His Dark Materials series premiere introduced us to the idea of the North, the mystery behind Dust, and the secrets that Lyra must discover.
Episode 2 takes us to London where the appeal of a new adventure is quickly tainted by the whispers of adults.
Taking a few pages — and rather important ones at that — from The Subtle Knife, leads to a huge reveal in His Dark Materials season 1, episode 2, “The Idea of North.” Narratively for the series, opening up the idea that there are other worlds, and then in the second episode showing the audience how closely we are living to those other worlds, makes sense. His Dark Materials needs to shuffle the storyline in order run parallel storylines. And, honestly, when I first watched the scene of Boreal stepping into 2019, I said, “NOW?!”
“Our origins don’t define us, it’s what we do with what we have.” — Mrs. Coulter, season 1, episode 2.
This quote was of particular interest to me when I was putting together my thoughts on this episode.
It’s hard to take in the show without the knowledge of the book. I do not know how that landed with viewers watching the series for the first time without the ability to fill in the gaps. But looking at the show apart from the pages, there are less gaps than I imagined. In fact, there are more places to explore by opening up the universe in this way.
Obviously, we would not have seen 2019 in The Subtle Knife where the coffee is good and agents like Thomas walk around as covert agents, giddy with excitement when they see a daemon. We also certainly did not see Mrs. Coulter shrink outside the door of Lyra’s room, or Asriel carry her off to bed, or Roger and Billy’s time in the camps before being taken North.
Plot points were delivered in different places from different people, and these are the types of things that can seem out of left field when you are trying to let a new story wash over you.
What that has meant for me at least, is that watching His Dark Materials is not going to be a one-time view and write. I’ve now watched “The Idea of North” a few times, each time I’ve found something new, a nod to the original text, or some glimpse at a daemon that sparks another train of thought.
I don’t expect the weekly viewer, or even wait-and-binge viewer, to take another look at these episodes (even though they are gorgeous and you should). But I think the book readers will benefit from giving this series a closer look.
So, take Boreal’s word and grab a cup of coffee (it’s better here) as we head into a new, yet familiar world.
Editor’s Note: The weekly His Dark Materials reviews will only contain spoilers from The Golden Compass as they pertain to the episode.
‘His Dark Materials’ season 1, episode 2 recap
Lyra’s new residence
And the flat…Lyra could only gasp.
A detail from His Dark Materials’ premiere episode that was especially poignant of the creative team to include was a look inside of Lyra’s bedroom. Though both the novel and a few scenes in His Dark Materials explain that she spends her time on the rooftops, in the crypts, and every crevice in between Oxford and Jordan College, there is a space that is not borrowed and entirely her own — her bedroom.
Tucked away in what could only be assumed to be a converted attic of the college, as no such quarters would exist for a child taken in by older, male scholars, the bedroom reflects the collection of a girl fascinated with adventure and wild dreams of following in the footsteps of the men who pass in and out of the halls.
When we arrive to Mrs. Coulter’s flat, there is a sense of wonder captured in the books. The marble halls, the gold elevator, the freestanding bathtub, and the bedroom filled with pillows!
So soft, this bed! So gentle, the anbaric light on the bedside table! And the bedroom so cozy…
Though beautiful and cozy, it is a far cry from the pinned and hand drawn maps, the collection of postcards from Asriel’s adventures, and the door that Roger would burst through to deliver breakfast to Lyra each morning. I was thrown off by the moderate amount of softness James McAvoy was giving off as he sat on the edge of Lyra’s bed and refused to offer her a look at the severed head in His Dark Materials series premiere.
The open access Jordan College affords Lyra is lost on her until she is left only with the company of Mrs. Coulter, her required reading, and an apartment filled with restrictions. At first, even in the novel, dresses seem like a small price to pay for access to the Artic Institute and the knowledge Mrs. Coulter has about the North.
