Mothers have played a major role in His Dark Materials from the beginning. Generally, the limitations of all parents to protect their children — by choice or otherwise — is the engine that propels our protagonists into this adventure: Will’s father leaves; Lyra’s father lies, then leaves. Will’s mother can’t take care of him; Lyra’s simply didn’t want to. It’s about the damage of a parent’s absence, most of all. Then, at the heart of everything, there is Eve, the woman who chose understanding even as paradise was contingent upon her ignorance. It’s no accident that the Magisterium calls her the “mother of us all,” then vows to murder her reincarnation.
For better or worse, Lyra’s role notwithstanding, the mothers of this story already know something the people around them do not. We’ve already established that Elaine Parry’s mental illness(es) may very well have stemmed from the very real persecution inherent to being married to John Parry. On top of this, if we subscribe to the source text — and judging by how much of it has been drag-and-dropped into these teleplays, I think we’re supposed to — there’s also an element of truth to the obsessive-compulsive neuroses Will describes this week when he tells Lyra about children much worse than Angelica and Paola’s gang bullying his mother. In the books, Will speculates that the specters, or something like them, also exist in his world; it’s implied that his mother’s incredibly specific, incredibly dull “tasks,” like needing to count the leaves on a bush or total railings in the park, may also be her way of warding them off. Whether or not you buy this theory — it may very well simply be a metaphor meant to build compassion among neurotypicals for people like Elaine — I think we can all agree that for over a decade, Will’s mother has been completely isolated by the knowledge that there are other universes, and that her husband is gone because of that fact. If anyone deserves more screen time, it’s not these garden-variety Magisterium goons; it’s Elaine Parry.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter’s knowledge is more obvious. In the books, her newfound ability to control specters is straightforward: she and Boreal travel to the crossroads world with a squad of zombified, or “severed,” soldiers, who provide a barrier between them and the specters’ hunger. Her wickedness here is also fairly transactional: “They know I can give them more nourishment if they let me live than if they consume me,” she explains to Boreal when he asks how she does it. “I can lead them to all the victims their phantom hearts desire.”
For Ruth Wilson’s Coulter, this talent instead springs from her virtuosic mastery of self-harm. (“Strength is salvation,” she drunkenly reminds her daemon at one point, as she holds her hand over a flame.) As we’ve explored here before, few villain tropes are more terrifying than a self-flagellating zealot, or someone who knows right from wrong, yet chooses to inflict suffering anyway. This Coulter is both — she herself has a phantom heart. She “suppresses” her humanity, somehow sedating the golden monkey and dissociating, to walk into certain death and emerge as queen of the soul-eaters.
That Boreal cannot do this — that he remains humanly fallible, utterly predictable to the end in his masculine conclusion that he is equal to a woman far more capable than he, bless his misogynistic heart — is his downfall. Had he been truly capable of viewing his situation with any degree of self-awareness, perhaps he might have realized sooner that he had already shown his entire hand to this woman with power over a fate worse than death. Perhaps he might have realized that in his eagerness to win her approval, he had exhausted any value he might have held for her. “It would have been so much easier if you had told me about Lyra when you first had her,” she croons as the poison overtakes him and his writhing daemon. “You did so much for me, don’t think I don’t know that. But your ambitions were small. They would’ve always ended here. Boreal, I don’t need you. You would only hold me back. You are not, nor have you ever been, my equal.”
You hate to rejoice at an abusive monster’s triumph, but unfortunately, you also love to see it.
Mary Malone and Serafina Pekkala aren’t mothers in the traditional sense, but they nevertheless do 100 percent of the parenting this week. Serafina saves Lyra and Will as the children of Cittàgazze swarm their café to lynch them (yes, really); this is the first time Lyra has met her. (In the books, she already knows and idolizes the witch, which makes the rescue all the more joyful.) Lyra at least knows a decent amount about witches, which is helpful when convincing the emotionally and physically exhausted Will to trust Serafina and her sister witches, enough to let them see the knife and perform a healing spell on his now-festering hand. Serafina and Kaisa (who I’m still mad isn’t a snow goose) conference with both children separately as they make their way through the mountains. When Lyra insists on continuing their search for Will’s father — the alethiometer has told them to keep going “up” — rather than whatever it is Serafina assumed was her prophetic destiny, she tells her, “People told me it was your reading of the alethiometer that I’d find impressive,” agreeing to protect them on their journey. “The truth is, it’s obstinacy that is your gift.” (You hear that, girls? Stubbornness isn’t a flaw. The witch queen said so.) With Will, she tells him — and us — that there’s a boy companion in the prophecy as well; they must take responsibility for each other, rather than one for the other. He gets a chance to do some protecting when the specters beset one of the nameless witches taking the lead, and he must use the knife to scare them off.
