BBC and HBO’s His Dark Materials is building to something big, with last week’s episode finally seeing Will come into possession of the Subtle Knife. Now, we’re seeing him put it to the test in a high-stakes episode that also delved into sexism, the line between science and faith, and what happens when someone finds the grass is greener on the other side of the multiverse.
Season two’s “The Scholar” represents His Dark Materials at its higher potential. A mix of moral philosophy and entertaining action — where the smartest people in the room are constantly trying to outsmart one another with clever words and intense stares, only to find there’s still so much beyond their understanding.
Nowhere is this better represented than with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), whose inaugural trip into our world — and all its temptations — runs alongside Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will’s (Amir Wilson) quest to get the alethiometer back from Lord Boreal. On the surface, Lyra and Will’s mission is the most critical part of the episode. After the events of last week’s “The Tower of the Angels,” Will has found himself the bearer of the Subtle Knife — a powerful object that can create doorways between worlds. This puts him on par with Lyra as one of the most important people in the multiverse. But unlike his new friend, whose childhood curiosity (mixed with pure arrogance) coaxed her into mastering the alethiometer right away, Will is more timid and unsure. His approach to using the Subtle Knife is more out of necessity than pride. This is not an object or destiny he signed up for but he still knows there’s work to do.
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Lyra and Will prep their heist of Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) mansion, using the knife to build the ultimate escape plan, and as this unfolds we get to the real emotional meat of the episode. The TV show has taken a detour from the source material by having Mrs. Coulter’s path intersect with other people in Lyra’s life this season. In a previous episode, she visited Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in jail, where the two of them commiserated about their childhoods. Here we see Mrs. Coulter spend a lot of time in our version of Oxford, instead of just dropping by for a quick visit like she did in the books.
Lord Boreal has brought Mrs. Coulter into our world with the promise of reuniting her with Lyra (although it’s clear he has other things on his mind). He plays the part of the protective yet patronising companion, dismissing our world with a flick of his wrist, calling it one focused on consumerism instead of faith. This might be true, at least in comparison to where they come from, but over the course of the episode Mrs. Coulter finds herself face-to-face with a world she has long been denied. One where women aren’t barred from positions of power and their actions aren’t defined by the men around them. This may not have always been the case in our world — and let’s not forget that institutional sexism is still very much a problem — but for Mrs. Coulter, seeing it is like shattering a hundred glass ceilings. And she has no idea how to feel about it.
It’s how she reacts to this new reality that I found so fascinating. You see, Mrs. Coulter is used to a certain way of getting what she wants — a traditional (and sexist) way of storytelling would call it “feminine wiles,” though it’s so much more than that. Since Mrs. Coulter has grown up in a society where men use religion to control the world, she’s cultivated an aura of mysterious power around herself that she wields like a weapon. We see this when she hawkishly abandons her daemon in Lord Boreal’s home to venture out on her own, reminding him along the way that it’s something witches can do too. The fact that witches are all women is an unspoken detail that gives her a sense of unearthliness, as well as a seductive allure that’s always just out of reach. This is how Mrs. Coulter is used to wielding her power because the only obstacles in her way have been men — and the society — who respond to it.
This comes to a screeching halt when she goes to visit Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), the dark matter researcher Lyra came across in a previous episode. Mrs. Coulter ventured there to get information about Lyra but winds up being shaken to her core. To us, Mary might seem like your typical scientist — but to Mrs. Coulter, this woman is disarming. She represents everything Mrs. Coulter had no idea she’d been denied, and she’s both intrigued and enraged by it. In just a few short minutes, Mrs. Coulter is totally subdued and has to leave the office, having been upstaged by a woman who didn’t even realise she was doing it.
She spends the rest of the episode on the edge, having lost her sense of control by being confronted with how little control she actually has. It even plays into her relationship with Lyra — she’s jealous that Lyra is free of her influence and moving through the world (or worlds) in a way she never could. So, when Lyra and Will find themselves sneaking into Lord Boreal’s home, using the knife to pull off an inter-dimensional heist, the eventual confrontation when they get caught feels less like a standoff and more like a desperate attempt for Mrs. Coulter to have something she can call her own. But it’s too little, too late for Lyra — it adds weight to the moment she commands Pantalaimon to attack Mrs. Coulter’s daemon, a direct parallel of what Mrs. Coulter had done to her in season one. There’s anger, rage, and a loss of control that both Lyra and her mother cannot move past — and it’s only through Will’s persistence that Lyra breaks out of it and flees, leaving her mother alone once again.
The episode ends with Mary, who received a cryptic message from her dark matter computer to “play the serpent,” venturing into Cittagazze on a mission that she doesn’t understand. Folks who’ve read the books will know this is the start of something huge, a moment that directly ties into the trilogy’s climax. But for now, it’s simply the story of a former nun leaving her life behind to follow the word of fallen angels.
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