'His Dark Materials' Season 1, Episode 7 Recap: "The Fight To The Death"

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

Critics have complained that His Dark Materials has failed so far in its ability to emphasize the importance of the daemon-human bond in Lyra's world. Up until this week, I was inclined to argue with them. Though Lyra and Pan are not in constant contact in quite the way they are on the page, I assumed that was simply the result of creative license. The less than constant in-your-face of other people's daemons seemed an attempt to make them less of a distraction — and the excuse presented in Tony Costa's naming ceremony neatly suggested daemons are shy and tuck themselves away. Finally, the initial failure to make Billy Costa's missing daemon as visceral was made up for in Episode 6's "The Daemon Cages."

But this week, I have to admit that critics are right. There was a significant factor at Bolvangar that I completely missed last week, despite HBO's inclusion of the nurse characters in several of the promotional images. I did not notice their lack of daemons. When this episode began with Coulter's discovery that Sister Clara (Morfydd Clark) will not leave, because this is the last place she was attached to her daemon, it was a combination of horror and disbelief. How did I miss this? Daemon-less people should stick out like sore thumbs in this world. Sister Clara did not, which suggests the lack of emphasis on the creatures has seriously downplayed their importance in the show.

The horror of Sister Clara was not the only spot in this week's episode where the weird inability to emphasize daemons came to the fore. Once it became noticeable, I started seeing it everywhere. Lyra is captured by the panserbjørne, the armored bears, and tossed in prison, where she meets an unwell gentleman by the name of Jotham Santella (Asheq Akhtar). His main business is to explain that King Iofur wants a daemon of his own, and he suggests Asriel might have promised the bear one in exchange for getting out of the cell. But Jotham seems to have no daemon either — Pan explores the man by sniffing his hands.  

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

And then there's Iofur. As in the books, he wears golden armor, rather than the traditional sky-iron, but the significance, and the fact that it is to imitate human rulers, is never explained. Moreover, the daemon doll he carries to make himself feel "more human" is dropped, much like Billy Costa's dead fish was.

As a result, it feels less believable that he would fall for Lyra's lies about being Iorek's daemon. If he were so desperate as to be carrying a doll, the blind desire might have played better, as would his falling hook, line, and sinker for Lyra's claims she wishes to become Iofur's daemon. Iofur is still a fool and deceitful. But his ability to be conned doesn't feel like a commentary on human behavior as it does in the novel, which is a significant loss, especially since this is a world where humans are not the only intelligent, conscious creatures.

On the other hand, there is a hell of a bear-on-bear action sequence. Once again, the show manages to get across how genuinely terrifying these creatures are. And though it may fail in expressing how bears and humans are different deep down, it does make Lyra's ability to friend them (and be given the name Lyra Silvertongue) all the more impressive.

This comfort with a daemon-less world might also explain why, once again, Will's world plays better. This week, Boreal's crossed back, less than pleased his minions haven't made a move yet to search Elaine's house. Instead, he decides to pay a visit, which goes as well as one would expect, especially when Elaine spots Boreal's snake daemon inside his sleeve. (To be fair, I'd be freaked out too.)

(photo: Courtesy of HBO)

This week, Will doesn't have to insist that his mother is making things up when she shows up at school to get him, as they come home to find the house ransacked. Now convinced his mother's paranoia is real, he asks his wrestling coach to take her in for the night while he goes back to "clean up the house." In reality, he heads home and grabs the letters, which are still safely tucked away under the sewing machine. Before he can slip back out again, Boreal's minions are back to keep searching. But that just gives the kid a chance to remind us all he can throw a hell of a punch before hitting the road.

Lyra's going to need a fighter on her side soon enough. The Magisterium has packed up, bag and baggage, and moved North, both to take over from Coulter and her failings, and move against Asriel, now that he's free from his bear prison. It's a satisfying moment when Father MacPhail puts Coulter in her place that Iofur is both dead and betrayed her, but she's not taken out of the game that easily. Within a few minutes, the priest is wrapped right back around her finger, agreeing to bring her along because she "knows" Asriel and can get close to him.

After all her travels, Lyra has reunited with her father, only to receive the strangest of greetings. The man is horrified to see her, practically frantic for her to leave, screaming at her: "I DID NOT SEND FOR YOU." He does not calm down until his daemon points out Lyra is not alone. Roger is with her, a fact that makes Asriel frighteningly pleased. Perhaps this is not the safe haven Lyra has taken it for after all.