Can I confess something that no male critic would ever admit? Sometimes in writing these recaps, I get nervous about getting it wrong. Not that my opinion is wrong necessarily, although sometimes it does feel like that. I’m worried that when I’m frustrated by an episode, the recap’s tone will end up being so far from the experience of most readers that it will alienate them, or worse, make them feel bad about something they previously enjoyed. I try not to dwell on it, but I suppose this is a form of impostor syndrome: doubting one’s instincts even when there’s a stack of evidence to validate them.
But once in a while, an episode comes along that is so meaningfully crafted, so beautifully executed, that it absolves that doubt. This week’s installment of His Dark Materials did this in two critical respects, and I suspect I know why. Written by Francesca Gardiner and directed by Leanne Welham, “The Scholar” is a Möbius-strip ode to female interiority that finally demonstrates an innate fluency in how to truly develop literary characters for the screen — in some ways, even better and with more nuance than the source material itself.
I say Möbius strip because after a season and a half of disappointing results from male writers and directors, the first episode helmed entirely by two women — no co-credits here — offers the kind of depth our female characters deserved from the start. Last season, we learned the details of Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel’s tryst exactly as they appear in the book: Marisa cheated on Mr. Coulter with Asriel and became pregnant. Then, when Mr. Coulter found out, he challenged Asriel to a duel, which Asriel won; then he promptly abandoned his now-widowed lover, taking their love child to be raised at Jordan College, “freeing” all three from further public scrutiny. But not even author Philip Pullman could capture exactly how intimately a scandal like that would change a woman like Marisa Coulter, not only through the traumatic events themselves but also how public sentiment in such a deeply patriarchal world might chip away at her sanity and build up a white-hot core of hatred and rage in its place, one insipid male opinion at a time.
We saw a hint of this last week, but now Carlo Boreal has flourished into a full-fledged portrait of male entitlement, replacing the books’ smug-and-dirty old man with the kind of cavalier misogynist that can be properly rendered only when women are present on both sides of the camera. Because the subtext between Coulter and Boreal is far more potent than mere dialogue now: Every one of Boreal’s brags, every sneering indictment of this universe, every priceless trophy he shows off — they all matter only insofar as they’re reflected on Coulter’s face. When she speaks, she might say things like, “So you stole [the alethiometer] from her?” but what she really means is “I am trying to decide just how slowly you deserve to be killed.” And I defy you to find a single woman who would not feel a visceral kinship with even this vile monstress as she sits trapped in a man’s luxury car while he forces her to drink “the best coffee in Oxford,” or on that man’s couch as he forces her to fully appreciate his high-fidelity sound system.
His soliloquy on the many inferiorities of our universe is the buzzing of an unwelcome, pseudointellectual fly as Coulter takes in its infinite potential. A mother with a stroller, working on her laptop in the park, is a revelation. (Even in our America!) Blue jeans may still be hideous, but she seems to genuinely relish the sharp pantsuit and flattened hairstyle that she dons to escape Boreal’s hovering. And of course, there’s Doctor Mary Motherfucking Malone.
Perhaps some people enjoyed watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby successfully rattle Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter with a monologue of defiant armchair psychology two weeks ago. But as far as character development is concerned, that scene undeniably pales in comparison to her encounter with Mary this week. If you’re trying to shake apart a woman like Marisa Coulter, would you really send a scruffy Texan prole who has every reason to want to see her fail? Or would you send a perfectly ingenuous mirror: a woman living her academic dreams, one who takes for granted her own achievements and those of her new acquaintance? To make matters worse, Marisa has actually told Mary the truth (minus the suggestion that Lyra’s “trouble at home” was a “misunderstanding”). She is an experimental theologian-physicist! She has written plenty of papers they could ostensibly discuss! The ideas Mary marvels at in Lyra are mere slivers of the larger concepts she has explored as an academic. The self-induced agony of leaving her daemon back at the house is nothing compared to that of confronting exactly who she could have been had men not denied her every recognition and freedom she would have easily gotten here.
By the time she returns to Boreal’s, she has no more patience for his casual ignorance. He dismisses women in this world as “arrogant,” even as she vocally aspires to the freedom they have. She brings up the scandal — a traumatic event that happened to her — and he whines about “talking about Asriel.” She snaps. “This place is full of ideas, ideas our world is hungry for, and yet you? You have spent your time trading trinkets.” When he protests, citing the company he has built, the name he has made for himself, she sneers at him. “And were you hoping to add me to your little collection of treasures? … My dear Carlo. If you actually got me, you wouldn’t begin to know what to do with me.”
