Welcome to The A.V. Club’s “Experts” reviews of HBO’s His Dark Materials. It is written from the perspective of someone who has read all three books in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and intended for an audience of viewers who have also read these books. While the main review will not actively spoil details from future books, there will be a spoiler-specific section at the end of the review, and the conversation in the comments will feature spoilers from all books in the series. For those who wish to avoid these spoilers, please visit our “Newbies” reviews.
When Jack Thorne made the decision to reveal the existence of “our” world early in the first season of His Dark Materials, it fundamentally changed the way this story would be told. What was once a straightforward adventure narrative used as an introduction to a far more complex tale would now be a cross-cutting parallel narrative, creating a relative surplus of “story” compared to the book. By revealing Will’s existence and playing out the backstory introduced through exposition in the opening pages of The Subtle Knife, it guaranteed that these final episodes would be fuller, in terms of the pieces in play.
However, what struck me the most watching “The Fight To The Death” was how empty it felt, in terms of real honest-to-goodness storytelling. There’s certainly a lot happening in the episode, but that’s really all I would say about it. It is an episode where things happen, but things happening doesn’t constitute storytelling. Take, for example, the scene where Lee Scoresby expresses his trepidation about continuing on this journey and Serafina Pekkala just says all-knowing things about how important it is that they help Lyra. It’s a thing that happens in this episode, but it’s functionally identical to the scene in the previous episode where the same thing happened, and in both cases I don’t feel like it’s connected to anything we know about those characters. Serafina is a source of exposition without ties to her history or her agency, while Lee’s dilemma is still inert when it’s expressed entirely through these one-sided conversations with a witch who does nothing but spout facts. It’s a script-level problem where the design of the scene is doing nothing to help us invest in the story: it’s telling us what’s important instead of showing us how these characters understand the situation at hand. Why not show us Hester and Lee working through their feelings about the situation? Why not introduce Serafina’s clan of witches so that we understand her in some additional context? It’s a scene that continues the story without doing anything to actually advance it.
It’s not the only example from the episode. The entire Will storyline sees the show running in place right up until it starts the sprint at episode’s end. As the show kept cutting back to Boreal’s return to Will’s world, and another confrontation with Will’s mother, and another case of Will’s mother showing up at school, I kept wondering why the show was going through these motions. They had already established that the letters were important, yet there’s a Lord Boreal scene where he just watches the same video we already saw Will watching previously, like a built-in recap. Every time the episode cuts to Will’s story, sometimes for bizarre 15-second scenes, I kept wondering why any of them exist when they could have easily just jumped straight to the scene where Will and his mother return home to find the house trashed and the story would have made just as much sense. The cross-cuts with Lyra’s story are never particularly thematic or purposeful: it was just more story for the sake of story, adding nothing to our understanding of Will’s situation and in many ways testing patience by falling into repetition and making the actual climax of his situation feel almost perfunctory (although, whether the same is true when viewers don’t know what’s coming is something I can’t say).
In other words, we’re making a distinction between story and storytelling, and it’s the latter where it feels like His Dark Materials has fallen into bad patterns. I continue to believe that this story is powerful enough to overcome some clunky dramaturgy, even if they end up failing to connect the dots on the religious dimensions of this story, but I’m consistently shocked at just how ill-conceived some of the smaller choices have been. Take, for example, the scene where Lyra and Roger reunite after her time with the armored bears. As Roger emerges from the cave, he doesn’t rush to embrace Lyra: instead, he spouts a bunch of exposition from a distance, before then sharing a moment with Lyra. It’s a bizarre staging of a scene that, if you invert those two events, becomes so much more logical: during their embrace, Roger excitedly tells her of the adventure he had in her absence, while she only cares that he’s okay. The show is filled with scenes like this where you feel like even a cursory set of notes could have dramatically improved the storytelling function of the scenes, as opposed to the scene’s cursory role in the story. This scene technically fulfills that role: we need to learn what happened to Roger and Iorek, and we need to reinforce Lyra and Roger’s bond before they begin their journey to Asriel’s labratory. But it’s like there was never a process during the writing stage where anyone stopped to think about the best way to achieve these story goals, or the most exciting way to make certain scenes or sequences resonate with the audience.
