‘His Dark Materials’: Ruth Wilson on Mrs. Coulter’s Lust for Power
In Season 1 of HBO’s book-based fantasy drama His Dark Materials, young adventurer Lyra (Dafne Keen) comes up against plenty of villains. Perhaps the most frightening one, however, is the ruthless and chilling Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who, Lyra later learns in a devastating turn of events, is her own mother.
Mrs. Coulter, and her golden monkey daemon (who isn’t quite like others’ daemons, in that Mrs. Coulter can be farther apart from the extension of her soul than “normal”), were responsible for some pretty despicable behavior in the first season. Mrs. Coulter’s work as the head of the General Oblation Board (known as the scary child-stealing “Gobblers” by many), separated youngsters from their daemons, killing them in soul-sucking — literally — experiments.
In the Season 1 finale, she has a tense reunion with Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), where she refuses to travel through the portal he’s built into a new world, claiming Lyra is in their current world (though actually, as the viewer knows, she isn’t). “I want her with everything I have,” she says of the daughter she’s scorned many times. “This is your journey, not mine.”
Below, Wilson unpacks what Mrs. Coulter really wants with Lyra, and what’s to come in the sophomore season.
What are Mrs. Coulter’s goals and ambitions in Season 2?
Wilson: At the end of Season 1, she’s kind of at pace with [Lyra]. Her child is much harder than she thought to hold on to, and I don’t think she quite realizes the impact that confronting and being with her child would have on her, and it brought up loads of things for her during Season 1. Obviously, by the end of Season 1, she’s lost her child again. I think she’s realized that there’s something about [Lyra] that she wants to seek, and find, and own, and possess, and have. The whole season is really her looking for her child. And she knows that not only is [Lyra] important, but the whole world seems to be searching for Lyra.
Always with Mrs. Coulter, it’s about her search for power. But there’s some other drive underneath that she’s probably not quite aware of, which is her own emotional draw to her own child.
Do you think that she’s ready to be a mother to Lyra should they come into each other’s orbits again?
I don’t think she knows what being a mother is, really. She had a very certain idea of what she thought that might be [by] creating a girl in her own image — I don’t think she realized what it would take. And I don’t think she’ll ever be able to be a proper mother. Season 2 is about her drive and her losing more control in a certain way. [Mrs. Coulter is] cut off from the Magisterium. She’s cut off from all of the places that give her power and give her strength and safety nets. She leaves that world in Season 2, and she goes on a search of her own. So, it’s kind of a single, sole search for her daughter. She does learn some things along the way.
What is her reaction when she discovers that Lyra is no longer in the same world, as she previously thought?
She’s heartbroken in some ways. When Azriel breaks that huge hole, that’s a chance for her and him to explore greater lands, and she decides to stay put. Partly because her daughter is there, and partly because she knows her daughter is in some way powerful and she wants to be in the orbit of her child. But she does do it at the expense of being a bigger fish in a bigger pond. So, she decides to stay put, but realizes as soon as her daughter’s gone, she doesn’t belong there anymore. She got left behind, and behind the curve in a way, and needs to catch up. Her narcissist self is slightly jealous and pissed off that she didn’t get there first.
Are we going to get any of Mrs. Coulter’s backstory this season?
You have little tidbits, but basically, it’s license that I gave myself, or that [showrunner] Jack Thorne gave, to explore Mrs. Coulter more in this season because she doesn’t really exist much in Book 2 [Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife]. They wanted to maintain that tether between mother and daughter so they filled in a few more scenes, which is really exciting for me to play, and we get to explore a bit more of Mrs. C and the Magisterium and her dynamics with Boreal [Ariyon Bakare]. You do start to get some hints and some references to her life, what may have pushed her to who she is.
Speaking of Lord Boreal, another one of the show’s villains, he’s said to have a larger role this season, but who is he in Mrs. Coulter’s orbit?
Well, it’s funny, you see him in the first season and you see [Boreal and Mrs. Coulter] connected when they’re at her party and they’ve been in the same wheelhouse — he isn’t really a part of the Magisterium, but he exists there. They’re both kind of outside of the Magisterium, like separate entities that manipulate the Magisterium for their own purposes. And I think they both understand that and use each other for that purpose [too].
They have a cat and mouse relationship, and it compares and contrasts with Lyra and Will’s [Amir Wilson] dynamic of bonding and working together. So, you see the contrast between that innocent, child bonding relationship and this adult, manipulative relationship.
Would you consider Mrs. Coulter to be the main baddie of Season 2?
Yes, in a very black and white sense. But there are many more entities that come forward as well. You see the Magisterium becoming more powerful and see what they’re doing in the background. You do start to see other forces at play, which are dangerous, if not more dangerous than Mrs. Coulter, but she is still primarily the main, or Lyra’s main, antagonist.
Witches also seem to be playing a larger role in this season’s events. Does Mrs. Coulter have any relationship with the witches moving forward into Season 2?
Well, this is a big theory and I don’t know — it hasn’t been clarified either way, but clearly, they have some sort of connection. Both witches and Mrs. Coulter can separate from their daemons, which is highly unusual and quite frightening and very powerful. So there have been theories that Mrs. Coulter has witch qualities, but whether she does or not, we don’t know. She’s fascinated by [witches]. She’s fascinated by anything that’s more powerful than she is. I think she just wants it and knows that if she can’t have it, she’ll destroy it.
His Dark Materials, Season 2 Premiere, Monday, November 16, 9/8c, HBO and HBO Max