his dark materials the scholar

What makes a good villain tick? His Dark Materials is full of morally gray baddies, the most interesting of which is Ruth Wilson‘s Mrs. Coulter, a fiercely intelligent and ruthless opponent for Lyra, ever since our young heroine was taken under the wing of the woman she would learn was her mother. But “The Scholar” gives us a little more insight into Marisa Coulter, a woman with just as many deep regrets and a deep yearning for freedom as anyone else.

What Could Have Been

In my season 1 review of His Dark Materials I observed that Wilson’s take on Mrs. Coulter was an antagonist very much in the vein of Gone Girl‘s Amy Dunne: an intelligent, even sympathetic sociopath whose personality becomes so twisted by her upbringing that she becomes a monster of a misogynistic society’s own making. Like Amy Dunne, Mrs. Coulter weaponizes the very things that limit and oppress women, making her an infinitely more fascinating character than the ice queen she had previously been depicted as. And we get to see more facets of her character in “The Scholar,” which brings Mrs. Coulter into a new world — ours. Boreal (Ariyon Bakare, who inevitably loses some of his luster as Big Bad this week when in Wilson’s presence) introduces Mrs. Coulter to this new world, dismissively describing it as a “culture of consumerism, not faith,” which only serves to intrigue Coulter more. What doesn’t intrigue her is Boreal’s insistence on showing off his grand collection as if he’s a college kid trying to show off his sweet pad. Mrs. Coulter is fidgety and totally uninterested until Boreal brings up Dr. Mary Malone’s research into dark matter, the particle they call Dust.

Mrs. Coulter rushes to leave Boreal’s mansion to meet this mysterious researcher (following an amusing dressing sequence in which an offended Mrs. Coulter tosses a pair of jeans aside as if they’re tainted), leaving behind her monkey daemon, who squeals and whimpers at being left behind — another display of Mrs. Coulter’s ability to separate from her daemon over long distances, but also the episode’s first hint at our growing sympathy for Coulter, and this part of her that she so vehemently denies (the monkey has only been a little terror until now, when you feel your heartstrings tug a little for it).

Mary, Through the Looking Glass

Mrs. Coulter arrives at Mary’s office in a meeting that is another departure from the books, but a welcome change. Mrs. Coulter’s chilly, calculating countenance is an interesting contrast to, Simone Kirby‘s down-to-Earth Mary, who is not interested in yet another rich meddler, until Mrs. Coulter introduces herself as Lyra’s mother and a “scholar” of experimental theology. Mary’s interest in both Lyra and this so-called connection between faith and science is piqued, but before she can pick Mrs. Coulter’s brain about her research, Mrs. Coulter is gone — rattled by her meeting with a woman allowed so much academic freedom, where in her world, she was only denied it. “Impertinent, intelligent…free,” Mrs. Coulter muses about Mary to a disinterested Boreal, before launching into a rant about what she could have achieved in this world, where women are allowed to earn doctorates and publish papers. It’s a complexity that I love for Mrs. Coulter, embittered by the very limitations that she’s fighting for, as an agent of the Magisterium — albeit one that was always serving her own interests to begin with. But it’s a complexity that Boreal can’t begin to grasp as he offers her his riches, his status, and more to try to please her, only for Mrs. Coulter to reject him and mock him for attempting to make her one of his “toys to be collected.”

Meanwhile, Mary’s meeting with Mrs. Coulter has borne her more fruit. After coming up with no results when searching for Mrs. Coulter’s name and experimental theology, she’s contacted by the angels through the Cave for the last time: giving Mary the orders to “help the girl and the boy,” and “play the serpent.” The Cave shuts itself down, and a curious Mary pulls out an old Bible, which her visiting sister wryly hopes doesn’t mean she’s returning to the convent. But Mary answers that she’s going on a trip instead, and finds herself at the window to the other world, stepping through to Cittàgazze.

A Subtle Heist

But the real meat of the plot lies with Will (Amir Wilson, doing great at the turmoiled YA antagonist bit) and Lyra (a more reserved Dafne Keen this time around, until her big climactic showdown), who are plotting how to steal the alethiometer back from Boreal with the help of the subtle knife. It’s always fun television to watch people drawing up plans and thinking up strategies, and His Dark Materials makes a meal of it, with the two of them spending the majority of the episode mapping out how they’re going to stage this heist.

But there’s a weight to this new toy of their’s, and not just in Will’s new title as the “bearer of the knife.” During their mapping out of Cittàgazze in relation to Will’s Oxford, they run into a wailing Angelica (Bella Ramsay, a scene-stealer once again) and Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats), who have discovered the body of their Spectre-attacked brother, Tullio. As Will and Lyra attempt to apologize for Tullio’s horrible fate, a tearful Angelica berates them, angrily declaring that they’ll get revenge on them for stealing the knife from Tullio.

But Will and Lyra have little time to worry about this threat, as the deadline to meet Boreal approaches. They set their plan in motion that night: Lyra distracting Boreal the door, Will cutting a window into Boreal’s basement from Cittàgazze, only to be caught off guard by Mrs. Coulter (briefly playnig the role of a horror movie villain, complete with jump scare) who brings a screeching halt to their foolproof plan. Lyra is lured down and trapped with the woman she had been running from for ages (Keen playing Lyra’s abject terror of Mrs. Coulter so well), and enacts her own revenge when Mrs. Coulter gently offers her the alethiometer, launching Pan into an attack at Mrs. Coulter’s daemon, much like her mother had with her in season 1. Lyra’s face contorts with rage and then horror at realizing that she’s using her mother’s own dirty tricks against her, and stops her attack to escape with a screaming Will, whose hand wound had been torn open again by Boreal. They cut a window back to Cittàgazze, narrowly escaping the monkey daemon’s grasping hands, and Mrs. Coulter gives us another great full-throated scream (I’m starting to worry slightly for Ruth Wilson’s vocal cords at this point). But this is not the end of the road for Mrs. Coulter, as she learns about Spectres from Boreal and a plan revolving around Dust starts forming in her mind.

Subtle Sidenotes

  • Weekly check-in with the Magisterium: still scheming, still boring.
  • I like the touch of Mrs. Coulter’s blazer having slightly spiky shoulder pads, all sharp edges like her.
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