Two Bears Go To War in ‘His Dark Materials’ Episode 7 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 7, “The Fight to the Death.”]
His Dark Materials heads into the home-stretch, but after a run of strong episodes, the series falters this week with a somewhat lackluster effort. “The Fight to the Death” is an episode of big confrontations and even bigger revelations, but the show fails to capitalize on either.
The episode centers around Iofur Raknison (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz), the king of the armored bears, who reveals he wants to be human. He wants his own daemon. This is a really intriguing, philosophical idea, one that brings to mind the characters of The Wizard of Oz and their desire for a brain/courage/heart. It’s not that Iofur merely wants power and control, although those are desires he obviously learned from the humans he’s interacted with in the past. Iofur is searching for something more emotionally fulfilling, and that is the kind of lofty, allegorical material I was expecting from this series based on what I’d heard about the books.
Unfortunately, the TV show doesn’t spend enough time exploring this concept. Iofur’s admission and its implications are quickly brushed past in favor of an ‘egomaniacal villain edit’ and an underwhelming fight scene. It’s a shame because, for the past few weeks, His Dark Materials has really stepped up in quality, both creatively and thematically. The narrative surrounding the children and the daemon-experiments has been particularly affecting in the way it resonates beyond the screen. In comparison, Iofur and the armored bears’ story feels underwritten, and that’s why — despite some fun moments — I found this episode somewhat disappointing.
It probably doesn’t help that Iofur is presented as a gullible buffoon, one who is easily fooled and manipulated. This is immediately evident when Lyra (Dafne Keen) ends up in his presence after falling from the sky and into the kingdom of the armored bears. Lyra talks her way out of trouble by appealing to Iofur’s deepest desires. She tells him that his sworn enemy, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), has what he always wanted, a daemon, and it’s her. And she convinces Iofur to take on Iorek in one-on-one combat, with a promise that if Iofur wins, she will become his daemon instead.
Now, I know that Lyra is bright and can think on her feet, traits she’s clearly inherited from her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who similarly duped Iofur into letting him continue his research while imprisoned. But the way she so effortlessly swindles this supposedly powerful and dangerous beast makes him look like a dummy, especially as Iorek previously told us that bears couldn’t be tricked. And so it’s hard to buy into Iofur as a threat when he comes across as an overgrown, furry toddler, prone to temper tantrums and distracted by shiny objects.
Not only is Iofur handily hoodwinked, but he’s soundly defeated and killed by Iorek in their not-so-big showdown. I mean, the fight is fine; I understand this show doesn’t have a Game of Thrones-level budget, and so you’re not going to get an Oberyn vs. The Mountain style clash between two CGI polar bears. But for something billed as “The Fight to the Death,” it’s all over in relatively quick fashion, and we don’t even see the finish, though I suppose seeing a bear having its throat ripped out isn’t ideal family-friendly viewing.
The problem is more that Iofur never felt like this big, imposing monster other characters made him out to be. He was spoken of as a tyrannical oppressor who strikes fear into friends and enemies alike. But I never got that impression. And that’s because the show hasn’t spent enough time developing Iofur, whether as a fearsome dictator or a flawed villain. He’s only been seen once before, and even then, it was in a brief, shadowy conversation with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). And just when we realize that his aspirations might go beyond greed and touch on something more profound, he is killed and booted aside.
That said, I did enjoy Iorek coming out on top and reclaiming his throne, promising a new beginning to his kingdom, one based on “bear ways, not human.” Yes, it all happened a bit fast, which I know is an odd complaint given how plodding the season was early on, but Iorek is a likable character, and it’s nice to see the good guys get a win. I wasn’t quite as elated as Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) was when he found out about his friend’s success, but I was happy nonetheless. And it also meant that Lyra could be reunited with her father, who has been secretly researching Dust in his cliff-edge laboratory.
Lyra is joined by Roger (who also survived the balloon crash — I guess the snow gave a lot of padding) as they make their way to Asriel’s hideout. There’s this sweet moment just before Lyra knocks on the door where Roger tells her, “If you’re ever scared, I’m here” and gives her a great big hug. It’s touching, but also something feels slightly off — there is more than meets the eye with Roger. It becomes even more apparent when we go inside. Asriel is not pleased to see Lyra; in fact, he’s frightened. Then he sees Roger and his mood changes. What does Asriel know about the young kitchen boy, and what does he have in store for him?
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter tries to pick up the pieces after her Arctic lab/prison was destroyed. She struggles to contain her rage, and at one point, almost chokes one of the remaining nurses to death. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,” she whispers. Coulter’s world is unraveling, and as word of Iofur’s death spreads, she is ordered back to the Magisterium by Father MacPhail (Will Keen) to answer for her failures. But Coulter, like Lyra, is cunning. She tells MacPhail that she knows Asriel better than anyone; she can smell his next move. Basically, the Magisterium needs her.
For everything the show might have gotten wrong with Iofur, it hasn’t missed a trick with Coulter, who remains one of the highlights of the series. She is the flawed villain that Iofur only showed hints of being, and Wilson performs that dichotomy between good and evil with impeccability. There’s only one episode of the season left, but I suspect her showdown with Asriel (and Lyra) will be far more rewarding than the Iofur vs. Iorek battle, and I for one can’t wait.
Lastly, we finally have some traction in the ‘other world’ story with the Parrys. Will (Amir Wilson) now believes his mother when she says people are spying on them, and his confrontation with the home invaders, who break into the house looking for his dad’s letters, leads to him accidentally killing one of the dudes. I suspect this is the incident that kickstarts Will’s journey to find his missing father and will most likely bring him and Lyra together. The question is, will Will end up in Lyra’s world or vice versa?
A somewhat muted episode compared to the past couple of weeks but one which sets up the pieces for next week’s season finale.
-Serafina (Ruta Gedmintas) continues to bug Scoresby about how it’s his fate to protect Lyra, even though he hasn’t done such a great job so far.
-Did we already know that people in the other world can see daemons? Either way, Will’s mother clearly saw Carlo’s snake (not a euphemism).
His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO