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Mrs. Coulter Reaps What She's Sown on His Dark Materials

Meanwhile, Lyra and Will try to find a way into the Land of the Dead… without dying themselves.

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Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) leans onto a table holding a pair of candles
Photo: Chris Baker/HBO

No offense to Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, or even James McAvoy, but Ruth Wilson has always been His Dark Materials biggest star. Her icy, enigmatic villain, Mrs. Coulter, serves as the lynchpin of both of tonight’s episodes, as she’s forced to take stock of her past actions… and what they may cost her in the future.

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Of “The Intention Craft” and “Lyra and Her Death,” I feel the former is the stronger episode of TV, but that might just be because it featured the long-awaited reunion between Lyra’s parents; Lord Asriel did in fact capture his one-time paramour and bring her back as a prisoner to his war camp. All the scenes Wilson and McAvoy have together are excellent. Their characters both have blood on their hands, they’ve both failed Lyra in myriad ways, and they’ll still do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, which for Coulter is Lyra’s protection. When Asriel grudgingly admits he has a spy keeping watch on the girl, Coulter genuinely sighs with relief—only for Asriel to taunt her about how her priorities have changed.

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Their second meeting occurs when Coulter is dragged in front of Asriel’s War Council, which consists of Asriel, General Ogunwe, Roke the spy, and Witch-Queen Ruta Skadi. Asriel doesn’t trust Coulter but does think she could be of use to their cause. Coulter is perfectly comfortable in a room of people who (think they) have her life in their hands, and Asriel looks genuinely entertained to watch her work the crowd. But, like with Will last week, Coulter opts for honesty—she confesses to her many crimes, and how disgusted she was by Lyra, an illegitimate child by the man who murdered her husband. But when Lyra came back into her life, she risked it all to save her from the Magisterium’s Oblation Board and daemon-severing knife, both things Coulter had helped create. Now that the Magisterium believes Lyra is Eve, they’ll do everything in their power to kill her. Asriel and his forces are Lyra’s best chance at safety, so Coulter promises to do everything in her power to help them.

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Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO
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Only the last part’s the lie. Protecting Lyra is her only goal and while she might need to play the ally now, there’s always a chance for a mother to do better. So when Asriel asks her about Lyra’s friend Will and his knife, her answer is: What knife?

Meanwhile, in the barren world they’d escaped to last week, Lyra and Will finally have a chance to catch up. Will tells of his father’s death and instructions to join Asriel, then how the Subtle Knife broke; Lyra realizes they can hop through the portal back to the cliff-side house and let Iorek reforge it for them. Oh, and the ghost of her dead friend Roger has been asking for help in her dreams, so instead of seeing her murderous father, they’re going to go to the Land of the Dead first and see what’s up first. A major disagreement ensues.

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Eventually, Asriel’s spy realizes the dagger is broken and she’s been lied to, and Lyra realizes (although she certainly suspected) Asriel’s real interest is in the Knife and its Bearer. Lyra tells the spy to return to her camp; they’ll fix the Knife and join Asriel when the time comes. The only other alternative is that Will closes the one known portal and they all stay stuck forever, so the very bitter faery departs, and once the duo returns to Lyra’s world, Iorek begrudgingly fixes the Knife.

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This is how Asriel learns that not only did Coulter know about the Knife, but she also broke it. Furious that he’s already been lied to, he catches her at the hangar where he keeps the Intention Craft, the world-hopping shuttle seen last week. The mutual animosity spills out between them, but here, Asriel has the upper hand—since the Knife’s broken, he tells Coulter that he took away Lyra’s security detail. The scene is fascinating and a little hard to watch, because the hate Asriel spews at Coulter is never for Lyra. He only mentions Lyra to tell his former lover how pathetic she is for caring about her. Coulter spits in his face and Asriel says a very disturbing line in a very disturbing way: “Why can’t you be who I want you to be?”

