His Dark Materials Season Two Episode Five Review: “The Scholar”

“Is this your Oxford, Will?”

“It is.”

“Why are we whispering?”

“I don’t know!”

To the extent that His Dark Materials works, it’s because of interactions like these. Will Parry and Lyra Silvertongue are, after all, just kids, both of whom stumbled across the secret of interdimensional travel while pursued by grown-ups of ill intent. When they use a knife to carve a window into another world, of course they’re going to talk about it with hushed awe… and, being the canny kids they are, crack jokes about said hushed awe. 

It’s lively moments like these that make this the best episode of the show’s second season to date. I’m thinking of the impetuous way Cardinal MacPhail reacts to news that the witches trounced his airfleet and escaped through Lord Asriel’s dimensional portal — by imprisoning his rival, Father Graves, something he was probably itching to do anyway. I’m thinking also of the way Mary Malone, sent on a mission to protect Will and Lyra by the angelic voice speaking to her through her computer, improvises her way past a guard stationed by Lord Boreal outside the Oxford interdimensional window by claiming to be Mrs. Coulter. No one who knows them both is likely to mistake one for the other, but then this guy doesn’t know either of them from Adam (or Eve, or the Serpent for that matter). Sometimes you’ve gotta make your own luck. 

His Dark Materials

Coulter in a Pantsuit I Know, I Know It’s Serious

Watching Mrs. Coulter navigate this brave new world and the people she encounters in it is the episode’s greatest pleasure. Coulter herself, however, is not any sane person’s idea of a pleasure. She’s so openly and obviously vicious and deceptive that Lord Boreal’s hamfisted attempts to impress and seduce her with his (other)worldly ways make him look more like an out-and-out moron than an overambitious suitor.

But it does engender some fun reactions on Coulter’s part: choking back boredom as she sits curled up on his couch in bare feet while he plays world music to set the mood; marveling at the presumption it took him to buy her a change of clothes in order to make her look more at home in Will’s world; silently bristling at his unthinking sexism regarding the women of this world’s perceived arrogance; responding to the pass he makes at her with “If you actually got me, you wouldn’t begin to know what to do with me.” He’s so eager to ignore all this that when she asks him for information about the spectres haunting Cittàgazze, he seems to believe the game is afoot once again. No subtle knife required here — the line between horny and stupid is pretty thin.

More compelling still is Coulter’s reaction to Mary Malone. When she first hears of the Mary’s position as head of an experimental Dust research unit, Coulter recoils at the idea of a woman transmitting these dangerous ideas, not least to Lyra. But after meeting Mary — a meeting she cuts short when it becomes too tough to bullshit her way through the scientist’s questions — she tells Boreal that Mary is “impertinent, intelligent… free.” Her admiration shines through her surface disapproval in a natural, organic way that makes you think she’s hashing all of this out in her head for the first time. The Magisterium’s patriarchy, even more ruthless than our own, denied her any accomplishments of her own; Mary has her problems, but not being allowed to run her department is not one of them.

Something very similar happens during that brief meeting when Mary sings the praises of Lyra, then says to Coulter, who’s announced that she’s the girl’s mother, that she must be very proud of her. “I am,” Coulter says, as if realizing it for the first time. It feels more like this is because of all the willful and dangerous things the kid has done than despite it.

Previously:

His Dark Materials

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Mom and Her Monkey

Coulter’s feelings about her daughter get more complex, however, once her daughter kicks the shit out of her. Oh, not personally, of course: Scrappy though Lyra may be, she’s not an amateur boxer like Will, who manages to successfully outfight Boreal when he and Lyra cut their way into his trophy room to steal back the alethiometer. When they get caught, Coulter promises Lyra she’ll show her how better to use her power; Lyra responds by having her daemon Pan take on the form of a wolverine and maul Coulter’s golden monkey. It’s payback for the incident last season in which the roles were reversed and Coulter used the daemon to physically abuse Pan, and thereby Lyra herself. 

It’s hard to know what to make of Coulter’s facial expressions while the attack is ongoing. Like anyone whose daemon is being assaulted, she feels intense physical pain. But unlike the vast majority of humans from her world, witches being the notable exception, she has somehow cultivated the ability to maintain something of a distance from her daemon (who himself is unlike others of his kind in that he never seems to speak). So although her face is a rictus of pain and grief, she’s able to somewhat power her way through the attack, to the point where it seems she might get up and launch herself at Lyra to put an end to it, or alternately shake off the pain entirely. Lyra and Will wind up escaping with both the knife and the alethiometer before we can see what would have happened.

Coulter may admire Lyra, but the feeling is not mutual. “It didn’t feel good, acting like she did,” Lyra tells Will after they return to Cittàgazze post-battle, referring to the use of her daemon to punish the woman. 

“You don’t need to be like anyone else,” Will insists. “They’re lucky to be anything like you.” To live in a cruel world surrounded by cruel people without becoming cruel oneself: You can see how this would appeal to Will, who’s so haunted by the consequences his physical actions have taken; earlier in the episode he’s confronted by Cittàgazze resident Angelica with the zombified remains of her brother Tullio, lobotomized by spectres after Will outfought him for control of the knife that repels the creatures. He really is sorry this happened to the guy, just like he really is sorry he accidentally pushed one of Boreal’s minions to his death last season. Neither he nor Lyra asked for any of this, but they’ve been given a lot to feel guilty about nonetheless. Small wonder they’ve grown so close, despite being literal worlds apart.

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