His Dark Materials Book to Screen Analysis: Season 2 Episode 5 The Scholar

Episode Spoilers
The Scholar

Francesca Gardiner’s solo effort on The Scholar gave us a deeply fascinating insight into mother and daughter this week. Ruth Wilson’s work on Marisa Coulter is always exceptional, but by imagining how Mrs. Coulter would react to a world which gives women many of the opportunities she has been denied, it added another layer of interest to Mrs. Coulter’s story; she thinks of herself as powerful in her world, and that is how we see her, but seeing women with so much more freedom clearly affects her deeply.

The episode opens with the Golden Monkey, strapped safely into the back seat of Boreal’s car, glaring around uncomfortably. The seatbelts are clearly at Boreal’s insistence. The Golden Monkey and Mrs. Coulter’s thoughts appear to be quite separate at this point. Marisa is gazing, with a little longing, at patrons in a cafe, particularly focused on a woman who is rocking her baby’s pram with one hand and using her laptop with the other. Boreal then returns with take-away coffees, clearly eager to please and impress, and clearly in his element. He continues to show off his possessions as he guides her around his home, and Mrs. Coulter, obviously growing bored, pretends to drop one of his priceless objects, and then demands to know what any of this has to do with Lyra. Boreal then informs her he has stolen the alethiometer from Lyra, but only, of course, so he can bring Lyra to his lover.

Will and Lyra, are, in the meantime, planning how to recapture the alethiometer from Boreal, plotting their steps, Will practising using the knife. At this point they are still preoccupied with finding Will’s father, there is an air of adventure and happiness, and the true camaraderie between them that was finally cemented last week.

Mrs. Coulter remains unimpressed with Boreal’s trinkets, although he is not quite as hapless as he seems. While she grows more bored and discontented, he dangles the prospect of Mary’s research project before her, but again she is single-minded, and only reacts when she finds out that Lyra has been to see her. Demanding to be told where she can find Mary, Boreal brings Coulter some modern clothes to change into. Although the scene is a little light and amusing, Boreal’s feelings for her seem genuine, and it is discomfiting to see how quickly her mask drops and her contempt for him boils to the surface the moment after he leaves the room.

Father MacPhail was in fine form this week, managing to turn Graves’ irritating superstition back on him. Graves wants the Magisterium to issue a denial of ‘the anomaly’, the rift between worlds. MacPhail seizes upon the news that soldiers have been slain by the witches, claiming that “The Authority has sensed a lack of devotion among our ranks, and for this treachery, 24 of our brothers have been taken as martyrs.” and orders Graves to be imprisoned for his ‘lack of devotion’. After he dismisses the rest of the council he asks Fra Pavel to find where Mrs. Coulter has gone. Clearly MacPhail is still afraid of Mrs. Coulter, and the hold she has over him.

Mrs. Coulter finally demonstrates she can separate herself from the Golden Monkey when she leaves Boreal’s house to visit Mary. She claims to Boreal that it is merely “self-control”, but the monkey is visibly distressed by it. Mrs. Coulter’s meeting with Mary was fascinating. Bolvangar seems a distant memory and it is easy to forget that Mrs. Coulter, in her seemingly maternal desperation to possess Lyra, is a zealot obsessed with “sin” and sexuality. So when Mary mentions Lyra’s interest in Dust, Mrs. Coulter is demoralised. And Mary, of course, who is fresh off her secular world being shaken by angels, is just as shocked when she asks Mrs. Coulter where theology comes into science, and is told “Where does it not?”. This was such a wonderful addition to the text (which I will discuss more under books spoilers).

Just after Mrs. Coulter slips out of Mary’s office, Xaphania speaks to her again to give her her ‘instructions’, and then destroys the Cave.

Will and Lyra’s enthusiasm is dampened when they encounter a Spectre-ravaged Tullio and his grieving, hysterical sisters. I was a little disappointed last week at the brevity of the scene in which Tullio was attacked and was glad to see it revisited this week. It’s important to see how the Spectre orphans are affected and think about how they must live, day to day, seemingly carefree without adult supervision, but clearly traumatised and feeling hunted all the while.

Even Boreal notices Mrs. Coulter is shaken when she returns after her encounter with Mary. In a rare moment of vulnerability she angrily tells Boreal that she was denied a doctorate by the magisterium after achieving the highest results in the final examinations, and that her papers are only published if she agrees to let a man take the credit. She also asks him what he remembers of the scandal of her affair with Asriel, and Boreal responds typically, placing the blame on Asriel for ‘seducing’ her, which only enrages Mrs. Coulter further. “We’re not talking about Asriel, we’re talking about me!”

Note that Mrs. Coulter calls using the alethiometer “power” rather than a gift or talent.

