(HIS DARK MATERIALS streams weekly on HBO Nordic. First episode out now.)
Hot on the terrific first season’s heels, HIS DARK MATERIALS returns not necessarily bigger but bolder than before. Covering most of the second book in Phillip Pullman’s excellent series, season two picks up with one less episode than before, keeping everything brisk as the story picks up speed.
After creating The Tear and the disappearance of Lord Asriel, Lyra (a fantastic Dafne Keen) and her daemon, Pan, find themselves in Cittàgazze, trapped between worlds. She meets Will (Amir Wilson), a boy from another world, and an Oxford parallel to her own, as Lord Asriel’s machinations wreak havoc upon both of their homes. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter (the consistently remarkable Ruth Wilson) continues her rampage through the known worlds in an attempt to find Lyra, including torturing captured witches in one of the rougher moments of the show. The clergy, Pullman’s extremely thinly veiled attack on the church, bumbles alongside her within the confines of the patriarchy, hoping to strike lucky in control of the multiverse.
While the first season of HIS DARK MATERIALS was a modest success, gaining just enough viewers to justify a second run, it never gained the traction a post-GAME OF THRONES fantasy needed. It’s a shame because this is the kind of tightly plotted, handsomely crafted, and absurdly dense fantasy that’s become a quintessential hallmark for HBO. Even the parts where the material doesn’t quite soar, HIS DARK MATERIALS is still compelling enough to merit a watch.
But it’s also a series that doesn’t care if audiences can keep up or not. The plot rarely stops to replay itself, and the myriad of characters come and go at will in the multiverse. Even as it adores its roots as a smart young adult book series, HIS DARK MATERIALS treats everyone like adults and expects them to pay attention. For every moment of thrilling action and massive set pieces, of which there are plenty, much of the runtime goes into developing characters and the expansive lore around them.
Where the show triumphs is with the cerebral, and HIS DARK MATERIALS has the wit to spare. Dialog and compassion dissolve conflict (save for some spectacular scenes like a midnight raid on a submarine), and there’s a constant feeling like knowledge can save the world. At its best, the series celebrates exploration and understanding in a way few other fantasy series do.
Fans of the books will be happy to learn the show changes very little from the book, even as certain omissions do occur. Most notable is the diminished presence of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who’s scenes weren’t finished by the time COVID19 closed things down. McAvoy is a treat in the role, clearly delighting in the chance to play a morally ambiguous role, and every moment with him on the screen is a pleasure.
Equally joyous is the inclusion of Andrew Scott, playing Stanislaus Grumman, who very nearly steals the show as a man discovering his true nature in an alien world.
Thank goodness then that Keen and Wilson are such a winning pair in the leads. Their charisma and mutual chemistry do a lot to keep things interesting, even during the lull midway through the season, where HIS DARK MATERIALS feels slow for the first time.
It’s something I enjoy quite a bit while acknowledging that if you didn’t get into the series last year, there’s very little of interest this time around either. While the cast expands even further this time around, the series loses some of the first season’s drive, where Lyra’s journey propelled much of the excitement every episode. Though Cittàgezze is an impressive creation (think of a mix between old Tuscan villas and Pompeii), the timeless city’s mystery doesn’t quite captivate the same way as Lyra’s journey through another universe.
Luckily the deliberate pacing pays off, and the show picks up considerably towards the end. But A SUBTLE KNIFE was always the most challenging book to adapt, being the middle in the series, and laying most of the groundwork for the finale to come. Quite frankly, it’s amazing how the writing staff have kept the essence of the book intact while still keeping everything contained to a single season.
Suppose you aren’t a convert of the show by now. In that case, chances are season two probably won’t do much to change that. Like Pullman’s writing, HIS DARK MATERIALS appeals to a specific audience and never tries for a broader demographic. It’s a huge gamble, considering how expensive a series like this can be, but an admirable one nonetheless.
But those who’ve already gotten onboard with Lyra’s adventures will find season two to be a rewarding and emotionally grand experience. HIS DARK MATERIALS proves there’s a place for smart, compassionate fantasy and delivers on its promise in spades, stepping up as a worthy successor to GAME OF THRONES.