As Asriel slowly backs away, he tells her the Authority is no creator, and he’s not technically even in charge anymore—instead, his Regent Metatron rules in his place. “Every hideous thing you’ve done in his name, and it was a lie!” he tells her, almost tenderly. When Mrs. Coulter refuses to believe it, Asriel drags her down to the angel he captured last week so he can murder it with gusto, as if you needed any other reminders that the man leading the fight to free all worlds from tyranny and slavery is by no means a hero. Certainly, Mrs. Coulter has seen enough—she sneaks away while Asriel as cackling, gets into the Intention Craft, and heads back to her world and the Magisterium, just as Will uses the reforged Knife to open a portal to the Land of the Dead.

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“Lyra and Her Death” begins with Lyra, Will, and an increasingly apprehensive Pan wandering through a bleak, semi-industrial wasteland, which leads to a bleak semi-industrial warehouse filled with bleak waiting rooms. They eventually learn they need to cross a body of water, but to reach the boatman they’ll have to find their Death (a different invisible person who hangs around them all the time), and also, Pan, as Lyra’s soul, won’t be able to cross with her. It’s all very mythical and lyrical, and the scene where Lyra abandons Pan is rather heartbreaking, but in the end, it feels like what it most is—a bunch of waiting around in a waiting room.

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Plus, I have the same problem with Lyra’s trip to the Land of the Dead on the show that I had with it in the books, and it’s that I don’t understand how it figures in with the overarching conflict against the Magisterium and the Authority. With Lyra’s concern for her friend Roger, a character that barely had any screen time before he died, it feels like the story is giving Lyra busywork instead of integrating her with the overarching narrative. Maybe next week’s batch of episodes will hold some answers.

Coulter’s return to the church is far more interesting since it’s being run by the increasingly erratic Father-President MacPhail, who you may recall ascended into the position after working with Coulter to murder the last one. Coulter knows she’s on more tentative ground with the church given her recent actions, but it’s still a hoot to watch her walk around the Magisterium like she owns the place. Rest assured, Mrs. Coulter has no desire to help the people determined to kill her daughter; she just knows she’ll hinder them more effectively while pretending to be one of them, especially once she discovers Asriel’s spy Roke came with her. They team up to figure out what the Magisterium is up to, and they discover MacPhail has hired a scientist from season one to make a soul-tracking directional bomb that can pass through worlds.

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Coulter also discovers that the bomb is really more of a heat-seeking missile, magically guided by the strands of Lyra’s hair she’d kept in her locket. Coulter’s attempt to destroy the hair fails and she’s caught dead-to-rights—so she decides to go scorched earth. In front of Father-President MacPhail, Father Gomez, and assorted other priests and soldiers, Mrs. Coulter makes a confession: “I wish to stand trial for the murder of Cardinal Sturrock, a murder I conspired on with your Father-President, a man who sins with every fiber of his being.” The supposedly supreme leader of the Magisterium can barely look her in the eye until his guards cover her mouth and force her to her knees. Then he dismisses her the way weak men always dismiss strong women, calling her “an incoherent, emotional woman.”

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All in all, the second quarter of His Dark Materials’ finale season is improved over its first. While I still don’t see the point of the Land of the Dead storyline, I have to assume I will soon, because there are only four more episodes to go. There’s a war to fight, a bomb to elude, a god to kill, and a tyranny to overthrow. I’m with Will—if Lyra’s insistent on checking up on a dead school chum first, hopefully she can make it quick.

Assorted Musings:

  • I was eagerly looking forward to seeing how the show would portray the giant Iorek forging the tiny Knife. Then it skipped over all the CG-intensive parts where a bear would need to hold a hammer.
  • Will Keen is doing great work as MacPhail. No notes.
  • Ruta and Ogunwe worry about what the other angels in the resistance would do if they knew Asriel had a captive angel. Now I wonder what they’ll do if they find out Asriel had an angel killed.
  • Mary’s still just walking. Met a creature, it brought her some berries. Seems nice. No idea what any of this has to do with anything.
  • “I’ll fetch Support!” “Good. We all need support.”

New episodes of His Dark Materials air Mondays on HBO.


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