'His Dark Materials' Season 2, Episode 5 Recap: "The Scholar"

Photograph Courtesy of HBO

As His Dark Materials reaches the back half of the second season, the main plot thread continues to focus on Will and Lyra as they plan out a high stakes heist to get the alethiometer back from Boreal.

This week's A-plot is all about the two of them prepping, talking through, and then pulling off this heist (though not the way they'd planned.) It's also a chance for Will to get better acquainted with his new toy, practising cutting holes and sealing them back up, as the two map out how the city of Cittàgazze overlays the city of Oxford in another temporal plane.

Mrs. Coulter: "What do you mean she runs a department?"

But the real heart of this week comes when the series zigs away from the novels to bring Mrs. Coulter into our world wholesale. In this week's podcast, Lacy and I dug into how much Ruth Wilson's performance improves Coulter's character. But the choices by the script matter too. In the novels, Coulter fares poorly upon crossing from one world to the next. She does it alone, with no guide, and she is portrayed as coming in with a dominant mindset and a lack of curiosity that means she gets nowhere.

From the moment Coulter is seen sitting in Boreal's car looking out at our world, one can tell this will be a very different arrival. She's observing the inhabitants with an inscrutable look on her face. The lack of daemons frightens her. But she's staring at a woman working at a cafe, a baby beside her in a stroller. It's just mindblowing. It's the first of many moments as Coulter sees what a freer, more equitable world could look like, one that has been utterly denied her. It culminates in her meeting Mary Malone, a woman who runs an entire department, holds a doctorate, has published papers, and wears jeans. All of these things have been beyond Coulter's grasp her whole life.

Photograph Courtesy of HBO

The irony is that Boreal has brought Coulter here in hopes of seducing her with this world, having her join him. But his repressive, avaricious mindset only sees the possibilities to make money and live lavishly. (That's "Lifted" by the Lighthouse Family he plays on the stereo, by the way.) He has no understanding of what he's offering Marisa with an invitation to join this world, how setting her free in a place where she could hold actual hard power instead of manipulative soft power is at once everything she's ever dreamed of and terrifying. As she dresses the part, having observed this world, and steps out into it, the possibilities are suddenly endless.

It's also a benefit of moving our world out of the '90s era of the novels into the present day, beyond iPhones and the occasional Paddington reference. Though the 90s were post-sexual-revolution, they were only just the beginning of a period when women rose again after the anti-feminist backlash of the 1980s. Coulter's 1930s era attitude is only a generation or two removed from that time's boomer world. Now she's entering one where she would technically be an older millennial, and the jump in how much more women have advanced in this time only makes the gulf between her life and this one more stark. 

Coulter being at Boreal's (a fact unknown to either Lyra or Will) is key to throwing their heist plan off-kilter. Lyra seeing her mother freezes her up; whatever distraction she'd planned to allow Will time to find the alethiometer is out the window immediately. Marisa offers the alethiometer up to Lyra as a sign she's on the girl's side. But Lyra knows better now. Some of Season 1's failings crop back up, as the scene that follows, where Pan attacks the Golden Monkey, is eye-for-an-eye revenge for the abuse Lyra suffered at her mother's hands.

Photograph Courtesy of HBO

It is a sign of how much better Season 2 is handling daemon mythology. It feels more vicious than the original attack by Marisa last season, and it's a relief when Lyra lets go and runs. But it's also a reminder that this is still the show's weakest spot. That comes back around again with the return to the Magisterium. We blessedly don't spend too much time there — just enough to see MacPhail use his newfound religious zealotry to remove Father Graves as a threat. But that part of the series still feels like the show from last season, one that hasn't figured out (and may never will) how to join up with the far better one playing out with Coulter and Lyra.

Meanwhile, upon Boreal deigning to explain the spectres that rule Cittàgazze, Coulter immediately realizes they are Dust creatures. Her eagerness to focus on chasing after Lyra and Will to get the alethiometer back is taking the safer path, having been confronted with the idea of entering this new world. It's something she understands, in a way that her mind cannot comprehend, say, wearing jeans. It's in keeping with the books' way of presenting Coulter as someone who is not ready for what she finds in these multiverses but in a far more complex way.

Coulter's visit to see Mary also becomes the trigger for Dust to send Malone on her way out of this world and into the next. (Notably, it is not Coulter's presence, but Malone entering her name into Google that sparks the Dust's attention.) Also, though Lyra's world is the theologically dominated one, it's Mary who instantly figures out how to speak Dust from her religious upbringing. "You must kill the serpent," "Deceive the guardian, find the entrance." All sound deep and mysterious, but it's just fancy ways of saying, "Fool the security guard and fake your way into the tent Boreal has set up to monitor the comings and goings through his window." Hopefully, Lyra and Will will find Mary in the city of Cittàgazze before the spectres do.