Warning: This post contains major spoilers from episode four of His Dark Materials.
One of the most common refrains from His Dark Materials’ early detractors has been that the show moves too slowly. We don’t agree, but it’s true there has been a lot of world building at the series’ outset. But it’s also true the show has been moving at a much faster pace than the first novel in author Philip Pullman’s trilogy. No matter how you feel about the first three episodes, the fourth marked the end of the show’s exposition phase and the start of its epic story. And a talking bear, his charming balloon-flying friend, and real witches only hint at the incredible journey His Dark Materials is about to take.
The show’s fourth episode, “Armour,” took its name from the stolen gear belonging to Iorek Byrnison. His imposing presence and fierceness made Lyra’s constant hyping of the North more than live up to its reputation. But even beyond the spectacle of a massive, snarling, grumpy talking bear, this episode felt like the first time the show truly tapped into its fantastical elements.
The promise of the alethiometer proved vital to the plot in a way only teased before. We’re also one step closer to meeting the witches the show’s opening title card references. Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, which can safely travel a great distance away from her, was enough to make the Northern clan feel special without formally introducing her. The sad story of Serafina’s past relationship with Farder Coram also made her feel real. Armored Bears and Witches are no longer mythical beings in far away lands, they are ever-present and active characters in the story.
It’s an important development for the show, and it made this episode feel very different from the first three. Daemons and magical spy flies were enough to help differentiate Lyra’s world from our own early on. But “Armour” was the first time His Dark Materials fully embraced its fantasy elements. The Magisterium might be important, but oppressive old men in black robes aren’t as interesting as magical creatures living on the edge of the world. Stuffy old London—with its dusty colleges and fancy high-rises—already feels insignificant compared to what lies ahead. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s balloon-flying Lee Scoresby felt like he swooped in from another place and time, one far removed from where the show had taken us previously.
Does that mean critics who said the show moved too slowly to start were right? Did we need three episodes to get to the proverbial “good stuff?” It’s up to each viewer to decide, but it seems like a “problem” that was unavoidable.
Readers of Philip Pullman’s books know the first half of The Golden Compass moves at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the story. The second and third novels move so fast they sound insane when you describe them. It’s not a problem when you’re reading it because you don’t know that, and The Golden Compass is engaging unto itself. Pullman’s superb prose is a big reason why. You’re so immersed in Lyra’s story that taking your time to ground yourself in her universe doesn’t feel slow. Only later, when things happen at a breakneck speed, do you even realize how comfortable you felt there in the first place. And it’s all worth it. All of that early world-building pays off in ways you could never have predicted.
There’s a reason the novels are so beloved. Unfortunately, that kind of introduction into a fantasy world doesn’t always work for a TV show. It certainly doesn’t always work for a TV show in 2019. There are more television options than any one human could watch in a single year. A series doesn’t have the luxury of finding its footing. It can’t take its time building towards something the way it might have 20 years ago. TV shows need to engage you immediately. The best way to do that is by starting off fast and never slowing down.
For viewers new to the story, it might be hard to realize that’s exactly what His Dark Materials has done. It has moved through a large portion of The Golden Compass already. It’s also introduced major elements from the second novel, The Subtle Knife. The show has already revealed important plot elements and characters a reader would still be far away from learning.
That’s not a defense of the show of course. Different mediums are held to different standards. What works in one might not work in another. Maybe it has been too slow, and maybe there has been too much world-building. But that doesn’t matter now. What will ultimately determine if the show is a success or not is what comes next.
Maybe you’ve loved the show so far. Maybe you’ve stayed with it because you were hopeful it would get better. Either way, episode four marked a clear turning point. We needed to know where Lyra came from so we could appreciate where she is going, and now she’s on her way there. This is when her journey really starts. And it’s a good one.
Featured Image: HBO/BBC