His Dark Materials Recap: “The Idea of North”

His Dark Materials Ruth Wilson in His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO)

Lyra discovers Mrs. Coulter’s dark side in an occasionally overstuffed second episode.

As we conclude the second episode of His Dark Materials, I must admit that I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. The obvious response to this would be “Should have read the books, dummy,” and yes, that’s probably true. So lies the problem with book to movie or TV adaptations: are you doing it for the fans, or for people who are new to the source material? Will the show be more exciting if you already know who Mrs. Coulter really is, or will it play better as you put all the clues together? Either way, after this episode, I feel like I know a lot more about the world this story exists in, and yet I’m still a bit befuddled at what it all means, where it’s all going to go, and if it’s going to make sense when it gets there.

Lyra (Dafne Keen) goes off to live with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) in her luxurious but sterile apartment, where she’s instructed to never enter the study. Their personalities clash almost immediately, as Mrs. Coulter bristles at Lyra’s penchant for telling tall tales, and Lyra pushes back at Mrs. Coulter’s attempts to restrain her free-spirited nature. Mrs. Coulter offers a puzzlingly self-contradictory message for Lyra: she’ll eventually have the ability to wield great power, but only if she remains docile and unquestioning.

Lyra, while still not quite understanding just how much power Mrs. Coulter herself already wields, soon realizes that she’s not as interested in finding Roger (Lewin Lloyd) as she first claimed. There’s a good reason for this: Mrs. Coulter knows exactly where Roger is. He’s being held with the other missing children in a series of Dickensian dormitories by the “gobblers,” who aren’t actually monsters (not in the fairy tale sense, at least), but employees of the “General Oblation Board,” a shadowy organization whose goal is unclear, but definitely not anything good. Roger and the others are being prepared for a trip to “North,” where, going by the plans the ever inquisitive Lyra discovers, Mrs. Coulter plans to separate them from their daemons.

How the daemons work is so far the most interesting aspect of His Dark Materials. In addition to being animal spirit companions for humans, they also act as their consciences, and can even sense something is amiss when a human either can’t, or ignores it. At a more unsettling level, if a daemon is injured or killed, its human companion will meet the same fate. This powers two of the most gripping scenes in the episode, when Mrs. Coulter punishes Lyra for her defiance, and when an overeager journalist is dispatched of by Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), one of Mrs. Coulter’s colleagues on the Board.

At the risk of oversimplification, a lot happens in this episode, in what occasionally feels like a frantic attempt to get every familiar beat and turn in the plot going as soon as possible. That Lord Asriel is really Lyra’s father (or so Mrs. Coulter says, at least) seems like a rather big reveal for so early on, and yet it’s not even the most twisty thing that happens. We’re starting to reach the red line for subplots and supporting characters, all of whom seem to have their own agendas and ulterior motives, and given how the episode ends, more are coming. The fact that Carlo can walk through some sort of interdimensional doorway into what appears to be present-day “real” London is also revealed, as is the fact that Mrs. Coulter is, like Lord Asriel, researching “dust,” and her superiors in the Magisterium (a fantasy world version of the Catholic Church) are dismayed with it.

There’s no reason not to believe that this will all eventually have some time to cook, especially since a second season was just announced. Right now, however, everything feels a little rushed, and some characters have been introduced but not yet given much to do, like Ma Costa (Anne-Marie Duff), mother of one of the kidnapped children. It seems obvious that Ma will play a bigger role in the story’s themes of spiritual and tangible family and identity, but so far, she’s only had barely five minutes in screen time in two hours. Both too much and not enough is happening in His Dark Materials, and hopefully it sets a more even pace going forward. The characters and the primary plot are too interesting not to.

Random Thoughts:

  • Regardless of how successful His Dark Materials is, I hope there’s a coffee table book published devoted to the production design. An extraordinary amount of attention has been paid to the set design, the clothes, even the hairstyles. No matter where the plot goes, I’ll admire the show simply for how nice everything looks.
  • One way the show is head and shoulders over the film adaptation is in its portrayal of Mrs. Coulter. Nicole Kidman, given so little time to develop the character, plays her as a chilly, one-note villain, whereas here she’s given some dimension and internal conflict. Ruth Wilson really is a wonder, as is Dafne Keen, and their scenes together, even if it’s just a tense conversation over breakfast, are the series highlight so far.
  • That being said, if Wilson didn’t prepare for her role by watching Mommie Dearest several times, I’ll eat one of several hats I own.
  • It’s interesting to note that daemons seem to talk less the older their human companions are. as if to suggest that once we become adults we simply stop listening to our consciences.
  • Ma Costa’s teenage son is played by an actor named Daniel Frogson, which sounds like a YA fantasy novel character name in itself.
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