His Dark Materials Recap: “The Fight to the Death”

His Dark Materials Dafne Keen in "His Dark Materials" (HBO/BBC)

Iorek reclaims his throne & Lyra gets both a new name & a family reunion in an uneven penultimate episode.

When is the ability to lie a positive rather than a negative quality? Young Lyra (Dafne Keen) fibs with remarkable ease, subtly playing people (and occasionally other creatures) against each other and getting herself out of trouble. It so far seems to be for the greater good, but there’s something a little unsettling about it too. Deception is a fluent second language to Lyra, and one that could wreak havoc if she allows it.

Havoc is the theme of “The Fight to the Death,” the penultimate episode of the first season of His Dark Materials. Though a bit rushed and uneven at times (it’s almost as if the show’s writers didn’t realize until the last minute that they only had two more episodes to work with in the season), it’s a nice set-up to both an inevitable epic confrontation between the Magisterium and the Gyptians, and a sinister turn for someone very close to Lyra.

Lyra, having fallen out of Lee’s balloon in the last episode, finds herself yet again held captive, this time in Svalbard, where Iorek once ruled before he was ousted and replaced by Iofur. Though it seems like a dangerous place for Lyra to be, she manages to get an audience with Iofur (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) and, with all the smoothness of a used car salesman, convinces him not only that she can be his daemon, but that the only way he can maintain his position of power is by challenging Iorek (Joe Tandberg) to a battle to the death. She’s acting on pure instinct that Iorek will win the battle, and release Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who’s being held captive as Iofur’s personal scientist.

It’s an interesting choice, putting the life of Iorek, who’s dedicated himself to her safety and well-being, on the line for the freedom of Lord Asriel, who’s done nothing for her but lock her away in a school. One can assume that Lyra is relying on the alethiometer for guidance, but it feels like forcing Iofur and Iorek into a death match is an idea that comes to her organically. There’s something a little tonally off and rushed about this whole sequence, and feels a bit like the show’s writers didn’t realize until the last minute that they only had two episodes left in the season instead of three. Though Iorek wins the fight, and doesn’t seem put off by Lyra treating his life as a bargaining chip (in fact, he gives her a new name, Lyra Silvertongue, for her otherworldly gift of gab), it feels like a weird bit of malevolent manipulation from an otherwise heroic character, and the rest of “The Fight to the Death” takes a little while to recover from it.

Speaking of malevolent manipulation, though Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) loses her cool when she’s alone, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth around members of the Magisterium, none of whom are capable of regarding her with anything besides hate, or lust, or both. She manages to sweet talk her way out of losing her position, insisting that she should go along on a trip to destroy Lord Asriel once and for all. As always, there’s something going in her eyes, and whatever it is, we know it’s going to lead to more death and destruction for someone, if not Lord Asriel. If I was a member of the Magisterium, by this point I’d find Mrs. Coulter about as authentic as a three dollar bill, but I guess when you’re a bunch of repressed men who both loathe human desires and are horny as hell at the same time, a pretty face and the right choice of words can go a long way.

There’s something a little tonally off and rushed about this whole sequence, and feels a bit like the show’s writers didn’t realize until the last minute that they only had two episodes left in the season instead of three.

Meanwhile, in our world, Will Parry (Amir Wilson) starts what we can assume is the journey to Lyra’s world, after Carlo (Ariyon Bakare) threatens his mother one too many times. Like Lyra, Will occasionally comes off as a little too clever, always at least one step ahead of those who mean him harm. In “The Fight to the Death,” he overcomes one of Carlo’s henchman and takes off, armed with letters proving that his father, John Parry, might actually still believe. This too, as with Lyra’s all too brief time in Svalbard, feels a bit hasty, a checking off of the boxes in order to get to the next part of the story.

The flaws of “The Fight to the Death” are made up for in an ominous conclusion, however. Lord Asriel is less than overjoyed to see Lyra, despite the treacherous journey she’s made to rescue him. “I did not send for you!” he cries, shock and fear in his eyes. Things take an abrupt turn, though, when he sees that she’s brought a friend, Roger (Lewin Lloyd) along with her. “I’m glad you came,” he says to Roger, eyeing him like a shark eyes a wounded seal. For an episode that’s dedicated almost entirely to setting up characters on a metaphorical chessboard, it’s effectively creepy. We just assumed at this point that Lord Asriel was an otherworldly Indiana Jones, a bit single-minded in his pursuit of knowledge but otherwise good-hearted. The predatory way he approaches Roger suggests otherwise.

Random Thoughts:

  • Blink and you’ll miss the Hot Priest himself, Andrew Scott, as John Parry in a photograph. The very busy Scott, who also has a role in Sam Mendes’ 1917, will make a more formal appearance in season two.
  • Lee (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Serafina (Ruta Gedmintas) have a nice scene together in “The Fight to the Death,” in which a discouraged Lee, after losing Lyra and crashing his balloon. needs to be reminded about the greater purpose of this struggle. which in this case is simply helping to right a wrong. The core message of His Dark Materials, that one should believe in decency, strength and kindness because they’re good qualities to have, and not because some mysterious being deems that we should (or that it may get us something in return) is bold for a story aimed at children.
  • This week in Mrs. Coulter fashion: her cranberry turtleneck is just perfect for the holiday season.
  • As mentioned several times, I haven’t read any of the books in the series, and I’m stubbornly refusing to spoil myself by reading plot synopses online. The change in Asriel’s demeanor when he sees Roger is really unsettling, and I’m both eager and nervous to see where it goes.
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