TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Armour” (S1, Ep. 4)

First of all, let me start off by saying…wow, what an episode! Lyra finally meets both Lee Scoresby and the formidable armored bear Iorek and, by the end of the episode, they have all begun their trek to the place known to the witches as Bolvangar, where they hope to at last find and rescue the missing children. All of that is quite a lot of action to pack into an episode, but somehow it manages to feel perfectly paced.

I’ll confess that I had some serious doubts about Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. I guess I had a certain image of him (okay, it’s Sam Elliott from the film version), and I just wasn’t sold that the man most famous for playing Alexander Hamilton could conform to what I saw in the character. Say what you will about LMM, but he does have a certain rakish charm, and that comes across in his interpretation of Lee. He’s less the crusty old western cowboy and more the rakish adventurer, and let me tell you, it works.

The real star of this episode was, of course, Iorek Byrnison, arguably one of Pullman’s finest creations. The armored bears (also known as the panserbjørne) have always been one of my favourite parts about this series, a reminder of just how strange this world is (despite its surface resemblance to our own). The animation makes him appear both visually compelling and also more than a little terrifying, and the voice adds to the overall effect. Likewise, Iorek’s nemesis Iofur (thank goodness they kept the name, rather than changing it, as they did in the film) is in many ways his polar opposite, possessed of an obsession with outward appearance that manifests as an ornate golden helmet. I will be very interested indeed to see what happens with those two as the series progresses.

This episode, I think, shows signs that the series is at last beginning to find its legs and its voice. The narrative itself took a great, strong step forward, and it definitely looks as if the conflict that’s been brewing will finally come to pass, though it remains to be seen who will be the ultimate victor between the Magisterium and those who chafe under their restrictions. At the same time, it kept enough just out of our sight to keep us wanting more. The witches, for example, have yet to make an appearance, but it appears that they will at last make their entrance in next week’s episode.

A friend of mine also pointed out that Lyra is also beginning to mature in this episode, and I agree. In fact, I think that the series’ choice to show her as a little more mature than her novel counterpart was one of the wiser creative decisions, as it shortcuts some of the more laborious parts of the novel that focus on her emotional maturation. It also helps that Dafne Keen is just so compelling as a young actress, and I’m so glad that she was chosen to bring Lyra to visual life.

Just as importantly, this episode also showed that, beneath their powerful and implacable exterior, the members of the Magisterium are as divided and dangerous to one another as they are to their enemies. Marisa Coulter has everyone, even a cardinal and the king of the bears, wrapped around her finger, and she isn’t afraid to use every tool at her disposal to get what she wants. Evil as she might be, she continues to dominate every scene in which she appears. Speaking of Mrs. Coulter…if the costume designer for this series isn’t at the very least nominated for an Emmy for their costuming of Mrs. C. during this episode, then there is truly no justice in this world. When she appears in that maroon sheath in the heart of the Magisterium, drawing every eye to herself, it’s clear that she knows exactly what it takes to get what she wants.

I continue to be very pleased with the way that HBO has chosen to adapt one of my favuorite fantasy series, and I have very high hopes for the remainder of the season and for the already-filming second one. Stay tuned for next week’s review!