His Dark Materials episode 4 review: the best episode yet

With the introduction of two new characters and the journey underway, His Dark Materials is really flying now. Spoilers…

This review contains spoilers.

1.4 Armour 

If the careful foundation-laying of the first three episodes had left you feeling at all distanced from or frustrated by this story, then Armour’s here to yank you into a giant bear hug and surround you with fun, action, excitement and promise. This was the most enjoyable and accessible episode yet. 

With the uncluttered, clear-cut plot of a videogame level (meet mystical gatekeeper, solve riddle, receive magical object, recruit allies, unlock achievement), a ticking clock thanks to the spy fly device, and the introduction of a couple of welcome archetypes (the rascal adventurer and the down-on-his-luck warrior), it was an entertaining hour of forward momentum. Lyra solved problems and forged alliances while the grown-ups dwelt on their pasts and pondered her role in the future war. 

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The alethiometer – until now a weighty question mark – also came into its own as a magical engine driving the characters onwards to the next thing, and the next.

The very next thing is a four-day hike north to Bolvangar (aka The Station aka The Fields of Evil) to rescue the stolen children. With a fast-talking aeronaut and a legendary fighter for whom “war is the sea he swims in and the air he breathes,” Lyra and the Gyptians are better equipped than they were when they docked in Trollesund. Progress!

It’s fitting that the episode told the story of Iorek gaining his freedom because it felt freer than the others. Its predecessors having done the hard work of explaining concepts like daemons, alethiometers and Lyra’s origin, this one was able to get on with the fun. Now that the gang’s all together, things can really get cracking, and they did. Admirable and impressive and thought-provoking as it’s all been so far, this was the point at which the series really took off and flew.  

Speaking of flying, the arrival of Texan Lee Scoresby brought with it a welcome sense of lightness and agility. Like Lyra and Roger’s race over the rooftops in episode one, his scenes were untethered from the seriousness and gloom anchoring everything else. His singing introduction (because if you hire Lin Manuel Miranda, writer of the hottest musicals around, you give him a song) set an entirely new tone – warm and uninhibited instead of ominous and weighty. And after the sad creepiness of Mrs Coulter’s messed up relationship with her daemon (is there anything sadder than her batting away its hand during their Magisterium visit?) and all the peril elsewhere, watching Lee and Hester harmonising on a ditty was loveliness itself. Between that and Hester’s commentary on the bar punch-up, the companionship provided by the human/daemon relationship has never been clearer, or more enviable.

Miranda describes his character as “a little bit the Han Solo of this series” and it’s easy to see why. He’s a fast-talking, law-bending, pilot for hire with a furry companion, and he knows his way around a bar fight. Likeable, funny, good-hearted and entirely non-sinister, what he brings to the adults of His Dark Materials is a much-needed ingredient. Full marks for casting too.

Full marks also to Iorek Byrnison’s creators at Framestore. As a CG creation, he has heft and substance and feels irrefutably present in the environment (especially when was crashing around its corners, sending it all flying in that rage-filled race to retrieve his armour). Work as skilled as that can’t have come cheap and, in the words of Lee Scoresby, neither should it. You get gold for gold. 

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Much more important though, is the heft and substance Iorek has as a character. Voiced by Joe Tandberg, his self-hating sad story evoked just as much pathos as Farder Coram’s tragic tale, and his journey from shame to pride to mercy this episode made his every appearance compelling. 

Directed by Otto Bathurst (the director who in series one set the template for the ultra-stylish Peaky Blinders), Armour wasn’t just full of plot movement, but literal movement. Dialogue unspooled between characters who were busily doing things – walking, eating, changing clothes … Nothing was static, which brought Trolleslund as a location to life.  

The Magisterium opened up as a location too, showing us impressive scale, more of the stooped, reptilian Cardinal, and introducing Fra Pavel’s alethiometer-reading room. Two questions were asked of Fra Pavel – he of the filthy predilections – this episode. From Boreal, how can he discover what Grumann sought; and from Mrs Coulter, who is Lyra Belacqua? 

She’s Mrs Coulter’s daughter, for a start. Both mother and child this episode showed an uncannily similar talent for manipulation. Mrs Coulter played the ace up her sleeve with the Magisterium and flattered the vain armoured bear King Iofur to do her bidding. Like The Jungle Book’s King Louie, he aspires to the trappings of humanity (and in Lord Asriel has coincidentally trapped a human.) Lyra too, played her hand beautifully against Lee Scoresby, Iorek, even Lord Fa (“He’s been mistreated and tricked, just like the Gyptians have been, always. He’s practically Gyptian, just like I am.”). 

Mrs Coulter isn’t the only one with questions about Lyra. Doctor Lanselius eyed her power greedily, and Farder Coram suspects that she’s the subject of a prophesy – rarely good news. As for the viewers, after this week’s show of bravery, quick-thinking, chutzpah and empathy, we know exactly who Lyra Belacqua is: the girl’s our hero. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Spies, here

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