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– by Campbell Clark

We are now half way through Season 1 of His Dark Materials and it kinda feels like the real story is just starting to begin. This week’s episode ‘Armour’ introduced us to a few very important characters, who are going to be in this show now until Season 3 at the least. This episode must also be the most costly thus far, with the visual effects for a certain bear alone, and it looks set to continue to dazzle visually as the second half of this season begins next week.

Armour

This week’s episode see’s Lyra and the Gyptians arriving in Trollesund, the gateway to the North. Farder Coram wants to get word to the Witches, and a friend of his, in particular, Serafina Pekkala. Meanwhile Lyra’s skill with the Alethiometer begins to bear fruit, and it links her fate with that of Texan Aeronaut Lee Scoresby and his old friend Iorek Byrnison, an armoured, talking polar bear who has fallen on hard times.

As for the bad guys, well Mrs Coulter is in trouble with the Magisterium, or are they in trouble with her? We also get to meet Fra Pavel, the Magisterium’s chief reader of their own Alethiomoter, a man in demand from both Mrs Coulter and Lord Boreal.

Was it any good?

Well, it’s always going to be subjective, and it might well depend on how well you have enjoyed the series thus far, but this was my favorite episode of Season 1 to this point. Probably because this week we are introduced to two of my favorite characters in Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison. Not only that, but I thought the levity and little moments of humor brought on between Lee Scoresby and Lyra were welcome before things start to take a darker turn I’ll guess in next week’s episode.

Trollesund feels exactly like Phillip Pullman described in his books, and whilst the exact story doesn’t always follow the books here, I feel like the very essence of this portion of the book is captured on film. As the weeks go on I admit I am rather enjoying the fact that we are getting little glimpses of the other side, i.e. the Magisterium and its agents. Again, there are some story beats mentioned here which work better chronologically, though we as the audience didn’t discover till a little later in the books. Namely that the Magisterium under Mrs Coulter has managed to side-line Iorek Byrnison so that she can manipulate the new king of the Panserbjorne, Iofur Raknison. I also really like the manipulation Coulter shows with the cardinals and senior figures in the Magisterium, and I love that it is completely different from the way Lord Boreal gets what he wants of the Magisterium.

Boreal is like a blunt object, no subtlety, but a serious threat, whereas Coulter cannot be like that, given that she is a woman living in a man’s world, far more so than our own. Coulter feels like a subtle version of Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars to me, the way she so skilfully manipulates power from those who have it, towards herself who will use it ruthlessly for her own means. If there is one thing this series has done really well so far it the depiction of the Magisterium and its hierarchy, as well as the many flaws in their system, and how small and limited they really are as people.

The Performances

So, I mentioned to editor-in-chief Joseph ‘Jammer’ Medina (this is one of the few stories we both love), that the one character we had yet to see which worried me was Lee Scoresby. Having seen Lin-Manuel Miranda in a few things, I just wasn’t sure he was the right choice to play Lee Scoresby, the gun-toting Texan aeronaut. I needn’t have worried, I was completely sold in the 30-second introduction we got to Lee at the start of this episode, not to mention his Daemon Hester. The pair have a great relationship with one another, and I also loved the way they had Hester helping Lee in the barroom brawl. Miranda is excellent in the role of Lee and he has a sort of magical twinkle in his eye whenever he looks sideways at Lyra, you really believe this is a character who will come to love Lyra deeply and be willing to put everything on the line for her. I’m impressed so far.

I cannot seem to go through any review without mentioned Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, but once again, the way Wilson is playing this most villainous of characters is so multi-dimensional that I think it’s one of the best villain performances I’ve seen in years. When she needs to be vulnerable and humble she can be, but that’s not Marissa Coulter and her true nature is always bubbling there under the surface, seemingly to be unleashed at Wilson’s choosing. I could go in but I won’t, she’s phenomenal.

This more than any other episode though I feel is Dafne Keen’s as Lyra. This is a different, more confident Lyra than we have seen so far, and as the episode unfolds, we realize how Lyra seems to wrap everyone around her little finger, as though her needs are being met by her will. It’s also the first week we have really had any mention of the prophecy, and what better time when this week sees a precursor to the introduction of Witches. I love how they have built up Lyra’s use of the Altehiometer slowly and how its true power is starting to come to light. Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say Lyra’s power rather than the instrument itself, as in anyone else’s hands it’s almost useless or achingly slow. This is confident Lyra, who can talk her way out of, or into any situation and that’s a really important character trait for the girl who will become known later as Lyra Silvertongue.

One small mention that as good as Dafne Keen was, her partner in crime this week was James Cosmo’s Farder Coram, and again, I feel like as each week goes by I love Cosmo as Farder Coram even more. Cosmo has some really great moments with Keen here, and the mix of the old bear and the young cub worked well. But the way Coram shifts from being in charge at the start, to basically following Lyra’s lead by the end, with a really nice emotional moment between the two in between was mesmerizing to me.

Everyone else was great as well, but I cannot wax lyrical about every actor on a show this size every week.

Any criticisms?

Well, let me start by saying this is my favorite episode of the series so far, so criticism would seem less likely, yet, I do have one. Trollesund is a busy place and the amount of extras on show is huge. For this reason, probably the most since Episode 1, I am noticing the lack of Daemons on the background cast. There are literally shots of main characters walking through crowds of people and the only Daemons on the show are those of the main characters themselves.

It almost feels like Daemons are only real for some people, and that’s unfortunately slightly taking me out of the universe. There was a moment towards the end of the show where we see various characters marching off, and there were two background characters holding dogs/wolves on leashes. Surely it wouldn’t have been too expensive to digitally remove the leashes here and make it look like their daemons were walking alongside them?

I’m even wondering whether they could have knocked up some relatively cheap props of smaller Daemons that could have been used on a third of extras. I mean, like a squirrel, for some sort of animal that could be clung to the costume for quick shots without needing to be animated in any way. My other perhaps naïve idea is to fill shots like this with more cats and dogs. If you take any crowd scene and just put in some (trained not to attack one another) cats and dogs, which are by far the most prominent types of Daemons anyway, it would feel more realistic to me, not overboard as Daemons can definitely be conspicuous. The problem may be that they feel conspicuous by their absence in some shots this week again.

This may well be a problem that fades away as the show continues, for a start, there are less populated places for them to visit from now on and in Season 2, there will be episodes where there are naturally no Daemons save Lyra’s anyway. I’d actually love them to go back and add in some animals digitally to increase the number of Daemons if the show gets popular enough to warrant it for future Blu-ray releases or whatnot.

Conclusion

For me this is the best episode yet, I loved Lyra, I loved Trollesund, and I loved Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnision, and Farder Coram. I am also loving the way we get to see things from the Magisterium point of view, especially that of Boreal and Coulter.

‘Armour’ is exciting, fun, emotional, sinister, and also quite funny all at the right moments and with things about to take a dark turn as we progress into the last half of Season 1, I can only so far give this series all the praise it deserves. As a fan of the books, you have so far won this fan over to the TV show, so well done to the BBC and HBO, and long may it continue.

Grade: A +

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