Tom Hooper, who directed the first two episodes of the season, does a fantastic job of blocking the scenes in the apartment to capture Mrs. Coulter’s house arrest. In one particular shot, Lyra is being fitted for a dress for the party that Mrs. Coulter will be hosting, offering the first time we see Lyra becoming physically uncomfortable in the new attire provided to her.
Upon entering the scene, the camera catches Lyra through the golden bars that adorn the apartment, serving as a decorative partition, but in this case, they’re bars of Lyra’s prison.
The episode also leans heavily on shots of the key to call the elevator, which is kept on Mrs. Coulter’s person at all times.
Though hinted at heavily before her dinner with Mrs. Coulter in the novel, Lyra’s aversion to dressing in frills is portrayed by her drab dress in the dining hall of Jordan College — a glimpse at what little scholars could offer a girl living among the academics.
But “the best one can do” is not Mrs. Coulter’s style for anything. She demands excellence, order, and when Lyra begins to slowly, but confidently, overstep the unspoken boundaries of their relationship, Mrs. Coulter’s façade begins to crack.
The human-daemon relationship
Something that was sorely lacking the first episode was the interactions between humans and their daemons. With 55 or so minutes of exposition to get through, there was only so much time that could be spent alone with Lyra and Pan, or Asriel and Stelmaria. His Dark Materials episode 2 only burns through about 30 or so pages of material from the novel, allowing for some breathing room to capture a bit more about the human daemon bond.
And it’s imperative that they do so, given what Lyra discovers in the desk drawer of Mrs. Coulter’s study. But let’s back up a bit to Lyra’s arrival at the flat, while Lyra admires the pillows and the comfortable bed, Pan keeps his mind on the alethiometer — aka “the thing.” He is also tuned into the bumps in the night, not letting Lyra sleep through the sound of something rummaging in the vents.
There are several scenes in this episode that reveal much more about the unspoken bond between humans and their daemons. Some of these are told through brutal violence, but others are given away in seemingly passive shots. His Dark Materials starts to unpack this a bit in the scene where Mrs. Coulter gives Lyra a bath.
The shot opens wide on the bathroom giving a view of the where everyone sits — Mrs. Coulter is at the back of the tub washing Lyra’s hair, Lyra is, of course, in the tub, Pan is running alongside the edge of the porcelain, and the golden monkey is sitting away from Mrs. Coulter and Lyra in the doorway with his back turned to the tub. That is my favorite shot of the episode.
Pan watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter look at him, and he knew what she meant, and turned away averting his eyes from these feminine mysteries just as the golden monkey was doing. He never had to look away from Lyra before.
Mrs. Coulter pays no mind to Pan here, but Pan notices the behavior of the monkey and internalizes it.
Both Pan and Lyra are learning about a new world with new rules and what is deemed to be “proper behavior.” The taboos that are inherently known to these characters and this world — do not touch another person’s daemon, hurting a daemon causes physical harm to their respective human, daemons can attack daemons just as humans can attack humans — are not the only human-daemon guardrails in place.
Another moment in this scene that stands out is when Lyra spins the tale of Roger climbing her long hair as if it were a rope and Mrs. Coulter tugs on her hair demanding that she not lie. The emphasis on Pan in this scene and the way his face scrunches up at certain moments conveys a bit more about their connection and his feelings about this new life that they find themselves living. “We shouldn’t change just so we can fit in here,” he tells Lyra as they get ready for bed later that night.
But Lyra argues against his caution saying, “don’t we deserve nice things for once?” The distractions of elegance and promises of starting a new life with Roger when they are reunited are enough to keep Lyra in the dark for now. Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra that she can be extraordinary. In Oxford, the Master and others kept that knowledge behind locked doors. Lyra’s potential and future were known, but not revealed, as the Master thought it best to let events play out in their own time.
