After rushing through several interesting story beats last week, His Dark Materials slows down in The Scholar, offering a much more focused, albeit still flawed instalment. The episode is divided into four sections: Mrs Coulter exploring Will’s world with Lord Boreal, Lyra and Will attempting to steal the Alethiometere between Lyra and Will attempting to steal the Alethiometer, Mary Malone beginning her path as “the serpent”, and the Magisterium’s reaction to the witches’ entering the anomaly. Unlike the previous episode, it feels like each thread gets a lot more time to breathe, and none of it feels rushed – if anything, it feels a bit too slow.
I really liked seeing Will and Lyra figure out how to reclaim the Alethiometer from Boreal/Latrom’s house; it’s a really fun plot-thread that is given plenty of time to develop in a more natural way. Will takes time figuring out how the Subtle Knife works, which in turn helps to explain its powers to the audience. It’s hard to realise this sort of “training” sequence on film without resorting to either montages or grinding the pace to a screeching halt, but The Scholar manages to strike to right balance. Will is constantly learning, and we can see him and Lyra developing their plan as they go along. Every cut Will makes opens up into the part of his world that’s relative in location to Cittàgazze – a clever device created by author Philip Pullman that feels very well-realised in this TV adaptation.
It was also a neat idea to follow-up on the death of Tullio (the boy from the tower), with Angelica and Paola’s reactions. Apparently Tullio did appear earlier in the season with them (contrary to what I said in the last review), but I honestly didn’t remember that, making their strong reaction to his death feel slightly extreme. It’s a nice reminder of just how dangerous the Spectres are, but as a story beat it feels oddly-placed within the episode. When binge-watching the series, I could see this working differently, but watching on a weekly basis, it feels too late as a follow-on from the last episode, and Angelica’s ominous “we’ll get you back for this” is a set-up that isn’t payed-off, even if it probably will be next week. It’s ultimately part of the issue when watching (and reviewing) serialised TV like this weekly and not over one or two sittings: it works fine in the grander scheme of the season, but not so much as a standalone instalment. I’d be really interested to re-watch this season on a marathon to see how it holds up, and how my opinions change with more of a sense of perspective.
The scene focusing on the Magisterium was a welcome addition – even if the “what are we going to do about the anomaly in the North” discussions are getting a bit repetitive by Episode 5 – and it’s always good to see Simone Kirby‘s warm interpretation of Mary Malone, but most of the episode is dedicated to the Mrs Coulter/Lord Boreal plot thread, and unfortunately this is where my issues with the episode come up. There’s no doubt that Ruth Wilson is absolutely brilliant as Mrs Coulter, but particularly in this second season the writers seem determined to expand on the character beyond what we find out about her in the novels. I completely understand that I’m comparing two different mediums, but one of the fascinating things about Mrs Coulter in the books is that she is a complete enigma: no one can really figure her out. Which makes her scenes with Boreal feel like we’re pulling back the curtain on a character who works better hidden away from us, a “less is more” kind of villain. I wasn’t too keen on her scenes in Theft earlier in the season, but The Scholar takes it a few steps further and has her actively explaining her motivations to Boreal – although choosing him of all people to confess to feels completely out-of-character. Giving her a scene with Mary feels unnecessary to the plot, but does offer a new side to Mrs Coulter, and Wilson’s performance showcases the wide range of emotions she’s feeling. But then Mrs Coulter goes on at Lord Boreal about how underappreciated she is in her own world, and the opportunities that Will’s world could offer her, and suddenly all that subtlety is lost. We know how she’s feeling because Wilson’s facial expressions show us this, we don’t need it explained – it breaks the classic “show don’t tell” rule.
It doesn’t help that the scenes between Mrs Coulter and Boreal go on for far too long – so long that Mrs Coulter herself gets bored – and don’t add anything to either character or the actual story. Boreal casually mentions that he’s set up a company in Will’s world, but it’s quickly dismissed and again feels like something that the audience should be shown, and not just told. Similarly, we have the rather shocking scene of Mrs Coulter locking her Dæmon away before she travels to Mary’s office; it’s a terrific moment which showcases just how expressive the CGI Dæmons can be, but then Boreal just flat-out asks Mrs Coulter where he is, and then she explains that she’s separated from her Dæmon like the witches, and the mood dissipates. That scene would have worked so much better if Boreal just hadn’t said anything, and we see his concern, and we just focus on how stone-faced Mrs Coulter is. All of the scenes between Boreal and Mrs Coulter would have worked much better if they were shorter and more ambiguous; it would just feel more appropriate for these characters.
It’s easy to say that The Scholar is a disappointing episode for His Dark Materials, but I do think that there’s plenty of great stuff in there. The climactic sequence with Will and Lyra reclaiming the Alethiometer was genuinely tense, and any scene between Ruth Wilson and Dafne Keen is terrific to watch, but when the main focus of the episode doesn’t work, it causes the whole thing to falter. It would have worked much better to move one or two of the story beats from last week’s overstuffed episode here, cutting down on the Mrs Coulter scenes and allowing other threads (like the witches) to be expanded upon in a more satisfying way. The Subtle Knife is a hard book to adapt to television, but the creative team aren’t doing themselves any favours by overstuffing some episodes and adding unnecessary padding to others. What’s here is good, but it’s definitely not as good as it could have been, and it’s hard not to be disappointed by that.