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His Dark Materials Discussion: 'The Fight to the Death' races to the finish line
The penultimate episode of His Dark Materials' first season begins with a bang — or at least, a bear battle — and ends with an ominous plot twist none of us are quite ready for.
Lyra is taken prisoner by King Iofur, where she must do some quick thinking and devious manipulating to survive and protect her friend, Iorek. Elsewhere, Mrs. Coulter readies to travel North to confront Lord Asriel over his experiments with Dust, experiments he certainly doesn't want his daughter knowing about.
It's a race to the finish that robs us of some epic showdowns but does manage to set up the emotional turmoil we've been dreading since the show began.
Warning: This discussion contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 7 of His Dark Materials.
Battle of the Bears
Alyssa: The battle with the Gyptians in the last episode left Bolvangar thoroughly destroyed, leaving Mrs. Coulter to sift through the ruins to see if there is anything that can be saved. She comes across one of the nurses that has had her daemon removed, and honestly, as terrible as these people are, my heart broke a bit. This woman has nowhere to go and no understanding of the bleakness of her situation. Being without a daemon in the "safety" of the Station is one thing, but out in the wide world is something else entirely. Mrs. Coulter is frustrated by the woman's inability to grasp what's going on, so she does what she does best: attempted murder!
Jessica: Her mood swings are … woof. I mean, one second she's letting out a guttural scream that will haunt my dreams for many nights, the next she's choking a girl, and then she's calmly apologizing for the choking. It's psychological whiplash and it's exhausting, which is why I can't fault these Magisterium dudes who are so tired of Mrs. Coulter's antics, they want her out of the North while they search for Asriel. We see Mrs. Coulter weasel her way into the hunt anyway but the excitement that comes with the knowledge that soon we'll see Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy share some screentime can't last long because y'all, Lyra's in trouble.
Alyssa: Right? I am totally counting down the minutes until these two are onscreen together, but you're correct, that only means bad things for Lyra. Speaking of Lyra, how did our girl survive that fall without so much as a bruised rib? Quite a feat. Lyra and Pan are on their own after they were thrown from Lee's ship, and they're found by a bear, but definitely not the one they were hoping for. Sadly, it is not the noble Iorek who finds them, but one of Iofur's guards who hauls them off to Svalbard. While she's imprisoned, Lyra meets a scholar who was hired by Iofur to make him a daemon. When he couldn't produce one — bears don't have daemons — and told Iofur so, he was thrown in prison indefinitely. Svalbard is a rough place.
Jessica: The blood strewn on the steps of the palace should've been a dead giveaway. Of course, our little weasel smells an "in" with Iofur after gleaning this bit of insight. She demands an audience with the king and proceeds to tell him that she is Iorek Byrnison's daemon — Mrs. Coulter wasn't just cutting kids at The Station, she was crafting artificial daemons as well. She says that Iorek is on his way and if Iofur wants to have her for himself he needs to defeat him in single combat. It's all very devious on Lyra's part, and a smart move considering Iofur could've had Iorek killed before he ever reached the castle if he wanted. Of course, Iofur demands a test to prove what Lyra's telling him is the truth, so she asks the alethiometer his question and we discover that, gasp, Iofur killed his own dad. Humans are bad but patricidal bear kings might be worse.
Alyssa: I am really glad that she show hasn't glossed over the fact that Lyra is startling adept at lying. It is often the way with these adaptations to smooth down the rough edges of our heroes, particularly female ones (I love the Harry Potter movies, but they really removed the fury that made Hermione, Hermione), so I am glad that her cunning is still there. After she tricks Iofur into agreeing to a one on one battle with Iorek, she just has to sit back and wait while these two fight it out for the last time. However, I'm just going to say it: I was underwhelmed by the bear fight. This is HBO; show me the bear eating the other's heart!!! It was fine, but I really felt like they didn't quite nail the ferocity of the fight that was there in the book.
Jessica: Look, was I terrified for Iorek throughout? Sure, but I have to agree, I've seen a man stab a pregnant woman to death because of HBO. I can handle a little bear-on-bear gore. And if the point was to make us question who won, they shouldn't have given us blurred glimpses of Iorek on top of Iofur as Lyra covered her ears. The whole thing felt a bit rushed and, honestly, with all the threads that need to be tied together in the finale, it probably was which is a shame because there was a lot of simmering tension and past betrayal that could've amped this whole showdown up to the next level. Still, I will not complain about the outcome. Iorek is now king of the bears. Were you as surprised as I that these armored guards were so quick to shift allegiances? I didn't expect anyone to throw down for Iofur but normally, when there's such a sudden upheaval of power, more people shoot their shot for that throne, no?
Alyssa: I kind of get the feeling that the bears are more loyal to the position than the person and are rather easily persuaded. You know who is not easily persuaded? Lord Boreal, who is still determined to make Elaine Parry's life a living hell. After watching that interview with John Parry for the umpteenth time (relatable), Boreal realizes that there are probably some letters in the Parry residence that could help him in his search. So, of course, he forces his way in and does his best to intimidate Elaine into breaking down. This guy. I'm sick of him. Leave Elaine alone!