While Boreal is continuing his attempt to lure Mrs. Coulter into living with him, Lyra and Will put their plan into action. What follows departs a good deal from the text, with Lyra encountering her mother in person, but it adds another dimension to Lyra’s suffering under her mother, and events to come. An eleven year-old Lyra might not have to strength to take on her vicious mother. A fourteen year-old Lyra has a lot more strength. Mrs. Coulter, at this stage, is weakened and unnerved by her meeting with Mary and irritated with Boreal’s persistent mewling at her. When Mrs. Coulter sees Will her first thought is clearly of her own ‘weakness’, “Lyra, stay away from that boy. Do you understand me? He will do you nothing but harm.” she tells Lyra vehemently. But when she follows by telling Lyra she is so much like herself, she triggers Lyra, who directs all of her panserbjørn fury at her mother. Clearly reprisal for the Golden Monkey’s attack on Pan, a weakened Mrs. Coulter and monkey easily fall prey to the rage of their abused child. And just like a small child, Lyra wipes away angry tears as she funnels all of her grief ferociously into one thing, injuring her mother, causing her the same pain she has suffered, a little girl who has been alone all of her life, only to find her evil, villainous parents and witness them murder her friends. And for a moment, after the attack, mother and daughter stand mesmerised, staring at each other, the pain emanating in waves, it is Will who shakes Lyra out of her reverie, and Will who tears the two apart, leading Lyra and Pan back through the window, while Mrs. Coulter screams for her daughter. The battle lines between Mrs. Coulter and Will are now set.

It may have been sad satisfying to see Lyra inflect pain on her mother, but Lyra doesn’t feel good about it. The children discussing their mothers showed a divide between them that can never really be bridged. Will’s mother may be incapable of looking after him due to her illness, but she loves him. “I’m always scared something bad’s happening to my mum. But never that she’ll hurt me.” he says. Lyra doesn’t want to be like either of her parents. Maybe like Ma Costa, or Lee Scoresby, she says. But Will assures her that she doesn’t need to be like anyone else. And as viewers will see, we need her to be Lyra. Everything depends on it.

Book to Screen: This week’s analysis will contain full book spoilers for The Subtle Knife. Scenes from The Scholar cover chapters chapters nine, eleven and twelve of The Subtle Knife.

Spoilers ahead

Finally we are given absolute evidence that Marisa Coulter can separate from her dæmon, not just the distance of a few rooms, but completely. This was only alluded to briefly in Northern Lights, when Mrs. Coulter is confronting Lyra while her dæmon searches Lyra’s bedroom. In The Scholar Mrs. Coulter tells Boreal airily that “Surely I’m not the first woman you’ve witnessed capable of self-control? Have you never encountered witches on your travels?” It’s been six episodes since we saw Mrs. Coulter explaining her experiments on children to Lyra, in a speech directly from Northern Lights.

Your dæmons are wonderful companions and friends to you when you’re young, but at the age that we call puberty… an age you’ll come into very soon, darling, daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings. And that’s what lets Dust in. A little operation before that and you’re never troubled again.

Thus, Mrs. Coulter puts a religious spin on her ability to separate, the part of herself that she hates, the part that is ‘susceptible to sin’, is embodied in her dæmon, so she thinks that learning to separate from him is a matter of ‘self-control’. How much control she has over herself when she is separated from him ins questionable, however. In Lyra Northern Lights Lyra senses a deep agitation and a ‘metallic smell’ coming from Mrs. Coulter’s skin when she is separated from him. She is weak after the hours of separation in this week’s episode, allowing Lyra to physically overpower her. She is emotional and less controlled than usual in Mary’s presence. Certainly the shock of being in a new world and confronted with the limits she is under in her own world has affected her, but it makes sense that the separation from her dæmon is exacerbating that.

Although there is more being added to the story than being left out at this point, a lot of Will’s dialogue, both internal and external, won’t make it to the screen. So much of The Subtle Knife is told from his point of view, but he is also a few years younger, and even more attached to his mother. There was a few passages in the book where Lyra was describing Tullio being attacked by the Spectres. She recalls he was counting the stones on the wall behind him until he lost interest, which triggers memories in Will of when his mother would do similar things, like counting the leaves on a bush or touching all the railings in the park. Will wonders if there are Spectre in his world, and if the guild had accidentally let them in to the Cittàgazze when they cut a window into his world. I think that, as book fans, we already know the things Will has suffered. It is easier to imagine him as a 15 or 16 year-old. Screen Will is more stoic than taciturn. I do hope a lot of viewers will read the books, or they won’t really be able to appreciate just how much Will has gone through to protect his mother. Jack Thorne, of course, always advocated for Will, saying that His Dark Materials is about two child heroes, and that Will “is a child carer. In today’s broken world what greater hero can you find than that?” 

Boreal has become a character so different from Pullman’s incarnation, and I continue to find him fascinating. It’s perfectly suitable for him to play a fairly typical villain from Lyra’s point of view in the books, and he is a good antagonist for the children. We do see him from Mrs. Coulter’s viewpoint in the books briefly, but for the most part he is a detached figure. He is much older than Mrs. Coulter, he is cruel and arrogant, acquisitive, deeply misogynistic, he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And Ariyon Bakare’s has still retained all of these character traits. What he and the writers have brought to Boreal is a deeply human side, most often spotted when he is alone. His delicately out-of-place mannerisms, his amusing social gaffes, and made most clear this week, his disturbingly genuine feelings for Marisa Coulter. Her murdering him was a bit shocking in the books, but there was also the torture of Lena Feldt and Mrs. Coulter’s ghoulish summoning of the Spectres happening at the same time. It dampened the effect, and who cared about Boreal anyway? Something tells me that the screen incarnation is going to evoke very different reactions from viewers.

Next week: Malice