HBO’s lavish adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials saga is full of complicated high fantasy elements, from a magical compound known only as Dust and animal companions who represent physical manifestations of human souls, to compasses that can tell the future and an army of battle bears that sport complicated armor.
Its story wrestles with high-concept questions like faith, sin, belief, love and redemption. It features complicated characters who aren’t entirely good or evil, but somewhere in between. The story includes everything from a creepy theocracy to child trafficking and murder, with a healthy dose of patriarchy along the way. It’s a big, bold, messy tale—which is why it’s so disappointing that this take on the novels so often feels the farthest thing from exciting.
To be fair, this His Dark Materials isn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination. (If you want to see what bad looks like, try the 2007 feature film version, which erased the first novel’s controversial ending. Yikes!) The HBO version is a fairly meticulous adaptation of Pullman’s story, from its general contempt for organized religion to the complicated mystery of the Dust most of its characters spend their lives obsessed with. It’s got incredible CGI and beautiful visuals. But it’s lacking almost entirely in heart. Sure, these characters fulfill all the beats they’re supposed to, but they also spend an awful lot of time explaining what’s happening in the scenes we’re watching. And, worse, the series almost entirely ignores their interior lives.
All save one.
In theory, Marisa Coulter should be the villain of this television epic. In practice, she’s the beating, messy heart that powers everything else on this show. In fact, she’s the one aspect of the original story that HBO’s adaptation has not only gotten completely right, but that it has fleshed out in ways the original narrative never bothered to do.
True, Mrs. Coulter is still not what you’d call a hero—or a particularly good person. But she is a deeply nuanced figure, a teeming mass of anger, regret, selfishness, pain and love that gives her character layers that many of His Dark Materials’ other primary players do not have. She’s a monster, to be sure, but she’s not entirely an unsympathetic one.
Pullman rarely deviates from Lyra’s point of view in his novels, which is why the Mrs. Coulter we meet there is often underserved by the narrative. That version of the character is embodied by the way a child might see her: Corrupt, frightening, vicious and cruel; the wicked witch from a fairy story. The Mrs. Coulter from HBO’s His Dark Materials is so much more than that—to both the character and the production’s credit.
Part of the television version’s appeal is doubtless tied to Ruth Wilson’s positively ferocious performance, which is so good it often feels as though she’s acting on an entirely different program than everyone else. Bizarrely, given her character, she’s often given much better material than the rest of her castmates, and allowed to wrestle with complicated themes within her performance. And unlike most of the other major characters in the series, Mrs. Coulter isn’t required to strictly stay within a traditional hero or villain lane. Yes, she’s busy kidnapping children and experimenting on them, but she genuinely loves her daughter, and is one of the only characters who explicitly chooses Lyra when given the opportunity to do so.
She’s also a deeply intelligent complex woman in her own right, and her suppressed rage and cruelty clearly stem, in large part, from her own history and experiences. Her hard exterior is clearly a necessary result of a life lived in a deeply patriarchal society—the only way she gains any modicum of respect and power for herself is to behave, at all times, as though she were a man. Her iron-like self-control and vicious repression of her emotions are all clearly a means to an end, and the few moments when her icy veneer breaks are all the more terrifying for both their violence and their rarity.
Even her relationship with her daemon is different. Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is the one daemon in His Dark Materials that doesn’t speak or have a name, and often functions as the id that reveals the hidden cost of her iron control over her own demeanor. (And its loving interaction with Lord Asriel’s leopard Stelmaria in the first season’s final episode is an admission of an entirely different type.) It’s the constant visual evidence that she’s not as removed or in control as she seems. Externally, she knows the façade she needs to present to the Magisterium, Asriel and everyone else around her. Internally, she’s often barely hanging on, as evidenced by her violence toward her monkey—and by extension herself.
Mrs. Coulter has even trained herself and her daemon (after what must have been years of nightmarish experimentation) to push through the pain of separation, so much so that they can now both function at great distances from one another. Since HBO’s His Dark Materials has largely underplayed the primacy of the human-daemon connection in the name of budgetary restrictions, this ability (and the constant suffering it entails) perhaps does not seem as big of a deal as it ought to. But it really is. This is a woman willing to put herself and her very soul through tremendous torment in the name of getting what she wants.
Her work with the Magisterium is the obvious endpoint of a life that’s told her that sex and passion are the sins that have ruined her, and that have kept her from the life she feels she deserves. (This isn’t explicitly laid out in the show, but apparently everyone is very aware of what happened between Coulter and Asriel.) Her almost pathological desire to be accepted by the organization—even the very same men—who once derided her is the reason she’s so obsessed with maintaining control over herself at all times. Mrs. Coulter is a woman who has not only sacrificed everything in order to become part of a system that openly dislikes and distrusts her, she has tried to remake herself in their ideal image.
Of course, she fails. She’s still human, no matter what she might want Lyra to think, and the Magisterium’s ideal woman is something no real one could ever live up to. And it’s interesting, of course, that neither the onscreen universe of His Dark Materials or the novels themselves ask or expect this level of self-debasement and sacrifice from Lord Asriel, who’s just as guilty of sin as Mrs. Coulter is, and just as terrible a parent to their daughter. In this universe, whatever Mrs. Coulter gives up, it’s never going to be enough.
Yes, Mrs. Coulter is terrifying and cruel. But the complicated ways in which His Dark Materials grapples with her love for Lyra, as well as her ever present inner conflict about whether or not those emotions make her weak, means that she’s not a one-dimensional monster whose downfall we should all rejoice in. It makes her messy, understandable and very, very human.
It also makes her the most interesting character on His Dark Materials’ canvas at present. And the series would do well to remember why, as it heads toward its second season. A show full of of animal-human soul hybrids, fighting bears, magical portals and sky balloons looks great, but it means nothing if those things aren’t used to explore the characters at its center.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.