With “The Fight to the Death,” His Dark Materials for the first time goes into the unknown — and I’m not making that Frozen-related pun because Lyra and co. find themselves deep in the arctic tundra. This is mostly unknown territory for His Dark Materials adaptation-wise; 2007’s The Golden Compass never got this far in its adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel, opting to end on a triumphant note with Lyra’s victory in Bolvanger. But this is, as people say, where shit goes down.
But His Dark Materials is striking out into new territory in more than just source material. Finally, His Dark Materials feels like it has come into its own and stopped trying to be a pale Game of Thrones imitation. “The Fight to the Death” feels uniquely grand and mythic, and it features a bunch of talking, murderous bears, which is never a bad thing.
Winning a Cage Match
Something struck me during the opening minutes of “The Fight to the Death”: I have never seen anything like this on television before. Talking animals have rarely been granted this air of solemnity — at least on the small screen. The society of panserbjørne, or armored bears with human-level intelligence, was the element that I was the most anxious over whether His Dark Materials would pull it off, and it manages to do so through a combination of formidable production design, a CGI budget to match, and a plucky performance from Dafne Keen. Sure, the other bears who aren’t Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Ragnison barely talk, and the large part of the bear action conveniently takes place off screen, but it’s in this depiction of the bears in their brutal stone palace filled with rotting carcasses that I feel like His Dark Materials has finally surpassed its Game of Thrones-esque ambitions.
After surviving a rough tumble from Lee Scoresby’s air balloon, Lyra and Pan more visible than ever in this episode, thanks for acknowledging my criticisms specifically, His Dark Materials find themselves alone at the bottom of the cliffs. Lighting up when she spots an armored bear through the mist, Lyra realizes with horror that it’s not Iorek. Our intrepid heroine gets taken prisoner by the panserbjørne, who usher her to the daunting palace of Svalbard and throw her in a cell, which she soon discovers that she shares with a man named Jotham Santelia Asheq Akhtar, by far our best exposition deliverer: lending the whole scene an uncanny feeling with his grandiose and maniacal performance, a former scholar who had been imprisoned by Svalbard’s king Iofur Ragnison after he had failed to fulfill Iofur’s wish of becoming human. This sparks an idea in Lyra, who demands to be taken to Iofur with vital information on Iorek.
Taken to Iofur’s throne room, Lyra timidly approaches the king, whose splendor is somewhat undercut by the blood and carcasses painting his walls which makes for a fantastic visual. Lyra smoothly tells him the lie that she is Iorek’s daemon created in Bolvanger, tricking Iofur into fighting Iorek in single combat, saving her rescuer from getting instantly killed by the palace’s defenses. The arrogant Iofur eagerly agrees, preparing for a death match with Iorek, who soon arrives at the palace and jumps into the fight after calming down a tearful Lyra. For being the central setpiece of the episode, the fight to the death between Iorek and Iofur is surprisingly short, but it’s still an impressively savage battle that at times feels uncomfortably realistic this is what the show has been saving up its daemon budget for, apparently. Iorek kills Iofur and wins back his kingdom, to the delight of Lyra, whom he dubs for her skillful trickery, Lyra Silvertongue.
Murder He Wrote
As Lyra is witnessing one fight to the death, Will Parry Amir Wilson finds himself one of the participants in another. This is what all the brief appearances from Will have been leading up to, in a series of events taken straight out of the opening pages of The Subtle Knife. I had a hunch that this is where the show was going in the final episodes of the first season, which will allow us to cut straight to the action in season 2. It’s real satisfying to see Boreal’s long, often hing, arc come to fruition with this very violent collision with Will’s story.
Impatient with his accomplices’ stakeout of Elaine and Will’s house, Boreal boldly knocks on Elaine’s door and lets himself in, posing as a British intelligence officer which technically is not untrue. He teases the possibility that John Parry is alive, which rattles Elaine, who still refuses to tell him of any items that John left without a warrant. But this encounter doesn’t do any good for Elaine’s already fragile mental state — she immediately flees to Will’s school to anxiously wait outside for him as he leaves.
I have something to say about Amir Wilson’s clenched jaw: It’s good. That clenched jaw carries the rest of this frenzied arc, as a concerned Will takes his panicked mom back home, only to discover that her crazed rantings were true. Their house has been ransacked and Will, worried that the men are still in the house, takes his mom to his coach’s house while he returns for his father’s letters. But as he recovers the letters from Elaine’s hiding place under the sewing machine, Will hears the door open as Boreal’s two men enter the house. Hiding around the corner with a belt around his hand, Will suddenly lunges at one of the men, who trips over the cat behind him and falls over the railing, breaking his neck. Guilt-ridden, Will flees back to his coach’s house, but upon seeing his mom in the window, he turns around and runs away.
Ruth Wilson doesn’t get much screen time in this episode, but what little time she gets, she absolutely murders. In a truly eerie shot, our perfect villain Mrs. Coulter surveys the wreckage of Bolvanger and gives a soundless scream as Lorne Balfe’s score at its thrumming, thrilling best in this episode goes into overdrive. Wilson’s feral energy is at its peak in this episode, as she takes out her anger against the helpless nurse Morfydd Clark in a fit of rage before pulling back and to shush her victim and tearfully apologize. But despite her string of defeats, Mrs. Coulter quickly gets the upper hand again with the arrival of a group of Magisterium soldiers who have arrived in the north to kill Asriel in the wake of Iofur’s defeat by Iorek, schmoozing her way back into the church’s good graces through her connection to Asriel. No one is doing it like Wilson — whose mercurial temper and duality is an absolute wonder to behold every episode. I hope that the series finds a way to keep up her appearances, even as her character disappears for stretches in future books.
The episode is really playing up Lyra and Roger’s deep relationship, with several joyful full-bodied hugs shared between the two to emphasize just how adorable they are and how terrible it would be if anything happened to them. But the omens are planted as the two reunite and make their way to Asriel’s lab on Iorek’s back. When the two of them knock on his door, Lyra is instantly recognized by Asriel’s servant, who ushers them in. Lyra wanders through Asriel’s industrial-chic laboratory, when she is spotted by Asriel who drops his things in shock, grabbing Lyra and screaming that he did not send for her. My complaints with McAvoy’s performance before this are all negated by this one scene: McAvoy shows such sheer intensity in these final minutes that you can practically feel it through the screen — his screams at Lyra are so agonized that McAvoy’s Scottish accent even starts to slip out. And at the drop of a dime, he pulls it back, that agony replaced by greed which McAvoy absolutely nails when he spots Roger.
Lord Boreal spends his time rewatching videos of Andrew Scott, which, same. Lee Scoresby makes a short but delightful appearance this episode more humming Lin-Manuel Miranda please!, trying to salvage his busted balloon before he’s interrupted by Serafina, who enlists him again to fight in a war for Lyra. “We cut away your daemon, not your brain.” All the spotty daemon appearances up until now might be worth the series investing its entire budget into those gorgeous shots of Iorek running through the arctic tundra with Lyra and Roger on his back.