[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the the second episode of HBO's His Dark Materials, "The Idea of North," and for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Read at your own risk!]
After covering the first four chapters of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass in the series premiere last week, HBO's adaptation of His Dark Materials devoted most of the second episode, titled "The Idea of North," to Lyra's (Dafne Keen) time with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) in London. It was a revealing hour that stripped the latter of her earlier warmth and glamour to showcase who she really is: a chilling villain who's not just involved in kidnapping children like Roger (Lewin Lloyd) but is actually behind the entire operation.
That wasn't all that happened this week — the series also continued to build out its expansive universe by introducing viewers to a second world through the further adventures of Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). But was it too soon to introduce the multiverse?
TV Guide senior editors Sadie Gennis and Kaitlin Thomas are gathering together each week for a chat series for fans of Pullman's books. This is a safe haven to discuss spoilers and changes from the novels (both good and bad), so if you keep reading past this point and get mad about learning some future twist, please don't say we didn't warn you.
Kaitlin: I feel like there are a number of things for us to discuss this week, including the reveal about Lyra's parentage and my strong desire to own all of Mrs. Coulter's wardrobe, but before we get to those topics, I want to talk about the fact that the show has already — in the second episode! — introduced us to a second world. I know we discussed the ways in which the show was already seeding in bits from The Subtle Knife in the series premiere, but I honestly did not expect to see Lord Boreal actually traveling to another world already. Is it too soon?
Sadie: Honestly, I have no idea! On the one hand, it's kind of nice that we don't have to avoid talking about this huge aspect of this story in front of our non-book-reading friends already. One of the most exciting parts of the His Dark Materials mythology is the multiverse and all the different worlds we get to explore, so it's definitely been tough not spoiling that for people. However, I never saw them confirming this — let alone actually following a character through a window — so soon. They even showed us our first picture of Andrew Scott as Grumman! What's next, are we meeting Will Parry next week too?
Kaitlin: I feel like that would be taking things too far. At least Grumman is a character who is referenced from the start and then comes up again and again throughout the first novel. He has a place in the story already. So when I take a step back from the material and think about how I would adapt this story, I suppose I would also want to follow that thread early. To that end, maybe introducing Lord Boreal's travels to the other Oxford makes sense too, because if I remember correctly, he's already set up a life there by the time Will encounters him in the second book, right? Still, I can't help but feel like the matter-of-fact way all of this was done in this episode stole some of the magic from the experience for me? I don't know; I am clearly working through all my feelings about this right now during this conversation.
Sadie: Yeah, so much of The Golden Compass was building toward journeying into the other world and now they took what was a massive moment and turned it into a B-plot in the series' second episode. I genuinely don't know how I'll feel about this decision until we see how the entire first season pans out and whether they're able to still give me that magical feeling of excitement at Lyra's next adventure in the finale (even though it's born from tragedy). But who knows; all this additional time the show has to develop certain aspects of The Subtle Knife storyline might wind up enriching the characters and plots overall. We really are just going to have to wait and see. But they do seem to be speeding through things quite quickly. I can't believe this episode saw Lyra both arrive at and leave Mrs. Coulter's apartment!
Kaitlin: I remembered Lyra's time with Mrs. Coulter in the book as being much longer, but when I reread it, I was surprised to find it was just a single chapter! So it makes sense the series covered the same span in a single episode. But the novel also clearly mentioned the passing of the time — she was there at least six weeks. Here it felt like she moved in on Tuesday and was running away during the party on Sunday. I know that can't be true, but that's how it felt. So even though Lyra witnessed how quickly Mrs. Coulter angered and learned about the General Oblation Board and what they were up to, it felt like Lyra had little time to absorb and react to this information and form new opinions about her mentor. Still, I do feel like the episode succeeded in its goal of revealing who and what Mrs. Coulter is, so mission accomplished.
