Although I would call His Dark Materials a faithful adaptation, I do think that when it deviates from the books, concerning Mrs. Coulter, it does it tremendously. Much of His Dark Materials “The Scholar” shines a spotlight on Mrs. Coulter’s exposure to Will’s world, where she is confronted with not only a different world but one where she might have thrived. Alongside Mrs. Coulter’s trip, we also witness Will and Lyra’s heist to get back the altheiometer, another deviation from the novels.
Speaking of the books, my weekly “In The Books” section will now publish as a second article separate from the recap! Look for the book comparisons as they go live the morning after Monday night episodes premiere!
Since becoming the bearer in last week’s episode, Will and Lyra have realized that they can’t give the Subtle Knife to Lord Boreal. Will’s hand is still in pain from the loss of his fingers and he is struggling to cut a window until Lyra tutors him in how to clear his mind. This is your weekly reminder that we stan Will and Lyra in this household and also that we love Pan as a red panda. Even though he settles as a pine marten, maybe there can be an alternate universe where he’s a red panda forever.
Getting the hang of cutting windows, Will and Lyra run around Cittagazze, realizing that the worlds line up together. Finally finding the location to cut that will lead them right into Boreal’s home, they plan to steal back the alethiometer at night. Lyra will distract Boreal at the door while Will cuts a window in and searches his home for the alethiometer.
But, not everything is running smoothly for the two of them. A cry rings out in the city and Will and Lyra come across a devastated Angelica and Paola with their brother Tulio after he’s been attacked by the spectres. Furious that Will took the knife, Angelica looks furious and swears bloody revenge on the two of them. Of course, it’s not actually Will’s fault for becoming the bearer. Much like the wands of the wizarding world, the Subtle Knife chose him as the Bearer. Even if he wishes that Tulio could have kept the knife, he doesn’t have a choice about it.
In Will’s world, Mrs. Coulter is being introduced to a world that might have been. Despite Boreal’s criticisms of a world with the illusion of freedom and a culture of consumerism, Mrs. Coulter sees a world where a woman can have freedom. A world where a woman can work and take care of her child. A world where a woman can lead a department of a college, where she can publish scientific papers under her own name, where she can hold a doctorate. For the slimy Boreal who benefits from the system of the Magisterium because he’s a man, this world seems like a failure.
This episode really doubles down on the douchebag energy that Boreal exudes. I once called him Hot Boreal and while Ariyon Bakare is really attractive, this is a very unattractive side to Boreal. Mrs. Coulter correctly calls him out for wasting his potential in this world. He spends his time collecting trinkets and possessing things. Showing her a carved statue that was worth nothing in their world but priceless in Will’s world is a point of pride. He is very proud of these possessions, showing off his sound system, a chunk of the Berlin Wall. But this all shows how little he actually knows about Mrs. Coulter.
She doesn’t care about possessions. For the woman who can have everything (including blackmail on the Cardinal), she wants what the world has taken away from her. That would be her daughter, her opportunities, her pride, her freedom. She is unimpressed by the fact that Boreal stole the alethiometer from her daughter, even if he claims it was so Lyra could be lured back when Mrs. Coulter arrived. Learning that Lyra has spoken with a scholar about Dust, Mrs. Coulter decides to set out to meet Mary Malone.
Also, Mrs. Coulter looking at jeans with disgust is pretty much how I look at jeans.
She changes into world-appropriate clothing, with a gross scene before where Boreal lingers in her room for a bit too long. Take a hint, my guy, she isn’t interested. The look of annoyance when Boreal finally shuts the door says it all. Changing into a pantsuit, she’s ready to set out on the town. Closing the door behind her, her golden monkey daemon looks up at her concerned. Yes, the monkey was creepy in the beginning, but put that little guy in a car seat with a seatbelt and I am sold!
Boreal notices her separation from the daemon and seems concerned. But Mrs. Coulter references witches who are able to separate from their daemons, which could be a nod at some of her history? It’s not clear to me why Mrs. Coulter is able to be so far away from her daemon though I wonder if it has to do with her understanding of dust. More on that later.
At St. Peter’s College, Dr. Mary Malone returns to her office and finds a stranger standing there. Mrs. Coulter introduces herself as an experimental theologian and Lyra’s mother. But, when she apologizes for Lyra’s behavior, all Dr. Malone can do is sing her praises on her grasp of quantum physics and her understanding of dark matter. Mary then asks, “Where would you say theology comes to science?”
To which, Mrs. Coulter replies, “Where does it not?”
This is a fascinating conversation between these two characters. As we know, Mary has a religious background as a nun, until she lost her faith and left the church to become a scientist. Before meeting Lyra, she had closed the door on her and theology. But since learning of dust and other worlds and speaking with The Cave and angels, her reality has been shaken. Mrs. Coulter’s reply seems to confirm her beliefs. Science and faith are closely linked together and Dr. Malone has encountered this.
Meanwhile, for Mrs. Coulter, the question is another stark reminder of the difference between their two worlds. No scientific venture in her world exists without a member of the Magisterium to watch over it. They control the message and if it is heretical, they alter the message. Where does theology come to science? Where can science even exist in her world without theology? The very fact Dr. Malone can ask her this question means that the very fundamentals of their worlds are different. His Dark Materials “The Scholar” really shines in this interaction. I really enjoyed the subtleties of these two characters and how writer Francesca Gardiner has had them meet.
