Dafne Keen & Ruth Wilson Shine in 'His Dark Materials' Episode 2 (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for His Dark Materials Episode 2, "The Idea of North."]
If last week's His Dark Materials premiere was a table-setter, this week's episode is the first course, a tantalizing appetizer to whet the appetite for what's to come. It doesn't entirely satiate our cravings, but it's a tasty morsel nonetheless.
Yes, some of the flaws that plagued the premiere are still present. For example, the setting remains rather restrictive for what is meant to be an expansive fantasy epic. The majority of the episode again takes place in one location—this week, the dusty, age-old halls of Jordan College are traded for the gaudy extravagance of a swanky London hotel. And the rules of this universe—and the hierarchy of the players within it—continue to be somewhat unclear.
But where this episode succeeds, and where the premiere was perhaps lacking, is in creating real emotional stakes. This time around, I felt for the characters and sympathized with their plight. That is mostly down to the captivating performances of Dafne Keen and Ruth Wilson. Not only do Keen and Wilson have great on-screen chemistry, but you can tell they are fully committed to their characters. Every expression and inflection elevates material that might have fallen flat in less capable hands.
Wilson is a particular delight this week as the devilish Mrs. Coulter, effortlessly flipping between genial and terrifying in the blink of an eye or curl of the lip. Coulter promised to take care of Lyra (Keen) and help find her missing friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), but throughout the episode, her happy, shiny veneer begins to slip away to reveal a cruel, manipulative, and severely damaged person underneath.
Things seem okay at first, as Lyra settles into her new home—a luxury hotel suite overlooking the city of London. It's a whole new lifestyle for the rough-and-ready orphan girl who used to spend her days scaling rooftops and digging through underground crypts. Now she has her own comfy king size bed, all the breakfast food she desires, and a seemingly good-natured mentor promising to mold her and teach her "how to wield power."
However, these treats and home comforts serve as a distraction from something more ominous going on with Mrs. Coulter. The signs are subtle at first, like how Coulter keeps dismissing Lyra's anecdotes as the tall tales of an over-imaginative child. "Don't lie to me, Lyra," she warns softly. Then she begins to change the way Lyra looks; a new hairstyle, a new dress. She's trying to transform her into a Stepford child... "perfect, charming, delightful... like how all children should be."
Lyra's daemon Pan (voiced by Kit Connor) notices the troubling signs first. "We shouldn't change just to fit in here," he says as Lyra is stuffed into an ill-fitting dress. But Lyra doesn't want to believe that Coulter's intentions are malicious: "She's nice... don't we deserve to have nice things for once?" The budding young explorer wants to give her new guardian the benefit of the doubt. "Can't you mold me into someone who adventures? Someone who looks for people when they're lost?" she tries to reason with Coulter, under the mistaken belief she still has a choice.
It isn't until Lyra is awoken in the night by a noise in the vents and finds Coulter's Golden Monkey that she begins to have suspicions. Apparently, daemons are not supposed to stray that far from their human counterparts. "It's too painful... it's not natural," says a confused Lyra. Things get even more disconcerting when Coulter is visited by the Magisterium's Father MacPhail (Will Keen), who warns her that the Cardinal (Ian Peck) has some concerns about her "activities" drawing too much attention.
Everything comes to a head when Lyra is caught eavesdropping, and Coulter struggles to contain her rage. "You lost control," says Lyra. "You were angry. And you still are." Suddenly, Coulter's mask cracks, and she sets her daemon on Pan. It's a brilliantly brutal scene, and visually impressive, as Pan switches form to try and counter the vicious attack. It also confirms that when a daemon feels pain, so does its human, as Lyra falls to the floor in agony. "If you behave in this vulgar way, we will have a confrontation, and I will win," snaps Coulter.
In the midst of the intensity and high emotions, Coulter lets slip that Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) is not Lyra's uncle, but in fact, her father, and that the story of her parents dying in an airship accident was all a lie. It's a devastating discovery for Lyra and one that has her questioning everything she's ever known. Can she even trust that Coulter is telling the truth? She resorts to her alethiometer for answers, but she hasn't yet figured out how this mysterious Golden Compass works.
This scene also reveals a lot about the psyche of Mrs. Coulter. She is someone that obviously needs to be in control. But why? What made her like this? "Our origins don't define us," she explains. "It's what we do with what we have." This vindictive behavior seems to be borne of a troubled past. We see it in her faraway looks, as if she's lost in herself... in her memories. She exudes sadness and self-loathing. Remember, every time she hits her daemon (and poor Golden Monkey takes some abuse this episode), she is inflicting pain onto herself.
In fact, the most revealing and insightful line into who Mrs. Coulter is might be something she said early in the episode. "I've never been sure of heights," she says, "I could never get away from the occasional urge to jump." That is a dark statement for what is turning out to be quite a dark character when you look beneath the elegant dresses and charming smile. And, again, major credit to Wilson for conveying such an array of emotions to make Mrs. Coulter such a compelling figure and a standout villain.
And I think it's safe to say that Coulter is the big bad of the season, at least so far. As we find out, she's the one behind the child kidnappings and the one that has Roger locked up. The infamous Gobblers are not a covert street gang, it's an abbreviated term for The General Oblation Board, which is Coulter's own personal project. As the blueprints that Lyra uncovers in Coulter's study reveal, she is planning some sort of experiment with kids in the North.
What are these experiments about? That remains unclear, but you have to believe it's to do with this talk of Dust and other worlds. This episode reveals—rather nonchalantly—that other worlds do indeed exist and can be accessed via portal windows. The Magisterium's Lord Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) steps through one of these portals into what appears to be 21st century London—cars, buses, cellphones. We don't know a great deal about Lord Carlo at the moment, but this is clearly not the first time he's made this trip. And based on his suspicions, nor is he the first person to do so.
The Magisterium and its various authority figures remain the weakest part of the series so far. Their role and rules are at best vague and at worst confusing. We've got Cardinals and Lords and Fathers, and it's a little difficult to keep track of. But I can forgive that as long as Keen and Wilson keep driving the bulk of action because when those two are on screen, they have my attention.
- I still have some questions about how exactly the daemons work. Does a person get to choose what their animal is? Because now we know that a human can be hurt via their daemon, why would anyone pick an insect? I mean, Lord Carlo literally killed a snooping journalist by crushing her butterfly daemon. I'm assuming your animal is not a choice, but I'm not sure that has been fully explained yet.
- The Gyptians came up short in their search for little Billy Costa (Tyler Howitt), but we do know he's still alive and now on his way North along with Roger and the other missing children.
- Lyra escaped from her opulent prison only to wind up in the hands of the wolf-man. Last week, we assumed that wolf-man was working with the Gobblers, but now we know that's Coulter's thing, I'm not sure who this mystery figure is or who he's representing. Hopefully we'll find out next week!
His Dark Materials, Mondays, 9/8c, HBO