His Dark Materials Recap: Blood Debt

His Dark Materials

Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

His Dark Materials

Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Ladies and gentleman, give it up for the armored bear you’ve been waiting for, the one true panserbjørne, the G.O.A.T. — Iorek Byrnison! Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Whew, Lee Scoresby.

This week’s episode delivers a real one-two punch as His Dark Materials continues careening through the events of The Golden Compass. Thus far the HBO series has been doing so with a boldness that has served it well, overall; the places where it’s strayed from and expanded upon the source text have worked more often than they’ve failed. “Armour” finds the show at its boldest divergence yet: the reimagining of the series’ beloved balloon aeronaut and his hare daemon Hester from an old-school, Mark Twain–style Texan — played in the 2007 film by Sam Elliott, to give you an idea — into a pugnacious charlatan played by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I guess if you’re going to recast the story’s sole American with an actor best known for being a musical genius, you might as well really pummel us in the face with it, by leading us in with a fucking song.

Yes, folks, when we meet Lee Scoresby, he is piloting his hot-air balloon to Trollesund to find and help a friend, and he is singing. And Hester? Harmonizing. All respect to the Hamilton virtuoso, but: thanks, I hate it. Then, to really grind it in, the pair exchanges some of the most conspicuously expositional dialogue we’ve yet heard out of the series. Luckily, it concerns said friend, who’s the second punch of this week’s episode, one so perfectly executed it would have driven the first few minutes from my mind entirely if I wasn’t obligated to write about it: the armored bear, the one true panserbjørne, the GOAT Iorek Byrnison.

Upon arrival at the Scandinavian seaport, Lee and Hester inquire about the bear, but are rebuffed by the local shipping bureaucrat Sisselman, a narc and a herb if ever I saw one, whose watch they steal on contact. Naturally after hearing “no” one (1) time, the next obvious move would be to go antagonize an entire saloon full of grizzled old fisherfolk who just want to be miserable drunks in peace. Why the pair would assume 100 percent of these people not only know about and benefit from, but are also willfully aiding and abetting, the involuntary indentured servitude of an armored bear is a mystery, but it’s one that swiftly solves itself when Lee is physically thrown out of the place, triumphantly showing Hester the additional watches and wallets he’s nicked. The antisocial pickpocket thing is actually one element of New Lee I don’t hate — what’s more American than a scammer? — but all the antagonism that’s going into it feels a little over-the-top and misplaced in a character whose whole deal in the past has been “gruff yet easygoing drifter.” He also immediately underestimates and patronizes Lyra when they cross paths at the docks, but we’ll get there in a moment.

The Gyptian caravan has reached Trollesund, just as the Magisterium has bulked up its presence in the port town. Farder Coram and Lyra go to see Dr. Lanselius, the witch consul (a fancy way of saying the witches’ concierge–cum–human familiar), about getting a message to Coram’s witch ex Serafina Pekkala about enlisting the help of the witches to rescue the children. Lanselius knows Lyra has the alethiometer — people talk, I guess — and asks her to demonstrate her preternatural alethio-literacy and use it to identify the spring of cloud pine (i.e., witch pagers) belonging to Serafina. She gets it right, and for completing this side quest, she’s rewarded with a tiny vial containing a few of the sprig’s needles, which she can use to call the witch queen if she’s ever in trouble. The alethiometer also tells Lyra to ask the consul what they should be asking him but haven’t; amused, he obliges by advising them to seek the services of an armored bear.

Coram and Lyra find Iorek Byrnison, after some searching, in a blacksmith’s forge, where without his armor he’s been conscripted to work off a “blood debt” mending broken machinery in exchange for food and booze. (As the alethiometer tells Lyra later, this is bullshit; the townspeople actually got the outcast bear drunk and stole his armor, and Magisterium officials bribed them into hiding it from him indefinitely.) Ashamed of what he’s become and unused to having people look at him with anything but contempt, let alone recognition, he hides at first, then attempts to scare them off by towering above Lyra; this is of course a mistake, because the child is a feral creature herself, and hardly blinks. “I do myself more damage not trusting anyone,” she tells Farder Coram later, when he chastises her for her boldness. (This is an odd 180-degree turn, given that last week she was shrieking at Ma Costa about not trusting anyone, but it’s much more Lyra-like, so I’ll allow it.)

Lee and Hester eventually find Iorek, who tells them what he told Lyra, even though Lee apparently owes the bear a debt: GTFO, I’m drunk and ashamed and would rather die than ask for help. He strikes out a third time with Sisselman, who threatens him with a pistol when he attempts to first counter-bribe and then out-bureaucrat him with a receipt for the bear’s armor, claiming the Magisterium cannot lay claim to it if the bear lost the armor to him in a card game first.

