His Dark Materials season 2 episode 3, a feminist analysis

When I first watched the third episode of this season of His Dark Materials, I was first unsure about how much there was really to write about it. As Chloe of Girls Gone Canon said in a chat on their patreon discord, this episode is a bit of a filler episode. But the more I thought of it, the more interesting rabbit holes did I find to dive down. So here I am with another review/analysis! Just as I did last week, I will split this text into three parts: general thoughts, feminist thoughts, and dusty thoughts. The two first sections will contain spoilers for all the main His Dark Materials books, while the last one will contain spoilers for the companion books to, including The Book of Dust.

General thoughts

While I didn’t think this episode was as strong as last week’s episode, there were still a lot of good moments! Once again, I really loved Lyra and Pan’s interactions, with Pan generally serving as the angel on Lyra’s shoulder so to say. He was also just generally cute, especially in the cinema when poking his head out of Lyra’s bag. The daemons were generally very good in this episode, with Pan, Hester, and Mrs Coulter’s daemon all bringing forth complexities in their human. I will return to Hester and Mrs Coulter’s daemon later!

Another very strong point in this episode was once again Mary Malone. I loved her protectiveness of Lyra, and the way she kept interrupting DI Walters during his interrogation of Lyra. Her helping Lyra escape that situation was also very well portrayed. I really do love how protective and caring she is, while clearly also being independent and clever. Her interactions with her family were also adorable, and I love that she’s clearly the cool aunt. When the children first turned up, I was worried for a millisecond that they were her children, which I would’ve hated, because I really like that she doesn’t have children. But them being her niece and nephew, and her being so great with them was wonderful.

A final thing I want to mention before moving on to the next section, is that I thought the scene with John Parry summoning Lee was very interesting. They’re making his magic a bit more explicit early on, which is probably a good idea. I think this might lend some credence to the idea I put forth on Girls Gone Canon’s episode one breakdown, that it was John Parry that sent the premonition Will got of the knife. In either case, it’s interesting that both father and son are so clearly connected to magical dreams etc.

Feminist thoughts

I want to start where I left off last week, with the burning of the witches’ homeland. In last week’s analysis I wrote about the witches’ parallels to the indigenous Sami people, and how their land has been destroyed historically (and currently) by colonial and religious forces. Something I neglected to mention, however, that the excellent podcast Girls Gone Canon reminded me of, was the history of bombing specifically Finnish Sápmi and forced migration of those Sami people during World War II. This included areas around Lake Inari (our world’s version of Lake Enara from His Dark Materials) where around 90% of the buildings were destroyed (Seitsonen & Koskinen-Koivisto 2018). When reading about this historical event after watching this latest His Dark Materials episode, one quote especially stuck out to me:

Many people mentioned a twofold feeling of shock and joy when returning to a demolished homeland, but simultaneously catching the first glimpses of familiar landscapes, such as the iconic – and for the Sámi holy – Nattaset fjells next to Vuotso: ‘Seeing Nattaset brought tears to my eyes. They were still there, even if the houses were gone’. (…) Our informants emphasised that despite the dramatic loss of material property and lives, what mattered most was that they still had their land (…) into which the traditional stories, beliefs and ancestral spirits securely tied them through the personified and lived-in landscape biographies. (Seitsonen & Koskinen-Koivisto 2018, 430)

This description of grief when seeing ones destroyed home, but still having parts of that landscape which has been so sacred, very much reminded me of the grief we can see in the witches’ eyes in this episode when seeing their bombed land. Similar to the Sami in Finnish Sápmi during World War II, these witches’ lands are being destroyed in a war that many of them wanted to stay out of. Another group whose lands we see destroyed in this episode is the Pansarbjørne, whose lands are literally being destroyed by man made (Asriel made) climate change. I have previously written in several essays about how we can see the bears as a parallel to indigenous people in our world. One aspect I’ve discussed is how it’s not uncommon that indigenous people are affected by climate change first and often hardest, with much of their culture often being affected. In our world this has happened with the Sami for instance (WWF n.d.). I think it’s interesting that they’re choosing to show the similarities between the bears and the witches’ situation in the show, with them both being horribly affected by the Magisterium and Asriel’s war.

