This His Dark Materials review contains spoilers for “Bolvangar.” It originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
Roger’s hero speech. Ma Costa’s revenge. Lyra karate-kicking the fire alarm. Serafina cutting a magical swathe through the enemy. The mother-daughter-monkey-rage-scream through the locked door. Iorek’s arrival. Lee’s gunshot. The guillotine meltdown… This episode had so many high points and so much rousing action that it’s a real credit to the writing, performance and direction that its most gripping scene was also its quietest: Lyra and Mrs Coulter’s reunion.
The careful work done to build Mrs Coulter’s character in episode two – the smiling, still face muzzling her violent rage, the extreme self-regard masking abject self-hatred – paid off beautifully here. Mrs Coulter’s threat-level is such that the chamomile tea scene wasn’t unlike seeing Lyra sitting inches away from an especially well dressed cobra – your eyes followed her every move, alert to what dread thing might come next. (Like the Turkish Delight offered to Edmund by the White Witch in Narnia, chamomile tea will never be the same again.)
What the scene really gave us though, was something far more intriguing than peril; it left us with the possibility that, underneath her fathoms-deep cruelty, Mrs Coulter is capable of feeling love, and feels it for Lyra. Her face when she realised Lyra was inside her terrible machine said as much. And when she told her daughter that she was sorry and never meant to harm her, I believed her.
Like all the best baddies, what makes Mrs Coulter compelling isn’t her villainy but the sporadic jolts of humanity that complicate it. And the whole breadth of her, from her self-righteousness to her confused pangs of whatever it is she feels for her daughter, is played by like a maestro by Ruth Wilson.
Mrs Coulter’s psychology fascinates. Why add the distancing “by all accounts” qualifier to her “I was quite the emotional child”? Does she not remember? What is it that allows her to not feel the pain of separation from her daemon experienced by everybody else? Or does she feel it and repress it? What lies underneath her intense shame and disgust around sex and puberty? What happened to convince her that lust should be eliminated from the world at this great a cost? It can’t only have been her and Asriel’s affair?
She’s a tremendous creation, is the point. Nastily, complicatedly tremendous.
There was more to marvel at in this episode, not least the work of Joel Collins’ design team on the location of Bolvangar. As a place, it felt aptly sick, helped by the children’s hospital-green uniforms. Grey concrete lit with nauseating greenish light and glowing electrical coils, its technology was 1970s Soviet-style, with banks of clunking dials, buttons and wire cages that evoked a nuclear power station, all the way to the core meltdown.
The complicated action sequences too, were fluidly handled by director Euros Lyn. The Tartar and Gyptian clothing being so similar made the initial attack on the station momentarily tricky to read, but added to the sense of chaos. Amid the action were satisfying character moments too, Ma Costa taking out the spineless ‘I was just following orders’ doctor who’d sliced Billy from his daemon being one.
Elsewhere was more peril as Lyra narrowly avoided discovery in the girls’ dormitory by Mrs Coulter’s daemon, and more heroics as Roger rallied the cut children with a speech telling them that despite their trauma, they still had a choice: to do something or do nothing. They chose to act, as did Serafina Pekkala, no longer Switzerland in this war.
It ended with yet more excitement on that cliff-ghasts cliff-hanger, which saw Lee also struggling with reluctant feelings of parental love towards Lyra. (“She’s responsible for the fate of everything and I’m responsible for her.”) No sooner had Lee taken responsibility for Lyra than he lost her, which leads him, and us, to this galloping series’ next adventure. It can’t come soon enough.