Okay, we need to talk some more about Mrs. Coulter. From the start, there’s been a distinct deviation from the original in Ruth Wilson’s performance that is at once delicious and consequential in a way that keeps the story from feeling too familiar or predictable, even for die-hard fans of the books. Marisa Coulter is no longer driven by selfish megalomania, a Lean In–style confidence that comes from a motivation buried so deep we rarely, if ever, see it surface. Nor is her evil fueled, as Nicole Kidman’s Coulter was, by the entitlement of the beautiful and highborn.
This Mrs. Coulter’s cruelty is instead rooted in insecurity and an almost feral instability. Something has clearly happened to her, and to her daemon, the golden monkey (who never actually gets a name, or a voice, in the books). They can, as Lyra and Pan discover when they follow the noises they’ve been hearing in the air vents at night, travel unusually far from each other. We see the monkey avert his eyes when she looks up from her haunted reverie in the bathroom; she even hits him when no one is watching. A woman who hits her daemon — quite literally an act of self-harm — is a woman who hates herself.
She’s also an abuser. First dazzling Lyra with a sparklingly wealthy life in London, complete with a new wardrobe and caviar and feather beds, it begins, as it often does, with gaslighting. She evades Lyra’s inquiries about her search for Roger by insisting Lyra not question her if she wants to succeed in a world dominated by men (a startlingly second-wave feminist sentiment, if you ask me). “Being extraordinary takes application, means being prepared to change,” she tells the girl when she asks a third time. “And that takes guidance.” (Also noteworthy: Her flat is full of locked doors, including the study and the only exit, the elevator, effectively keeping Lyra and Pan captive.)
Mrs. Coulter white-knuckles it (again literally, practically tearing out her daemon’s fur under the table) when Lyra talks about Dust, but eventually, the abuse gets physical. When the Magisterium’s errand boys drop by to balefully threaten her work with the General Oblation Board, a suspicious, snooping Lyra puts the alethiometer in a purse to keep on her. When they’ve gone and she defies Mrs. Coulter’s insistence that she take it off, the mask drops. The golden monkey viciously attacks Pantalaimon — and by extension Lyra, who feels all of the same pain — pinning his marten head to the floor. Lyra threatens to go to Asriel, and she loses her last bit of composure, screaming, “When has that man ever done anything for you? He’s done nothing! He’s a failure of a man, and a failure as a father!”
Now, technically, this reveal is a retcon. John Faa and the Gyptians were originally the ones who divulge Asriel’s real identity to Lyra. (Though, come on, did you newcomers really not see that coming?) However, much like the updates I mentioned last week, this actually works better narratively than its source text. It feels more natural, less exposition-heavy, and cracks Coulter’s flawless façade; it makes her evil deeds all the worse, because we’ve now seen she’s not just a psychopath, incapable of feeling remorse. She’s a cold-blooded monster who — despite, or perhaps because of, these moments where a once- decent woman now seems trapped in a hell of her own making — resorts to horrible means to achieve her ends, because she believes, having suffered both structurally and personally, she’s entitled to them. (“This isn’t who you are!” screams Lyra, writhing on the floor. But it is, of course, who she’s become.)
As for the banging in the air vents: The confrontation finally completes Lyra and Pan’s mistrust of Mrs. Coulter and her daemon. When she runs an errand (more on that in a bit), they find their way into a network of crawl spaces running through every room in the flat. The monkey has been leaving Mrs. Coulter to spy on them, so it knows they have the alethiometer. They use the vents to sneak into her study, where they find paperwork and blueprints related to the General Oblation Board, and to something they’re building, which features a large, cage-like contraption made for a person and their daemon—with a giant blade attached.
Anyway, I suppose I’ve buried the lede here long enough: The big reveal this week is that there are multiple universes, as Asriel hypothesized, and we’re gonna jump between them! In the second episode, no less! In the books, we don’t get the privilege of visiting our own universe until the second book, The Subtle Knife. But the series writers have jumped the inter-dimensional gun quite cleverly, by developing a synchronous backstory that follows the second life Lord Boreal establishes for himself in our world, prior to the events of that book.
Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal is several orders of magnitude sexier than his on-the-page counterpart, a James Bond–Moriarty hybrid with a dash of medieval righteousness. He’s also doing his devious business in 2019, rather than 1997. The man who was originally a stuffy old rich (presumably white) dude now has a pristine luxury car and a smartphone, employing a weaselly hacker-type private investigator to supply him with whatever information he needs.