The episode slowly reveals how out of place Lyra truly is in the company of Mrs. Coulter. Returning to scene where Lyra is being fitted for the dress, Lyra admires that even she has a spot in this world, wielding the power that comes with having a color meant specifically for her. Pan notes that the dress makes her look like all she will be yielding is a cake knife. Pan’s snarkiness, an extension of Lyra’s brazen attitude, is highlighting how impressionable Mrs. Coulter’s words are becoming.
But his joke, taken as such, does not take away from the fact that he is still able to convey to her when real cautions are meant to be taken. Though Lyra tries to hit him with a pillow, Pan’s theory that something is making noise in the vents pays off after a conversation about Dust.
In the scene, Lyra is working through some of her required readings with Mrs. Coulter when she mentions that electrons behave kind of the way she imagines Dust might. Not revealing her uneasiness to Lyra, Mrs. Coulter grabs the hair on the golden monkey’s back, making him squirm in discomfort. This would be akin to someone pinching themselves as a reminder not to react; she is also feeling this in some form.
Pan takes notice of the way the monkey’s hair is standing up and the grip Mrs. Coulter has on him, and quickly scurries on Lyra’s lap shaking his head to signal that she should absolutely not tell Mrs. Coulter that Asriel is the person who delivered this news to Jordan College. Lyra quickly lies, mentioning a man from New Denmark who are carrying on about to a chaplain.
This incident is soon followed by Lyra discovering that the bumps in the night are made by the golden monkey who she finds in the study while Mrs. Coulter is in her bedroom — an unnaturally far distance for a human to be from their daemon. When she asks how this is possible, Mrs. Coulter tells her that she was dreaming. In a shot that we would not have had in the book, we see Mrs. Coulter outside of Lyra’s closed door where she hits her daemon. Punishing herself, and him, with physical violence.
A new Mrs. Coulter
As mentioned, the changes from the books can be slightly jarring. For instance, Mrs. Coulter being the person to deliver the news of Asriel’s true identity. But other changes have less to do with when and where plot points appear in the narrative, and more to do with opportunities that come with the detachment from Lyra.
Viewers are privy to moments that take place on the other side of the door from Lyra’s room, in rooms where she cannot hear conversations, and in the secret location where children are being kept. Seeing her hit her daemon, reveals a part of who Mrs. Coulter is in this world.
Coupled with the line she casually drops during breakfast about her aversion to heights — “I could never get away from the occasional urge to jump,” (yikes) — His Dark Materials paints a portrait of a woman so emotionally disconnected from herself that it makes sense as to why and how she is able to carry on the experiments of the General Oblation Board (GOB).
During their trip to the Artic Institute where Daphne Keen does a fantastic job of portraying the biggest fangirl to ever fan over expeditions, she does seem completely out of place as a child among weathered men. There is a level of enthusiasm that must be quelled. And so, it is here that Mrs. Coulter lays out her intentions for their “working” relationship.
She asks Lyra to look around the room, to take note of the number of women and says, “In every room there are those who would belittle you, with my help they won’t lay a scratch on you.” Yes! Power to women making their way in a man’s field!
But that empowerment only lasts a moment as she continues to say with a tone that conveys a bit of unease, “You will have knowledge they won’t. I can teach you to wield power over them. You must let me mold you. You must trust me.”
Must. It’s a vow that Lyra agrees to and is then rewarded with the opportunity to meet anyone in the room. Again, Tom Hooper does a great job framing His Dark Materials to capture the contrast of Lyra being so small and susceptible to the wonders of this place in contrast with Mrs. Coulter’s dominance.
There is a specificity of her movements, when and where she chooses to betray the character she presents to the outside world. The camera lingers on her distant gaze — breakfast on the balcony, sitting alone in the bathroom, watching the fire burn the children’s letters.
And then there are the moments where her emotions boil over, still calm and collected, but you can feel the rage seething behind Ruth Wilson’s words.
One scene tracks Mrs. Coulter and the parabola of her emotions brilliantly. It starts with Lyra tucked away, doing her reading, when Father MacPhail arrives with news from Cardinal Sturrock that the Magisterium is close to pulling the plug on the GOB’s operations. The Gyptians were close to discovering their encampment during their raid.
