This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers.
His Dark Materials Episode 2
Cruella de Vil, the White Witch, the Wicked Queen, Nurse Ratched, meet your new sister in villainy: Mrs Marisa Coulter. Chic, gleaming and morally reprehensible, she could out-evil the lot of you six ways from Sunday and ladies, She. Has. Arrived.
Establishing Mrs Coulter as a complex villain who attracts and repels in equal measure was episode two’s most important job, and one it nailed. The fascinating psychopath Ruth Wilson played in Luther wasn’t a one-off; she’s clearly made for characters like these. Chilling carapaces covering unthinkable wrong… and unknowable damage.
Other plot business was dealt with this week (including one monumental revelation that arrived much earlier than book readers were expecting) with varying results. Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa storyline is playing out with the bleak realism of a missing-child 9pm crime drama, which makes for an odd fit with the fantasy elements, but really this week, all eyes were on Mrs Coulter. Well, honestly, when she’s on screen, where else are you going to look?
It’s not evil we’re watching Mrs Coulter for, but any glimpse that might explain, in Lyra’s words, what she is underneath the performance. The moments in which she’s unobserved by other characters are her most compelling. Wilson draws you in when Mrs Coulter is alone (staring into the middle distance after Lyra’s bath, or with a tear in her eye outside Lyra’s bedroom after the fight), or when she seems to reveal more of herself than she’d like (telling Lyra that around heights she “could never get away from the occasional urge to jump”). These few seconds are the jewels in Wilson’s shining, disquieting performance.
“The Idea Of North” was about Lyra learning difficult truths – that her new hero was her enemy, her new home was a trap, and her uncle Lord Asriel was really her father. Certain of the episode’s revelations were delivered with more elegance than others. Having the significance of the General Oblation Board/Gobblers link literally spelled out to Lyra rather than letting viewers make the connection was a belt-and-braces approach that felt clunky. It’s clearly tricky to achieve the right balance between over- and under-explaining to an audience of all ages, especially with such an intricate fantasy world as this one.
The best information-delivery was done wordlessly, through design. That glossy apartment did excellent work in suggesting that Mrs Coulter wasn’t the warm, smiling ally she purported to be. From her choice of table to the light fittings, everything in the place is hard, spiky and dangerous-looking. The paintings in the study include an angular Madonna with child and a diptych of a whole circle sliced neatly into two. Division and sharpness reigned. Lyra was even framed through a decorative metal grille at her dress fitting, showing that like Roger, she too was in a kind of prison (and not just thanks to the restrictive new duds).
Cautious, observant Pan – Lyra’s circumspect, less gung-ho side – knew right away that something was up with their new employer, but like the rest of us, Lyra doesn’t always listen to her instincts when she should. Pan saw Mrs Coulter lash out at her daemon, striking it and pulling its fur at moments she lost control. Remembering that a person’s daemon is their soul, and that unlike other people’s, Mrs Coulter’s has neither a name nor a voice, it all builds a sadly complex psychological picture. Add the fact that Mrs Coulter and the golden monkey can survive being separated while any distance between a human and their demon causes intense pain to others, in Lyra’s words again, it’s clearly not natural.
Establishing what is and isn’t natural when it comes to daemons is His Dark Materials’ toughest sell. There’s a lot of exposition to be done, and much as it’d be great to see a daemon for every human in every shot, it’s an impossible demand. (An unrelated example for context: director Paul King explains here that adding a single computer-generated cake fork to a CG character in Paddington – the effects for which were also created by animation geniuses Framestore – would cost around $10k. And that’s a fork we’re talking about, not, say, a falcon. No wonder it’s necessary for snakes to be kept up sleeves sometimes.) The human-daemon relationship is not effortless to explain, and sometimes, like a few elements of this complex fantasy world, the effort shows.
The really important stuff though – the characters, the emotion and the foundation-laying – is what this adaptation gets spot-on. Choosing to drop the monumental book surprise that Lyra’s world has a portal to our own as early as episode two is a bold decision, and a necessary one. To build towards what’s coming, this adaptation needs to tell multiple stories at once. It can’t afford to rest solely in Lyra’s perspective and needs to get other threads moving alongside it, which is just what it’s doing. Lord Boreal crossing between worlds is a fundamental part of what follows. The fact that we’re already there feels a bit thrilling.
It’s all thrilling. Poor Roger in the Gobblers’ clutches, the North to come, the judder of the alethiometer needle, Lyra’s journey ahead. And this week, the induction of Mrs Coulter in the TV villain hall of fame. What a story, and what an adaptation.