The BBC is back with its second series of His Dark Materials; join Caragh Medlicott for weekly reviews of each new episode.
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
Who doesn’t love a good interdimensional heist? In uncovering the portal-creating subtle knife, Lyra and Will have found a bit of kit Danny Ocean could only dream of possessing. Episode 5 of His Dark Materials – ‘The Scholar’ – features one of the most streamlined plots of the series so far; there are no witches, no aeronauts – in fact – Lyra’s origin world is barely glimpsed at all. Mrs Coulter has arrived with Lord Boreal in Will’s Oxford, and the opening shot of her monkey daemon buckled up in the back of the car signals more glimmers of humour to come.
HDM has had so much story to get through, it’s barely had time to play the fish-out-of-water schtick most world-jumping/time-travelling TV shows opt for. But with Mrs Coulter dropped into our very own “consumer-driven” world – as it is, brimming with alien technology, hipster coffee shops and blue denim jeans – we finally receive a poised Marty McFly moment. There’s a new side to Lord Boreal here, too – the slick villain is suddenly overcome with a child-like excitement as he tries in vain to impress Mrs Coulter with his personal museum collection. In this new setting, it’s all too clear that even Boreal can’t hold a flame to Mrs Coulter’s chilling complexity (to be honest, he can’t even hold her attention – she looks about as interested in Boreal’s ancient “trinkets” as a woman receiving a Tarantino lecture at a house party).
Over in Cittàgazze, Lyra and Will have made a scientific breakthrough; it turns out, universes are like wedding cakes. That is to say, they’re all layered on top of each other. Wielding his new shiny knife, Will can cut through from Cittàgazze directly into his very own Oxford. Lyra and Will had promised Boreal they’d exchange the knife in order to get back Lyra’s alethiometer, but it’s now very clear that the knife is too valuable to give away. The new plan? Steal back the alethiometer and keep the knife for themselves. They intend to cut a portal inside of Boreal’s house, hop through, and take back what is rightfully theirs. It would likely go off without a hitch, too, but what they don’t know is that Lord Boreal has company.
Watching HDM, it’s hard not to detect a direct correlation between the presence of Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter and the overall quality of the episode. Wilson is a show-stealer, even when she’s merely pursing her lips and rolling her eyes. Preparing to venture out and find Dr Mary Malone, she holds up a pair of jeans with enough disdain to make Bruce Springsteen weep. Yet our modern Britain – with its imperfect attempt at gender equality – affects her more emotionally than anything we’ve seen thus far. “Imagine what I could have been in this world,” she says to an apprehensive – and slightly fearful – Lord Boreal (you can’t help suspecting she’d probably be some kind of world-conquering dictator, given the ammunition).
Though episode 5 mostly jumps between Will’s Oxford and Cittàgazze, there are a few infrequent flashes back to the Magisterium. After all, the witches have just retaliated in the war they started. The cardinal and his cronies plot around a table, noticeably floundering in the absence of Mrs Coulter. Their collected daemons – snakes, spiders and rats – look plentiful enough to supply an entire episode of I’m a Celebrity (and you have to wonder if there’s any depth to characters whose souls literally manifest as vermin). This, however, is just a minor subplot laying the groundwork for what’s to come. The real drama is about to take off over at Boreal’s house.
Things quickly spiral when Lyra arrives at Boreal’s door. She tries to distract him while Will cuts a portal into the bowels of the house in order to find the alethiometer. The plan is quickly derailed when Mrs Coulter’s monkey daemon spots Will. Soon a two-way battle commences, with Boreal pursuing Will and Lyra coming face-to-face with her tearful mummy dearest. Mrs Coulter tells Lyra that she reminds her of herself (causing Lyra to see red in a brilliant performance from Dafne Keen). Lyra’s daemon, Pan, lunges into attack mode, rendering Mrs Coulter immobile as her daemon is savagely attacked. When Lyra and Will finally make their escape – with both knife and alethiometer in possession – you are left feeling that Lyra may just have inherited more of her parents’ wrath than she cares to believe.
It must have been tempting to end the episode in the middle of the heist-gone-wrong, but the wrap-up leaves things fresh for a full adventure next week. Besides, the real cliffhanger comes in the form of Dr Mary Malone. Under orders from the angels/dust/dark matter, she manages to find the portal through to Cittàgazze. So far, Malone has been confined to bland office interiors and grey computer desks, but her fateful wander into another dimension marks the beginning of a new section of the HDM tale. ‘The Scholar’ may have been a nice break from the overly excessive world-hopping, but that breather has certainly just reached its end.
His Dark Materials is available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.