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His Dark Materials cuts a new window into Coulter's worldview in another standout episode

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i cuts a new window into Coulters worldview in another standout episode
Photo: HBO
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“The Scholar” is, from a plot perspective, an important turning point in the journey of our three heroes who seem fated to shape the future of these universes. By the end of the episode, the angels have sent Mary Malone through the window into Citigazze, and Lyra and Will have retrieved the alethiometer from Boreal and are now ready to focus their energy on finding Will’s father, unaware he’s on his way with Lee Scoresby to find them.

But ultimately, this episode of His Dark Materials belongs to Marisa Coulter, and to Ruth Wilson’s portrayal of her. Technically, on paper, this is not a turning point for Marisa: she’s on a quest to “save” Lyra, but she fails, with her daughter slipping out of her fingers thanks to the Subtle Knife’s ability to lock them away in a world of specters. She is in exactly the same place from a plot perspective that she was before, driven by her firmly held belief that she is the only one who can truly keep her daughter safe despite Lyra insisting she wants nothing to do with her. But while she may be no closer to rescuing Lyra, her journey into Will’s Oxford is a transformative moment for the character’s place in this story, as she bears witness to a life she could have led, and the weight she bears for having chosen to play by the rules of the Oxford she was born into.

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At this point in the books, we have nowhere near this much insight into Coulter’s character: the show has consistently been giving us more shades of Marisa’s love for Lyra and messy relationship with the Magisterium, but the adjustments here are much more significant. In the books, we see only glimpses of Coulter’s motives in her parlay with Boreal at his mansion, in which she is manipulating him to reveal information. Here, however, she is being invited into his world in a deeply patriarchal gesture, Boreal trying to impress her with his “trinkets” and high-end sound system like a sleazy wall street executive or something. The story becomes about how Coulter pushes beyond his introduction to Will’s Oxford to see something he couldn’t, insisting on meeting with Mary Malone herself when she learns that Lyra met with her. It’s done under the guise of wanting to know what Lyra is up to, but it’s also done with the intention of seeing a “lady scientist” in the flesh.

Boreal tells Marisa that the people of Will’s world “appear to have more freedom,” but that the government is just as corrupt as the magisterium, and that consumerism rules in place of faith. And from a patriarchal point of view, this may well be true, but he cannot grasp how much Marisa feels the impact of seeing women able to hold positions of authority, or balance work and motherhood as when she observes a woman at a coffee shop typing on a laptop and entertaining a baby in a pram. In a scene that hits differently in light of recent discourse in the United States, she instinctively refers to Mary as “Mrs. Malone,” but she is swiftly corrected that it is “Dr. Malone,” and every bit of her interaction with Mary thereafter is shaped by that. It’s a sharply written scene from Francesca Gardiner, as you can read it as Marisa getting caught in her lie: Mary starts asking for specific information about experimental theology, and papers she’s published, and she’s immediately flummoxed and makes a swift exit. But when she returns to Boreal and recounts the visit, it becomes clear that she was reacting to being taken seriously as a scholar by this stranger, who presumed that she would be able to explain her work, and imagined her as the author of papers that she’s forced to have men publish for her in order to get her work into the world. While Marisa ultimately dismisses Malone as impertinent to the task at hand, because no woman who bows to the will of a patriarchal society is entirely immune to dismissing other women, she also describes her as “intelligent” and “free,” and she loses her ability to play coy with Boreal’s sleaze. She starts lamenting that all the stories people tell of her and Asriel make her out to be a damsel and a victim, and while she doesn’t get to finish her story before Lyra arrives, the message is that the world’s underestimation of her is the driving force behind the person she is.

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i cuts a new window into Coulters worldview in another standout episode
Photo: HBO

Ruth Wilson is, as always, tremendous throughout these sequences, and what’s most important is that the show is adding depth to her character without outright turning her into a “sympathetic” figure. When Lyra does arrive and Marisa tries to convince her to join forces, the subsequent action scene is framed through two lenses. The first is Lyra effectively testing out her mother’s love for violence as a means to an end, sticking Pan on Coulter’s golden monkey and watching as her mother suffers. Lyra later tells Will that she hated how that felt, the two bonding over their shared difficulty in justifying violence even in situations where that violence is justified. But for Marisa, the scene is about showing how far she is willing to go in order to get what she wants, effectively severing her connection to her daemon so that she can continue to focus on Lyra, abandoning him to Pan’s violence as he watches on in pain. When Boreal questioned how she was separating from her daemon to leave him behind when she visited Mary, she explicitly compared herself to the witches, but she also frames it as a form of self-control, making an implicit argument that the capacity to separate from one’s daemon is not exclusive to the witches but is something that is inherently associated with women and the compartmentalization they’re forced to practice in order to just exist in the world. But as much as who Coulter is has been shaped by the sexism she’s faced, the show isn’t saying this justifies everything she’s done, or everything she’s still going to do. It just makes who she is more strongly enmeshed within the cultures of these worlds, something that is present in the books but gets highlighted here to great effect.

