When this week’s episode of His Dark Materials — titled “The Idea of the North” — starts, Lyra is having the time of her life. By the end of it, she’s running for her life. In between she receives a crash course in high society’s low morals from the woman who’s styled herself as as a tutor of the elite, Mrs. Coulter. She’s in charge of a lot of other children, it turns out, and their luck is way worse than our heroine’s. We get a briskly paced journey that charts the girl’s relationship with new guardian, from the initial honeymoon period to the mad dash to escape her clutches. You might expect this big a turnaround to take the bulk of a season to get through. Dark does it in an hour.
Rather convincingly, too. At first it makes perfect sense why Lyra is so enamored of her new mother figure. Her spacious, brightly lit art-deco penthouse apartment is a far cry from those cramped, bookish quarters at Oxford. The splashes of bright blue and green in Coulter’s outfits and furniture may well be the first time the child has ever seen a color other than brown.
Meanwhile, the woman instructs Lyra in the subtle art of gaining and exercising power over others — a must, she argues, in this fiercely patriarchal system. “No one’s ever said I could be extraordinary before,” the swooning girl tells her daemon, Pan. If you’re a kid whose whole life has been one of benign neglect, getting told you’re someone special is a surefire way to win you over.
But before too long, she realizes something doesn’t quite add up. There are these noises in the wall, for example, which she later discovers stem from secret passages that her benefactor’s monkey daemon uses to spy on her. There’s also Coulter’s obvious bullshitting when the kid drops knowledge about the mysterious substance called “dust.”
Then things get really nasty. During a surprise visit from agents of the Magisterium (their daemons all seem to be bugs and reptiles, if you’re wondering what the show’s stance on organized religion is), Lyra gets caught snooping. Coulter punishes her for her insolence by having her monkey daemon attack Pan. It’s a grueling scene that combines cruelty to animals with child abuse, and the mysterious woman’s icy demeanor during the worst of it is hateful to see.
But as her temper flares, she accidentally lets slip a vital piece of information: Lord Asriel isn’t Lyra’s uncle. He’s her father. Coulter manages to keep the identity of Lyra’s mother a secret for now. But she starts crying, too, indicating she’s closer to this whole issue than she lets on.
Using the monkey’s tunnels, our heroine infiltrates a locked study and finds memos from an organization called the General Oblation Board (a name we’ve heard high-ranking Magisterium officials mention with a combination of admiration and fear) and blueprints for…something. It’s supposed to be constructed in a place up north called the Station, and involves some sort and blade, the children and their daemons, and separation cages. Throw in the meaning of the General Oblation Board — “oblation,” for those of us whose SAT-word vocabulary is a little rusty, means an offering to God — and things look grim.
So when a nosy party-crashing journalist informs Lyra of the link between Coulter and the gobblers (the term is a play on the acronym for the General Oblation Board, G.O.B.) the kid’s mind is made up. She makes a run for it.
But — and maybe this is just Ruth Wilson’s rich performance bringing out these notes in the character — Coulter has moments of softness as well. After she gives Lyra a bath, we see her lingering by the tub with a sad look on her face, like she can see her regrets in the soapy water. When she uses her daemon to abuse Lyra and Pan, she cries afterwards, as if she’s sorry she did it. And when she returns from an outing to find Lyra studying diligently, or at least pretending to, you can see her affection for the girl take her by surprise. Her monkey, an indicator of her true feelings, actually reaches out to tenderly pet Lyra’s daemon.
In other words, if Coulter is a monster, she’s cut from the same cloth as Cersei Lannister: awful in general, but with a serious soft spot for any child she thinks of as her own.
Other people’s children, though? Meh. Coulter and her gobblers keep their captured kids in squalid conditions, moving them constantly to avoid detection. They’re always one step ahead of the Gyptians, who are tracking the missing youngsters down. At one point, Coulter tricks the kids into writing letters to their loved ones, which she tosses into the fire with a smile on her face the moment she leaves the room.
The Magisterium seems pretty hardcore as well. There’s Father MacPhail (Will Keen), an intense priest sent to keep Coulter under control; and Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), a dapper gent who’s able to cross over into our world — smartphones, coffee shops, traffic jams — to further his search for the rogue explorer whose head Lord Asriel claimed to have recovered from the North. He even kills the journalist who tipped Lyra off by squashing her butterfly daemon in his fist.
Why, exactly? If there’s a problem facing His Dark Materials at this early stage, it’s a surplus of mystery. We’ve met a lot of characters, but none of them other than the abducted kids have clear goals and motives. What’s Coulter building? What’s the importance of Lord Boreal’s search? What’s Lord Asriel’s angle in all of this? Nearly every line of dialogue involves secrets and lies, so there’s always a sense that you’re a few steps behind the action. Will the show give us a chance to catch up?
Previously: A Song of Ice and Lyra