Notwithstanding her superhuman ability to survive the fall from Lee’s airship, Lyra finds herself in the clutches of Iofur the bear king. Knowing time is of the essence, Lyra relies on her cunning, weaving a story the proud Iofur just can’t help but listen to and covet: she paints herself as Iorek’s daemon but wants to be Iofur’s instead. Though Lyra’s honeyed words are quite convincing, it’s Iofur’s limited wit and puffed up sense of pride that makes him vulnerable to her words. Thus, instead of killing the approaching Iorek on the spot (tactically, the best decision), Iofur challenges his former rival to a fight to the death.
Like much of “The Fight to the Death”, the Iofur/Iorek battle for bear supremacy, is built up and resolved with far too much haste. This error hurts the budding tension for the duel, though it doesn’t affect the unsettling nature of its brutality one bit. The CG and sound design here are incredible, with each strike and bite as real as one would imagine a slugfest between bears to be. And it carries with it one of the more artistically disturbing scenes of the entire season when Iorek, after feigning defeat, charges the hubristic Iofur to deliver the killing bite. While we don’t see Iofur’s demise in all its bloody glory, the out-of-focus shot taken over Lyra’s shoulder — the former King’s legs kick feebly and his rising cries of pain and desperation sound before it’s over — while not as disturbing as the evil deeds in Bolvangar, still presented an unease that was at home with the serious nature of the combat. In a way, it was the first sign of things to come.
Now free to continue their journey North, Lyra, and Roger (who fell off the airship with Iorek) ride the new bear king to Asriel’s laboratory. The fun and carefree anticipation of the journey is quickly smashed when the intense and agitated Asriel sees his daughter’s arrival. He’s nearly panicked at her being this far North and yet, his attitude completely changes when he spots Roger’s presence with her. The look he gives the boy is disturbing, to say the least, a predatory glare like a shark would give an unsuspecting seal. In an instant, Asriel shares all the physical traits and presence of an antagonist and, whatever his intentions, be he Lyra’s father or not, is not something that sits well with me.
On the other side of Lyra’s parentage, Mrs. Coulter continues her own journey North. Unlike the surprise at seeing Asriel’s disquieting attention towards Roger, Mrs. Coulter has always exhibited a predatory vibe. Even in tender moments she has shared with Lyra, there’s always been the sense that Mrs. Coulter’s monstrous nature was barely restrained just below the surface. Yet it’s that unrivaled intensity that has made her so formidable and even the likes of Father MacPhail and all the clout he carries with the Magisterium is wary of her unpredictable nature. It’s almost too on the nose, with Coulter’s daemon being a simian creature known for its volatility. And yet, there are times when the golden monkey almost seems ashamed of what its human does. Of all the human-daemon relationships we’ve seen, the Coulter and her daemon’s has felt more like indentured servitude rather than a true partnership.
Finally, the narrative hops over to Will’s earth as continues his Boreal’s dogged attempts to find more information into how John Parry crossed over into the daemon world.
Despite his lack of empathy for the disturbed Elaine, Boreal’s sinister aura is fantastic to watch and he continues to be a mainstay antagonist who, even with limited chance to shine, always maintains command of the scene. I’m still not clear on the importance Parry’s letters play into the greater arc but Will was able to get them before the bad guys but instead of returning to his mother (who he had stay with a family friend), does a walkabout on his own. His journey is just beginning and will most certainly become a major aspect of Season Two though the possibility of him crossing over into the daemon world in next week’s finale is a very real possibility.
With its need to put characters in the right places for the upcoming finale, “The Fight to the Death” was hamstrung by the rush to put so many things in place in such a limited time. It suffers because of this, with sloppy gaps between scenes unevenly spliced together after small chunks of them were removed. Even the hour runtime was not enough to make it a smooth ride and there would have been a real benefit to it being another ten minutes. Still, we now have all the pieces on the board where they need to be; now, it’s time to see who celebrates by delivering the victorious call of “Checkmate”.
• Despite his initial thoughts, Lee’s charge of protecting Lyra remains in play. Even Serafina’s witchy vagueness is direct enough to tell him that much, though the rest of her message remains ambiguous. The scope of her words indicates that the battle to come will far exceed that which we’ll see in the upcoming finale, meaning that next season’s clash will be one for the ages.
• Though accidental (with a brilliant assist from the house cat) Will does kill Thomas. Being responsible for the death of someone has to take its toll, particularly someone like Will. I’ll be curious to see if the affect that action has on him will be revisited as his arc gets more fleshed out.