This week, we begin with Lee Scoresby (Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Broadway actor/writer/director, Lin-Manuel Miranda) and his rabbit familiar, Hester (voiced by Cristela and Cars 3 alumna Cristela Alonzo) humming a cowboy tune in their aeronautical balloon. They are searching for their ne’er-do-well friend Iorek, an armored bear. They spot the gyptian fleet below also headed for the village of Trollesund on the shores of Lapland. In the city, Lee is rebuffed by the local law. His reputation has preceded him.
Farder Coram and John Faa discuss going to see Serafina Pekkala, a witch whom Coram has not seen in 40 years. Coram says he will need Lyra with him. Coram and Lyra talk about the alethiometer and how she knows how to work it. They go to see the Witch Consul, Dr. Lanselius (played by British-Iranian comedian and actor Omid Djalili) who does not want to have the witches caught up in issues involving the Magisterium. He also reveals that the children taken by the Oblation Board arrive in Trollesund but are then taken further inland, where they undergo something called “intercision.” He does not know what that is, but there are gruesome rumors. Before they leave, the consul asks to see Lyra use the alethiometer by divining which sprig of cloud-pine belongs to Serafina. She does so effortlessly and is gifted Serafina’s sprig in reward, saying that if she has need of her, the sprig will summon the witch.
Lyra asks Dr. Lanselius what she should have asked that she did not. He is delighted by the question and responds that they should request the services of an armored bear. There is an outcast bear in Trollesund named Iorek Byrnison who might be of use. Iorek (voiced by Joe Tandberg) seems to be content with his paltry exile’s life in Trollesund and tells them he is not for sale.
Mrs. Coulter visits the Magisterium headquarters, where it is clear that she is still something of a pariah. Father Garret (David Langham) brings her to Cardinal Sturrock and Father MacPhail. The latter chastises her for losing Lyra and violating academic sanctuary. The Cardinal informs her that she is dismissed from the Oblation Board and that Father MacPhail will take her place. She turns the tables by revealing that she can bring them Lord Asriel through a group of armored bears that are loyal to her. In return for his delivery, she wants to ask Fra Pavel one question via his alethiometer. In the Magisterium scholar’s offices, Mrs. Coulter asks her question: who is Lyra Belacqua?
In Trollesund, Farder Coram tells Lyra that he and Serafina once loved each other and that they had a son together but the son died in an epidemic. Coram wanted to mourn in peace and Serafina wanted to rage against the world and they have not seen each other since.
Scoresby and Hester enter a Trollesund bar and try to get the attention of the locals so they can find Iorek. Lee gets into a barfight and, despite Hester’s coaching, he is soundly beaten though not before stealing three watches and a wallet. He comes across Lyra and Coram. She reveals that she knows where Iorek is but isn’t yet sure she can trust Scoresby.
Faa and Coram discuss the idea that Lyra is the subject of a prophecy that makes her vulnerable to anyone in the know. They are accosted by Serafina’s falcon daemon, Kaisa (voiced by legendary actor David Suchet) and Faa marvels at how the witches can send their familiars over great distances. Kaisa asks if the gyptians have come to make war. Coram replies that they will do what they have to. They are informed that some witches, dust-seekers, have sided with the Oblation Board and that they gather at “The Station,” or, as the witches refer to it, Bolvangar—“the fields of Evil”—but that Serafina will stand with the gyptians.
Lyra and Pantalaimon stare at the Northern Lights and Lyra sees the city that Asriel captured in a photogram. Tony Costa joins them, and they lament being unable to find Roger and Billy.
Lee comes upon a drunk Iorek and realizes his armor has been taken. He then goes to the Trollesund magistrate, Mr. Sysselman (Harry Melling, Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) and lays claim to Iorek’s armor, the bear having wagered it away in a card game. Sysselman responds that it is owned by the Magisterium. It becomes clear that Sysselman is keeping the armor for himself to keep the bear indentured to the town.
Mrs. Coulter flies north and composes a letter to her bear ally: a king that has owes his crown to Coulter’s work in deposing Iorek.
Faa tells Lyra that Asriel has been taken captive by armored bears. This is a sign that the Magisterium has spies everywhere and they need to leave Trollesund immediately. Lyra does not want to leave without Iorek but Faa is unconvinced, saying that local rumor contends Byrnisson got drunk and wrecked the town. Lyra consults the alethiometer, however, which reveals that Iorek was tricked into drinking so that they could take his armor from him.
Meanwhile, Boreal confronts Fra Pavel about aiding Mrs. Coulter. He threatens to reveal his “predilections” and then demands that Pavel ask the alethiometer what Grumman was looking into. Pavel demurs that the question is heretical but Boreal pushes. He amends his question to “how can I find what Grumman discovered?”
Lyra comes to visit Lee Scoresby and offers to hire him on behalf of John Faa. Lee Scoresby tells Lyra that Iorek’s armor is the panserbjørn equivalent of a daemon. And that, without it, Iorek will remain a shell of who he truly is. Lyra skips out on Lee’s monologue to confront Iorek in the scrapyard. She makes a deal with him to help him recover the armor by using the alethiometer as long as he helps the gyptians.