And thus we come to the eponymous fight to the death. As we’ve discussed in the comments in past episodes, “The Fight To The Death” solidifies one macro piece of storytelling from the show that was actually pretty thoughtful, even if it caused much consternation early on. Effectively, Jack Thorne is treating this first season as the origin story of Lyra Silvertongue, a journey of self-discovery in which she learned who she was, negotiated her relationship to her parents, and then found her place in this world. Her conversation with the imprisoned scholar offers a useful contrast to her father: while both believed they could trick the bears, Lyra’s goal was not self-interest but the safety of her friend. She has her mother’s passion and her father’s cunning, but all of it channeled toward a sense of good and love for the people she cares about. Her ability to convince Iofur that she is a daemon, and that she could be his if he tried hard enough, is presented as the first time she’s ever told a lie this big, and the source of the name that will carry with her as she continues her journey. I still believe the show’s depiction of Lyra as incurious in the early episodes was a tactical error, but I will say that being able to depict this moment as a significant revelation for Lyra’s sense of herself made a meaningful impression.
It’s just a pity that the same can’t be said for Iofur and Iorek’s fight. I don’t know who decided that the version of this fight depicted in the books was ineffective, but I just don’t get the choice to strip this fight of any and all storytelling. Why, for example, were these famously armored bears fighting without their armor? It not only made it more difficult to tell the two bears apart, but it also just plain doesn’t make sense, and strips away all of the turning points in the fight (the loss of armor pieces, the strategy, etc.). The movie didn’t adapt every bit of the cat-and-mouse game that’d depicted in the books, but it at least felt like the battle was telling an actual story, instead of just showing off some (very good) CGI. The production design on the castle was great, but there was no effort to articulate the backstory of the society’s shift under Iofur’s reign, or do anything much as it relates to the impact of Iorek’s return. Two bears fight to the death, but that fight ends up being about very little, and contains no internal storytelling to make it suspenseful or dynamic beyond basic spectacle.
And the truth of the matter is that one of the elements of Pullman’s books that I find so compelling is that none of it ever just feels like spectacle. Even the first book, which doesn’t reflect the true complexity of the tale, always feels very lived-in, as though Lyra is entering entirely new worlds that contain their own stories. And while one would presume that extending this story across eight episodes instead of a single film would have dramatically expanded their ability to explore those worlds, choices have often left His Dark Materials feeling rather thin in terms of its world-building, as beautiful production design houses stories that lack impact based on both micro- and macro-level story missteps.
- “We cut away your daemon, not your brain”—this scene was a weird coda to the Bolvangar situation. It really seemed like Coulter was leaving the facility, but she comes back to scream some more, and then instead of clarifying the human/daemon relationship I thought this whole interaction just confused things even more. I continue to find Ruth Wilson’s performance of Coulter’s animalistic quality a compelling dramatic choice, but there’s not a whole lot of story value to it.
- The psychology of the bear fight is the biggest loss compared to the book, but I’ll admit that the choice not to include Iorek just straight up swatting Iofur’s jaw off his face is more inexplicable to me. Did they run out of time or money? Why else leave out something so viscerally satisfying?
- But seriously, what is up with the 15-second scenes? I don’t know why they’re editing the show like it’s a daytime soap opera, where they’re juggling five different scenes and need to keep establishing they exist so that you don’t get lose after commercial breaks, but this is a public/premium program where this should not be a concern. It’s just not an effective way to tell a story.
- I love how Asriel’s butler is only mildly surprised that Lyra shows up in the middle of the north, as though it’s just someone stopping by unexpectedly instead of a child randomly showing up at a remote arctic research facility.
- We still didn’t get the shot of Lyra, mouse Pan and Iorek that I demanded previously, but we did get more gorgeous running montages, and this really is a beautiful show that I’m finding visually impressive even with screener copies on a laptop screen.
- I was a little disappointed that Will ended up accidentally killing the more interesting of Boreal’s henchmen, and also found it weird that he didn’t even seem that freaked out by the dead body. Not even a scene where he starts freaking out and hyperventilating? He just calmly runs off and then lurks outside of his teacher’s house? Again, the emotional followthrough on these plot points to turn from them story into actual storytelling just isn’t present where it needs to be.
Obviously, this episode pivots on its final scene, which I’d argue isn’t at all subtle about Lord Asriel’s plans for Roger. The way it’s shot and particularly the way it’s scored just reads as too doom-like, as we’re pulled away from Lyra’s perspective from the books into a more knowing viewer perspective where the show is connecting the dots between Asriel’s terror at Lyra’s arrival, and his relief when his daemon spots Roger. There’s just no other way to read the scene other than “Lord Asriel is going to do terrible things to that child,” which feels like it would limit the shock of what comes next. Perhaps there will be some storytelling that will keep the actual ending a surprise, but the threads seem a bit too easy to pull together the way it’s been presented.
On a more positive note, I will say that every bit of chaotic energy coming from both Ruth Wilson and James McAvoy is making me very excited for what’s going to happen when they finally come face-to-face as part of the climax next week.