This interview contains spoilers for the Season 2 finale of His Dark Materials.
Lee Scoresby’s been heading for a big showdown for two seasons of His Dark Materials, and in Monday night’s Season 2 finale, he finally reaches it. At Alamo Gulch, as Philip Pullman calls the scene in his book The Subtle Knife, Lee holds off a zeppelin full of Magisterium soldiers long enough to give John Parry a chance to get away. But Lee and his daemon, Hester, go down in a hail of gunfire.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Lee, is a fan of the books, and talked to Slate about what makes this death scene work, about playing a character who’s an icon for fans, and about Lee finding something worth fighting for. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dan Kois: Level with me. When you got the role of Lee a couple of years ago, how much of your excitement was about getting to play this final shootout?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well, yeah, I mean excitement and dread, right? Like it’s one of the most heartbreaking ways to go in any literature I’ve read, full stop.
What makes it so sad?
I think the secret of it is that it’s not one death, it’s two deaths, it’s Lee and Hester. I watched the reactions on social media when the episode aired in the U.K. and it was about 50-50 people screaming, “Lee”—crying face, crying face, crying face, and “Hester”—crying face, crying face, crying face. So it’s a double heartbreak, because they are such a unit and we’ve gotten to love them both.
As someone who’s written death scenes, what do you think makes this one work? What’s the engine driving it?
That sentence Lee says, “Those men didn’t have to come to this, and neither did we.” That speaks volumes of the futility of war. And when we are thrown into battles that are waged over ideas that are above our pay grade. But I also think that Lee’s belief in his personal cause—which is purely that Lyra might live—is heartbreaking because he goes all the way in. When we meet Lee, he’s kind of picking pockets and he’s in bar fights, and is kind of a bit adrift. He’s secure in who he is based on the way he banters with Hester, but he’s adrift. And then in meeting Lyra, he finds someone to care about and someone to … He finds a cause in his life worth fighting for.
Where did you film the scene and what was the experience like?
We filmed it way up in the wilderness in Wales. One of the things I’m grateful for is that we filmed it sequentially, which has not always been the case on this show. Whenever you have a show that has a lot of effects, you’re filming Episode 4 this day and Episode 3 the next. But for Alamo Gulch, we filmed the whole thing in order over the course of a week. So we got to Alamo Gulch on Monday and I was dead on Friday, and every step you see in that sequence happened in order. We all got there together.
Did you have an on-set Hester to interact with?
Yes. I had a brilliant puppeteer who also does lines for me. So yes, there’s a puppet there that gets erased in post and replaced by the CGI Hester.
There’s a whole universe out there of readers who I’m sure you’ve encountered over the past couple of years for whom these characters really, really matter. I mean, like, I named my daughter Lyra, and I’m not even one of the crazy ones.
I know. How does it affect your work to play a character who’s in so many people’s heads already? Can you think about that at all? Or do you just have to shove it out?
Honestly you have to shove it out, because there’s already been an iconic Lee Scoresby [in the movie The Golden Compass], you know what I mean? Sam Elliott’s who I pictured.
So when the producers and Jack Thorne came to me and said, “We thought of you for Lee,” I went, “OK, this is just a different direction. They’re drawing more upon the young Lee of Once Upon a Time in the North.” And also, I’m a hardcore fan of the books. Like, one of the songs in In the Heights, “When the Sun Goes Down,” is based on a Will and Lyra moment in that third book. At the risk of spoilers.
And so I’ve also been really pleased to see that the line that the writers have taken with the show is kind of … faithful-plus. Like, it’s faithful to the things that I think matter to me as a fan, but then there’s these detours. Like Lee getting to face off against Mrs. Coulter. That doesn’t ever happen in the books, but it’s enormously satisfying.
What did that scene with Mrs. Coulter teach you about Lee?
It links Lee and Lyra in a very specific way. And when Lee sees the damaged—I mean, incredibly powerful and brilliant, but damaged—parents Lyra’s coming from, he senses a kinship with her that is chemical. But also that childhood that he faced is also something he and Mrs. Coulter share. And, the fact that he’s able to find a common ground with her is really unexpected. She’s kind of the big bad in the first book, but she grows into something so much more complicated because she really loves her daughter and would do anything for her.
And getting to play with Ruth Wilson was like a dream that I didn’t think would happen. It was sort of like, “Wow, I have this great cast and I … see some of them.” I never see James McAvoy, but I got to work with Ruth Wilson.
Lee’s character is cut from a very old-fashioned storytelling cloth. He’s a cowboy hero and a marksman and a sly fox. When you were playing him, how did you approach making him particular to you?
I thought a lot about my grandfather. My grandfather is of that generation who had a dime-store Western novel in his pocket at all times. He had hundreds of them. Spanish language Westerns by a guy named Estefanía, it was always Estefanía on the cover. One of the last memories I had with him is us watching the first season of Deadwood together. He just was crazy about Westerns. So I thought about the heroes that my grandfather loved so much from that genre. And then the other thing was, like, my accent was very much my Mexican cousins who live in Corpus Christi. I’m not trying to do the typical thing.
That’s so interesting, because I feel like Latino representation in the classic Westerns is not … uh … not great, overall.
Not great, and that all used to be Mexico, guys.