This week’s episode is called “The Fight to the Death” for good reason: Two enormous ice bears battle for the crown of their kingdom. There’s bellowing and roaring, biting and clawing. Two animals enter the ring. Only one is left standing.
And that’s not the scariest thing that happens in this hour — not by a long shot. But it’s as good a place to start talking about what goes down in this very eventful penultimate episode as any.
The battle only happens thanks to the ingenuity, instincts, and impressive bullshitting abilities of our heroine, Lyra Belacqua — renamed Lyra Silvertongue in honor of her gift of gab. Having recovered from her fall from Lee Scoresby’s hot air balloon at the end of the previous chapter, she and her daemon Pan wind up imprisoned in the ice bears’ fortress, where the usurper king Iofur Raknisson rules with an iron, uh, paw.
Lyra needs access to her father, Lord Asriel, who’s under house arrest by the bears in his mountaintop laboratory. She also wants to save her furry friend Iorek Byrnisson, the true king, who’s racing toward his old home to save her — and who will get annihilated by the animals’ weaponry before he even gets close.
So Lyra does what she does best: She lies. Demanding an audience with King Iofur (with Pan conveniently out of sight), she convinces him that she’s actually Iorek’s daemon, artificially created in Mrs. Coulter’s lab. “Humans get animals,” she explains. “It makes sense for bears to get humans, doesn’t it?”
This peaks the king’s interest and rouses his anger, since his nominal ally Coulter never mentioned making daemons for bears before. Lyra goes on to claim that if Iofur defeats Iorek in hand-to-hand combat, he’ll absorb his essence and claim her as his own daemon instead. She cleverly uses her truth-detecting alethiometer to further convince the big bad bear that she’s on the up-and-up.
And just like that, the trap is sprung. Iofur allows Iorek into the palace instead of shooting him down in the snow. The pair begin their fight, and it looks like the villainous king will come out on top — until he sees that Lyra is rooting for her friend to win instead of betraying him.
Enraged, Iofur stands on his hind legs and calls Lyra a liar, letting his guard down long enough for Iorek to spring into action and finish the phony king off. Mercifully, this act of bear-on-bear violence happens off screen. (That’s one big difference between this show and Game of Thrones: If this were the latter HBO show, we’d be watching bear guts get spilled.)
It’s all very exciting stuff, enhanced by the sinister atmosphere of Iofur’s stronghold, where half-devoured animal carcasses litter the ground and trails of blood from dragged-in prey are nearly ankle-deep in places.
But it’s beasts of the all too human variety that drive the rest of the episode’s action. There’s Lord Boreal, for instance, still on the hunt for the cache of letters that the missing explorer John Parry sent to his wife before he disappeared into another world. His Lordship pays a visit to his mentally ill wife that nearly breaks her—there’s a powerful moment when she simply screams into a pillow to vent her terror—but she keeps it together long enough to fetch her son Will from school to warn him.
When they return home, they find the place ransacked. Will places his mom in the care of one of his teachers before going back one more time to retrieve the letters. In the process, he winds up accidentally killing one of Boreal’s minions. It’s a virtual guarantee that he’ll be more hunted than ever; perhaps that’s why he thinks better of reuniting with his mom and wanders off on his own.
Back in Lyra’s world, her mother, Mrs. Coulter, surveys the damage at her Bolvangar facility. Her anger has rendered her almost bestial: She lets out a full-throated roar of rage, then nearly chokes to death one of the facility’s daemon-severed nuns. Then, true to form, she collects herself in time to commandeer the Magisterium’s mission to find and kill her former lover Lord Asriel. Her second priority: stop his experiments with the mysterious Dust substance now that he’s free of the bears’ clutches. Director Jamie Childs repeatedly shoots her in such a way as to emphasize her poise and power (not that Ruth Wilson needs much help in making her character look like someone you don’t want to mess with).
After a brief interlude in which the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala tells Scoresby that he’ll be needed in the fight to come, we arrive at the main event. Lyra and her friend Roger ride Iorek straight to Lord Asriel’s sky-high sanctuary in the mountains. Now that they’ve been reunited, you can see how much more fun they’re having; with a friend by your side, danger can feel more like an adventure than a trauma.
But something very strange happens when they finally meet Lord Asriel. When he sees Lyra, he pretty much flips out. “I did not send for you!” he shouts, seemingly on the verge of panic. Then he lays eyes on her little pal Roger, and his whole demeanor changes. “I am very pleased you came,” he says to the boy. He sounds like a spider who’s discovered a fresh fly in his web.
Lyra has escaped every enemy, survived every skirmish, journeyed to places of great danger and lived to tell the tale. (All this, and she helped overthrow the king of the ice bears to boot!) Now that the young woman can give her alethiometer to her father, as she believes she was chosen to do, her quest should be at an end. That’s how a traditional fantasy story would work, you know? But there’s something about Lord Asriel’s voice, and the look in his eyes, that hints at horror to come.