What he needs is complicated: First, he drops by Jordan College, acting as a member of the Magisterium’s Consistorial Court, to extort the Master into giving him access to the head of Stanislaus Grumman, even though the college has already destroyed evidence by thawing, treating, and plopping it on a shelf alongside the other dead scholars in the crypt. The Church knows that the college has funded Asriel’s expedition to study Dust, a heretical act that would override scholastic sanctuary. The Master still puts a brave foot down, though a lot of good it does him, considering Boreal simply sneaks down to the crypt later anyway.
Lord Boreal and his daemon make a heavy-handed tableau, the man touching the skull as the snake literally slithers out of an eye socket (so blatant a symbol that I actually yelled, “WOW, I WONDER IF LORD BOREAL IS A BAD GUY” at my screen). Somehow, by touch alone, he knows that it does not belong to Grumman, and sneaks out to the college’s greenhouse, where he approaches and steps through a rip in the fabric of … space-time. It’s a doorway into another universe: ours.
Here, he bids his hacker find information on Grumman, who appears in a photo to have an osprey daemon, then returns to his own London, where he arrives just in time for Mrs. Coulter’s black-tie party at her apartment (this, from the woman who told a child it was absurd to carry a purse around her own home?!), where it becomes pretty obvious that Lucius and Narcissa over here have a sexy history. He shows his affection in the cutest way: by escorting a beautiful investigative journalist — who has managed to crash the party and tell Lyra that the gobblers (General Oblation Board, or G.O.B.) is Mrs. Coulter’s own project — out of the party and into a car, where he crushes her butterfly daemon in his hand, killing her instantly. (But not before demonstrating, quite subtly I might add, the fact that touching someone else’s daemon is wildly taboo.) Ah, love!
The hubbub of the party gives a horror-stricken Lyra and Pantalaimon the opportunity they need to finally grab the alethiometer and make a run for it via an escape route most suited to a girl who has spent her whole life bouncing off the roof tiles of Jordan: the rooftops. Soon they’re free — but not for long, as the gobbler(s) who snatched Billy Costa and Roger appears and grabs them.
In the meantime, Roger has reunited with Billy Costa in the roaming jail where the gobblers are holding the kids captive. (People in this world use everyone’s first and last names constantly. Just go with it.) At one point Coulter drops in on the children, driving home her involvement in their kidnapping, telling them they’ll be going on an adventure and helping them write letters to their families. Roger, to his credit, seems to understand her game, and attempts to make her uncomfortable by writing his to Lyra. (Of course, she throws all the letters in the furnace the moment she leaves the room, leaving one to wonder exactly what she got out of the visit, other than sadistic pleasure.)
The Gyptians are hot on the gobblers’ heels, arriving perhaps within hours of their departure from one abandoned warehouse. They find Billy’s sweater vest (I am fully ready to die for this child), the return of which reveals, through a really sweet moment between Ma and John Faa, that the latter is the little boy’s father. (Oh God, I just realized as I write this: Ma and Faa.) It’s another heartrending twist on the books that suits actor Lucian Msamati’s version of Faa.
• Bug daemons are weird, in a way that goes unexplored in the books. They indicate frailty, yet they also suggest a kind of obscenity of spirit, too? While the framing is offensive to me, even the journalist’s bold ambition could be seen as ugly. And what was up with that face-crawler? (To be fair, no one has ever called His Dark Materials subtle.)
• Every exchange in the Magisterium thus far has been weirdly theatrical. The cardinal’s stooped posture is, like, Igor levels of absurd. This pack of cronies begs for a casual lunatic to shake things up.
• Recently learned that Father MacPhail is played by Will Keen, Dafne Keen’s father. Paired with the fact that Anne-Marie Duff (Ma Costa) is James McAvoy’s ex-wife, this is an unusually close-knit cast!
• How did Boreal manage to transfer that photo of Grumman to his smartphone?
One Final Concern (SPOILERS AHEAD. HDM ROOKIES, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED):
• It’s been established that John Parry will be played by Andrew Scott, who is white. The actor playing his son, Will Parry, is multiracial, which suggests that his mother will be played by an as-yet-unidentified woman of color. Given the fate of the journalist, a black woman, and the fact that Will’s mother has an undetermined mental illness, I’m concerned that, despite the pointedly colorblind casting going on, black women are nevertheless getting a pretty lousy deal thus far. I’ll just point out, in the unlikely event that anyone involved in production is reading these recaps: Mary Malone hasn’t been cast yet, right?