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With both the witches and Lee and John’s balloon trip absent this week, the story is more focused, and the episode is better for it. The one scene that deviates from the two main story threads, a check-in at the Magisterium as the new Cardinal uses the witches’ destruction of their defenses at the anomaly to justify jailing the thorn in his political side, does nothing to make that story more interesting, but with only a single scene it leaves breathing space for the other scenes to resonate. In the case of Mary, her journey into Citigazze is definitely rushed, but that’s sort of the point: whereas Lyra and Will are being guided to a higher calling indirectly, as though they are too young to fully grasp what the forces of the universe are imagining for them, as an adult Mary is given absolute clarity. Her time in her own universe is done: it is time for her to go somewhere else and “play the serpent,” and she follows along. That’s always been a bit of a reach as to why she would do so willingly, but I think the show’s done enough to articulate her background—her initial calling to the church, her belief in her research—for us to accept she would pack like she’s going hiking and head off to the Boreal’s window and successfully trick the guard into thinking she’s Marisa.

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i cuts a new window into Coulters worldview in another standout episode
Photo: HBO
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Things are similarly a bit rushed for Will and Lyra, as Will picks up how to use the knife without just a bit of positive reinforcement from Lyra, but the show is really nailing the dynamic between these two characters and their journey. There’s a light-hearted air to the heist initially, as they cheerfully realize that the world’s overlap somewhat and give them the ability to use the knife to break into the house, but that all goes away once they get inside, and their reflections after the fact struck me as a really valuable bit of messaging. His Dark Materials is at its core a family program, and while some of its messaging is definitely not typical for young adult fare, the idea of Will and Lyra’s independence and their coming of age under such chaotic circumstances is definitely central to that identification. And so I thought it was really striking how Will insisted that Lyra not think about herself relative to her parents, and instead be the person she is, and a person that he’d be proud to be like. The scene does some other work about solidifying Lyra’s relationship to her surrogate parents—Ma Costa, Lee Scoresby—but I was struck by this idea that as teenagers they are charting their own path, and need not compare that to their parents or anyone else. It’s a debrief of sorts from the action that preceded it, reaffirming the work done this season to take their two arcs and successfully merge them into one stronger one.

Heading into the season’s final two episodes, I don’t know if His Dark Materials has followed a traditional narrative path: there’s no real clarity in terms of where the story is heading, and while Lyra and Will and Lee and John are each looking for the other, what precisely will happen if they were to reunite remains a mystery. But what this season has done particularly well is to solidify our relationship to the show’s characters, and to their dynamic with each other, such that the show can largely replicate the books’ approach of suggesting that destiny has plans for everyone involved and letting our interest in them fuel the characters instead of promising a fireworks factory. The rest of the season is likely to solidify the path forward to an extent, but for the moment the show is doing its best work yet letting the characters scramble to find their path in the darkness.

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Stray observations

  • I noted last week that the show was very nonchalant about Coulter and Boreal walking into Cittàgazze, but we did get some dialogue from Boreal here explaining why they can’t just waltz into the city to get the knife themselves, which would have been nice to see last week? Either way, I think I have a better handle on what the show was doing with the casualness of Coulter’s glimpse of the specter. (I was also reminded in some Wiki reading that Boreal suggested he found a way to skip
    Cittàgazze and move directly between the two Oxfords in the books, avoiding the confusion last week presented).
  • More great direction from Leanne Welham—the shot of Will just before they started the heist was stunning, they really did a fantastic job lighting that section of the Cittàgazze set.
  • If anyone is familiar with my relationship with coffee cups on TV shows, Boreal showing up in the car with two take-away cups was truly an emotional rollercoaster, but Wilson in particular handled hers particularly well, so either they were properly full or she truly is a thespian in all things.
  • Every time Red Panda Pan shows up, my notes just become “RED PANDA PAN,” FYI.
  • In the books, the angels make a big deal about Mary destroying the Cave, but the show chose to have the Cave effectively shut itself down. A curious change, since I liked the idea that there was an existential threat of Boreal or someone else using the technology for ill will if it was left intact.
  • Ruth Wilson is a great actress in many ways, and I loved her reading Boreal for filth about how limited his ambitions were upon discovering Will’s Oxford, but her boredom at listening to Boreal’s dumb speakers was maybe her finest work. Just sheer, absolute disinterest.
  • Lest we thought Tullio could have survived his encounter with the specters, his sisters found him in the trademark catatonic state, and they’re none too happy about it: the show mostly uses their blaming Lyra and Will as a way to think about their guilt over the violence they render and considering when it is or is not justified, but their threat remains open as the episode comes to an end.
  • Does Coulter know how to drive a car? Because when she asked for Boreal’s keys I was very confused about how she intended to drive it, but I guess she made it there okay? Did she have to parallel park? I want to see those scenes, dammit.
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Through The Amber Spyglass (Spoilers for, well, The Amber Spyglass)

So, it’s clear at this point that much of what they’re doing in terms of Coulter’s storytelling is effectively revealing details and character shades that eventually become central to the character’s actions later in the story. In the books, Pullman uses the relatively harsher characterization to that point as a threat that gets unraveled a bit as we spend more time with her in the later stages of the books, but here I’m guessing we’ll see a subtly distinct read on those scenes given everything we know. I’m definitely intrigued to see how that plays, particularly if they add in a time jump to help explain the actors’ ages.

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The one other thing I’ll say is that now that I have a clearer sense of how they intend to pivot out of the Boreal confrontation, it’s a bit clearer why they had Coulter see the specter in last week’s episode, as the themes of control are strong and about to make their way to Cittàgazze.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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