11:46 pm EST, November 30, 2019

‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 4 recap: My name is Iorek Byrnison

His Dark Materials season 1, episode 4, “Armour,” took Lee Scoresby and threw his character out the door. Literally.

A bird. A compass. A sun. Those would be the three symbols I would choose on the alethiometer to find an answer about Lee Scoresby. Bred under the Texas sun, this is a man who soars like a bird, searching for his next adventure (and paycheck). But he can also soar a bit too close to the sun for his own good. His Dark Materials season 1, episode 4, takes this loose outline and fills it in with Lin Manuel-Miranda.

It also gives us the introduction of Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Joe Tandberg and put together by the creative team behind the original The Golden Compass film along with puppeteers on set. Iorek is the MVP of the series and my heart.

Meanwhile, in the underground tunnels of the Magisterium (I don’t have a map, but I assume all of these dealings are subterranean), Mrs. Coulter and Boreal are after answers from the alethiometer. Whatever dust was settling on these characters is quickly shaken off as Iorek makes the ground tremble and the voyage to the unknown North begins.

‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 4 recap

His Dark Materials 1x04 Lyra

Hamilton and Dudley Dursley have a brawl

This is not the Lee Scoresby from the book. But this is a Lee Scoresby that I love. Why? Because it is Lin-Manuel Miranda. When the role was cast, it was certainly an interesting choice, not an unwelcome one, but interesting. How would Miranda step into the balloon and carve out a space that is uniquely his? The answer turns out to be the exact same way he stepped into playing one of the founding fathers of our nation — finding the character and dragging him out down his own path, kept in check by the writing of Philip Pullman and Jack Throne while under the direction of Otto Bathurst.

The introduction of Lee, however, is less than ideal. First off, Lee is singing a tune and harmonizing with Hester. Charming, no doubt. But for a first impression, audiences do not need to be handheld into accepting a character of Miranda’s that does not involve him singing. Second, the exposition. Yikes. If you turned to say something about the singing, you during the episode, chances are you missed the entire backstory of Iorek and Lee.

But more on that later, since their reunion is worth more commentary than the ride in the balloon (which is gorgeous and has cup holders!).

The Lee we meet in the Trollesund port puts a lot of effort into painting a caricature of the man we are supposed to accept into our pack — a hot-headed American looking for the next paid gig that will keep him on the move. For now, he believes that lies with Iorek and the debt that he owes the panserbjørne aka the armored bear. But as he stumbles his way through a bar brawl, egged on by his daemon Hester, and tries to strike up a deal with Sysselman to take back the bear’s armor, eventually Lee crosses paths with Lyra, painting himself as a fast-talking swindler.

But he did give us all a line to use at our next job interview:

“I don’t come cheap and neither should I. You get gold for gold.”

Lee holds the answers of the bear, and aside from the info dump at the top of the episode, the rest of His Dark Materials episode 4 does a decent job of drawing a line that will connect Lee, Iorek, and eventually tie in Lyra. Except for Lee stealing Iorek’s line about war being the sea he swims in, the trio are united with one bargaining chip — the sky armor.

Just a small-town bear

his dark materials 1x04

Forged by Iorek over time, the armor is like his daemon, it is a part of his soul. Without it, he is not only weak in battle, but he is missing a vital part of himself. Lee tries to use his cunning nature to take back the armor from the Magisterium presenting paperwork that he actually owns it, but the men who tricked the bear by getting him drunk completely ruined this bear’s life. They not only were able to steal from him, but they tricked him, something that does not sit well with the panserbjørne.

Iorek tries to assert his dominance using his size, his giant paws are bigger than Lyra’s torso and he is strong enough to crush the skull of anyone in that town. But he is living in shame. When Lee does find Iorek, he tries to bargain with him, repay the favor that he owes. When Lee attempts to hear the bear’s misfortunes and accept him faults in all, Iorek says, “And what if I desire to be judged?”

Without his sky-armor, living with the constant reminder that he is indebted to this community, meant to serve them with his metal work, he cannot move forward. That is until Lyra suggests that she can offer him not only the location of his armor, but a chance to go into battle.

The town of Trollesund is small, winding, and not boxed in by physical boundaries. Watching Iorek operate in that space, confined to back alleys, eating seals and working in shacks was brilliantly staged. It created a sense of prison even if he wasn’t in a cell. The ransacking of the Church, a place central for human gathering, was also a powerful shot in His Dark Materials episode 4.

We’ve seen the imagery of Iorek exiting and growling at full stance. But after watching the episode unfold with all the Magisterium’s bureaucracy, both in Trollesund and back in the South, Iorek storming and exiting the church in rebellion draws a line in the snow — it’s us versus them.

Farder Coram steals hearts

farder coram

Pan has stolen my heart, the Golden Monkey has surprisingly broken it, and now Kaisa, Serafina Pekkala’s gyrfalcon daemon* is here to pick at the remains. Farder Coram is slowly coming up as one of my favorite His Dark Materials characters. As Lyra marches around town using the alethiometer, he comes to understand the level of her trust in people rests solely on how she feels around them. She chooses with her gut, a freedom that coincidentally allows her to be so in tune with her feelings and mastery of reading others that she can read the alethiometer without training.

