The Fantasy Adventure Finally Gets Going in 'His Dark Materials' Episode 4 (RECAP)

Martin Holmes
Spoiler Alert HBO

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 4, "Armor."]

Holy hot air balloons! Now that is more like it! After three weeks of table setting and plodding plot-lines, His Dark Materials is finally starting to deliver on its promise of being an epic fantasy adventure. And all it took was a new setting, a talking, armored polar bear, and a delightfully cheeky Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Right from the episode's opening moments, Miranda's roguish "aeronaut" Lee Scoresby breathes new life into the show. There's a cartoonish, Disney sidekick vibe to the Hamilton star's performance, which is a much-needed change of pace amongst all the self-serious Gyptians and dour Magisterium members. Scoresby is a quick-witted, pick-pocketing, bar-fighting rascal, who isn't afraid to cause bedlam wherever he goes—precisely the kind of person you want adventuring alongside you. 

Scoresby and his arctic hare daemon Hester (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) are looking for an old friend, Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear who was apparently exiled from his community for a serious crime. Their journey brings them to a Northern port town, where Lyra (Dafne Keen) and the Gyptians have also recently arrived in search of a witch called Serafina Pekkala—a sort of witch queen who holds a strong influence over other witches. As we learned last week, the Gyptians are hoping to gain the backing of the witches as they prepare to wage war on the Magisterium.

Lyra's Past Is Revealed in 'His Dark Materials' Episode 3 (RECAP)

Lyra's Past Is Revealed in 'His Dark Materials' Episode 3 (RECAP)

Family secrets are exposed in 'The Spies,' another slow-burn episode.

Sadly, we don't yet meet Serafina (or any witches for that matter), though we do find out she was married to Farder Coram (James Cosmo) many years ago. The pair went their separate ways due to the emotional toll of losing their young child. "She wanted to rip the world apart," Coram tells Lyra. "I just wanted to mourn in peace." This definitely seems like it's laying the groundwork for a heartwarming reunion later in the series, but for now, Coram can only communicate with his ex via her daemon, Kaiser.

The other witch messenger is the suspicious Dr. Martin Lanselius (Omid Djalili), a man who allegedly "keeps the peace" between the witches and the Magisterium. Lanselius takes a particular interest in Lyra's alethiometer, which she's beginning to carelessly flash around town like a kid showing off their new iPhone. While the doctor is impressed with Lyra and her compass-reading skills, he warns that she'll need more than smarts and heart to fight the Magisterium. "You need muscle... like an armored bear perhaps," he suggests. 

Lee Scoresby

HBO

If I'm getting this right, armored bears are a polar bear-like race that can talk and fight. They have their own kings and queens and societal heiarchy. But unlike humans, they don't have daemons; instead, their armadillo-like armor is said to represent their souls. Iorek is a bear without armor; it was stripped from him as punishment for allegedly getting drunk and tearing through the town. Now he's basically a captive, forced to work in a scrap metal yard as a sort of community service sentence. 

When we meet Iorek, he is battled-scared, bitter, and broken. His voice trembles with anger, but that anger is mostly directed inward. He feels shame and guilt for the crimes he's said to have committed. "Maybe I deserve to be judged?" he tells Scoresby. Iorek is disillusioned with the world and seems resigned to live out his days in enslavement. He turns down both Lyra and Scoresby when they ask for help. "I am not for sale," he growls. 

Roush Review: High Fantasy in HBO's 'His Dark Materials'

Roush Review: High Fantasy in HBO's 'His Dark Materials'

A lavish adaptation of Philip Pullman's YA trilogy sends a spunky orphan (Dafne Keen) on a journey to rescue kidnapped children.

But that changes when Lyra consults her alethiometer and finds out the truth. Iorek was mistreated and tricked. The townsfolk and corrupt local police (working in conjunction with the Magisterium) intentionally got him drunk so they could steal his armor. And when Lyra tells him she knows where his armor is hidden, he promises to help, before raging through town, reclaiming his armor and threatening to squish a cop's face with his giant paw. Unfortunately, Lyra and Scoresby talk Iorek out of this violent act of vengeance (it is a family show after all). 

Lyra, Scoresby, and Iorek have the potential to be a fun trio, which should make the continued journey North far more vibrant and exciting. It helps that Keen and Miranda bounce off each other really well, best demonstrated in their breakfast chat about bacon and bluffing. If Lyra isn't going to be interacting with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) every week, then Scoresby makes for a decent replacement, in terms of someone who can match Keen's energy and spirited performance.

His Dark Materials Iorek

HBO

Speaking of Mrs. Coulter, she saves her job with the General Oblation Board by telling the Cardinal (Ian Peck) that she has Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) held prisoner. You see, Lyra isn't the only one doing big bear business. Coulter cut a deal with the cave-dwelling king bear himself, Iofur Raknison (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz), who she helped dispose of Iorek. Now she wants control over Asriel, and in return, she promises Raknison a "baptism," making him the first Magisterium-approved bear. 

What does this all mean? I have no idea.... though I suspect we're in for an intense Iorek versus Iofur showdown at some point. I'm just happy the show is finally leaning into its fantasy elements, even if certain parts are insufficiently explained. I'm willing to have patience on answers if the weekly episodes deliver on the entertainment, and this week's episode ticked all the boxes.

Additional Notes

  • In return for capturing Lord Asriel, the Cardinal allows Mrs. Coulter to ask one question to the Magisterium's alethiometer. The question she poses, however, is somewhat surprising. "Who is Lyra Belacqua?" she asks. Does this suggest that Lyra isn't Coulter's daughter? 
  • Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) also threatens and blackmails his way into asking the alethiometer a question. He wants to know what the missing explorer Stanislaus Grumman discovered. More specifically, he wants to know how he can find what Grumman discovered.
  • Boreal's answer might lie in something Lyra noticed earlier in the episode. As she looks up into night sky, she briefly glimpses what looks to be a city behind the Northern Lights, just like Asriel saw in his investigations into dust.

His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO