“The Scholar” helps to upend Mrs. Coulter’s worldview as Lyra and Will plot a daring heist to retrieve the alethiometer.
This recap of His Dark Materials season 2, episode 5, “The Scholar”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
“The Scholar” is an exercise in giving fans what they want, or at least what they should want, which in this case is lengthy scenes of Mrs Coulter in various classy outfits getting increasingly annoyed at subjects that include but aren’t limited to institutional sexism, the Lighthouse Family, and Lord Boreal’s weaselly efforts to impress her with all the artefacts in his bachelor pad. I know I spend a lot of time reiterating how good Ruth Wilson is in this, but it’s always doubly fun when the show realizes it and gives her plenty of chance to show off.
To this end, there’s no Jopari or Lee Scoresby or bears or witches this week, or at least not enough of any of those things to notice, and attention is instead devoted to two threads that eventually overlap in the climactic sequence. In the first, Lyra and Will plan to use the subtle knife to break into Lord Boreal’s home and steal back the alethiometer, and in the second, Mrs Coulter examines how her own world and its systems have limited her brilliance and probably in large part led to her becoming whatever she is today – which remains inscrutable, even now.
Will and Lyra’s stuff is good fun in “The Scholar”, a classic riff on the heist formula with fantastical tweaks thanks to the presence of a reality-slicing shank that Will spends a good chunk of the episode figuring out how to use properly. As it turns out he has a real knack for cleaving open dimensions, and as it also turns out, Cittàgazze and Oxford are laid atop each other almost exactly, meaning they should, theoretically, be able to open a portal right into Boreal’s treasure room, swipe the alethiometer, and then escape the way they came without attracting any attention.
Ha! No such luck. It’s obvious from basically the beginning that this isn’t going to go to plan, since Mrs Coulter and Lord Boreal are sat right there for a good chunk of the episode. But part of the enjoyment is in waiting for the two worlds to literally collide. Wondering how long Mrs Coulter can tolerate Lord Boreal’s offhanded sexism makes for a fun secondary guessing game, too, especially since an encounter with Mary Malone, the titular scholar, radically alters Mrs Coulter’s perception of her position in the world – and of her world’s perception of her position.
This is, really, the meat of the episode. We’ve seen flashes of Mrs Coulter’s maternal instincts before, but always in a faintly entitled context, whereas here we see Lyra as just one more thing in a litany that has been denied to her. The revelation of Mary being a respected academic hits Mrs Coulter differently because all she has ever really known is the rigid institutional sexism enforced by the Magisterium; her own scholarship has been attributed to men, and she was denied a doctorate. It’s a pretty powerful character-building detail that ever-glamourous Mrs Coulter is deeply envious of someone like Mary Malone.
Lyra also experiences a revelation of her own – she at least has the capacity for the kind of rage and cruelty that her mother has terrified her with in the past. We see this in the high-stakes raid on Lord Boreal’s home, during which, having teleported right into a conversation between their nemeses, Lyra and Will fight back the adults and retrieve the alethiometer. But in the process, Lyra sics Pan on Mrs Coulter’s awful monkey and lets the attack go on for a really long time. It’s uncomfortable not just for the animal-on-animal violence – even if one of the participants deserves a beating – but for how much Lyra is clearly relishing finally having some power concentrated in her hands.
It’s a slippery slope, power. We’ll have to wait and see how Lyra’s succumbing to it, even in this small way, affects her going forwards into the dimensionally fluid climes of the rest of Pullman’s source material. Even with the subtle knife and the alethiometer together, there’s still everything to play for.
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