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His Dark Materials lets Mrs. Coulter shine in one of its strongest episodes yet (newbies)

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i lets Mrs. Coulter shine in one of its strongest episodes yet (newbies)
Photo: Alex Bailey, HBO
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And like clockwork, His Dark Materials improves when Mrs. Coulter reappears. This episode was a real high water mark for the character, because so many of the actions she’s taken suddenly have an additional degree of nuance, from her bizarre relationship with her daemon to her stunted efforts to connect with Lyra.


It’s also an interesting twist on the show that the character who best makes clear what daemons represent to people is the one who loathes them. How much was Mrs. Coulter traumatized by her youthful affair with Lord Asriel? Irreparably, it turns out, such that she thinks passion and sex are what ruin people. After all, those things ruined her life. That her romance with Asriel is also what gave her Lyra does not seem to have fully sunken in yet, but there’s so much that works really effectively in this episode about her learning who her own daughter is, and how extraordinary Lyra’s passion and empathy make her.

Lyra mainly spends the episode wreaking havoc and sowing chaos, which she suggests is what she’s good at. But it’s not her chaos abilities that are the point here—it’s her commitment to breaking the other children out of the prison. She could make a run for it the first time she and Roger manage to get away from the other kids, but she doesn’t. Not only does she re-imprison herself on their behalf, but she takes the time to destroy the machine that’s been severing daemons. The show is making a compelling argument for the way one single person taking a conscientious stand is life-changing for a whole series of other people, but its demonstration of this concept doesn’t work equally well each time. For instance, it sounds silly when Lee suggests he loves Lyra after knowing her a few days, but with only a few shots of Mrs. Coulter’s face, there’s such a sense of torment over who her daughter is communicated. It’s a very literal demonstration of why showing can work so much better than telling.


The rest of the Bolvangar sequence is the oddest mix of truly horrifying villainy and overwrought dialogue. Did we really need someone to say “I was just obeying orders”? The bad guys on this show are doing something at a pretty far extreme of villainy. It’s so vile that it’s almost…too evil? And yet, inevitably, there’s the guy who feels kind of bad but is doing it anyway. It’s so extreme that it’s hard to imagine how the dialogue could have been written in a way that was less pointed and over the top. It’s like the show has to fall back on tropes to get through it, so we end up with the true believer leader, the ambivalent nice guy, and of course, the utterly faceless violent guys who are defending the camp. We’re told they’re tartars, but we never see what any of them looks like, nor do we understand what they’re doing in this particular conflict.


The eventual fight scene mostly proves that turning the tartars into more specific bad guys would have made it even cooler. The action sequences are on their way to being suspenseful and exciting, given the narrow hallways and near-misses, but it’s all over surprisingly quickly for a battle we’ve been told the gyptians have no chance of winning. They’re actually doing pretty well, with the very brief exception of one scene, and then Serafina Pekkala, this show’s deus ex machina, zips in for a hot 30 seconds to kill everyone. Was she unavailable earlier? How is she a hero if she’s only inspired to help those kids when Lyra is in danger? Awfully Mrs. Coulter-y of her. Why aren’t the witches in charge of everything if they’re this powerful? That was just one of them!

We’re just going to have to hope she stuck around a bit longer, since Lee lasts just a few hours as a surrogate father before accidentally dropping Lyra out of his aircraft. Some balloon driver he is.


Stray observations

  • I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show so driven by one single performance, and one that isn’t even the lead. It’s partially Ruth Wilson’s choices, but also the writing is just better for her. She’s given so much more complexity to play than anyone else. Everyone else is kind of trapped in very traditional hero or villain paths.
  • But speaking of her, having her come back into the girls’ room just to pointlessly say “well done” and freak everyone out was one of the episode’s hammier moments. What did Mrs. Coulter think she was doing in that moment?
  • I honestly almost forgot that we spent any time at all with Will this episode. Can something happen with him already to justify taking time away from Mrs. Coulter learning about motherhood?
  • Only Ruth Wilson could make “Billy Costa is dead.” “Well. That is unfortunate” work.
  • Not to put too fine a point on it, but did Dafne Keen grow about six inches between when she filmed the first episode with Lewin Lloyd (Roger) and now? 
  • I appreciate the show taking the time to show us that the gyptians went back and rescued the daemons. I got worried when Lyra only told Roger to rescue the kids. 
  • And on the subject of daemons, why doesn’t Pantalaimon run when Lyra does? Every other time she’s made a run for it, he has, too.
  • Back to Mrs. C—I ended up not working it into my review, because it was already going on and on about her, but the ways the word “mother” was used/said in this episode were so fascinating. Lyra screams it for the first time only when she’s near death (and it seems likely that was to provoke Mrs. Coulter into reacting), and Mrs. Coulter could barely make herself say it out loud when the two of them were talking later.
  • Those fight scenes were VERY stingy with the Iorek fighting moments. We’ll hope for better for the future.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Lisa is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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