Lyra Belacqua may be just a kid, but she knows people. And polar bears.
In this pivotal episode of His Dark Materials (titled “Armour” for reasons that soon become apparent), Lyra and her army of Gyptians arrive at the remote Northern village of Trollesund. It’s like a snowy version of a Red Dead Redemption 2 town: scheming officials, scruffy outlaws, even a saloon. Actually, Star Wars‘ Mos Eisley may be an even better point of comparison — just like Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi seeking help in the cantina, Lyra makes two important allies in her quest against an evil empire. One is a charming rogue. The other is a towering furry monster.
First up: The rogue, a Texan “aeronaut” (he flies a hot-air balloon) with a talkative jackrabbit daemon companion. His name’s Lee Scoresby. The flyboy is in town because he’s heard an old friend is in trouble. He also may be the most controversial bit of casting in the whole show.
Compare and contrast His Dark Materials‘ core cast with that of The Golden Compass, that ill-fated attempt to kickstart a movie franchise from Phillip Pullman’s book series. Replacing Nicole Kidman with Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter? You’re simply swapping one gifted, gorgeous actor with another. James McAvoy subbed in for Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel? Two intense guys with piercing gazes — it works. Recasting Scoresby, the hard-charging Texas adventurer played by Sam Elliott, with … Lin-Manuel Miranda? It takes some chutzpah, to say the least.
So far, however, it works. Showrunner Jack Thorne appears to have realized that there’s no way to outdo Elliott in the cowboy department, so he’s taken a radically different tack. The Hamilton impresario plays Scoresby as a more playful kind of adventurer, with a bright smile and breezy disposition that befit his side hustles as a trickster, a card sharp, and a pickpocket. He may not be the kind of guy you want by your side in a shootout, but there’s a decent chance he could swipe your enemy’s gun and save you the trouble.
The other big debut in this episode — and we do mean big — is Scoresby’s old polar-bear pal, Iorek Byrnison. He’s voiced by relative newcomer Joe Tandberg, who faces the daunting task of expressing the inner monologue of a once-mighty monarch facing hard times and drinking hard liquor … and who’s also, you know, a bear. It’s a testament to the show’s visual effects work that you can see this narrative in the beast’s downcast temperament early in the episode, contrasted with his explosive and indomitable behavior once he gets back the precious armor that restores his dignity.
Where does Lyra fit in all this? She’s the glue that holds it all together. Using a combination of her miraculous ability to read the truth-telling alethiometer gizmo and her own innate good judgment of people’s character, she almost single-handedly recruits both Scoresby and Iorek to the Gyptians’ cause. It’s she who locates the animal’s stolen armor in a Magisterium church, allowing the bear to rough up a few priests in the process.
And right at the end of the hour, we get a glimpse of the creature who usurped Iorek’s throne: Iofur Raknison, a bear who skulks in a shadow cave and wears skull-themed armor. He’s voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, the British comedian who gave Star Wars villain Darth Maul’s few lines of dialogue their distinctive malevolent purr.
Even though all we see is his CGI head, Iofur is already an interesting bad guy. He’s as arrogant as any monarch, full of bluster over having captured the formidable Lord Asriel when Mrs. Coulter comes to claim the prisoner. But he’s also full of need, a desire to be seen as legitimate and special by the human and bear worlds alike.
It’s a combination that enables Coulter to play him like a fiddle. In exchange for keeping Asriel under wraps and trashing his research laboratory, she offers Iofur a baptism by the Magisterium. He’d be the very first bear to be so ordained, which makes the prospect irresistible. (We know, we know, it’s hard to imagine a world leader who’s still so insecure that he wants to make sure everyone believes he’s the most special and important one of his kind ever, but hey, it’s a fantasy!)
But there’s more to the episode than hot-air ballon pirates and armor-clad bears. While in Trollesund, Gyptian leader Farder Coram initiates contact with this region’s witches — mysterious and as-yet unseen supernatural beings who can send their daemons off on solo missions, unlike normal humans. In particular, he reaches out to a witch named Serafina Pekkala, with whom he once had a child who died young. The painful memories this brings up cause him to cry very suddenly and, thanks to the expert work of actor James Cosmo, very movingly. Now you can see why the cause of retrieving the stolen children from Mrs. Coulter’s “gobblers” is so important to him.
And back in London, both Coulter and her frenemy Lord Boreal muscle the Magisterium’s invariably weird-looking officials into using the institution’s own alethiometer to answer their questions. Mrs. C wants to know who Lyra is — a question that clearly has a bigger answer than “she’s your daughter”—while his Lordship demands knowledge of how to find the forbidden discovery of Stanislaus Grumman, the world-hopping explorer he’s been searching for. It’s a treat watching Ruth Wilson wield the exclusively male organization’s combination of lust and discomfort like a weapon against them. Her libidinous appeal is no giant armored polar bear, granted. Then again, given organized religion’s stance on sex and sexism, maybe it’s an even worse threat.
Previously: Mother Superior