The next topic I want to discuss is Magisterium, heresy, discourse, and surveillance. In Lee’s storyline this episode we see how tightly the Magisterium controls the knowledge production in this world, with them labelling anything out of line as heresy. This is something I touched on when I guested on Girls Gone Canon, comparing it to work done by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Something that Foucault was very interested in was the ways we as a society talks about different social phenomena, and what that can tell us about the way society functions. He mainly did this by writing about and analysing discourses. Discourse, according to Foucault, describes the way society talks about a phenomenon but also how it does not talk about said phenomena (2008, 181). What is left unsaid. What is possible to say. Further he also writes that when analysing discourses, one should analyse who speaks (who has the authority to speak), from which institutions the discourse gains its legitimacy, and which subject positions individuals are placed in (2013, 55-57). Which position a subject is placed in effects their ability to inhabit different spaces (ibid, 58). I have previously argued that in Lyra’s world, the Magisterium and their power very harshly limits the existing discourse. To challenge the discourse around for instance Dust will have extremely severe consequences. Nonetheless, as Foucault would argue, where there is power there is also always resistance (2002/1976, 103). In this episode of His Dark Materials we see this in how Grumman has been deemed a heretic. Unfortunately for Lee, this means that when he goes around asking about Grumman he is seen as guilty by association. This also touches on another one of Foucault’s theories that I think might be relevant, that is, his writing about surveillance. Foucault explains how surveillance works in modern society by comparing it to a prison where one guard can observe all the prisoners from a guard tower, but where the prisoners can’t see the guard (Lindgren 2015, 357). Therefore, they can never know if they are under surveillance or not. Foucault calls this a panopticon, based on the description of such a prison by the philosopher Bentham. He argues that the result of this is:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce the inmate in a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection in power should render its actual exercise unnecessary… (Foucault 2012/1975, 315)

That is to say, the prisoner feels like they are constantly under surveillance, even if this is not actually the case. In that way the prisoner will obey the powers in charge, and practical/physical power is not necessary. Foucault claims that this is the case in society as a whole; we know that we could be under surveillance all of the time, and therefore we behave in accordance with that (Lindgren 2015, 359). This turns us into docile bodies that can be used productively in society, since we unconsciously behave like the power wants us to (even when the power isn’t a clear individual or group). In Lyra’s world, with the authoritarian Magisterium in charge, this is perhaps even more clear that power and surveillance works this way, as I’ve argued previously. One instance of this is of course how when Lee starts asking about Grumman, he immediately gets reported and ultimately arrested. In the end of the episode Mrs Coulter warns him to trust no one in his search for Lyra, and in a way brings home the lesson of this episode for Lee, someone could always be watching and reporting. As he says himself after shooting the scientist in the observatory: “Is there any place left that the damn Magisterium hasn’t infiltrated?!” (23.29 min) The answer is that no, in this panopticon there truly isn’t.

Speaking of Lee, I next want to turn to the scene(s) in the episode that perhaps shocked fans the most, the scene(s) between Lee and Mrs Coulter. When I first watched the scene and saw Mrs Coulter be so vulnerable, I was honestly quite shocked and almost a bit sceptical. Afterall, this is the same character who essentially argued for genocide last episode. Did they make her too sympathetic in this scene? After a few re-watches though, I think I’m more at peace with the scene. It makes sense for Mrs Coulter character to have this horrible backstory in many ways, it’s clear that she has some sort of baggage. I’m not a psychologist or anything similar, so I will not attempt to diagnose her trauma in any detail. But I did consult my friend Rohanne ( @cyrilwoodcock on twitter) who is both a therapist and someone who has done a lot of thinking and writing about Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire, who I would argue has many similarities to Mrs Coulter. Rohanne argued that for women who has experienced trauma, a common response is to try to gain the sort of power that will make sure that does not happen again. This could entail attempts to separate themselves from their emotions and/or experiencing internalised misogyny. I’m going to take Rohanne at her word here, when it comes to the psychological perspective, and instead move on to ground I’m more confident on, i.e. feminist theory. I think something we can see with Mrs Coulter is this internalised misogyny and attempt to gain power through proximity to maleness. That which Adrienne Rich has called “male identification- the casting of one’s social, political, and intellectual allegiances with men.” (2003/1980, 25) Mrs Coulter seems to have decided that in order to not be hurt again she must gain power, and to gain power she must ally with men and the patriarchy. She must use violence, so violence can’t be used against her. This also reminds me of a quote by bell hooks, when she talks about how white women might often step on the backs of more marginalized people to reach closer to the top of the power pyramid. As hooks puts it:

As a group, black women are in an unusual position in this society, for not only are we collectively at the bottom of the occupational ladder, but our overall social status is lower than that of any other group. Occupying such a position, we bear the brunt of sexist, racist, and classist oppression. At the same time, we are the group that has not been socialized to assume the role of exploiter/oppressor in that we are allowed no institutionalized “other” that we can exploit or oppress. (…) White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others. (hooks 1984, 14-15) [my bolding of text]

This is something we see continually with Mrs Coulter. She attempts to gain power, to stop herself from being vulnerable, but she does so by stepping on the backs of more marginalised people in society, from the children at Bolvangar to the witches’ whose land she suggested be destroyed. So, while we might sympathise with Mrs Coulter occasionally for the things she’s gone through, I don’t think we’re supposed to forget the horrors she puts other through.