While she tries to wield her own power over Father MacPhail, he is not budging from his duty. Lyra attempts to listen for details at the door but is caught by another Father from the Magisterium.
Just as Lyra is sent away from the conversation, Mrs. Coulter offers one last plea — “We have the opportunity to understand Dust.” But inquiry into the validity of heresy is not on the Magisterium’s agenda.
Upon his exit, we get a close look at Mrs. Coulter slowly losing a grip on her emotions. On Pan’s suggestion, Lyra takes to carrying around the alethiometer in a shoulder bag, a choice that Mrs. Coulter chooses to mock her for, noting it is too old for her and how ridiculous she looks walking around “her own home” with it on. This is the second time in a matter of five minutes that she has put Lyra in her place as a child.
Lyra challenges her resilience by pointing out how angry Mrs. Coulter is, noting a breakdown in the guards she set in place for their relationship.
Since it is their “own home,” instructing her daemon to attack Pan is something that will be kept a secret inside those walls. As Lyra pleads for her to stop, Coulter lets her monkey continue to attack Pan until she hears the one name come out of Lyra that sends her over the edge — Asriel. In a flash, she condemns the man as a failure of a man and father.
(Who among us did not see this coming? In this moment, I certainly did not because this news is not delivered by Mrs. Coulter. By inserting it here His Dark Materials adds yet another great layer to Coulter’s relationship with Lyra.)
There is a hint of foreshadowing this moment way back when Lyra is in the tub. During the Roger story, Mrs. Coulter tugs at her hair as she says, “Don’t lie to me.” Just as she reveals the true familial connection between Lyra and Asriel, she goes on to say, “I never understood why he kept up that ridiculous pretense. He’s a liar, he’s a liar.” Twice.
The lie is what stings her and what she wants Lyra to see him as. And when Lyra ultimately retreats to her room, Mrs. Coulter crouches outside of her door, physically breaking down alongside her emotions. But as tears escape, she wipes them away almost laughing at herself for having shed them in the first place.
This confident, mess of a woman is someone that I am more than intrigued to follow as the series kicks up the pace. Her smoothness returns in the company of her house guests, but upon the discovery that Lyra is gone, what will we see from Wilson’s Coulter?
As Mrs. Coulter heads out of the apartment for the afternoon, Lyra is left alone to break into the study where she discovers the papers of the GOB’s plans in the North. Though there is not much in the text to reveal their operations, Lyra does see images of children in cages separated from their daemons.
Narrowly escaping the study before Mrs. Coulter returns, Lyra finally leans into Pan’s uneasiness and takes precautions against the spying monkey, blocking the vents and creating a blanket fort before trying to consult the alethiometer.
She tries to piece together the limited information she has before declaring, “I don’t think I understand any grownups at all.”
A whole familiar world
Ok, let’s get down to the biggest reveal this episode — Boreal not only knows about these multiple worlds, but he has been stepping in and out of our world for quite some time. Long enough to have an established operative and have an understanding of how to use a smart phone (do we think he has made Thomas wait in line at the Apple Store for the latest iPhone?).
As mentioned above, the reveal of stepping through the worlds is heavily dealt with in The Subtle Knife. By inserting it here, I think the series will be more cohesive and can expand itself over eight episodes with enough at stake to get viewers ready and anticipating the already filmed season 2.
Boreal is tasked with quite a bit to do in this episode including but not limited to: Heading to Jordan College to see Grumman’s head, shaking down the Master and using the power of the Magisterium as a threat, taking a trip to another world to check in with his operative, and capping it all off with a murder at a cocktail party.
Boreal finds his way into the crypt quite easily, discovering that the head may not actually belong to Grumman as expected. Cue villainous shot of his daemon slithering through the skull.