The intimacy between the children, meanwhile, is growing, thanks to the increasingly sweet chemistry between Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson. Will opens up about his slow disillusionment about his father’s return, while Lyra does this thing, whenever he falls back on his knee-jerk defensive hostility, where she just looks at him patiently until the trauma response subsides. These little moments are among the show’s best, because they chip away at one of its core weaknesses, that it is far more curious about what makes the adults in this story tick than it is about the same in its adolescent protagonists.
Case in point — although I have to eat my words to some degree, because I fully cried at this — Mary Malone’s encounter with the Lost Girls. This is one of the bigger swerves from the source material, and like the reimagining of Coulter, it pays off. Angelica and Paola have had their murderous impulses doused by Serafina, but now they’ve been left without hope — until a strange, beatific lady appears out of nowhere, seemingly immune to specters. (Unbeknownst to all three, we see the wingspan of an angel hovering above her at one point.) After exploring a bit and consulting the ever-cryptic I Ching — “turning to the summit for provision of nourishment, brings good fortune, spying about with sharp eyes, like a tiger with insatiable craving” — she comes upon Will and Lyra’s cafe and courtyard, where she notices the girls spying on her. Mary goes into full-on auntie mode, offering them an energy bar and promising not to tell their parents. Paola takes the treat, and Angelica takes the talking, explaining that they’re orphans, and that they tried to kill a girl named Lyra. Mary is agog. “Was that wrong?” Angelica asks, suddenly unsure. “Yes?!” replies Mary. Angelica explains about the witch, at which point Paola interrupts. “Miss? Can I have a hug?” (Cue the waterworks over here.) She has to stand on tiptoes to reach around Mary’s neck. Now it’s Angelica’s turn: “Would you stay for a bit? Look after us?” she asks. “The specters aren’t getting you; you don’t have to go like the others. You can make us have baths, and tell us what to do, and all that.” Mary can’t stay, but the speed with which their walls come shooting up and they start running away again breaks her. “Wait,” she says thickly, through tears. “You shouldn’t be here alone. Come with me. I’ll bring you to your adults.” These kids are so small, and so lost; I’m genuinely excited to see what comes of this new little adoption. It does nothing but humanize what amounts to a Lord of the Flies caricature in the books, to rip away the romantic literary façade and reveal the real pain and lasting trauma of abandonment beneath. If a surrogate mother to orphans is really to be the serpent, I doubt Eden could ever be worth much.
Perhaps all of this is part of why the time spent with fathers (real and surrogate) this week falls so flat. (Props for the screensaver-y wide shot of the balloon over that canyon, though. Is that supposed to be the Alamo Gulch?) I adored Lee Scoresby and John Parry’s cheeky exchange as they fly into the crossroads world about shamanic powers in the books, so objectively, I’m glad to see it repeated in whatever form. But the aloof, mysterious approach Andrew Scott is taking with this character is coming off as almost contemptuous, which makes his part in the conversation feel more like a mocking “gotcha” than a good-hearted point about magic and technicalities. As a shaman, yes, Parry can fly — he summoned a man with a balloon, and now he’s flying. He can also make fire out of thin air — by producing a box of matches, which someone without premonitions might not have thought to bring. (Domino from X-Men comes to mind: Luck is a subtle yet incredibly handy superpower.) He can also summon a massive murder of crows to, well, murder the Magisterium zeppelins sent through the anomaly after them and Lyra. Shamans, like everyone, contain multitudes. Still, this odd-couple buddy drama continues to drag at an otherwise intriguing episode, even as a stray gunshot hits their gas tank and they come in for a crash landing. At this point, Parry doesn’t deserve to be reunited with his son, and I’m already wishing I could save Will from the disappointment and trauma that awaits in their reunion.
• Regarding that opening scene where Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala glimpse the angels flying to war: the angels themselves gave me chills …which were then immediately killed by the pitiful dialogue inflicted upon the witches. As a virtually immortal matriarchal race, the witches in particular could have benefited from a little more creative page-to-screen adaptation. As it stands, they’ve been reduced to exposition and clichés like “the Magisterium will pay for what they’ve done.” I hope Ruta Skadi and Asriel will have some weird chemistry or something when she finds him.
• Fra Pavel lays it out for MacPhail: the alethiometer tells them Coulter is seeking Lyra, and that Lyra is Eve, basically. MacPhail uses this as justification to launch an all-out crusade in the name of preventing the second Fall™. How much of his speech about “sacrificing” Lyra to the other senior church leaders he actually believes, versus how much he simply wants to bring Coulter to heel, remains unknown.
• Just a satisfying thing to know, for those who haven’t read the books: when those boys attacked his mom, Will found the leader at school the next day and broke his arm and a few teeth. They never bothered her again. Some violence should be condoned, in my opinion!
• An Emmy immediately for the costume designer who put together Ruth Wilson’s incredible Jane Porter/Marion Ravenwood look. Just flawless, from coiffure to riding boot.