TV Review: His Dark Materials: "The Fight to the Death" (S1, Ep. 7)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds herself taken prisoner by the armored bears, who are led by the villainous Iofur. Because of his fundamentally crooked nature, however, she is able to trick him into engaging Iorek in a vicious battle to the death. Having helped Iorek to ascend his throne, Lyra sets off in search of her father Lord Asriel, who is also being sought by the Magisterium, particularly Mrs. Coulter.

Though she only appears briefly in this episode, Ruth Wilson as always turns in an intense performance as Mrs. Coulter. Though she has been momentarily defeated by Lyra and company (a cause of no small consternation), she is nevertheless determined to regain what credibility she can with the Magisterium. It never ceases to amaze me how powerfully Mrs. Coulter has managed to embody this character. One can almost feel the scene crackling with her magnetism and rage, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series treats her in the second (and hopefully third) seasons.

As I’ve said before, I heartily approve of the way that the series is handling the character of Will. Rather than abruptly introducing him in the second season, they’re bringing him in quite early. And, in another adept move, they’ve given Boreal something active to do rather than simply having him appear now and then to plague Lyra and Will with his seemingly petty activities. Though it’s not clear yet to me why he’s so intent on finding John Parry, one hopes that this will at least be somewhat resolved in the second season.

Overall, I enjoyed the scenes with the bears a great deal. The CGI version of Iofur is really quite good, and he really comes across as a bear that is both cunning and power-hungry. However, I have to say that the titanic battle between Iorek and Iofur was a bit anticlimactic, largely because its conclusion occurs out of focus as Lyra kneels on the ground in near-despair at what she thinks is Iorek’s impending death. I’m frankly a little puzzled about why they chose to have this happen almost out-of-frame, unless it was to make the scene more palatable to some of the series presumably younger viewers. That seems like an odd decision to take for a network like HBO, but then again this is one of the few times I can recall that the network has decided to produce a series that was originally intended largely for children and young adults.

While this wasn’t necessarily the best episode that the series has produced thus far, it did what it needed to do (set up the climax of the finale), while also hitting some nice grace notes along the way. I’m definitely looking forward to the final episode, even though I’m sure that, like the novel, it will absolutely break my heart. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can think that you can tell from Asriel’s dismay at Lyra’s arrival and his effusiveness at Roger’s, that something is not quite right and that something very terrible indeed is about to happen).

Now that we’ve almost reached the end of the season, I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the way that the series has chosen to adapt Pullman’s work. Though I liked the earlier film adaptation, I felt that it took too much of the anti-dogmatic bite out of the books, leaving a rather bland epic outing that looked good but didn’t seem to have much to say. This series has kept most of the religious criticism intact, and I disagree with some of the critics who argue that it’s too blandly presented to be effective.

The casting has also been uniformly excellent, and both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson deserve great credit, as does Dafne Keen. They’ve all done a great deal to bring these characters to life, to make us feel as if we’re invested in them and what happens to them, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they grow and develop as the series advances. Things are about to get very strange and very dark for these people, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the series handles the second book.

Until next week!

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