Lin-Manuel Miranda arrives as Lee Scoresby in this week's His Dark Materials cold open, floating along in his hot air balloon and singing. It's the first time the show has seemed, if not cheerful, at least as if it has sprung into full color. It helps that the clouds are bright and warm, and his daemon Hester (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) is happy to sing along. That's a little misleading, of course; the show is only getting darker as Lyra and her team get further North. But it's also a reminder of what the show is missing in its quest to be taken ultra-seriously.
This is also the episode where Iorek Byrnison, the currently un-armored bear (voiced by Joe Tandberg), first shows up, marking the most massive talking creature on-screen to date, along with Scoresby's most considerable personality. It's also the first time the word "child cutters" is uttered, suggesting what the "experimentation" up here entails. But even as the show gets closer to the terror at the heart of the General Obligation Board's crimes, Scoresby's antics (and Hester's snarky cheerleading) finally elevate the show beyond the levels it has established as the baseline.
And that's without the appearance of Dr. Martin Lanselius (Omid Djalili) as the man who communicates with witches in hopes of bending the ear of Serafina Pekkala, the witch Farder Coram and Lyra are after. This is also when fans meet Kaisa, Serafina's daemon (voiced by David Suchet).
Unlike regular daemons, witch daemon's travel independently, making them less character mirrors and more individuals in their own right. Kaisa informs them the witch collective has split, with some working with the General Obligation Board, who are known as "Dust Hunters." Others, like Serafina, are itching to take them down.
Over at the Magisterium, the story likewise picks up speed, though humor and whimsy are harder to come by. When Mrs. Coulter arrives to learn her punishment for sacking Jordan College from Cardinal Sturrock, she turns the plans of putting Father Keene in charge of the Gobblers with the declaration she has Lord Asriel captured by the armored bear collective she's hired. (Like the witches, the bears have a divided loyalty.) Instead, she is allowed to go North, to continue her work experimenting on children, and given a reading from one of the Magisterium's alethiometers. Unlike Lyra, who can read it intuitively, Fra Pavel (the Magisterium middle-manager from last week's episode) takes weeks to months to figure out how to ask and answer all questions.
That's probably for the best anyway, since Coulter's question is a heavy one: "Who is Lyra Belacqua?" Can't have the show giving that away this early in the game, can we? It's certainly a lot bigger than Boreal's question when he comes after "Ratty," demanding to know what Grumman discovered and how he can get it too. The difference between Coulter and Boreal is that Coulter has permission to ask. Boreal merely has Pavel's closeted sexuality to hold over his head as blackmail: "How can I find what Grumman discovered?"
Iorek's problem is that he, too, is controlled by the Magisterium. They're the ones that have his armor, keeping him trapped in this northern port town, and keeping him from his rightful throne. This is why the current king of the bears, Iofur Raknison, is willing to help out Mrs. Coulter. It's also why she's offering baptism to the false king and membership into the Magisterium because she knows she needs to keep him in line, even if Iorek gets out.
Scoresby is ready to help his bear friend, by hook or by crook, including going to Sysselman (Harry Melling) the town sheriff and declaring Iorek already lost his armor -- to Scoresby in cards. When that doesn't work, Scoresby tries bribery, only to see that fail as well. Sysselman is a full creature of the Magisterium and has handed the entire town over to them.
When John Faa insists the Gyptians should leave with Iorek, despite Lyra's protestations, she decides to hit up Scoresby to figure out what is holding Iorek, and why his armor is so necessary. Once she puts two and two together (a bear's armor is his daemon, basically), she also figures where the armor is by using the alethiometer in exchange for his services.
This is one of the places where the TV show's choice to refuse to give into whimsy or magic pays off in spades. Iorek is no cute partner, no lovable creature who becomes Lyra's best friend and cuddle monster ride. Iorek is terrifying from the moment he learns where his armor is hidden until he's punished those in the Magisterium for keeping him a slave. One can see why both the town and John Faa find the idea of an armored bear one to be viewed with fear.
Though Lyra's silver tongue gets him to leave Sysselman alive and convinces John Faa to hire both Iorek and Scoresby to help them in their quest, her bluffing skills are not lauded. As the Gyptian team marches onward, there's a sense she's brought two dangerous characters aboard this mission, even if they are more interesting than anyone on-screen so far other than Mrs. Coulter.