His Dark Materials: How does Mrs Coulter control the Spectres?

A big twist in the Philip Pullman adaptation sees Ruth Wilson’s character reveal a surprising new ability.

Ruth Wilson

In His Dark Materials, the soul-sucking Spectres are among the most terrifying threats faced by Lyra, Will and our other heroes, with the shapeless monsters (who only attack adults and remain invisible to children) feasting on the Dust of their victims and leaving them hollowed-out shells of human beings.

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Over the course of the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s original novels we’ve seen the Spectres perform their deadly act on every single human they come across… except one. Because in the latest episode of His Dark Materials Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter is able to hold them off, if not control them entirely, an ability she plans to use to her advantage.

But how can Mrs Coulter control the Spectres, and how does this compare with the books? We’ve broken it down for you below.

How does Mrs Coulter control the Spectres?

Amir Wilson
Will and a Spectre in His Dark Materials (BBC)

In the TV adaptation, Wilson’s Coulter tells Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) that she’s able to resist and control the Spectres thanks to her own powers of self-control, implied to be the same process she uses to separate from her daemon.

“They consume what makes us human, so I just hid that from them,” she says. “I suppress myself.”

This twist had been teed up somewhat by His Dark Materials’ previous episode, where Mrs Coulter locked her golden monkey daemon in a bedroom and left him behind while she travelled “our” world.

To any normal inhabitant of Lyra’s world, this process should have been painful if not impossible – but as Coulter told Boreal at the time, she had enough self-control (or rather, ability to suppress her inner self) to make it work.

Ruth Wilson
Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Of course, another question that presents itself is how Mrs Coulter knew that this technique would work, or why she’d even risk it – but there’s another clue to this in the episode. Earlier, when meeting one of the Spectres’ victims, Boreal noted the similarity to the process Coulter and her allies had carried out in the previous series, where they’d managed to cut the link between children and their daemons.

“It’s almost like Spectres sever their victims,” Boreal offers, though Mrs Coulter notes it’s stronger, adding “we can learn from this.”

Clearly, she did. Noting the connection between what the Spectres do to their victims and daemons may have led Mrs Coulter to realise that she was uniquely suited to resisting them, given that she could suppress that part of herself.

And interestingly these details are new for the TV series, with the books offering a rather different explanation for the Coulter/Spectre match-up.

How does Mrs Coulter control the Spectres in the His Dark Materials books?

Ruth Wilson
Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials (BBC)

In the His Dark Materials books, Mrs Coulter tells Boreal that she’s able to control the Spectres through negotiation, imparting to them the idea that she’ll be able to bring them to more prey by following her.

She also inspires them to learn that they can fly for the first time, whereas in the TV series they appear to be able to achieve this without her.

Obviously the new interpretation in the TV series marks a significant change, but it’s possible it’s not quite as drastic an alteration as it first appears. In the books Mrs Coulter is hinted to be able to separate from her daemon, and there’s no guarantee that she was telling Boreal the truth when she said her Spectre control was down to some sort of negotiation.

On the other hand, there’s something oddly appropriate about her magnetically manipulative character being able to strong-arm the supernatural. Both explanations work pretty well, when you think about it.

Read more about the His Dark Materials cast, the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.

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His Dark Materials continues on BBC One at 8:10pm on Sundays. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.