Sadie: Even though Lyra was only living with Mrs. Coulter for a single chapter of the book, Pullman did a great job of making readers feel how lost she got in Coulter's world. In the books, Lyra is so enamored by Mrs. Coulter's glamorous lifestyle that all the parties and visits to the Royal Arctic Institute manage to distract her from looking into Roger's disappearance. But here, Lyra never loses herself the way she did in the books and because of that, Lyra's emotional journey while living with Mrs. Coulter didn't land as powerfully for me. Although I actually think the show far exceeded my expectations of portraying the chilly depths of Mrs. Coulter in this episode. It was basically the Ruth Wilson power hour, which I am always here for. When she said "I've never been sure about them, heights. I could never get away from the occasional urge to jump," I wanted to crawl out of my skin in the best way. Saving the reveal that Mrs. Coulter is a Grade-A creepazoid and behind the Gobblers until now really paid off, in my opinion.
Kaitlin: Oh yeah, I agree. And again, I feel like such an asshole for saying this, but Ruth Wilson feels like she was meant to play this role. The way she portrays Mrs. Coulter — like she's got ice in her veins and you don't want to look away from her because you don't know when or if she'll strike — is one of the show's best assets, in my opinion. The look on her face as she burned the letters the kidnapped children wrote to their parents? If I couldn't see her daemon for myself, I would honestly question whether she had a soul. But also, can we talk about how she just blurted out mid rant that Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) is Lyra's father and not her uncle?
Sadie: OK, first things first: That fight between the golden monkey and Pan was terrifying! Watching this scene was way scarier (and frankly, way more f---ed up) than I had ever pictured when I was reading it. Mrs. Coulter is always so controlled that watching that discipline slip and seeing the seething, animalistic anger underneath was as fascinating as it was unsettling. It also led to yet another unexpectedly early reveal, as you mentioned. And while I'm on the fence about moving up the introduction of the second world, I am extremely relieved we got the Asriel reveal out of the way. It's so obvious, and I hate when shows delay a reveal like this too long because then it feels like it's being made out to be some "shocking twist" when everyone assumed it from the start. Plus, seeing Coulter's reaction after this accidental admission added an intriguing new layer to her character, since it was the first time I think that we saw Mrs. Coulter appear genuinely concerned for Lyra's well-being.
Kaitlin: I am very happy to get this particular reveal out of the way so early! Like you said, it was always so painfully obvious. And given how many non-book readers said they were confused by the premiere and the world it presented, I think it's smart for the writers to get some of these secrets out of the way early. I predict the Mrs. Coulter reveal will be coming soon as well.
But this brings me to something else I want to briefly discuss: Does it feel like this show was written to appeal to fans of the books rather than a broader audience? There are obviously aspects of the Magisterium and the Gobblers that are shrouded in mystery — not to mention the entire meaning of Dust — but as someone who read the books and who knows that the story started out in a similar way on the page, it's kind of what I expected it to be? With the exception of the things we've already discussed, we're learning things as Lyra learns them for the most part, and that feels right to me. I have no issue with that. But is it because I was a book reader? Should the show be doing more to explain certain aspects of the story?
Sadie: That's a really tough question, but one I think a lot of viewers are struggling with right now. I think there are non-book readers who probably feel a bit lost in this world because the show's pace has been a little relentless in these first two episodes and there are probably a ton of things they don't understand. But as someone who has read this trilogy multiple times, even if you asked me today "What is Dust?" I'd struggle to give you a clear answer. I'd probably land on something along the lines of, "It is consciousness but it's also conscious. And, uh, Original Sin and angels, blah blah blah, wheel-pod trees." And that is not a helpful explanation at all!
In the books, you really don't have a clear idea what exactly the General Oblation Board is up to or why everyone is so concerned with Dust until quite deep into The Golden Compass. But I wonder if the fact that the series is moving up so many other reveals (the blueprints showing how they perform intercisions, the second world, etc.) that the influx of all this information is actually adding to the confusion and making people feel a stronger need for answers sooner than the books delivered them. I do hope that now that Lyra has left Mrs. Coulter's behind her the show will slow down a bit and we'll get to savor the characters and the atmosphere more, because now is really when the good stuff begins. Hopefully, as a result, the non-book readers will also get a chance to moor themselves in this world and enjoy it as much as book readers.
His Dark Materials airs Mondays at 9/8c on HBO.