Last year, His Dark Materials arrived at the epic fantasy arena with big ambitions and big visions of the future. But the first season of the BBC/HBO series adaptation of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy had the unfortunate tendency to put the cart before the horse, resulting in a solid but tonally uneven debut season that really just wanted to get to the meat of the story. But now, with the second season of His Dark Materials, we’ve arrived at the meat, and it’s a veritable feast of breathtaking visuals and thrilling adventure.
Adapting the second book in Pullman’s books, The Subtle Knife, His Dark Materials overcomes the growing pains of season 1 and finally comes into its own as a series, the dark tone and sprawling scale of the show — which had previously made the show feel unusually dour and self-serious for its action-adventure structure — finally gelling as the larger (divine) plot kicks in.
His Dark Materials season 2 opens on a universe readying for war, though not one that all of its soldiers are aware they will soon be fighting. In the aftermath of Lord Asriel’s (James McAvoy, largely absent from the season, except in name) tear in the sky, the many witches of the world clash over whether to pursue a prophecy surrounding Lyra or take up arms against the increasingly oppressive Magisterium. Meanwhile, Lyra’s ruthless mother, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), is relentlessly searching for her daughter as well, shaping the panicked Magisterium into a tool for her use. Also on a search mission is Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who finds the MIA explorer Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott), now a shaman who directs Lee to take him to find the bearer of an all-powerful weapon Æsahættr (aka “God-destroyer” in Old Norse), the subtle knife.
And what of the prophecy girl, the brash little heroine who unknowingly has an entire world looking for her? She’s found herself in a completely new world; a lush, Mediterranean landscape filled with vibrant colors and intricate architecture — and completely empty of adults. In an abandoned city called Cittàgazze nestled in the parallel universe that Asriel’s bridge had brought her to, Lyra (Dafne Keen) runs into Will (Amir Wilson), the boy from our world who has found himself on the run from the authorities after accidentally killing a man who had broken into his home. Will had wandered into the world through a window in the air, which the two of them use to go back to our universe for their separate missions: Will to find out more about his missing father, and Lyra to learn about “Dust,” this mysterious particle that had gotten her friend Roger killed and which the Magisterium seems to think is original sin. Lyra’s search leads her to the friendly dark matter physicist Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), but also to Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), Mrs. Coulter’s friend who had long ago discovered the universe-hopping windows and has an eye out for the weapon that only Lyra and Will can obtain in Cittàgazze: that subtle knife, again.
Writer Jack Thorne has found his groove — keeping the lofty plot grounded with the intimate character moments (and humor finally!) that were sorely missing from the first season, and which will please book readers (we got Lyra vs. the omelet, guys). It’s likely because he has a little help: instead of being the sole writer for the entire season as he was with season 1, he co-writes the episodes with Francesca Gardiner, Sarah Quintrell, and Namsi Khan — all of whom give the series a much-needed female perspective that values the lovable characters within the grand scheme of things.
But one major flaw of the season is a result of the last season’s ambitious plotting: the introduction of Will early in season 1. I do think it was a mistake to introduce Will in the first season, in a storyline that was out of place and dragged the momentum of the season and diminishes a whopper of an opener in The Subtle Knife. As a result, the first episode of the season (which is the only episode of the five episodes this reviewer received that is solely written by Thorne) is a bit too much of an establishing episode, taking pains to check in with each member of the sprawling cast, no matter how little we care about a few of them. (If I could never see another ominous wide shot of the oppressive Magisterium and their fascist-inspired uniforms, I would be happy.)
But after a shaky start to the season, His Dark Materials is full speed ahead, buoyed by a much tighter plot and stellar performances all around, especially from the improved child leads. Keen finally lets loose a little more, allowing Lyra’s natural cockiness and rashness shine through,, and giving us fun fish out of water moments. Wilson gets much more to do this season, and particularly pulls off the tortured hero role — he has the budding charisma of a big-screen star. Bakare also finally gets something to do other than watch people in silence and scheme — as the main Big Bad this season, he is delectably devious. And of course, the eternal MVP is Ruth Wilson, queen of over-enunciating and a chilling, magnetic antagonist who is handed even more complexity and nuance in this season. The weak link may be Miranda, who is having a blast doing his Han Solo impression, but one that inevitably seems to have a layer of cheese smothered on top, though he has a promising dynamic with a cryptic, zen Scott.
His Dark Materials could not be more thrilled to get to the events of The Subtle Knife — the book where Pullman’s trilogy starts to differentiate itself from the average children’s adventure story and reveals itself as a fantasy retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The creative team goes all-out with its visuals — pouring detail and care into the design of Cittàgazze, which looks more gorgeous and vibrant than any other setting in His Dark Materials thus far. Without high-profile director Tom Hooper involved this season (whose involvement in season 1 was a major misstep for the show’s house style), His Dark Materials feels grander and less cramped than before — finally living up to its epic fantasy ambitions it had from the beginning.
His Dark Materials season 2 premieres on HBO and HBO Max on November 16, 2020.