A conspiracy that threatens to rend the Church's grip on the entire continent. A secret, heretical floating city in the Northern Lights that only reveals its splendors if you look at it through the right lens. A multi-dimensional bridge between Britains that seems to join fantasy and reality as though they were little more than different sides of the river Thames. Of all the mysteries we've experienced in just two episodes of HBO's His Dark Materials, no other seems to have its hands around the throats of our curiosity quite like this one: What in the alternate world is that golden monkey up to?
I'm speaking, of course, of Marisa Coulter's (Ruth Wilson) golden monkey daemon, who, in the course of a single episode, can be seen riding shotgun in Coulter's luxurious vehicle, rummaging through incriminating files in her forbidden home office, and, at the episode's climax, choking protagonist Lyra's daemon Pantalaimon — and because of their metaphysical bond, Lyra herself — into painful submission.
This act of cruelty marks the first time in the television series that we see adults take pleasure in torturing a child, but it almost certainly won't be the last. Indeed, Marisa Coulter's golden monkey daemon's little paws will be responsible for much of the torment yet to befall Lyra, her best friend Roger Parslow and the other children gobbled up by the Magisterium.
In the His Dark Materials trilogy of novels, author Phillip Pullman never shared the name of Coulter's daemon with the reader. In the world of His Dark Materials, Daemons are the animal companions — and living embodiment of the soul — of every human. In the novels, we never hear that golden monkey utter a single word beyond a growl or a screech; a stark contrast to the warm, chatty Pantalaimon, who at various times presents as a moth or an ermine. But in the 2003 radio adaptation of the story, we were finally given a name for that monkey: Ozymandias. It's an, ominous name for such a little, innocuous monkey. (It also makes for a delicious parallel with Watchmen, another HBO series with an Ozymandias.) When we meet him, he only seems to want the children to like him. It doesn't seem possible that there are works of his that we will soon look upon and despair. But the more we see of this sneaky little monkey, the more we learn just what he's capable of.
Marisa Coulter and Ozymandias aren't the only evil characters we'll meet over the course of His Dark Materials, but may be the only human/daemon pair who are evil in entirely different ways. Whereas the beguiling Coulter is a master of charisma and subterfuge, the golden monkey is all snarling, vicious id. When Lyra asks Mrs. Coulter about Dust (the mysterious particulate that Lord Asriel is studying in the Arctic), Coulter does her best to lie and laugh off the question. We might believe her, were it not for the fact that her daemon monkey was all snarls and screams.
Whatever Coulter lies and hides about herself and how she really feels, the monkey reveals. If she's lawful evil, he's chaotic evil. And the two have spent their professional careers using the power of the Magisterium (the Church) to ruin the lives of children (and the adults around them). In His Dark Materials, Coulter is revealed to be the head of the General Oblation Board, a secret arm of the Church that appears to be responsible for the disappearance of children across the world. It's scary enough to watch young kids like Lyra's best friend Roger and Gyptian child Billy Costa fall victim to their kidnappers, but it's downright unnerving that their daemons seem to fall under a strange spell just before they're snatched.
Without spoiling too much, the evils of Coulter, the monkey and their General Oblation Board pale in comparison to their first foray into wickedness against young people on behalf of the Church. In La Belle Sauvage, the excellent prequel novel to the His Dark Materials trilogy, Coulter is revealed to have formed the League of St. Alexander, a society for school children across the continent that encourages them to report parents, teachers, and fellow students who aren't fanatical in their love of the Church. With her backing, the students' complaints lead to an era of terror that sees their basest instincts rewarded by the Church, and the adults they don't like disappeared in the night.
Through it all, the golden monkey is the friendly face of Coulter's fascism. Unlike other evil characters whose daemons take the form of something more fearsome, the golden monkey gives Coulter the benefit of the doubt. Children respond to him with almost as much glee as she and Ozymandias take in torturing them. And while they're not the only fascists in this world, the two can do something that no one else — evil or otherwise — can. Unlike Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Pantalaimon, and every human and daemon in this world we've seen so far, Coulter and Ozymandias are capable of enduring the pain — actual, physical pain — of being very far apart from one another. When Lyra comments that it must be agonizing to be so far away from her daemon, Coulter denies that the two were ever separated — but Lyra knows what she saw. And in her universe, it's quite perverse.
At this point in the series, we're supposed to think one of two things: Either that Coulter and the golden monkey are gritting their teeth through the soul-searing agony of being apart from one another, or that Coulter has discovered a way to stretch the metaphysical tether between herself and the physical manifestation of her soul. Whatever the case may be, the shock rocks Lyra to her core, and it's that disturbance that will be part of what ultimately leads her to escape from Coulter's apartment.
Though the episode ends with Lyra's escape, in the final moment, she's snatched by what appears to be the General Oblation Board. Expect that her and Pantalaimon's days being tormented by the series' most enigmatic and seemingly sadistic daemon are far from over.