his dark materials armour review

Hey, did you know His Dark Materials was based off a children’s book series? You wouldn’t guess based on the somber tone of the HBO series, which has become so self-serious that it almost fails to find the fun in talking animals and armor-wearing polar bears. But in the fourth episode, “Armour,” in swoops Lin-Manuel Miranda to the rescue in a hot air balloon, singing a duet with his rabbit daemon and injecting some much-needed levity just as the story is about to take a turn for the dark.

A Buoyant Introduction

There really is no better way for Lin-Manuel Miranda to be introduced than by singing a duet with a talking rabbit on board a hot air balloon. It’s like Miranda brought all the whimsy from his time in Mary Poppins Returns to His Dark Materials — whimsy that the series had been lacking until now, for all its talking, shapeshifting animals. Miranda is Lee Scoreseby, a devil-may-care aeronaut on a mission to find his old friend Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear who he had heard had gotten tricked out of his armor by a local port town. On the way to that town, he and his daemon Hester spot the Gyptian boats heading to port, noting the strangeness of Gyptians being this far north.

Sporting a fedora and an accent that I can only describe as “theater,” Miranda is a far cry from the salt-of-the-earth Texan adventurer that his character is on the page. Flashy, theatrical, and positively buoyant, Miranda’s Lee Scoresby is a breath of fresh air amidst all the mud and grime of the series. He and Hester have the closest human-daemon relationship of the screen — the pair of them acting like a buddy-comedy that swooped into this desolate Western-style town. It’s so refreshing to see such a chatty and visible daemon where in the past the animals noticeably disappear for stretches of time (likely to save on the show’s budget). When Lee gets into a fight at the bar, Hester cheers and goads him on like a coach in the boxing ring — it’s a scene that is the closest the show will probably get to a straight up comedy. There’s even a punchline! But Lee is there to do more than stir up trouble. He’s on a mission to rescue his bear friend, but is only greeted by hostile townspeople, including the Magisterium official Syssellman (Harry Potter‘s Harry Melling, delightfully snivelly).

To be honest, Lee’s whole subplot in “Armour” has little bearing on the overall story, but Miranda is such a joy to watch that you don’t care. It’s like His Dark Materials basically handed Miranda a script for a pseudo-Western and said, “Have at it,” and Miranda is living out his cowboy dreams.

The Bear Necessities

Lyra and the Gyptians arrive in Trollesund, a port town of mud and rusted metal that is curiously devoid of children. It’s the home of the witch consul Dr. Lenselius, who can relay Farder Coram’s request for help to Serafina Pekkala, the leader of a witch clan with whom Farder Coram once shared a past with. The witch consul is reluctant to get the clans involved in human affairs, suggesting that going up against the Magisterium would be declaring war. But he changes his mind after he sees Lyra read the alethiometer, which his spies had spotted her using earlier that day. When she correctly picks out the pine spray that belongs to Serafina Pekkala in Dr. Lenselius’s trove of witch items, he hands her a piece of the spray and promises Serafina’s help. But Farder Coram is nervous about Lenselius’s change of mind, remarking later to John Faa that when Lyra answered his question correctly, he looked “greedy.”

But Lenselius’ intentions aside, the witch consul does point them to the armored bear under the town’s employ when Lyra boldly asks him, “What question should we be asking you that we aren’t?” Lyra is in her element here — ballsy, boastful, and more confidently staring down Iorek when she and Farder Coram go to visit him working in the ironworks. HBO’s money is on display here: Iorek is nowhere near the Pepsi polar bear that was so mocked in the movie: he’s dirty, giant, and looming, Joe Tandberg bestowing on the bear an impressively gravelly voice. You get a real sense of terror when Lyra calls Iorek a coward to his face, though he remains hidden for much of the episode, humiliated by his dirty and drunken state.

In a parallel to her introductory scene, Mrs. Coulter struts down the halls of the Magisterium in yet another glamorous suit, but this time there’s a hesitation in her step and an anger in the way she slaps away the hand of her monkey daemon. She’s there to get a scolding from Father MacPhail and Cardinal Sturrock, who are about to shut her operation down when Mrs. Coulter pulls out the ace: she has captured Lord Asriel. Or rather, she has under her control the king of the armored bears who have captured Asriel — a feat that earns her more time with her experiments and a session with the Magisterium’s nebbish alethiometer reader Fra Pavel, who she requests to ask the question, “Who is Lyra Belacqua?”

Great Debts

With both Lee and Lyra attempting to free the same bear, it was only a matter of time before their paths intersect. And when they do, it’s magic. Dafne Keen and Miranda’s dynamic is a delight to watch — the two of them bantering and bickering as only fellow scoundrels would do. Lee at first ignores Lyra’s prying questions about Iorek, but Lyra needles her way into his good graces by out-bluffing him and stealing his food. She is desperate to free Iorek Byrnison after learning of his mistreatment by the town, which had tricked and stolen his armor from him, and promises Lee that the Gyptians will hire him if he helps her. But the Gyptians aren’t as enthusiastic to hire a killer bear as Lyra, with John Faa forbidding Lyra from seeking out the bear as they prepare to leave town for the Gobblers’ station Bolvanger, the location of which they had learned from Serafina Pekkala’s daemon.

Frustrated, Lyra uses her aletheiometer to tell Iorek where his armor is — on the conditions that he will work for the Gyptians and that he doesn’t hurt anyone when he goes to look for it. Iorek begrudgingly agrees and after a brief terrifying rampage, is calmed down by Lyra and Lee — but not before we get a satisfying shot of Syssellman getting trampled. When Lyra proudly returns to the Gyptians with Lee and Iorek in tow, the baffled reactions of John Faa are gold — as is the glare that Lee sends Lyra when he learns that she was bluffing. But it seems that Miranda’s whimsy isn’t a one-time deal: he’s infected the entire series with a newfound lightness.

The episode ends with Mrs. Coulter meeting with Iofur Raknison, the ambitious bear that had wrested Iorek’s throne from him with Coulter’s help, to convince him to give her control over Lord Asriel. Iofur is at first reluctant, but is swayed by Coulter’s cloyingly sweet charms (Ruth Wilson notably addressing Iofur in the same way she did Lyra before, like a naughty child) and her promise that he will be first bear to be baptized.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • Lord Boreal’s storyline has grinded to a halt, but the series seems insistent on squeezing him in for a quick appearance with Fra Pavel, asking his own question about Stanislaus Grumman.
  • The direction in this episode has vastly improved, with Hooper’s influence all but gone.
  • James Cosmo gets a lovely little showcase in this episode with his revelation to Lyra that he and Serafina Pekkala had lost a child, his weary sadness is excellent.
  • I like the touch of John Faa looking uncertain and almost aghast at Serafina’s daemon, Kaisa, addressing them directly without Serafina present. Witches are the only ones that can separate from their daemons for long distances, but it’s still seen as unnatural.
  • Bolvanger translates to “the fields of death,” definitely a place you want to send your children.
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