Lucky for the aeronaut, Lyra is not deterred by his disrespect in their first encounter, when he attempts to talk over her, man to man, with Farder Coram, who shrugs: “I’m just following her lead.” The Gyptians are prepared to leave without the bear, so as a last resort, she finds Lee and Hester in the saloon, where they have mysteriously been allowed to return for lunch, to learn once and for all what she must do to convince the bear to join their campaign.

At this point, Hester is begging Lee to respect Iorek’s wishes not to be saved, so he tells her that recovering the bear’s armor is the key to his loyalty. Easy! The bear promises he’ll join them if she will tell him where his armor is and allow him to crush the life out of any human who attempts to stop him, so she asks the alethiometer. It’s in the oratory! Silly old bear, it’s always in the last place you think to look. (It’s kind of funny how this village is allegedly small enough for everyone to know everything about everyone, yet large enough for everyone to have a lot of trouble finding things, be it humans finding Iorek or Iorek finding his bear-sized armor.)

The sequence in which Iorek Byrnison barrels through the town, into the chapel and out, fully clad in his rusty-ass daemon-armor, to knock around some God Gestapo boys, putting Sisselman’s head between his paw and the ground, remains one of the most satisfying scenes in the entire series. It’s not really fair of Lyra to retroactively revise their agreement by adding the dude’s life to the debt he already agreed to repay with his services, but fine, technically it does behoove him to be merciful.

And just like that, the Gyptian campaign gets an armored bear and an aeronaut — because, oh yeah, Lyra also tricked Lee into thinking Lord Faa had asked her to hire the Texan on his behalf. Somewhere in there, Serafina Pekkala’s gyrfalcon daemon Kaisa paid Farder Coram and Lord Faa a visit — a witch daemon can travel far from his person, due to magic — to pledge the assistance of Serafina’s clan (the other clans are another story) and tell them details of the Station, which locals call Bolvangar, or “fields of evil.” So that’s where we’re headed next week!

Meanwhile, in Baddiesville: Mrs. Coulter and Lord Boreal have the Magisterium Boyz firmly under their respective heels this week. Fra Pavel, the Church’s go-to alethiometrist, has it particularly rough — not that we care, since apparently he’s a major pedophile. Very cool and normal and I’m sure the showrunners would like to reiterate for the record that this show is definitely not about the evils of the Catholic Church.

Anyway, both Coulter and Boreal extort their way into an answer from the alethiometer. Murder Zaddy trades “not outing Fra Pavel as a pedophile out of spite” for the way to find whatever it is Stanislaus Grumman/John Parry discovered. And Bad Mommy has had her ex Lord Asriel imprisoned on Svalbard by bear king Iofur Raknison, and trades him to the Cardinal for “not being fired” and the fact of who her daughter is, presumably regarding the witch prophecy both Farder Coram and the prologue have referenced thus far. (Here we’re also to understand that she was behind Iorek Byrnison’s unlawful indenture by the people of Trollesund, on the panserbjørne king’s behalf.)

We cap off this episode with a really curious meeting between Mrs. Coulter and Iofur Raknison in a remote cave. The bear king, as described in the books, is obsessed with humans, particularly the power offered him by the Magisterium; his armor is encrusted with gold and jewels, a completely useless adornment (which makes him look metal as hell nevertheless). He bids Coulter meet him in secret — a deeply un-bear-like pretense — and reveals himself to her only when she offers him a baptism in the Church in exchange for control over Asriel’s fate. He’d be the first panserbjørne to ever join the Magisterium officially, an honor that he no doubt sees as a way to cement his power. If the series continues according to the books, however, we’ll learn very soon why this idiosyncrasy may in fact do the opposite.

Assorted Bits:

• I kept waiting for arctic fox Pantalaimon to start laughing. The internet has broken me.

• “You are weak” is such a perfect neg for Lanselius to make. Witch consuls are the friend-zoned incels of the witches’ world.

• Kaisa was originally a goose — really delightful that they might have revised him on account of everyone hating geese so goddamn much.

• I cried a lot this week, primarily whenever Iorek gets in someone’s personal space, but also when Farder Coram cries telling Lyra about the son he and Serafina Pekkala had years ago, whose untimely death inevitably drove them apart. We love a gentle, nontoxic patriarch!

• The only way that saloon business makes any sense to me is if HBO needed to justify the expense of rebuilding the Deadwood set.

• I’m sure it’s for pacing- and PETA-related reasons, but I’m still disappointed we didn’t get to see Iorek catch a seal and use its blubber to polish the rust from his armor, as he does quite matter-of-factly in the book.

• Am I crazy, or does Lyra’s glance linger a bit long on Tony Costa when they’re aurora-gazing? This story has always wanted for a little more of the mortification that comes from being a tween girl with a crush.

His Dark Materials Recap: Blood Debt