The most gripping scene in the His Dark Materials episode ‘Theft’ is a two-hander between Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Mrs Coulter and Lee Scoresby. (As their daemons are a key part of things, the scene could more properly be described as a two-hands and eight-paws-er, but let’s not be cute about it.)
Invented for the TV adaptation by writers Jack Thorne and Sarah Quintrell, and directed by Leanne Welham, the scene shows Mrs Coulter threatening an imprisoned Lee with violence for information on Lyra’s whereabouts. By now, we know that’s no idle threat on Mrs Coulter’s side; torture is very much in this woman’s bag of tricks.
The threats, however, bounce off him. As Lee tells Marisa, he learnt at an early age that he was good with pain. The survivor of a physically abusive childhood, Lee has the stamina not to break under interrogation. As he tells Mrs Coulter about the routine violence and humiliation he suffered from his abusive father, he makes a realisation:
“He’d humiliate me until I’d said enough sorrys for whatever thing he’d decided that day would justify his temper, you know… You do know don’t you? You know, because you had parents just like mine, of course you did. Of course you did.”
Mrs Coulter – who doesn’t so much own every room she enters as have a gun held to the heads of the room’s loved ones – is thrown. She tries an imperious laugh and tells Lee that he knows nothing about her, but we can tell he’s onto something. She’s equal parts livid and bewildered by Lee’s insight. She’d expected to strut into his cell, throw her weight around and take what she wanted, instead she was sucker-punched by a mess of repressed pain. It destabilises her. She repeats the attack, seizing Lee by the throat and threatening to break his bones, but he’s unassailable. Terrified, out of control and hurt, she leaves, followed by her daemon.
Out of sight of anybody else – when Mrs Coulter’s character is always at her most fascinating – she turns to the wall, visibly shaken. Her golden monkey daemon walks up and tentatively raises his hand to hers before she takes it. Just as Lee’s hare daemon Hester is nuzzling him for comfort down the corridor, Marisa’s daemon soothes her. It’s significant, because it’s the first time we’ve seen those two share affection.
Den of Geek asked the show’s VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson, who leads the team of Framestore artists who design and animate His Dark Materials’ daemons, what that hand-holding moment meant. Was this the first time Mrs Coulter and her nameless, mute daemon have held hands?
“It’s the first time they hold hands co-operatively, yes. The moment that happens is one of those rare times where she’s let her emotions in, instead of fighting them away. Another example of that is in the first season when they’re walking down the stairs in the Magisterium [in episode four ‘Armour’] and she bats his hand away.
“What I really love about the character of Mrs Coulter is that she’s very calculated, when she goes into a room, she’s got a plan, she’s going to work the people in that room and execute that plan, but where she’s most uncomfortable is in the spaces in between. When she’s walking down the Magisterium stairs, she hasn’t planned for the moment where she meets Father Garret and he catches her off-guard, her emotions come out and she has to push them away. Here with Lee, he’s caught her off-guard too, and it’s the first time that she doesn’t bat her feelings away.”
When Mrs Coulter is cruel to her daemon, by batting away its hand or pulling its fur (pain that she would presumably feel herself due to the human-daemon connection), that shows her attempting to maintain her composure and repress her emotions. It’s a coping mechanism, albeit a brutal and sad one, that helps her to stay in control.
The key to Mrs Coulter’s character, says Dodgson, is suppression.
“I always go back to the same thing, which is the backstory idea. The animal your daemon settles as is who you are, your nature. If you find Mrs Coulter now, what she is as an adult, she probably wouldn’t be a monkey, because if you look at a lot of the definitions of monkey, it generally means cheekiness and mischief and curiosity. What’s interesting is what she’s suppressed and what she’s made more use of.
“I look at it that she’s suppressed a lot of the natural things she had as a kid that have made her who she is. It’s still who she is, it’s flavoured who she is, but she’s suppressed them. She’s got the beautiful monkey that’s unique and exotic, it’s a status daemon, something that adds to her elegance, but it can also sneak around. The way they work a room means that she can be over here being one thing with one demeanour but the monkey is adding tension to the room by just circling off to the side and being weird to another person’s daemon. That kind of ballet that they play out is the idea of status, it’s how she uses what she’s got.”
His Dark Materials production designer and executive producer Joel Collins credits Philip Pullman’s recent literary continuation of his book series as having helped the TV adaptation to develop Mrs Coulter’s character:
“Jane [Tranter, executive producer] is obviously the puppet master of where the story’s going. There is an understanding, having been really lucky with Philip gifting us with The Book of Dust, about her past. We’re starting to learn a little more about that through what Philip’s given us in the writing. We’ve been able to understand a bit more about her.”
The character has experienced loss, Dodgson reminds us. “She’s had things taken away. He husband’s been killed and she’s had to build herself back up using all the things that she’s got and one of those things is a way of using her daemon as a tool, which people don’t do, she’s using her soul as a tool, which is… weird.”
Weird and reprehensible and sad, and all of it brought magnificently to life by Ruth Wilson and the Framestore team.