essays about his thinking around the series, and the notion of a daemon was a storytelling solution. [People] can monologue about what they’re doing and how they’re feeling if they have someone to talk to. So, why don’t I put their souls outside their body? And it’s so simple and so elegant, but you’re right, it brings this incredible moment of solace in the final moment. I haven’t read The Subtle Knife for many years. I didn’t want to re-read it and get too attached to anything in case our version strayed. But the line that always stayed with me is Lee saying to Hester, "Don’t you go before I do." That is a beautiful, heartbreaking line.
Have you paid any attention to the social media reaction surrounding Lee’s death in the U.K.? [The finale episode aired earlier in abroad on Sunday, Dec. 20.)
Yes. I felt it psychically on a Sunday afternoon here in New York that things were sad. And another thing I'm grateful for, and this is a technical thing but I think it makes a difference, is so much of the time when you’re filming a series, especially a VFX-driven series like this, you’re filming out of order. You’re at the whims of the schedules that are available, the locations that are available, but with this sequence, with Alamo Gulch, we filmed sequentially. We landed in the gulf on Monday and I died on Friday, and every scene happened in order as we created that sequence in that space, which I think helped the storytelling enormously and also helped from a performance perspective because it’s just us fighting to stay alive over the course of a week. You see it in an hour, but there was a week of filming.
So, was that the last scene you shot for the entire second season?
It’s not. My last scenes were in the balloon, but we did have the luxury of filming that sequentially. It was Monday we get there and we see that we’re being followed [by the Magisterium], Wednesday I had to say goodbye to Andrew Scott, and the last two days I was there by myself with the brilliant puppeteer who played Hester.
Was there a camaraderie with Andrew being that both your characters died off in this episode?
Yes, but the thing that made my stomach hurt when the U.K. reaction started was I forgot [John Parry] died. From my perspective, I'm fighting them off so he can keep going. "Oh sh--! He dies, too!" That’s a lot for the viewers. We had an amazing time filming that sequence. Something that we talked about a lot was Band of Brothers. Andrew worked on that when he was a very young actor years ago. That was something we talked about a lot in relation to the chaos of war and the logistics of filming a gun battle like that. The joy of working on this show is the backlot is all of Wales. It’s just gorgeous country. I posted a picture of us taking naps on cots in a shared trailer because we were so far into this wooded area to film Alamo Gulch that it was not a typical base camp where everyone has their own trailer with their own TV. We were in a Welsh person’s rented Winnebago that could go up this hill, and that’s where we ate lunch and dried off. We were in the mud and in rain all day. But it also protects the work in a very real way because you’re not unplugging from where you are when you’re on a break. You just go off into a corner of the muddy gulch.
One of the lines that you say as Lee that sticks with me is after his balloon crashes and he turns to Hester and says, "I'm no longer an aeronaut. We’re insects now." Going into this sequence, what to you defines Lee’s last leg of this journey?
What is moving about it is Lee gives himself permission to do the impossible and make the ultimate sacrifices because he continues to remind himself what he’s fighting for and that is Lyra. I wasn’t dealt the best hand of cards in terms of parents, neither was Lyra, but she’s got a better shot than I do. And if it takes losing the balloon, if it takes holding these folks off and possibly losing my life so Parry can go forward and get Lyra what she needs, I can accept all of this: death, mortality, pain. He really makes Lyra into a higher cause. I find that enormously moving. It’s an instict that kicks in when you become a parent in a very real way, but it’s another thing to see it and have to enact it.
Is there still an opportunity for Lee to come back for season 3, given that The Amber Spyglass deals with the world of the dead?
Yeah. There’s been no — We just found out today that season 3 was happening and that’s really exciting news and I'm glad they get to finish telling the story. The final scenes; no, I'm not gonna say that because it’s a spoiler. But, yeah, my answer is I serve at the pleasure of Bad Wolf Productions. If there’s a call for Lee in a corporeal or non-corporeal form, I would be there. My family would love to go back to Wales.
I know Philip Pullman’s books are really close to your heart. What has this role of Lee meant to you and being able to put your own spin on the character?
When Lee first appears in the books, it’s the first really big hint that Philip Pullman’s universe is bigger than anything than we’ve been picturing. A Texan aeronaut is not on anyone’s bingo card as they were reading that story, and suddenly you’re hinting at a much wider world than Oxford and the trip north that we’ve been accustomed to. It’s been a larger-than-life character and the DNA that he shares with our main character, Lyra, who’s the hero of the entire series, is this notion of doing the right thing. Jack Thorne talks about greatness versus goodness being a theme in this. There are many people trying to do “great things” in this story which required terrible and immoral acts, whereas Lyra is always motivated by doing the good thing, the right thing. It’s not the same thing as doing “great things” and I think Lee shares that.
Are there any big moments from filming this show that will stick with you?
The week in Alamo Gulch was an absolute highlight, and then the other one that comes to mind is the scene with Mrs. Coulter [season 2, episode 3] which is not in the books but I'm incredibly grateful for because we learn a lot about Mrs. Coulter, we learn a lot about Lee. It's a really unexpected twist of a scene and was just enormous fun to play from beginning to end, every layer of it. And I'm really grateful that fans of the books embraced that scene because it's a detour, but I think it's a detour that honors the characters in the book.