His Dark Materials season 1, episode 7, though visually stunning, fails to deliver on some motivations needed for the imminent season finale.
“The Fight to the Death” capitalizes on everything that has made the first season of His Dark Materials one of the most enjoyable adaptations to hit the small screen. The visual effects, for one, are top of the line.
For all the flack that The Golden Compass film gets, I am eternally grateful that the BBC and HBO enlisted the team at Wolf Studios (a production team built out of the larger company, Framestore) to revisit and recreate the events of Svalbard.
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 7, though captivating, stalled in its storytelling. The battle at Svalbard provided another look at Lyra’s cunning, the shots at the airfield did not entice a rally cry against the Magisterium, and the return of Asriel alongside the final moments Will spends in Oxford are perhaps the most gripping narratives, yet they only account for five minutes of the episode.
With only one more episode to go this season, I hope the series can bounce back and deliver per the bar set by the first six episodes.
‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 7 recap
Consulting the map
Most of this episode is about putting pins in the map, and I found that the tedious work of swinging by outposts, balloon wrecks, and prisons quite frustrating. But, alas, here is where we find everyone following the events of Bolvangar.
Take a look at Lee, miserable on the side of a mountain — no Roger, no Lyra, no Iorek, only Hester and what remains of his balloon. The damage is not horrible, but they find themselves somewhere between Svalbard and Bolvangar with no tools or assistance.
After surveying the damage at Bolvangar, Mrs. Coulter needs a moment to collect herself and set course in a new direction. But the physical damage of the lab is just as devastating as the emotional toll from the events of His Dark Materials episode 6. Though one could argue her psyche is not the most inhabitable place in the world, it is now a minefield.
She looks upon the destruction of the lab before emitting another scream of rage. The golden monkey keeps his back turned to her as she collects herself and turns to leave. But once outside, Mrs. Coulter finds an unexpected leftover in the courtyard–Sister Clara.
Still reeling from the events, seeing Clara so helpless, directionless, and lost (as a result of her experiments) leads her to attack the poor woman. Nearly strangling her to death, Mrs. Coulter realizes what she is doing at the last minute.
But what is most interesting is that she is taking a human life while her daemon is idly by her side. He has nothing to fight, her whole self is focused on one being who has no fight in her. It’s eerie and uncomfortable and demonstrates just how broken this woman is.
Running to Svalbard. Not knowing what fate will await him, Iorek has sworn his allegiance to Lyra and is on his way to protect her from the panserbjørn and Iofur.
After waking up in some unknown spot, Lyra is escorted by the panserbjørn to a prison cell, where details come to light about the offscreen movements of Lord Asriel. Unfortunately, His Dark Materials chooses to lean into a method of exposition dumping that is all too common and incredibly unbearable to watch — the crazed prisoner.
Lyra Silvertongue makes her debut
Wait-and-see is not a tactic in the Lyra handbook for adventures in the North. Action gets things done and ill-advised or not, Lyra does not appreciate things being stagnant. And in episode 7, no Disney-archetype prisoner lurking in the shadows is going to change her mind.
The imprisoned scholar was hired by Iofur to fulfill the bear’s wish to become human. Sorry to this man, but his usefulness is fueled only by the fact that we get an info dump about Asriel. Here are the fast-facts:
- Iofur has let Asriel return to his laboratory in the North (that we saw in episode 1 with his trusty Scottish assistant).
- Iorfur wants to be human and is mad because he is a bear.
- Asriel swindled Iofur into letting him continue his work in the North by doing exactly what Lyra plans to do — talking his way into Iofur’s good graces long enough to come up with a plan on the go.
Despite some more warnings about the dangers of trying to work with the bears and finding one’s self on the side of their hatred, Lyra calls for Iofur and demands an audience with the king.
If I were in that cell, I would also not hesitate to go before a bear. After all, Iorek isn’t that bad so how bad could Iofur be? Plus, Lyra has the alethiometer on her side, but more importantly, she has the brashness of a child.
You know that scene in Attack of the Clones where Yoda asks the children where Obi-Wan’s missing planet is? And the kid simply says, “It’s been erased from the records, but it’s there.” Just as the clarity of her mind allows her to communicate with the alethiometer, it aids her in getting through to Iofur.
If being a human is what Iofur wants, then the best way to give that to him is to provide him with something so essential to humanity in this world — a daemon.
Lyra’s scheme works, and she holds it together long enough to press the king far enough into believing her twisted tale to escape for a few moments to consult the alethiometer for answers. Pledging allegiance to Iofur, she returns with the answer to his question — his first kill was his own father.
Her flattery of his bravery and greatness, plus the leverage of knowing the truth, pushes her entirely into his confidence. She orchestrates a plan that will welcome Iorek into the halls unharmed but sacrifice him to a one-on-one battle with Iofur.
Iorek’s arrival is the breaking point for Lyra who is in way over her head. The book and the series do a lot to try and convince us that Lyra is a practiced liar. And up until this point, we’ve seen her get away with one or two smaller ones and fail to get things past Mrs. Coulter.
But here, she has plunged into a deception this big. Daphne Keen does a great job conveying the effect this is taking on her. She is, after all, just a child who sentenced her friend to a death match while trying desperately to help her father who hasn’t exactly been working towards a dad-of-the-year prize.
The care and protection of parents
Lyra’s onward push to help Asriel (which she believes means delivering him the alethiometer) is admirable, especially since as Roger points out, the last time she saw the man, he was her uncle. The reunion does not go entirely as planned. Instead of being pleased to see her, Asriel greets her with trepidation and fear. “I did not send for you.”
