Warning: This post contains major spoilers for episode three of His Dark Materials.
Lyra Belacqua’s world might resemble our own in some ways, but His Dark Materials is unmistakably a fantasy. It’s where human souls take form as animals, witches and talking bears live in the North, and magical flies act as spies. Yet the series has been emotionally accessible through three episodes because it focuses on its characters. And no one has done a better job of making a fantasy feel real and grounded than Anne-Marie Duff’s Ma Costa. Her moving performance this week was both heartbreaking and heartwarming; perfect for an episode that showed a mother’s love transcends all worlds.
“The Spies” finally confirmed what non-book readers likely suspected after last week’s episode. Mrs. Coulter is Lyra’s mother. That revelation only makes her actions so far more confusing and malicious, though. We learned Lyra was born out of wedlock, and the resulting shame and scandal nearly destroyed both of her parents. But why did Mrs. Coulter wait so long to take her child home from Jordan College after abandoning her? And why would she do something as unthinkable as torture Lyra via her daemon? The currently distraught Mrs. Coulter clearly cares about Lyra, but she has no understanding of what it means to put someone else first. She doesn’t know how to love someone, even her own daughter.
Ma Costa knows what it means to love her children. She’s been a powerful voice for her missing son Billy and a fierce protective of her eager-to-act son Tony. She’s done that despite her overwhelming grief. And somehow during all of this, she has even found the strength to look after a lost little girl who has no one else in the world. It’s what she did when Lyra was a baby, something we discovered in the show’s most powerful scene yet.
Lyra learns about her real mother and her own past with Ma Costa in a very different way in the books. Yet that moment, more than any other on the series so far, exemplifies why Philip Pullman‘s novels have such a profound connection with readers. Lyra lives in a magical fantasy world, but the people who live there experience the same feelings of love and hate, of hope and fear, as any of us. All of that was on display during that painful conversation; Anne-Marie Duff had to tell a scared girl a terrible truth while carrying her own impossible burden. Ma Costa isn’t Lyra’s mother, but she cares for her like one. And what’s more, that means giving her all of the love she’s capable of. Even when we’d understood if she couldn’t.
Her genuine love is why Lyra didn’t need to be told the name of the Gyptian nurse who hid her as an infant. It was clear from Ma Costa’s broken voice and the look on her face she had been the one Lord Asriel had turned to when his daughter was in danger. While Mrs. Coulter was afraid for herself, Ma Costa risked her own life to protect Lyra when she held her all night, She’s still holding her now, despite even worse danger, all while she suffers through a parent’s worse nightmare. It’s all so awful for both of them, which is what makes it all so powerful. Ma Costa’s love is enough to keep them both moving through the darkness, together.
With the Gyptian boats heading North to meet with witches and fight Gobblers, His Dark Materials will only feel more and more like a fantasy. The story will get further away from our own world. But as Ma Costa shows, even as it does it will still feel real, because there’s no magic that can match a mother’s love.
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