Yes, Mrs. Coulter has done some horrific and awful things. But, I wish that she could have thrived in a world like this one. One where she wasn’t punished for her intelligence. She doesn’t find Dr. Malone to be arrogant like Boreal does, but rather she finds her to be “impertinent, intelligent, and free.” It’s heartbreaking to hear those words, forlornly spoken, from someone as strong-willed as Mrs. Coulter. Until recently, Mrs. Coulter had very little freedom. Despite receiving the highest score on her final exam, she was denied a doctorate by the Magisterium. Her papers are only published if a man takes credit as the author. She is shamed for her daughter born out of wedlock, with the public believing that Asriel seduced and abandoned her.
This is when we see Mrs. Coulter’s claws come out. She criticizes Boreal for his knowledge of Will’s world and his lack of desire to share it with their own. Instead of capitalizing on their ideas, he spends his time collecting things. Boreal may think that he’s playing a game of seduction, but he doesn’t know her at all. If he fancies himself some kind of partner to Mrs. Coulter, he is sorely mistaken.
But, night has fallen, and the game is afoot. Before they can continue their conversation, there’s someone at the door. Looking through his security cameras, Mrs. Coulter sees that it’s Lyra. Demanding her alethiometer back, Will cuts into Boreal’s home and walks through. But he realizes too late that Mrs. Coulter is also there. Trying his best to sneak up and grab the alethiometer, he is caught by the golden monkey and chaos ensues.
Lyra runs into the house when he hears Will cry out, but she is even more shocked when she sees Mrs. Coulter. Stopping dead in her tracks, she looks on, a face mangled in fear, surprise, anger, and something inexplicable. While Will is being cornered by Boreal, Mrs. Coulter speaks to Lyra. She offers her the alethiometer, to tell her about dust, why Asriel cut Roger, and the opportunity to master her own power over the alethiometer.
She also warns her, “Lyra, stay away from that boy, do you understand me? He will do nothing but harm.” Does she see something of Asriel in Will? Given the recent conversation about Asriel’s seduction and the reputation that Mrs. Coulter was left with, I think it might be more than just a tactic to keep the two apart. After all, she sees so much of herself in Lyra, and she says as much.
But that comparison to her own mother snaps Lyra out of her speechlessness and she rounds on Mrs. Coulter. She’s nothing like her, but in that moment, when Pan changes into a wolverine and starts to attack the golden monkey, she looks exactly like Mrs. Coulter. This incapacitates Mrs. Coulter as the golden monkey gets tossed around by Pan.
In the other room, Will calls out to Lyra, desperate to get her attention as he tries to fend of Boreal. He doesn’t like violence, but he’ll defend himself. He destroys Boreal’s possessions and smashes a vase over his head before getting himself, Lyra, the alethiometer, the knife, and Pan out of his world and into Cittagazze. This is an intense scene, but it is one of my favorites of the series so far. It was great to see Dafne Keen playing directly off of Ruth Wilson again. It’s hard to imagine that the daemons were just a part of CGI magic and not tethered to their humans in those scenes.
When they’re back in Cittagazze, Lyra talks to Will about her parents. She tells him about how Marisa’s monkey daemon hurt Pan and how she can seem good sometimes, but she can’t be trusted. Will reflects on the fact that he’s often afraid that someone could hurt his mother, but he’s never thought the other way around. Indeed, Boreal did threaten his mother during their fight scene, so he’s right to be concerned.
Lyra also tells Will that she hopes she doesn’t end up like either of her parents, instead, she wants to be like Ma Costa or Lee Scoresby. Will tells her, in a heartwarming response, that she doesn’t need to be like anyone else, they’d be lucky to be like her. Awww, isn’t that cute? And now that they have the alethiometer, they are back on track to find Will’s father.
Back in Will’s world at Boreal’s home, Mrs. Coulter is furious that Boreal did not mention anything about the Subtle Knife. Without any other choice, Mrs. Coulter manipulates Boreal into taking her to Cittagazze. He knows, of course, that the city is infested with spectres. He tells her that children are safe from them and Mrs. Coulter realizes that it has to do with dust. This gives her a new insight into the spectres and she pushes again to taking her to Cittagazze. Her, to retrieve her daughter; Him, to get the knife.
In The Cave, Mary Malone does a quick Google search for Marisa Coulter experimental theologian, but nothing comes up. Better than that, The Cave comes alive to speak to her. “You must play the serpent,” the angel says to her. “You have been preparing for this as long as you have lived. You must make a journey which starts at a 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.”
Taking this knowledge to heart, she packs her bags. With her I-Ching box and book and some snacks, she (somehow) finds the hornbeams. She tricks her way past the guard standing there, making him believe she is Mrs. Coulter and steps through the window into Cittagazze. How did she find the right hornbeams? Who knows. But Mary Malone is officially off on her adventure!
Finally, back in the boring Magisterium plot, we get some plot-relevant but unexciting developments. Cardinal MacPhail receives news of the witches attacking their ships before going through the anomaly. He also gets rid of anyone who has a dissenting opinion from his, even those who criticize Mrs. Coulter. He asks Fra Pavel, the alethiometer reader to find out where Mrs. Coulter has gone since she said that she was going to look for something ‘valuable’. Will we see Magisterium ships go through the anomaly? Time will tell.
Watch His Dark Materials Mondays on HBO Max.