Famously, His Dark Materials villain Mrs Coulter is at one point described as a “cesspit of moral filth,” and on the face of it it’s hard to disagree with the assessment.
As played by Ruth Wilson in the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s book trilogy, Coulter is vicious, ambitious, ruthless and cold, maiming innocent children and betraying those around her in a quest for power and influence. Even her own daughter Lyra (Dafne Keen) isn’t free of her manipulations or violence, most memorably during a daemon-on-daemon clash in the first series (which gets a thrilling sequel in this week’s season two episode).
Yes, she’s quite the baddie. And yet, and yet.
Fans of Pullman’s original novels will know that Coulter’s character becomes more complex as the story continues, her genuine love for Lyra colouring her worse qualities even as she’s never fully redeemed for her atrocities. Onscreen, we’re a little way away from the full extent of that yet – but in the TV version we’re inarguably seeing a more sympathetic side to Mrs Coulter even sooner.
Earlier in this series we learned (via an excellent two-hander scene with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby) just how dark her childhood had been, while also the lengths she’d go to in order to keep her own daughter safe.
But it was the series’ fifth episode that really went deeper into who Mrs Coulter is, more so than even Pullman’s books at times managed, by letting us see another argument for Coulter’s villainy – that she’s a product of the time, or rather world, she lives in.
Stepping into “our” world from our own, Mrs Coulter is immediately struck by the freedom women seem to have compared to the society she’s used to. Her eyes land briefly on a woman, working while minding her baby – later, when speaking to Simone Kirby’s scientist Mary Malone, she’s unusually lost for words when the latter asks her about her own career prospects.
It’s a credit to Wilson’s performance that so much is conveyed with so little dialogue, at least until she reveals more about her backstory to Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) at his home in Oxford (after being bored by him about his awesome speaker system, which itself may be one of the funniest and most revealing moments about both characters thus far).
Noting that she found Mary Malone “impertinent” and “arrogant” but also “free,” Coulter reveals that in her younger days, her high exam scores and dreams of becoming a true academic were dashed by the restrictive policies of the Magisterium in her world, which banned women from scholarly pursuits.
Despite her loss for words with Mary, she reveals, she actually did publish some academic papers – but only on the provision that she gave the work (and the credit) to a man. Denied a doctorate and any recognition, forced to give up her baby and disgraced after her affair with Asriel, Coulter turned to other ways to exercise power… but for a brief moment this week, she saw what could have been in a different world.
For a woman so self-controlled she can separate from her own daemon without difficulty (locking her golden monkey away in slightly disturbing scenes this week), it’s a rare window into Mrs Coulter’s soul, albeit one soon closed as she slips back into her usual tricks of threats and manipulation.
“Were you hoping to add me to your little collection of treasures?” she spits at Boreal.
“My dear Carlo… f you actually got me, you wouldn’t begin to know what to do with me.”
Of course, the series isn’t excusing Coulter’s behaviour out of hand. Plenty of women in Lyra’s world manage to live within the strictures of that society without, you know, murdering and stabbing children in the soul, and there’s no doubt that Coulter’s darkness spreads beyond her own trauma.
But even Lyra notes the danger that she could slip down a similar path, especially after inflicting some serious daemon-on-daemon action as a Wolverine-Pan takes the Golden Monkey to task and both she and her mother lock eyes.
“It didn’t feel good, acting like she did,” Lyra tells Will, just shortly after Mrs Coulter tells her “you are so like I was.”
His Dark Materials doesn’t ask us to forgive, or even sympathise with, Mrs Coulter – but more than ever, it’s helping us understand her. After all, every cesspit has to be filled up from somewhere.
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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.