What is this show about, really? The answer is pretty straightforward when you ask this of His Dark Materials’ source text: It’s a heretic’s take on the fall from grace, mapped onto a rich fantasy world and a deeply heartfelt coming-of-age adventure. Whether the same can be said of the HBO adaptation, though, has become increasingly unclear.
It’s got the rich fantasy-world part down, for the most part. The visual-effects team is most certainly going to rack up some Emmy nominations for their painstaking work at bringing its magical elements to life, from talking bears to teleporting witches. And for the most part, the actors clearly understand their characters down to the atomic level — in fact, their stellar performances have regularly demonstrated how much they’ve managed to achieve in spite of the scripts and direction they’ve been getting.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with Ruth Wilson. In fact, in many ways, you could argue that His Dark Materials has become a show about Mrs. Coulter. We get to watch the desperation mount in her face, as she stares dazedly at the ruins of her machine, then when she screams into the ruins of her career, eyes bulging, apelike. We see now why her golden monkey daemon isn’t the same Machiavellian little devil we met in the books — Mrs. Coulter is now that devil herself. She may hate herself and (as Farder Coram might suspect) the form the daemon takes, but in this moment, her daemon has never been more elegantly demonstrated, on page or screen. She attempts to strangle the poor nurse, who in her zombified daemonless state is still sitting dazed in the snowy ruins, but loses conviction at the last moment. As with so many responsible for mass murder, she can’t quite bring herself to end a life herself. In any case, she already condemned this poor woman to a fate worse than death without a second thought.
Later, she suffers further, when Father MacPhail furiously informs her that Iofur is dead, her plan to keep Asriel tethered has failed, and she’s off the God Squad. She kicks into high-Coulter gear, taking her routine manipulation of the priest’s personal space to the extreme. By this point, he’s too angry to feel much discomfort, though; still, he gives her one final chance when she argues that her knowledge of her former lover’s mind is their only real chance of capturing him. Her failures, lined up as they are this week, demonstrate that selfish survival, rather than bloodthirst, or even power, is what drives the villainy of Marisa Coulter.
Beyond this, though, it’s starting to feel as though whatever independence His Dark Materials’ showrunners seemed to be declaring at the outset was half-baked at best. Even in this week’s plot, arguably the most straightforward of the book (it’s not like HBO is a stranger to battles to the death!), the show clings to the source text while failing to fully understand why it’s doing so; you can almost see the seams where the show has cut and tailored an epic to fit both the pedestrian work of its script and what I can only guess were unreasonable executive demands.
That sensation guides virtually all of Lyra’s adventure on Svalbard, home to the armored-bear kingdom. Luckily, the balloon had cleared the ocean before her skydive; she lands in snow and is promptly found and arrested by Iofur Raknison’s panserbjørne guard and taken to his castle. From the outside, the design of this palace is perfect: all stone and strewn with blood like King Iofur got a little too into Game of Thrones when they were renovating. In the dungeon, the alethiometer tells Lyra Iorek is en route. Her cellmate is a cosmology scholar in the thick of a mental breakdown after being chained up because he couldn’t give the king what he wanted: a daemon. He also tells her that Iorek will most certainly be killed by the bears’ fire-hurlers before he can get anywhere near the castle.
Terrified, but knowing her father has already proved Iofur could be hoodwinked, Lyra hatches a plan. Hiding Pantalaimon deep in her coat (a rare moment when the absence of daemons actually makes sense), she demands an audience with the bear king, and hatches the grift of her life. At Bolvangar, she tells him, Mrs. Coulter’s scientists weren’t just cutting children from their daemons — they also figured out how to give bears daemons, and instead of giving the honor of being first to Iofur Raknison, instead they offered it to his nemesis, Iorek Byrnison. She is that daemon. Artificially attached daemons can travel from their person like witches, you see, and they can also be cut-and-pasted from bear to bear if the bear without a daemon kills the one with a daemon in single combat. To prove she is who she says she is, she volunteers to answer a question “only a daemon would know,” and secretly uses the alethiometer to answer it: The first bear Iofur Raknison killed was his father.
Now, Iofur Raknison has to be kind of an idiot to believe this, right? Well, as is made clear eventually, bears are generally vastly more intelligent than humans — this one just wants to be one so badly he has lost any and all perspective. “Daemons? For bears??” he roars at one point, which I loved. Here, though, the show takes an odd shortcut, one that gets at the heart of one of this episode’s two major flaws: It slips into the adaptation trap I discussed in the premiere recap, wherein a story is merely transposed — and in this instance, severely abridged — instead of properly translated for its new medium and audience. In the throne room, we barely get the sense that Lyra is panicking as she’s grifting Iofur, so when Iorek is permitted to enter the cave-palace through a side door to meet with her before the battle, and she apologizes profusely, as though she’s signed his death warrant, it almost seems as though she’s grifting Iorek, too. It lets the meaning here slip away: What Lyra fears is a worst-case scenario, which is actually Iorek’s best-case scenario. He has only ever wanted to fight Iofur to win back his throne, and is now in awe of a tiny human girl’s ability to deliver a form of bear justice he never would have achieved on his own.
But still, for all his respect, in the books, Iorek never tells Lyra she’s “one of us now,” because she’s not. He’s just finished explaining why Iofur was weakened by his desire to be what he’s not; having him invite the reverse for Lyra is almost insulting, a crossing of a cultural line that, not unlike the choice to exclude daemons from the majority of the show, cheapens the stakes of the story. Here, the new king dubs his human friend “Lyra Silvertongue,” yes, but not as some sort of tribal induction; their friendship is strengthened by respect for their differences, not through an attempt to be the same. It’s one of several significant moments which get muddled for the sake of, I don’t know, time? Money? Mrs. Coulter’s Kabuki face? The clichéd cackling of an imprisoned NPC we’ll never meet again?
