You cannot trick a bear—unless your name is Lyra Belacqua, in which case you totally can. After a few disappointing episodes that left us concerned about the future of the series, His Dark Materials has shown that all it needed was a change in scenery, a renewed focus on its two young stars, and at least…10 more bears.
Last week’s siege on Bolvangar may have been the event the series had been building up to so far, but it was only part of the bigger story. After getting knocked out of Lee Scoresby’s hot air balloon, Lyra (Dafne Keen) finds herself stranded in the middle of Svalbard, the kingdom of the bears. She’s apprehended by one of them and taken to the palace of King Iofur Raknison (voiced by Joi Johannsson in a fantastic performance), whose lavish throne and finery feel at odds with the river of blood cascading down the steps.
Thanks to her fellow inmate, a scholar, Lyra learns that Lord Asriel manipulated Iofur into building him a research lab for his experiments—a feat that Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) previously said was impossible, as bears “cannot be tricked.”
This, combined with the knowledge that Iofur desires to be human, gives Lyra an idea. She demands to see Iofur and tells him she’s Iorek’s daemon, playing on his desire to have a daemon of his own. We see Lyra honing the skills of both her parents (Mrs. Coulter’s deception and Lord Asriel’s intimidation), and it’s neat to watch. Keen got her break acting alongside Hugh Jackson in Logan, and she shines when she’s standing toe-to-toe with a larger, more imposing figure on equal ground. That bear could swallow her whole, but we know who’s truly got the power.
Lyra does all this so Iofur will agree to face Iorek in single-paw combat, rather than kill him from a distance as he races to the palace to rescue her. This leads to a big bear fight between Iorek and Iofur for the throne of Svalbard. It’s one of the most famous scenes in The Golden Compass—and the most violent, as it culminates in Iorek tearing Iofur’s jaw right off his face. The 2007 movie included this scene, making it one of the main reasons it was rated M.
Unfortunately, this is a family show and we don’t see it here. Instead, we get a close-up on Lyra as she recoils, closing her eyes and covering her ears to block everything out. This was a surprising choice, since she’s not one to shy away from violence (she was largely unfazed during the siege at Bolvangar). Then again, she is still a child.
Now, Iorek is king of the bears and vows to return his people to the “old ways.” He also gives Lyra a new name, Lyra Silvertongue, which she immediately accepts as her own. Together, they return to Billy and get ready to head to Lord Asriel’s research lab—something I’ll come back to in a bit.
In the meantime, we’ve got Will Parry (Amir Wilson). I’ve loved how well the show has drawn parallels between what’s going on in Lyra’s life and what’s going on with his—just as Iorek was fighting for his kingdom, Will is fighting for his family. Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is growing impatient and wants the letters Will’s mother, Elaine (Nina Sosanya), has stashed away. He decides to pay Elaine a visit, trying to pressure her into giving him what he wants. When she refuses, he uses his snake daemon as a way to trigger her mental health issues (by making her think she’s seeing things). Terrified, she runs to Will for help. He’s embarrassed that she’s come to his school again, but he puts his own feelings aside to help her. His Dark Materials has done a great job at portraying their complex but tender relationship in such a short amount of time, which makes what happens later feel heartbreaking.
Will and his mother return home to find it’s been ransacked, and someone is still there combing the place. Not knowing what else to do, Will takes his mum to his gym teacher’s house and asks that he look after her for a night or two while he cleans up. The teacher is hesitant, but Will fears that if he went to the police he’d be taken away from his mother, and he’s never going to let that happen. Will heads home to assess the damage and make sure the letters are safe but Lord Boreal’s henchmen return. We see Will wrap a leather belt around his fist as he gets ready to strike the one coming up the stairs, showing his strength and bravery in dire circumstances. He gets one hit in before the guy trips on Will’s cat and falls over the banister and dies.
Not knowing what to do, Will grabs the letters and a few supplies and flees his home. He stops outside his teacher’s house long enough to check that his mother is ok—watching from a distance to make sure he’s not spotted—and flees into the night. It’s a tragic way to start Will’s journey, and Wilson does a great job portraying both Will’s resolve and his insecurity.
Finally, in another world, Lyra and Billy find themselves at Lord Asriel’s (James MacAvoy) lab. This is probably the most fascinating scene in the episode and one that’s going to drive a lot of conversation for the week. Lord Asriel sees Lyra and instead of being joyous or frustrated at her arrival, he’s despondent. He grabs her by the shoulders, tears in his eyes, screaming “I did not send for you!” It isn’t until he eyes Billy that he calms down and welcomes them into his home. All the meanwhile, he continues to stare at Billy like a hunter who’s found his prey. There’s only one episode left in the first season, and I’ve got a bad feeling about what’s to go down.
Holy shit, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) almost suffocated a woman to death! Having the episode open with Mrs. Coulter standing in the ruins of Bolvangar, screaming her head off (with spittle spewing out of her mouth) before attacking a helpless nurse, was a smart move. As I said last week, Mrs. Coulter is a string pulled too taught, and she’s about to snap.
Is Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) ever going to see Lyra again? All evidence suggests he’s not, but he’s now on another journey that will aid hers.
Book comparison time: I actually like how the show is handling Will’s story. In The Subtle Knife, Will carefully orchestrates a plan to run away from home, including dropping his mother off with a family friend, so that he can spend time on figuring out what happened to his father. The death at his home was an unplanned complication in his plan. Here, it’s a series of unfortunate events that leads him to accidentally find himself on the run after killing someone. It adds to Will’s helplessness and makes us worry about what’s going to happen next.