REVIEW: His Dark Materials, S2 Ep5 – The Scholar

His Dark Materials, S2 Ep5 - The Scholar

His Dark Materials spends an episode exploring the enigma that is Marisa Coulter while Lyra and Will make the most out of the subtle knife’s world-slicing abilities.

In the first episode helmed entirely by two women – written by Francesca Gardiner and directed by Leanne Welham – His Dark Materials again departs from the source material but does so purposefully this time by delving deep into the character of Marisa Coulter as well as how her toxic, patriarchal world shaped her. It’s a brilliantly introspective episode, made all the more potent by Ruth Wilson’s subtle but compelling performance. As Boreal gives her a tour around our world, Marisa wordlessly marvels at the potential and power women are afforded that would have never been given to her in the world of daemons and the Magisterium.

His Dark Materials Mrs CoulterBBC/© Bad Wolf/HBO

It’s the little things – like the way she stares at a mother working on her laptop while still minding her baby, like the fact that women wear pants (even though she has a distaste for denim jeans), and the idea that women can be heads of their own academic departments. More than a new world, this is a different kind of life, a life that she ought to have led had she not had the misfortune of being born in a realm run by the Magisterium.

There is also the hilarious image of her daemon monkey with a seatbelt on. Inspired choice!

His Dark Materials, S2 Ep5 - The ScholarThen, there are her small but telling reactions to Boreal’s arrogance – his artifact collection, his advanced sound system, his showy mansion, and his dismissive attitude towards women in that Oxford. Ever the self-obsessed misogynist, he fails to notice his companion’s utter disinterest in his “achievements” and her fascination with what women are allowed to do in that world. Even when she begins to talk about the aftermath of her affair with Asriel, Boreal mistakenly believes she is referring to the latter when she is, of course, talking about the toll the whole event took on her.

One of the most memorable moments in this episode was Marisa’s encounter with Mary Malone. Like her conversation with Lee Scoresby, this never happened in the books, but oh how much it revealed of the character. More effective than that departure from the source material, the meeting of two female academics, both experts in their fields but each afforded different opportunities in her world was endlessly fascinating. You could see how much Coulter envied her counterpart, how she wished that all her own work, all the papers she had to publish under men’s names, could somehow be recognized. She saw how much she could have been in that world and it was maddening. And one could not help but feel for her in those moments, a woman who chose to do monstrous things in order to survive in a man’s world.

She also demonstrates an ability to travel far away from her daemon, similar to that of witches. She explains that this is achieved by detaching herself from her emotions and other facets that make her human. There is a sad exchange of looks between her and her daemon when she returns, but it is clear that she has paid a heavy price in order to become as ruthless as she is.

His Dark Materials, S2 Ep5 - The ScholarMary later communicates more with Dust and they send her out on a mission. She finds her way somehow to the window to Cittàgazze, and she crosses to the new world. Her adventures have only begun.

Meanwhile, the plot must continue as Will and Lyra learn how to best use the knife to slice between worlds. Their discovery of this ability is a delight, particularly in the scene where Will asks why they are whispering. They go around Cittàgazze, opening small windows into Will’s Oxford and calculating how they can use this to get the alethiometer back.

There is an uncomfortable moment when they are confronted by Angelica and Paola, mourning the loss of their older brother Tullio, the boy who had stolen the knife in the tower. Immediately, they are faced with the consequences of Will’s acquisition of the only weapon that can protect others from the Spectres.

His Dark Materials, S2 Ep5 - The ScholarBut they do not lose sight of their purpose and they eventually find a way to cut through to Boreal’s mansion to try and reclaim the alethiometer. It is here that one of the most intense confrontations between characters takes place, as Lyra comes face to face once more with her mother. The look of horror on Dafne Keen’s face is heartbreaking, immediately reminding viewers of the trauma she suffered during His Dark Materials season one.

Mrs. Coulter appeals to her daughter and miscalculates her strategy because she is so convinced that Lyra is too much like her. But her attempts to convince her daughter to return to her all fail because she has fundamentally misunderstood Lyra’s loving and compassionate nature. Coulter still believes that all men are evil and immediately applies this belief to her perception of Will and Lyra’s relationship. But she couldn’t be more wrong. Will is, of course, one of the few people Lyra trusts completely and so the moment Coulter tries to persuade Lyra that Will is no good for her, she loses the battle.

His Dark Materials Mrs CoulterWhat follows is a brutal confrontation as Lyra unleashes Pan, in a vicious form, and attacks the golden monkey, thus injuring Coulter as well. Lyra is in tears as she tries to inflict the same pain her mother did to her last season. But the girl is also shocked to witness Marisa’s ability to detach from her daemon, and thus, from the pain. Will snaps her back to reality just in time for them to escape through a window, the alethiometer reclaimed.

Lyra’s violence does not go unexamined, however, and she sadly admits that the vengeance she inflicted gave her no pleasure. She refuses to become like either of her parents, to be a part of a legacy of deception and destruction. Will shows great compassion and understanding for her in those final moments, reminding her that she is enough as she is and she need not be anyone else. Their bond continues to be one of the most compelling parts of His Dark Materials, shining through even in an episode that put a spotlight one of the show’s most intriguing characters.