*According to Jack Thorne, animating a goose is a harder than a gyrfalcon and thus the original daemon had to be cut from the story and reworked. https://twitter.com/jackthorne/status/1198912262809038848

Farder Coram is charged with her company because he knows Lanselius and has a connection with Serafina Pekkala that could prove to be useful for getting the witch clans on their side. Or at least a step in that direction. Serafina and Farder Coram, having once shared a child now passed, took different paths after his death. Serafina wanted war and doubled down on rage, Farder Coram wanted to grieve, to process, and to move forward.

The cloud-pine, which Lyra identifies as being the calling card of the witch using the alethiometer, is the first sign that the things are starting to bend to follow Lyra’s direction. This sprig does nothing special for now, but by demonstrating her abilities to Lanselius, Lyra is able to win over his confidence and get information about acquiring an armored bear for their journey.

Farder Coram from here on, simply follows her lead. While Lyra is off on her own talking up Lee, however, Kaisa pays a visit to Fader Coram to deliver the news that Serafina will come to their side if necessary. His Dark Materials casting James Cosmo was a stroke of genius. He is playing against a puppet here, but brings an emotional resonance, reflecting relief mixed with pangs of sadness that come with seeing a part of his long-gone love.

In another info drop, we discover that the children are four days North, in a city called Bolvangar. The Magisterium’s presence in the North is far-reaching and strong. Trollesund is just one port that is playing host to their reign and it is not the only one.

HATS, business dealings, and more HATS

I wanted this entire review to be about the hats of Mrs. Coulter. They are a bit more than a statement piece here. That poof in the North does less to keep her head warm than it does to make her more bear-like. The red chapeau in the Magisterium only adds to the color that sets her apart from the black and white codes of law in the building. She is serving up old Hollywood on a platter and we can do nothing but bend to her will when she enters a room. They are head-turner pieces as she demands the gaze and attention of her peers.

Even as she enters the Magisterium prepared to receive her punishment for letting the General Oblation Board slip out of her control, she is the star of the meeting. She disarms the Cardinal and Father MacPhail by asking simply for her sentence and then rejects it as if that were an option. When you are Mrs. Coulter, nothing is off the table.

The journey to Svalbard — or more accurately, an undisclosed location that is Svalbard adjacent — is organized to recruit Iofur Raknison. As the king of the panserbjørne, Iofur is in command of some of the most powerful weapons that are at the disposal of no one. Mrs. Coulter wants to change all of that.

Great at reading people’s weaknesses (aside from her own) she offers this particular panserbjørne a clear path to what he wants most — a taste of humanity, bring him into the Magisterium, baptize him. All in return for handing over the prisoner Lord Asriel. This is the chip she is willing to sell to keep the General Oblation Board under her control while also making use of the alethiometer.

She wants to ask one question — “Who is her daughter?” Just as the symbols on the alethiometer have layers of meaning, so does this question.

How is the series is going about creating enough mystery around Lyra? In the books, Lyra tries to adapt to many of her surroundings — taking on new dialects to blend in with those around her for one thing — and yet in His Dark Materials we get a child who is very certain of herself. Though she may not know where she comes from, I get the sense that this Lyra is looking less for a way to fit in and more for a way to stand out. Which works just as well as those questions that linger for Mrs. Coulter, also linger deep inside of her.

Mrs. Coulter is specifically looking for answers that will connect Lyra to the prophecy or her undoing, or both. She is also not looking for any help from her daemon. Do not let the fur cap distract you too much from the continued isolation from her inner self. As the monkey goes to make a point, she immediately dismisses him saying she has everything under control.

The monkey is, at this point, anxiety personified. He is reaching for her hand in the Magesterium, hoping to ground himself and ease the fear with connection. She rejects him. He tries to offer a counter point, a self-check in, maybe a cookie. We’ll never know because she dismisses him before he can utter a word. When she goes to meet with Iofur, the monkey does not go with her. If anything, the monkey — a symbol of what makes humans human in this world — would be a bargaining chip in this instance; a reminder of what he might get one step closer to achieving. This monkey is going to ruin me.

Boreal, meanwhile, spends this His Dark Materials lurking outside of meeting rooms hoping to sneak his name into the Goblet of Fire. He may not have an age spell, but he does have dirt on the despicable actions of Father Garret who will now trade a question for the alethiometer for secrecy. Boreal wants to know more about Grumman and wants to bypass all the paperwork that would slow that process down. He’s been to our 2019 and I bet he is wishing he could bring Google into this world ASAP.

Final thoughts

His Dark Materials alitheometer

  • The Gyptians take a bit of a backseat in this episode as Lee takes over the discussion with Sysselman regarding the armor of Iorek.
  • The difference in Iorek and Iofur’s armor will be important coming down the line. But also how BADASS was Iofur’s helmet. I would not mess with him.
  • “That was nice, more of that. Love it!” Find you a daemon as supportive as Hester.
  • Lee’s reactions to Farder Coram, John Faa, and Lyra in general are an entire mood board.
  • We catch another glimpse of the city in the Northern Lights, but all eyes are on Tony Costa, which is an odd, but an unavoidable choice.

His Dark Materials season 1, episode 5, “The Lost Boy” airs Monday, December 2 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.

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