Dusty thoughts

To continue on the topic of Mrs Coulter, but with some more Dust added in, as someone who has read The Secret Commonwealth, it’s not surprising to learn that her upbringing was terrible. In The Secret Commonwealth, we learn more about her family, and meet both her brother and mother, and the mother hardly seems like a caring and loving parent (2019). But something else related to The Secret Commonwealth that this scene with Mrs Coulter reminded me of was Lyra’s relationship with Pan in that book. Lyra and Pan’s relationship in The Secret Commonwealth is obviously very strained, going back to their separation in The Amber Spyglass. Can we perhaps understand Mrs Coulter’s relationship with her daemon similarly? Girls Gone Canon have several times speculated that she learnt how to separate herself from her daemon, perhaps to close herself off from her emotions. Maybe she decided to do this specifically after whatever trauma she experienced in her childhood/teenage years. The way that they’ve focused on the daemon relationships this season of the show, showing Pan and Lyra’s closeness as well contrasting the closeness of Lee and Hester with the distance of Mrs Coulter and her daemon, really highlights the tragedy of breaking that bond. Hopefully Lyra will repair her relationship with her daemon, unlike her mother.


Girls Gone Canon. 2020a. “His Dark Materials Season 2 Episode 1 – The Magpie City featuring Lo the Lynx.” Podbean. November 16, 2020. https://girlsgonecanon.podbean.com/e/his-dark-materials-season-2-episode-1-the-magpie-city-featuring-lo-the-lynx/

Girls Gone Canon. 2020b. “His Dark Materials Series 2 Episode 2 – The Cave.” Podbean. November 23, 2020. https://girlsgonecanon.podbean.com/e/his-dark-materials-series-2-episode-2-the-cave/

His Dark Materials. 2020. “Theft.” HBO Nordic. November 24, 2020.

Foucault, Michel. (2002/1976). Sexualitetens historia 1: Viljan att veta. Translated by Birgitta Gröndahl. Göteborg: Bokförlaget Daidalos AB [This is the Swedish translation of L’Histoire de la sexualité I :La volonté de savoir/The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge]

Foucault, Michel. 2008. Diskursernas kamp. Eslöv: Brutus Östlings bokförlag Symposion.

Foucault, Michel. 2012/1975. ”Discipline and Punish”, pp. 314-321 in Calhoun, Craig, Josepth Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff & Indermohan Virk (eds), Contemporary Sociological Theory (3rd edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Foucault, Michel. 2013/1969. Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. 1984. Feminist theory from margin to center. Boston: South End Press.

Lindgren, S. 2015. ”Michel Foucault och sanningens historia”, pp. 347-372 in Månsson, Per. (eds.), Moderna samhällsteorier: Traditioner, riktningar, teoretiker (9th edition). Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Lo the Lynx. 2020a. “Power relations in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020. https://lothelynx.wordpress.com/2020/08/27/power-relations-in-his-dark-materials/

Lo the Lynx. 2020b. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020. https://lothelynx.wordpress.com/2020/08/27/colonialism-in-his-dark-materials/

Lo the Lynx. 2020c. “Serpentine- preliminary thoughts.” Lo the Lynx. October 21, 2020. https://lothelynx.wordpress.com/2020/10/21/serpentine-preliminary-thoughts/

Lo the Lynx. 2020d. “His Dark Materials season 2 episode 2, a feminist analysis.” Lo the Lynx. November 20, 2020. https://lothelynx.wordpress.com/2020/11/20/his-dark-materials-season-2-episode-2-a-feminist-analysis/

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Rich, Adrienne Cecile. 2003/1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980)”. Journal of Women’s History, 15:3, 11-48.

Seitsonen, Oula & Eerika Koskinen-Koivistoz. 2018. “‘Where the F… is Vuotso?’: heritage of Second World War forced movement and destruction in a Sámi reindeer herding community in Finnish Lapland.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24:4, 421-441.

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