His Dark Materials may be considered fantasy but as episode 2 of the new BBC/HBO series has shown they really plan on seesawing between awe and pure horror until our nerves are frayed completely.
We ended the first episode of the series with Lyra leaving her beloved Jordan College in Oxford to travel to London with Mrs. Coulter as her personal assistant. Meanwhile, unknown to Lyra, her closest friend, Roger, was left screaming in a cage after being snatched by the unknown group we only know as the Gobblers.
The second episode opens on this striking contrast between their two circumstances. While Lyra enters Mrs. Coulter’s expansive art deco style apartment with her own luxurious room and private elevator, Roger and the other kidnapped children are being held in what appears to be an underground dungeon complete with walls peeling with old paint and an executioner-like nurse to watch over them all. Not one to disappoint us, Lyra’s first thought in her new lavish life is of Roger, and how she will find him. Of course, Mrs. Coulter is on the case.
Just not the one Lyra is thinking of.
For the only female scholar we have encountered so far, Mrs. Coulter has taken up a puzzlingly new research interest in Lyra. She has supposedly only known this girl for a brief time and now she is living in her house, taking her out to private clubs for fine meals, and commissioning an army of new dressed for the child, which coincidentally matches her own wardrobe to a tee. What’s more, boundaries don’t seem to exist between the two since there is a scene of her literally grooming Lyra in the bath. Marisa Coulter clearly has a deeply personal attachment to Lyra, even if she doesn’t see it just yet.
Watching this episode you must remember that Lyra is just a child. Her sheltered upbringing at Jordan College may have been guided by brilliant minds but her willingness to give herself over to this glamorous stranger and change herself so quickly and completely comes from Lyra’s innate human need for appreciation and kindness. Jordan College was her home but there were practically no women in substantial roles there and no adult to personally connect with, whereas if she stays with Mrs. Coulter, who consistently tells her how smart and pretty she is, and let’s her mould her into some new, better being she could wield serious power like her.
Such scenarios of promise and deception are typical of abusers in all realms. Unfortunately for Lyra, the honeymoon period did not last long. Marisa Coulter plays a spot-on Jekyll and Hyde, knowing when to hide her rage until Lyra is out of the room until Lyra catches onto the game after she embarrassed Mrs. Coulter in front of her associates from the Magisterium. With the benevolent matron act up she drops all pretense of sensitivity and sicks her monkey dæmon on poor Pan whose injuries of course directly transfer to Lyra. As Mrs. Coulter makes clear, Lyra will get in line or suffer the consequences. It is during this abuse that she accidentally reveals the most painful interaction of the entire scenario, that Lord Asriel is not her uncle but her father. Of course, the woman who has become singularly obsessed with the child also says that Lyra’s mother could have been anyone. A remark that goes unchallenged. For now.
Absolutely devastated, Lyra retreats into her room to consult the alethiometer she still doesn’t understand but is her last relic of home. Even for one so young, she’s not ready to give up just yet. Pretending to play nice there’s a panic-inducing scene of Lyra racing against the clock to sneak into Mrs. Coulter’s study and investigate her plans which have something to do with children, dæmons, and blades in the North. These fragments of information become infinitely direr when, while serving the party guests drinks, a journalist sweeps Lyra to the side to tell her that not only are the Gobblers real, but that Mrs. Coulter is their leader.
The General Oblation Board, as the Gobblers are formally known, has an interest in Dust and children, and from what we saw of Mrs. Coulter telling the children to write letters home and then burning those letters as soon she stepped outside their prison cell, it’s probably a pretty despicable one. Though even while you’re watching these children being literally human trafficked one does have to appreciate the fact that Roger insisted his letter would be addressed to Lyra. Really, the theme of this whole series seems to be that no adult can be trusted and the children will be the only ones to save each other. Which is fair.
Luckily, the ever-innovative Lyra manages to escape from the sociopathic Mrs. Coulter by climbing the windowsill and disappearing into the streets of London. Now watching a child wander the streets of a new city in the dark and all alone is disheartening but at least she broke free of that Barbie-like warden which is more than poor Roger can say for now as he leaves the prison with the other children headed North with tears in his eyes. Despite the title of this episode, this was probably not his idea of the North.
You truly think things can’t possibly get worse, and that’s when Lyra is captured by some masked man in the very last second. Is it the Gobblers? The Gyptians’ task force? Lord Asriel? Since we have to wait a whole week to find out I would not recommend watching this episode if you have serious anxiety, or at least until episode three premieres.
Besides the tortuous dramatic-irony of this episode, the show also furthered on some world building for those of you who skipped the young adult novels of the same title. For the sake of the story, it’s vital to know that a dæmon’s health effects of its human companion and, as we saw in the case of the Magisterium and the journalist, that killing a dæmon instantly kills the human as well. Moreover, we learned that not only do the parallel worlds Lord Asriel spoke about exist but that one can move through them through secret portals. Including the Magisterium and the supposedly dead explorer, Grumman.
Really this was an episode of just one reveal after another, and while there are light-hearted moments of small joy and relief, it’s really just one hour of setting your nerves on edge, but with the masterful transitions between all the different high-stakes plot lines and far away characters it will somehow defy the laws of physics to fly by faster than you can imagine and despite the second-hand stress you put yourself through you’ll be in agony waiting for the moment episode 3 is released.