“Our origins don’t define us. It’s what we do with what we have.”
After a solid premiere almost exclusively set in the somewhat remote Oxford, I wondered how the second installment of His Dark Materials would expand now that Lyra was transported to the larger world. “The Idea of the North”, though not vastly superior in quality to last week’s series premiere, introduces an edge of tension and refined purpose that suggests a scope so vast that a single world won’t be enough to tell the tale.
Working through all the narrative points revealed, perhaps the most surprising development is Lyra’s abbreviated stay with Mrs. Coulter. After last week, it seemed as if this duo was destined to stay together for at least a handful of weeks. Instead, it wastes no time in showing us Mrs. Coulter’s true nature.
Through cajoling at first, providing the sweet fruit of temptation by promising to teach Lyra how to wield the power over those who would deride her as nothing more than a female, Mrs. Coulter quickly sheds that skin. Though I do believe she desires to make Lyra formidable, it’s for her own nefarious purpose, not for the sake of preparing Lyra for the world. In fact, Lyra’s rude awakening to Mrs. Coulter’s harsh nature is a brutal one when she sics her golden monkey on Pan, tormenting the daemon and, by extension, Lyra.
In the blink of an eye, Mrs Coulter morphs from shady benefactor to outright villain. It’s not just her outright assault on Lyra that makes Mrs. Coulter the black hat, but the discovery that she and her General Oblation Board, or Gobblers, are responsible for the kidnappings. Her purpose for this remains a mystery but based on the blueprints Lyra finds, Mrs. Coulter plans carry a very dark significance.
With such a brutal benefactor, it’s no surprise that Lyra runs out the first chance she gets though, as luck would have it, she finds herself in Gobbler clutches. Whether they bring her back to Mrs. Coulter or take her straight to the other group of children being taking to the north remains to be seen.
While Mrs. Coulter is setting up to be one of the primary antagonists, the Magesterium further expands upon their own shady practices. Getting more screen time this week, everything they do—from their daemons being more in line with a witch’s familiar to their predatory movements and hushed conversations, the Magesterium reminds me of Voldemort’s Death Eaters of the Harry Potter franchise. And if Father MacPhail is to be believed, they carry the same sort of devotion, willing to sacrifice what is needed for the greater good of the Magesterium (though I’m not sure ‘good’ and ‘Magesterium’ are two words that belong together). The most interesting of the brood is Boreal, an enforcer whose journey to another world more similar to our own expands the story’s narrative in new and very interesting ways.
Through its methodical start, with Lyra learning of a world full of exponential wonders when compared to the life she led in Oxford, “The Idea of the North” quickly picks up steam, not bothering to keep us wondering on Mrs. Coulter’s altruism or the dark nature of the Magesterium. Ruth Wilson is phenomenal in that, despite her villainous nature, maintains an air of conflicted pain that suggests there are aspects of her character we’ve yet to see that could potentially sway her back into the murky category (instead of full-fledged villain).
Not far behind her is Ariyon Bakare’s Boreal, his unflinching confidence and subdued menace. His casual murder of the journalist that tries warning Lyra, as if he was balling up a piece of paper and not ending a person’s life, suggests that he could be the narrative foil to Asriel and, quite possibly Mrs. Coulter herself. With antagonists of such a rich and captivating nature, all His Dark Materials needs are the protagonists to step up and show their own formidability. Thankfully Dafne Keen and James McAvoy will be able to share that burden and based on their past roles, both have displayed the ability to be outstanding, even in the face of other great actors. That bodes well for a series already off to a very strong start.
- Everything we’ve seen of the daemon world thus far (minus the airships), from the clothes, the architecture, and cars encapsulates a 1950s or 60s style. Thus, it was a jarring transition when Boreal stepped through a window (‘crossing over’) into a world much more in line with our own. Will this type of bleeding between worlds be prevalent in the series or, like Fringe, will we only get a small taste of the other worlds out there? As fascinating as the exploration could be, I believe the less we see of these parallel worlds, the better…at least for the first season.
- Though this week does answer a few questions regarding the relationship between humans and daemons, it poses even more. It makes sense that if a daemon is killed, the human dies as well, as is the need for both to remain near one another. How Mrs. Coulter and her golden monkey can function a significant distance apart is a mystery that, once solved may help understand her character’s origins. As far as Pan is concerned or daemons like him who has yet to settle, what are his limits of transformation? For example, why couldn’t he have morphed into say, a wolverine or wolf to fight off Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey? Maybe it wouldn’t matter because, as he’s still maturing, he’d only be able to transform into kit or cub version of that particular animal.
- I must touch on Ruth Wilson’s performance again. How she exhibits her character’s barely controlled rage is mesmerizing. But it’s not just anger that radiates from her but also a wealth of pain, some of which seemed to have been received from Asriel. Her explosion at Lyra—while the kid is writhing on the ground no less—reveals Asriel as Lyra’s father. If I didn’t know any better—and I don’t since I never read the books or saw the 2007 movie—I’d say that Mrs. Coulter and Asriel were romantically involved and it wouldn’t at all be a surprise if she’s hiding her own maternal relation to Lyra.