Brow Beat

“I Didn’t Have a Lyra or a Will, I Just Had Myself”

His Dark Materials showrunner Jack Thorne on writing about young people—and the growth of Mrs. Coulter.

Jack Thorne and Lyra from the show His Dark Materials.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images and Marco Grob/HBO.

On Monday night, the Season 2 finale of HBO’s His Dark Materials introduced new questions about Mrs. Coulter’s relationship with her daemon, and Lyra’s relationship with hers. On Slate’s His Dark Materials podcast, the Authority, hosts Dan Kois and Laura Miller spoke with showrunner and head writer Jack Thorne about the secrets behind the season finale. Read an excerpt of their conversation below, or to hear the whole thing, listen to the Authority now.

Dan Kois: This episode we have this funny conversation between Pan and Lyra about how soon he won’t change his form anymore, because Lyra is changing. And he asks, “Is it Will that’s changing you?” He’s clearly intrigued by this possibility. He’s also scared by it. Why?

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Jack Thorne: It’s that thing of growing up and falling in love—or maybe not falling in love, we’ve been very careful to stick away from the love word. I think that thing of feeling a drive to be with someone, feeling a feeling for someone that isn’t necessarily fraternal, but it’s something else. And I think Pan senses all that and can see all that and can feel that. I think it’s terrifying for Pan, as well as exciting. I think everyone knows that feeling of just, like, That person over there is amazing and I really want to sit by them and talk to them all day, rather than do maths. And yet I’m not going to, because I have self-hatred that will prevent me from ever doing so.

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Dan Kois: What was that time in your life like, when, as it were, your daemon started to settle?

That wasn’t a good time for me. I didn’t have a Lyra or a Will, I just had myself. I get asked a lot why I keep writing about young people. And it’s because I remember that time very, very clearly. And the reason why I remember that time very, very clearly is because I was watching other people rather than living myself. So I just studied, I just studied how other people worked and how they did it and how they made friends and how they got girlfriends or boyfriends. And I’ve tried to … that brain has stuck with me, to this day.

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Dan Kois: Let’s talk about Mrs. Coulter. In this episode, you see the tie between her relationship with her daemon and her relationship with the Spectres. And that little standoff between her daemon, the Golden Monkey, and the Spectre, right after the witch is killed in Cittàgazze—how does it relate to this journey that Mrs. Coulter is making? And what is that moment about?

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I don’t want to say too much, because I think that that’s where writing falls down. If you start to explain things, and explain what’s inside your head with everything, that for me is one of the key moments in the episode. And it was a moment we wrote in about eight different locations, because we kept on getting moved all over the place as to where it was going to be and how it was going to work. It felt like you were seeing Mrs. Coulter doing something which went beyond a level that the Golden Monkey is comfortable with. I know why in my heart, why I think it happens, but I don’t want to decide for everyone else.

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Laura Miller: That’s such a great answer. I love that.

Dan Kois: I disagree. Tell me everything! But, OK.

Laura Miller: Yeah. That’s a very David Lynch answer.

But you know, Philip Pullman’s got that in him too.* I refuse to give a full stop to every sentence, because that way certainty is not interesting. Possibility is interesting. You know?

Laura Miller: You’ve humanized Mrs. Coulter in this season. And now you’re kind of dehumanizing her a little bit, or she’s dehumanizing herself. What were your goals for that character in Season 2?

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The whole idea was to see inside the history of her. There’s so much we don’t know. This thing with Mary Malone, where you saw a relationship with her own academic… the stops that are being put on Mrs. Coulter in this world. She is a central character to the books. And her enigma felt like it could be explored without doing damage to anything else. And so it was an opportunity we wanted to take, to do that.

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In terms of her behavior in the last two episodes, I would say from that confrontation with Lyra on, she is fundamentally altered. And she is aware of danger that Lyra perhaps is not. And she has been trying to deal with that danger through the whole of the series. And Lyra has cut off a possibility for her. And so what Mrs. Coulter does is what Mrs. Coulter always does: She finds another way. And even if that other way involves damage to herself, she’ll still walk loudly through it, because she’s not frightened of damage to herself, even though perhaps she should be. You know?

To hear the whole conversation, subscribe to the Authority.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2020: This post originally misspelled Philip Pullman’s first name.

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