How I process this information: “Wow, Dad. Well, I have four dads and a mom out there who would be thrilled to see me, but here I am dealing and negotiating bear kingdoms and fighting the Magisterium to bring you this shiny object…Wait, why are you looking at Roger like that?”
The alethiometer is not exactly what he is looking for, but the boy from the kitchens is exactly what he wants. Introducing this at the end of the episode is a great move in terms of cliffhangers, I just wish some more happened in the other 45 minutes.
For all the credit I gave the show for moving through The Golden Compass and some instances from The Subtle Knife, we have stalled here. His Dark Materials has one episode left to get through the rest of The Golden Compass and really dig into more than 15 pages of The Subtle Knife.
Speaking of that second book, John Parry’s letters are top of mind for Boreal who has seen the same clip from the BBC as Will. The epic letters are the key to unlocking the who, what, where and whens of John Parry’s final expedition.
Boreal is done playing nice with Elaine and enters her home, setting her even more on edge than she already was following his first visit. And Elaine delivers a line that sends Boreal and his threats out the door, “I’m frightened of everything. Being frightened of you is just one more thing.”
Will, however, is more willing to listen to her concerns this time around as he also senses that something is amiss in their home. He takes his mother to his teacher and heads to the house to retrieve the letters, pack a bag, and (unknowingly) retrieve his cat.
And now we find ourselves situated in the opening pages of The Subtle Knife as Will, trying to escape the clutches of the thieves in his home, getting tangled with them and his cat, leading to one of them falling over the bannister and dying.
Lyra and Will’s paths just got closer to converging.
About those ‘His Dark Materials’ VFX
Though the episode left a lot to be desired, there is one arena in which episode 7 came out a true winner — the VFX.
Immersed in the story as they are, the VFX team hired for His Dark Materials took on all of the work from start to finish. But they are not just creatives in the booth, behind computers, in a remote studio somewhere transforming tennis balls into pine martins.
They are on the set, working with designers and puppeteers and actors. Which is why when you are watching His Dark Materials it is easy to get as much, if not more, invested in the human-daemon relationships as the human-human ones.
“On the one hand there was the challenge of creating so many photoreal creatures,” said Senior VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson of the process in an interview on Framestore’s website. “You’re building each one of these characters from the ground up, which means crafting their skeletons and musculature, and that’s before you even get on to the intricacies of feathers, fur, eyes and claws. It was obviously important to imbue each daemon with its own personality. A deeper concern, however, was how they then interacted with their humans, and how their gestures and behavior augmented, reflected or concealed what their human was thinking or feeling. This requires a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety, and our artists deserve full credit for the seamless, intuitive way that they have embodied the characters and helped merge fantasy with reality.”
The relationship of Mrs. Coulter and her daemon has certainly been the most interesting to witness on screen. However, Lyra and Pan, Lee and Hester, Asriel and Stelmaria, each have their own unique connections that we’ve seen play out in small, but impactful ways.
But it is the panserbjørn who steal the episode that will likely stick in our minds as “the one with the bear fight.” These bears are massive, muscular, and terrifying. But they also need to fit into more than just a “bear” category.
What may be fine for the 200 or so panserbjørn of Svalbard, will not work for Iofur or Iorek. There needs to be a sense of comfort in the presence of Iorek and an overwhelming sense of fear in the presence of Iofur.
Just as the daemons are able to betray the emotions of the humans on screen, the bears are able to betray themselves to Lyra. Iofur is obsessed with humans and their connection to daemons. He was thrilled to exchange imprisoning Asriel for a chance to serve the Magisterium and be baptized.
We see him processing a range of human-like emotions, making him appear unstable and like a loose cannon. He paces around as he cycles through his anger, frustration, jealousy. And then we see him calm to flattery and the proposal that he too could be made to appear as a smart and wise leader to the other bears.
Then there is Iorek, who keeps his emotions behind a brick wall and lives in service of those who are just and fair and have good hearts. He asks about his friends and wants to ensure their safety. He cares about restoring order and civility to the panserbjørn.
We see these two very distinct bears emerge and clash on screen. And although the actual fight is only about two minutes long, the effect is something to witness. These are massive creatures fighting to kill the other and as the final shot of the fight unfolds behind Lyra’s head, I was glad to find myself far removed from the deadly strike.
And though the battle ends, and order is restored quite quickly to Svalbard, the bears are not quite finished helping Lyra on her journey. Two prisoners must be set free — the scholar in the dungeon and Asriel in his laboratory.
- The rally cry for Lee Scoresby is a scene I could have done without. Serafina is speaking in ideals, but there is still not a lot to go on for this fight. Tracking this from a narrative perspective as a new viewer, I don’t think I would be that invested in this fight at this point. But perhaps we can buy Lee’s big heart thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s face.
- The Magisterium may have Mrs. Coulter’s devotion, but I don’t think the Big Bad has enough substance to keep people thinking it is as all-powerful and controlling as readers know it to be. There has been very little done in His Dark Materials to draw lines of where and how the Magisterium is involved in this world. There is a lot of talk of heresy, but no belief established to go against. I think a better part of this episode could have given us some more background.
- Ok, enough messing around. Let’s get Mom and Dad in the same room. There is enough chaotic energy from Asriel and Mrs. Coulter to spark some kind of fire.
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 8, “Betrayal,” airs Monday, December 23 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.