There is less attention paid to the hole in his head here than in the book, but the skull clues Boreal into the fact that the experiments of the North are far from over and Grumman may have crossed worlds. To Thomas’ credit, a man walking around with an osprey daemon might have drawn some attention.
Just when he can finally catch a break, Boreal must handle a journalist who snuck into the party and got a bit too chatty for Mrs. Coulter’s liking. After revealing Mrs. Coulter is the GOB, Lyra is clearly on edge connecting the dots that finally shatter the illusion she tried to find comfort behind.
Boreal reveals the taboo of touching another person’s daemon to the journalist in the cab as he takes her butterfly into his hand and crushes it. The daemon turns to dust and the journalist dies. His Dark Materials really makes sure that Boreal has villain tattooed on his forehead, but really, I see an opportunity like the one we have with Mrs. Coulter to learn more about him as the show goes on.
Making our way North
Another quick aside to mention the children in captivity. The contrast between Roger and Billy in the GOB holding cell is another great addition to see on screen. Billy, who has never been separated from his family or community in his life, is scared. They are all scared. But Roger, bless his heart, takes it upon himself to step into the role of being the one to provide comfort for Billy during this time, even if he, himself, is also terrified of what’s to come.
Roger trusts that Lyra is out looking for him. And even as he tells Billy his story of moving around, coming to live with his aunt and working at Jordan College, he doesn’t trust any adult to get the job done, but his best friend. It’s a nice sentiment that is echoed again in the letter writing scene where Billy writes a letter to his mother and Roger sends a missive to Lyra.
They had never seen a lady like this; she was so gracious and sweet and kind that they felt they hardly deserved their good luck, and whatever she asked, they’d give it gladly so as to stay in her presence a little longer.
Ruth Wilson captures this aura, but not by not on her own. The brown, dark tones of the room contrast so well with her bright and shiny attire. The children are small, ragged looking, scared; she is confident, sweet, and towers over them. They all have to tilt their heads to look at her.
Finally, Lyra’s escape from the apartment sends us away from the comforts of a soft bed and eggs with caviar, to the streets. While Lyra needed to get out of the apartment in a different way this time around — not straight out the front door — I was quite upset how unprepared His Dark Materials made her out to be for this trip. Returning to the alethiometer is one thing, but she also grabs a coat and some other supplies.
We’re moving so rapidly, however, that the urgency of her escape is captured a bit better here as she scales down the apartment and into the streets of London. I would like to have a daemon who whispers, “You’re doing brilliant, just stay calm,” to me as I try something terrifying.
Unprepared and cold, Pan tells her to find a place to settle for the night as the streets are dangerous and people are likely looking for her now. People like the Gobblers, who we can only assume capture her in their nets at the end of this episode.
- The alethiometer moves! Finally! Though Lyra still continues to be frustrated with the contraption, a moment worth noting is after finding out about her parentage, she still asks the alethiometer where he is.
- The daemons of the members of the Magisterium — a snake, a roach, a lizard (or some kind of reptile), a wasp — are all a bit heavy-handed, yet perfect. Were these men destined to be these characters at the turning point of their youth? Is it some inherent trait that pushed them into these positions?
- One thing I wanted to point out from the books is that Lyra notices a particular smell, like hot metal, that comes off of Mrs. Coulter when her daemon is discovered to be apart from her. Might come into play later.
- There is a lot of information given to Lyra at the cocktail party, none of which is about the experiments up North. Information about Asriel, however, does find its way to her. Maybe it was too much overkill on Asriel to include another little bit of information here.
- In related news, it was also a smart move to keep the Master at Jordan College and not at the party. Boreal was enough to take some of the ire away from Mrs. Coulter as she is the one who confronts the journalist on the page.
- I didn’t spend much time on the Gyptians here, but I appreciate the continued attention to their community and their tactical approach to finding the missing children.
His Dark Materials season 1, episode 3, “The Spies,” airs Monday, November 18 at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.