After a shift to a later BBC One start time this week (due to the airing of Sports Personality of the Year, not Magisterium interference), His Dark Materials’ penultimate episode delivers a correspondingly dark and violent episode, which sees Lyra (Dafne Keen) come into her own as she topples a monarchy through the medium of polar bear battle.
And if that sounds exciting, well, it is – the final clash between Iorek (Joe Tandberg) and Iofur (Peter Serafinowicz) may actually be a bit too violent and scary for younger children – but after last week’s perfectly paced episode it also feels a little rushed.
Lyra’s sojourn into Svalbard is a real highlight in Philip Pullman’s novel Northern Lights, really raising her from a precocious child to a true hero, and while this episode does adapt the story fairly accurately – though I missed Iofur’s toy dolly daemon – it didn’t really feel like it quite had the room to breathe within one episode, and could have stood to be stripped over two weeks.
As it stands, Lyra’s arrival, imprisonment, lies to Iofur, Iorek’s arrival, the fight to the death, her exit from Svalbard and her reunion with Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) all happen within one hour (alongside a few scenes dealing with other characters like Lee Scoresby and Mrs Coulter), and it’s hard not to have a sense of a narrative keen to reach its conclusion.
Meanwhile, in “our” world things are jumping ahead even further. After introducing Pullman’s second lead Will (Amir Wilson) a lot earlier than expected (which it turns out was partially for practical reasons) a few weeks ago and adding more backstory for him, in this week’s episode we actually catch up with the book version of the character.
As in the opening scenes of The Subtle Knife, a worried Will drops his mum off with a trusted adult (though now his boxing coach instead of a piano teacher), before accidentally killing a man who invaded their home, sending Will on the run and (eventually) into the path of Lyra.
As with the Gyptians earlier in the series, the extra build-up we’ve had to Will’s entry actually makes for a much richer viewing experience – simply put, we sympathise with him even more – and looking ahead to next week’s finale, we can only assume a meeting with Lyra is on the cards that’ll feel all the more momentous now that we’ve got to know him.
Though Lyra herself might be too busy, of course. Because at the episode’s conclusion, as she finally finds her way back to her father-uncle Asriel, what should be a place of safety looks far more dangerous. Horrified to see her, McAvoy’s Asriel (absent in the series since the first episode) tries to force her out into the cold – until he spots her recently-escaped friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), at which point a slow, carnivorous smile spreads across his face, more terrifying than any expression his snow leopard daemon could make.
Next week, we’ll finally see Lord Asriel face Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter (who, needless to say, delivers another stand-out performance this week even if she’s mainly dealt exposition setting up for the finale) – and frankly, it’s hard to say which of them Lyra should be more afraid of.
His Dark Materials returns to its usual 8pm slot for the series one finale on Sunday 22nd December