Jessica: She's been through enough! Of course, Elaine's paranoia has peaked because of this Boreal mess so she sees through his threats to obtain a warrant and get the secret government agency he works with involved. She also knows her husband well enough to suspect the story Boreal tells, of John being involved in some "nasty" stuff that includes theft of precious artifacts is total B.S. But, as soon as Boreal leaves, a terrified Elaine rushes to Will's school to tell him his dad might be alive. Not the after-school pickup chat our boy was expecting.
Alyssa: Listen, if a strange man forced himself into my house, told me my dead husband could be alive after 13 years of absence, AND showed me his creepy arm snake, I would be shaken up too. Poor Elaine is at the end of her rope, and that means that Will has to pick up the slack. This kid is handling things way beyond what the average kid is meant to handle, and he's just trying to keep his fragile mother safe. I understand that John Parry was doing important work, but he certainly left behind a lion's share of trouble for his wife and child to deal with in his absence. So Will takes Elaine to his kind coach's house so she's safe from Boreal's men, but part of me wants to shake Mr. Hanway for letting Will leave like that! He's just a kid!
Jessica: Right, like you've seen him box. He can't handle this! Still, Will is the best little cinnamon roll that ever was for taking care of his mom the way he has. He goes back home to get the letters, has a run-in with Boreal's goons, makes it out okay, and instead of returning to Hanway's house, he sets off on his own because he's tired of this sh*t and he wants answers. May the Authority protect this sweet beansprout.
Alyssa: "Has a run-in with Boreal's goons," a.k.a. Maybe accidentally killed one, which is a lot to have on one kid's conscience. Also continuing to punch way above her weight class is Lyra, who is gifted with a new nickname by Iorek: Lyra Silvertongue. Now that he's back in charge at Svalbard, he tells the bears that there will be no more killing, that they're going to go back to their bear ways instead of taking on the violent ways of humanity. I would say that was a vicious burn against all humans, but we deserve it. After consulting the alethiometer to see if Lee is safe — he is! — Lyra finds Roger and the sweetest friends in the land are reunited. It's a good thing too because the Magesterium immediately gets wind of Iofur's death and head North.
Jessica: The army of air balloons is heading to Asriel's hideout with the promise that Mrs. Coulter can figure out what he's attempting to do with Dust. She knows him very well after all. Speaking of air balloons, Lee has crash-landed somewhere and spends most of the episode worrying about his friends before Seraphina swoops in to assure him they're well and let him know he still has a role to play in all of this. For a grifter like Lee Scoresby, this idea of destiny presents a bit of a dilemma. He's used to flying solo, to going wherever the wind takes him. Now he's tethered to Lyra and this ominous prophecy she's supposed to fulfill. It's an adventure to be sure, but not one he's sure he's ready for.
Alyssa: Agreed. Lee has really jumped into this with both feet, and that seems like it's a new MO for him. That being said, his face when he finds out that Lyra is OK? Heart eyes, motherf***er. Lee may pass himself off as a ruffian and a scallywag, but that man is all in on helping this feral child achieve her destiny. It's not the most natural choice for him, but it's the one he's making.
Jessica: Meanwhile, Iorek and a few armored bears spirit Lyra and Roger to Asriel's laboratory where he is … not pleased to see her. Lyra thought she was saving her dear old dad but it turns out, Asriel's gone full-crazy, holed up in his lair, doing his experiments, obsessing over auroras and Dust. He reacts pretty violently to seeing Lyra, emphasizing he didn't send for her, before he catches a glimpse of Roger and immediately calms down. Reader: Something is up.
Alyssa: That was the moment that a million book readers screamed in agony. While you are correct, Asriel seems to be on the wrong side of madness at this point, I also feel like his agony at seeing Lyra there is the first time we see him get genuinely paternal. He shows it in odd ways, that's for damn sure, but just like she has with everyone else around her, Lyra is under his skin and he cares about her. There's definitely a reason why he doesn't want her around his work because he knows that it's deeply unsafe. Did Lyra and Roger just escape one danger to find themselves in another?
Jessica: Look, nothing good can come from staying in Asriel's lab. Even the promise of a hot bath doesn't wash away the fishy smell of his research and his reaction to seeing Roger. As someone familiar with this story, I know what's coming next but damn do I wish the show would rewrite this particular plotline. Still, inevitable tragedy aside, can I reiterate how excited I am to see Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel square off? I'm positively giddy, which Alyssa you know is not a phrase I use often … or ever.
Alyssa: That is going to be great, I am positive. These two have absolutely killed it so far this season, so I can only imagine that their interactions will be electric. Sign. Me. Up. We've got one episode left and a lot of things to tie up — or to leave dangling, torturing us until Season 2 — so I think this finale is going to be a real barn burner. But, as excited as I am, I am emotionally UNREADY. Gird your loins, everyone. I don't think we're emotionally prepared.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.