Once told the truth about his current circumstances, Iorek rages through the town to recover his armor from the church. Upon exiting he tries to kill Sysselman, but Lyra and Lee talk him out of doing so. She then brings the two of them to Faa and convinces him to hire them.
Mrs. Coulter attends a secret meeting with the bear king, Iofur Raknison (voiced by Look Around You, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Tick’s Peter Serafinowicz), and offers to baptize him in exchange for control over Asriel’s fate.
Overseen by Kaisa, the gyptians, Lee, Iorek, and Lyra head north across the tundra.
— The thing that feels most striking to me about this episode is how clearly it lays out Philip Pullman’s contention that organized religion, especially Christianity, is a corrupt and corrupting force. The 2007 film adaptation, The Golden Compass, in an effort to shield itself from criticism by church groups, distanced itself from the more nakedly anti-religious material of the books. Obviously some groups still boycotted the film and the weakening of Pullman’s message read as toothless rather than conciliatory.
By both bringing in the baptism plot with Mrs. Coulter and Iofur Raknisson, and making Fra Pavel a pedophile, the series is announcing its allegiance to Pullman’s original vision of an anti-Narnia that takes Christianity and the institutions of the Church to task. In the first three episodes, there was still some plausible deniability about the exact nature of the critique—after all, the Magisterium has, thus far, seemed a little non-descript in its totalitarian religiosity—but this episode seals the deal. We’ll see if, in later episodes and seasons, the show continues to refuse to pull Pullman’s punches, but for now I am excited, if not by the actual content of Pullman’s indictment, by the show’s willingness to engage with his core contentions.
— I am not entirely sold on Miranda’s performance as Lee Scoresby just yet. While I adore him as a theater luminary and have always loved his sillier side (his friendship with the McElroy Brothers of My Brother, My Brother, and Me fame is an especially delightful display of his spritely charms), he comes across on screen more as con-man-with-a-heart-of-gold than steampunk-cowboy-adventurer. With the 2007 film having already cast the living embodiment of the genteel cowboy, Sam Elliott, in the role, it was clear they needed to go in a different direction. I’m not doubtful of LMM’s abilities, but I am perhaps slightly warier of his take on the character than I was when I heard about his being cast.
That said, his scenes with Dafne Keen are fantastic. The promise of the willful, charmingly disobedient, rough-edged Lyra from the novels finally gets to show through and Keen seems more than up to the task. I’m hoping that, as the series progresses, she’ll get more and more chances to further inhabit that particular facet of the character’s personality.
— The design of Trollesund was pretty fantastic. The architecture of the church, especially, felt notably Scandanavian in a way that set it apart from Oxford and London. Pullman’s world in the novels can seem oddly devoid of cultural specificity and so, despite having Trollesund populated by British-accented actors, there was at least some attention paid to exploring a different culture.
— The panserbjørn look great and Raknisson’s bear-skull armor is especially wonderful. Obviously, the production has had the money to make its various talking animals look fairly convincing, but Iorek Byrnison was always going to be a huge test of the show’s tech. And, as much as I love Ian McKellen (who played Iorek in the 2007 film), Joe Tandberg’s sad-sack baritone feels like the better choice to play the imperfect, deposed king.
— Cristela Alonzo’s Hester is also pretty delightful. While it raises some questions about the physics of daemons, I found her coaching of Lee through his ill-fated bar fight to be a charming introduction to her long-suffering character.
— The show continues to do a great job of making Mrs Coulter a monster while also showing the horror of what it is to be a woman in the Magisterium. Cardinal Sturrock going from infantilizing her to expressing sheer glee in her downfall to being infuriated at her impudence is a wonderful bit of business that shows just how uncomfortable patriarchy is at the idea of a powerful woman—even a powerful woman who serves their aims.
— I have always been a little bit uncomfortable with some of the racist/colonialist overtones of Pullman’s description of the panserbjørn. While the Magisterium plot to infiltrate and convert Raknison’s kingdom is a decent representation of the way in which indigenous peoples were manipulated and culturally destroyed by European powers, the fact that he gives these traits to sentient polar bears when his world contains human ethnic minorities both real and imagined (Tartars, gyptians, Turks) always seemed like a bit of an oversight. Combined with Iorek’s introduction involving his people’s inability to handle alcohol, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.
The show didn’t necessarily have to keep the detail about panserbjørn alcohol intolerance in (and it feels awkwardly inserted into dialog) in order to play out the plot that Iorek was essentially drugged and sold into slavery, but they chose to keep it. Hopefully they will complicate some of Pullman’s casual racism as the story continues. To their credit, however, they removed a plot point about Turkish slavers from the last episode so there is at least some awareness of the occasionally problematic nature of the source material.
— Lord Boreal’s teal, damask tie is the best accessory anyone has worn on this show, and that includes Mrs Coulter’s fur hat and Raknison’s skull helmet. I pledge my life to that tie.
What were your thoughts? Were these satisfying introductions to two of the series’ most beloved characters? How are you enjoying Dafne Keen’s performance as the series continues? Don’t you also love Boreal’s tie?! Let me know in the comments!
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.