His Dark Materials Episode Recap: “Armour”

His Dark Materials James Cosmo & Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (HBO/BBC)

Lyra & the Gyptians get some formidable muscle, both human and otherwise, in a dazzling, emotionally moving fourth episode.

A Twitter friend noted that she wondered why the showrunners of His Dark Materials were bothering to maintain the illusion that the Magisterium isn’t an allegory for the Catholic Church. To be fair, the fear of education and questioning authority, that’s the cornerstone of most Christian religions. It’s certainly enough to allow for some plausible deniability. But the dedication to arcane secrecy, the leadership consisting mostly of creepy, shady old men who are keeping some darker secrets of their own? That’s all Catholicism.

In fact, the “Magisterium” is a real thing, those select few members of the Church who have the God-given authority to interpret holy scripture. The fact that there are men (and of course they’re all men) who feel that they’re special enough to know how God Himself would want His own words to be understood makes you wonder how there aren’t more allegories written about such grotesque, destructive arrogance.

But we have His Dark Materials, and it’s getting better with every episode. It opens with the long awaited arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda, struggling with a Texas accent but charming as ever as Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut who descends from the heavens in a steampunk hot air balloon. Lee’s daemon is a hare named Hester (voiced by comedian Cristela Alonzo), and it’s here that the audience really understands how a healthy, symbiotic relationship between an adult and their daemon is supposed to look like. While the daemons working for the cause of the Magisterium, like those that belong to Mrs. Coulter and Carlo, never speak, and are only used to either intimidate others, or stare balefully in judgment, Lee and Hester sing together, trade wisecracks, and cheer each other on during a bar fight. Ideally, with your daemon at your side, you’re grounded, your best self, and it knows who you really are. That Mrs. Coulter treats her daemon, golden monkey, as an annoyance at best, speaks volumes.

Lee’s arrival in a port side town proves fortuitous, as he arrives at the same time as Lyra (Dafne Keen) and the Gyptians, on the journey north and in need of some reinforcements. Though they have determination and bravery on their side, they lack sheer muscle, and they can’t do much better than Iorek Bynison, a polar bear magnificently voiced by Joe Tandberg, and an eye-popping example of seamless motion capture. A credit to both the special effects team and the actors, who do an excellent job of reacting to something that isn’t there, Iorek is a marvel of technology, right down to the battle scars on his furry, grizzled snout. If His Dark Materials does anything perfectly right, it’s creating a world that feels so robustly real that you can count every feather and strand of fur on the daemons’ bodies.

It’s interesting to note that Lyra, for a child, has an unsettling amount of self-assurance.

Iorek’s also a bear suffering from an existential crisis. Once a celebrated warrior clad in priceless (both financially and spiritually) armor, Iorek was exiled after killing another bear in battle, his armor stolen from him by the humans in the port town. Defeated and resorting to scrounging for scrap metal, Iorek has no interest in helping Lyra or the Gyptians find the missing children, until she uses the alethiometer to help him get his armor back. Despite the concerns of John Faa (Lucas Msamati), Lyra ultimately ends up getting not just Iorek, but Lee to join them.

It’s interesting to note that Lyra, for a child, has an unsettling amount of self-assurance. She gets in Iorek’s face and taunts him for his cowardliness, with no concern that she’s a 12 year-old girl, and he’s a bear. When John Faa protests bringing Iorek with them, Lyra’s insistence that Iorek, like the Gyptians, has been lied to and mistreated by the Magisterium sounds smooth to the point of glibness. Such subtle manipulation to get what she wants runs in the family — it’s Mrs. Coulter’s preferred technique as well, when she doesn’t have to resort to threats and violence. The primary difference is that Lyra (so far, at least) uses this skill for good rather than ill, but one wonders if there will come a point where she figures out that it can also be used to turn people against each other, avoid accountability, and bend others to her will.

Speaking of Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), she’s in a spot of trouble after defying the Magisterium’s rule of “scholastic sanctuary” after destroying the Master’s texts. Though she’s threatened with the loss of her duties, she’s brought a bargaining chip to this particular disciplinary meeting — Lord Asriel, who’s being held captive by King Iofur (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz), another bear who wishes to be baptized into the Magisterium. 

Though this is an almost unheard of honor, particularly for an animal, Mrs. Coulter’s as cool as a cucumber promising it to him if he cooperates with her. Now she has an armored bear as well, and if previews of upcoming episodes of His Dark Materials are any indicator, more are to come, and they’ll all be forced to choose sides: the devil they know (a dedication to order and the old ways), and the one they don’t (free will and independent thought). Both are led by women, underestimated and feared by men, who know each other better than they think, and more than they would like.

Random Thoughts:

  • This episode was a lot, in a good way. If I had covered everything it had covered, including more gruesome information about what the Gobblers are doing to the children they steal, Farder Coram’s (James Cosmo) heartbreaking story of his lost love affair with the witch Seraphina and their dead son, and the mysterious Dr. Lenselius (Omid Djalili), this recap would end up 4,000 words long. It feels exactly like a halfway point episode should feel, however — now that plenty of time has been spent establishing the characters and the settings, things can start cooking.
  • Harry Potter fans may be pleased to spot Harry Melling as an officious employee of the Magisterium, who has an uncomfortably close encounter with Iorek. Or not, depending on what you thought of Dudley Dursling.
  • Note that the creepy Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck), while telling Mrs. Coulter that she’s being stripped of her duties, stares at her like he’s thinking about stripping her. Later, Carlo (Ariyan Bakare) taunts the even creepier Fra Pavel (Frank Bourke), in charge of reading the Magisterium’s alethiometer, about his “filthy predilections.” This show is a lot of things, sweeping, absorbing, a little confounding at times, but it is not subtle when it comes to its feelings about the gross hypocrisy of organized religion.
  • This week in Mrs. Coulter fashion: a fabulous turtleneck and fur hat ensemble she wears on the trip to speak with King Iofur.
  • That being said, Lee’s Indiana Jones fedora and leather duster coat give the whole character a fun 1940s action star vibe, and some lightheartedness to His Dark Materials, a show that so far seems very determined to be taken extremely seriously.
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