It’s at this moment that the embodiment of what she has become instead comes knocking: her daughter. Lyra and Will have discovered that his world and that of Cittàgazze line up perfectly and have devised a plan in which Lyra distracts Boreal at the door while Will cuts into the basement to steal the alethiometer and slip back into Cittàgazze before he catches wind of it. Of course, neither could have predicted they would have to contend with the world’s worst X factor, the bogeywoman herself. The golden monkey snatches the alethiometer away from Will as he reaches for it, and the commotion alerts the adults and Lyra, who all come running as Boreal locks the basement door behind him. Now Coulter has the alethiometer and her daughter’s horrified attention; as Boreal and his snake daemon advance on Will and the knife, she offers the alethiometer to Lyra and implores her to come home with her, wherever home is. Again, she tells the truth; she is trying to protect her, and she does want to teach her daughter to use her gifts. But again, all this does is remind her that she’s too late — a world of men may have warped her into a monster, but she passed down its wreckage to her daughter. She sees Lyra and her friend through the lens of her own mistakes with Asriel, rather than as they are. By insisting Will can’t be trusted — Will, the precious, troubled angel who leaves payment for ghosts; who makes himself sick over hurting people, even bad guys, even when it’s not his fault; and who, just hours earlier, finally cracked a smile for what feels like the first time ever — she reminds Lyra of the precise opposite: He’s the only person she can trust.
“I am nothing like you,” Lyra hisses, and Pantalaimon lunges at the golden monkey as a wolverine, giving their mother a taste of the abuse she and her daemon visited on them last season. It’s probably the most violence we’ve seen in the series to date, but Coulter’s high tolerance for pain makes it short-lived. Luckily, Will finally manages to break a vase over Boreal’s head, cut a window, and drag Lyra back to safety before her mother and the monkey can fully overcome the attack. He closes the window just in time, leaving Coulter with no option but to continue doing the only thing she can seem to do right: manipulate an incompetent but moneyed man into doing her bidding. Only now, she knows exactly where she stands in the universe.
• Reader Sofie Rose emailed last week to point out that the violently Tolkienesque prologue was voiced not by Ruta Gedmintas, who plays Serafina Pekkala, but by Sophie Okonedo, who will play the angel Xaphania. We haven’t met Xaphania yet, but trust me, she’s worth the wait.
• Golden monkey in a seatbelt. GOLDEN MONKEY IN A SEATBELT.
• There was so much Bechdel-test demolition going on this week, I didn’t even have time to mention Mary’s conversation with her sister, who is quite enthusiastic about her deciding to take time off. Little does her sister know the Cave didn’t give her much choice in the matter. It self-destructs, leaving her with a final urgent, if cryptic, message: “You must play the serpent. You have been preparing for this as long as you have lived. You must make a journey which starts at Hornbeam. Deceive the guardian. Find the entrance. You will be protected. Save the girl. And the boy. Your work here is finished. We will not speak again in this world.” Props to Mary for simply trusting them and stepping through the doorway to Cittàgazze. It seems we’ll be diving into the events of the third book, The Amber Spyglass, earlier than expected, just as we did with the events of The Subtle Knife in season one.
• Even Father MacPhail benefits from excellent writing this week as he jails a priest for continuing to undermine his decisions and advocating for denying the existence of Asriel’s anomaly, going so far as to receive a telegram that obviously should have been addressed to the cardinal himself. Suddenly, MacPhail is smarter and more cunning than we’ve given him credit for; now I’m not so sure Coulter has truly rid herself of the Magisterium’s power.
• It’s weird that Coulter knows how to drive a Tesla, right?
• The way Boreal just had a bunch of clothes in Coulter’s size there, waiting for her … just some light adult horror wedged neatly into a family show.
• Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is the only daemon who actually benefits from the show’s CG approach. He doesn’t speak — we never even learn his name — so when Coulter returns to the house after abandoning him, their wordless exchange of resentment is made exquisite by the fact that they can both act with their facial expressions. This scene is also beautifully lit, with the bright sconce outside framing them both as they turn away from the light into the dark house.
• I’m also pleased that, rather than simply comforting her, Will helps Lyra to name her mother’s abuse as abuse, then insists she doesn’t have to “be like” any adult she knows. Kids watching this show need to hear this stuff! No gods! No masters!
• Am I the only one who can’t stop noticing how … um … scrotal? … the Cittàgazze peninsula looks?