The fight itself is just baffling. First of all, how did we decide the armored bears — panserbjørne, it’s right there in the name — would not wear their soul-armor in a fight, let alone one between kings that will determine the future of the entire colony? Second of all, why is this, again, extremely consequential fight witnessed only by a handful of guards in the throne room? In both book and film adaptation, Iorek challenges Iofur outside the palace, where every bear on Svalbard can witness it; he bests Iofur not because Iofur realizes Lyra duped him and charges at her, but because Iorek is a wiser, more skilled fighter, who feigns an injury and waits until Iofur is prematurely crowing about his victory before striking him a killing blow so hard to the head that his jaw literally rips off his face.
I can understand how all this could be expensive, truly. However, if money is the reason for all of these bizarre decisions, I have a follow-up: What are we even doing here? First, we crippled the portrayal of the absolutely pivotal human-daemon relationship to save money; now, we’re doing it again in a fight that should feel truly epic, but instead is just two polar bears throwing each other around for 20 seconds. Hiding the kill, and focusing instead on Lyra’s terrified face, really drives home the fact that many of the show’s choices have been reactive, stemming not from deliberate creative choices but made for time, or budget, or HBO’s insistence that such gore would not be suitable for its latest family series. To be sure, the CG is astonishingly good! But frankly, I’d accept worse visuals — for example, you’d think that animating sheets of armor would be less agonizingly expensive than working with an entire pelt of fur on a 900-pound animal — in exchange for a more respectful handling of the story’s pacing and character dynamics. The battle and its aftermath, like many moments in this series, relies on your knowledge of the source text to fill in the gaps of what a dramatic climax this is supposed to be, while somehow not adding any meaningful interpretation of its own. The show feels like it’s being brought to life based on whatever the CliffsNotes say, rather than out of a long, thoughtful consideration of what the story actually means.
I should mention a caveat: What the “our universe” team is doing with Lord Boreal, Will, and Elaine Parry has been nothing short of wonderful. (It’s almost like this show treats daemons as a burden, and it shows in the product.) Whatever nuance “The Fight to the Death” muddles in the portrayal of the Bolvangar nurse and panserbjørne scholar’s mental illnesses, it makes up in spades with Elaine Parry, whose bravery in standing up to Boreal gives Lyra’s standoff against a giant, belligerent bear despot a run for its money.
Because Boreal has found the interview clip Will watched in the dark for 20 seconds last week, in which his father, John Parry, talks about the “truly epic letters” he’ll be sending his family while on his final expedition, he is now convinced they contain the secrets of the universe. (He’s the serpent, after all.) Boreal forces his way into the Parry home while Will is at school, lying to Elaine about being in “intelligence,” gaslighting her some more, and generally villain-monologuing. But when he suggests John is still alive and demands that she hand over those letters, she tells him to come back with a warrant, at which point my heart nearly exploded. She collapses once he’s gone and goes to take Will out of school again, but what a lovely, rare moment in television: a demonstration that even the most vulnerable people are capable of enormous strength.
Amir Wilson is also doing exceptional work this week. Will balks at his mother’s bombshell; the way he says “Wait, he’s alive?” is enough to break your heart. He takes her home quickly, but they come back to find that Boreal returned while they were gone, of course without that warrant: His scrawny white boys have tossed the house. Will decides it’s time to take his boxing coach (“Nine times????”) up on his offer to help them out. He drops Elaine off with him while he goes back to “clean up,” miraculously convincing him not to call the cops too. The writing case full of letters was safe beneath the sewing machine, but now the thugs have come back a third time to continue searching. Steeling himself behind the bedroom door, Will bursts onto the landing, pushing one man hard as he makes his way toward the exit, but before he can make it down the stairs, Thomas loses his balance and topples over the balcony railing and to his death on the first floor below. Poor Will is a killer now; terrified that he’ll attract the police toward his mom if he returns to his boxing coach’s house to fetch her, he turns away at the last moment and into the street, scared and on the run with a treasure trove of interdimensional travel in his backpack.
Meanwhile, Iorek and Lyra have gone to pick up Roger from the frozen crag where Iorek apparently … left him for the day? They’re off to give Asriel the alethiometer at his aurora lab. When they arrive, it’s clear Asriel has gone full Scary Daddy — you can see how he and Mrs. Coulter got along so fiercely. Seeing Lyra, his face goes white. He shouts, “No! I did not send for you!” and tries to get her to leave … until he and Stelmaria notice Roger. Like a light bulb, his demeanor flips. Suddenly, his eyes are greedy. “Roger Parslow,” he says slowly, very much like a man who doesn’t know jack shit about children. “I am very pleased you came.”
• For some reason I only just discovered that Svalbard is a real landmass on our side, too.
• If Iofur was meeting with Mrs. Coulter in his secret cave, how did the Magisterium find out so quickly that Iorek had killed him?
• Big Falkor vibes on the last shot of Lyra and Roger on Iorek’s back riding toward Asriel’s lab.
• “I have to sing when I’m nervous. You know that.” Wish you wouldn’t, Lee Scoresby :)
• It’s almost not worth mentioning, but Serafina Pekkala drops in on Lee, whose balloon is screwed. She tells him of Lyra, Iorek, and Roger’s fate — he had assumed that Lyra, at least, had died — and gives him his gun back. What, did he think he’d get out of babysitting duty that easily?