His Dark Materials Season 2 review: Bigger, bolder, darker
9/10 Rating 9/10
This second chapter in this jaw-dropping Philip Pullman adaptation is bigger, bolder and darker.
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of His Dark Materials.
“It’s been quite a journey to get here,” Lyra (Dafne Keen) told Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) at the end of His Dark Materials Season 1. She wasn’t kidding, after she journeyed across her world to catch up with the man who turned out to be her father, just as he opened a doorway between parallel universes by separating her friend, Roger, from his talking-animal daemon. That all of this doesn’t sound completely ridiculous is a testament to just how far Season 1 of the BBC and HBO’s adaptation took us in eight episodes – and how much information it packed in along the way with the lightest of touches. Season 2’s opening episodes pick up that baggage without dropping any of it, and promise a sophomore run that’s bigger, darker and still absolutely jaw-dropping.
Jack Thorne’s perfectly paced scripts actually began to slip in bits of The Subtle Knife (the second in Philip Pullman’s trilogy of books) in Season 1, introducing us to Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who ran away from his mother after accidentally killing someone while trying to protect her. After curiously walking through an intriguing hole in the air, he now finds himself in the abandoned city of Cittàgazze, where Lyra – who followed Asriel through the gateway in Season 1’s final moments – also rocks up.
By giving us a chance to get to know Will’s back-story before Season 2 started, the show can jump straight to this new place with a wonderful sense of character already baked in; Will and Lyra’s tentative alliance is immediately convincing and subtly observed, as we share Lyra’s doubts while sympathising with Will’s noble intentions.
Dafne Keen just gets better and better as she settles into Lyra’s shoes, benefiting from the expanded screen-time of a TV series to really flesh out Lyra. Keen’s incredible at conveying the certainty of a girl grasping more of her universe, while simultaneously capturing her unknowing innocence. There’s a derring-do spark of adventure to her behaviour, egged on by Kit Harington’s endearingly voiced daemon, Pan, but also a new note of melancholy, as Lyra struggles with grief and guilt over her friend Roger’s death. (The latter is acutely depicted, giving Lyra a compelling reason not to use her alethiometer to find out the answers to all our questions instantly.)
Amir Wilson, meanwhile, is an excellent match for her, finding the distrust in Will’s cautious worldview – where even his extended family can’t promise a safe haven – but also the natural kindness that drives his instincts to team up with Lyra. Their performances are filled with nice little touches, from his polite (but honest) critique of her confident attempt at making an omelette to her choice of bedroom in the home where they shelter.
It’s credit to Ruth Wilson that she almost steals the show from this enchanting double-act, and Season 2 ups the amount of Mrs Coulter on offer from the book, as the manipulative power-player navigates her way through the corridors of the Magisterium, the religious regime that rules her world – and decries the existence of any other worlds as heresy.
Ruth Wilson is sensational, at once ruthless and quietly calculating. She’s a fascinating figure, determined to keep herself in a position of immunity and influence but also focused on finding her daughter to keep her safe. She whispers cruelly as she tries to tease information out of a witch, but she also smiles kindly and holds her tongue patiently, as she plots with would-be ruler Father MacPhail (an impressively despicable and desperate Will Keen). She’s undoubtedly a villain, but Wilson seizes the opportunity offered by Pullman’s rich source material to make her so much more than that. (It’s telling that we don’t miss James McAvoy, whose single standalone episode to explain Asriel’s actions during this time – he doesn’t appear in the original book – was scrapped due to the coronavirus pandemic.)
Jumping between the towering intimidation of the Magisterium to the crumbling eeriness of Cittàgazze would be hard to follow in a lesser show, but the impeccable production design makes each location feel vividly real – while the inclusion of such objects as Will’s iPhone (playfully presented as his counterpart to Lyra’s alethiometer) build on the realism of Will’s Oxford to amplify the spectacle of magic and world-building on display. (The expanded opening credits, accompanied by Lorne Balfe’s stirring soundtrack, tease the mysteries that lay ahead.)
There’s horror, too, among the adventure, and Season 2’s more ominous tone is backed up by the creepy shadows filling up the sun-drenched Cittàgazze – beautifully contrasted with the blinding light that spills into the Magisterium’s dark, closed chambers with a holy intensity. The home of the witches, where Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) ventures, is just as atmospheric, even as it immerses us in the fiery politics that rage between the clans and leaders.
The result is a gorgeously crafted fantasy epic – an inter-dimensional exploration of the line between authority and tyranny, the gap that lies between faith and truth, and the cost (or not) of moving between adolescence and maturity. Woven together with thrilling action and effortless VFX – watch out for a stellar set piece involving Jade Anouka’s Ruta Skadi – it’s all presented with a permanent sense of childlike wonder that still makes this family viewing, even as things get tougher to watch for younger viewers. By the time we meet Mary Malone (a hugely likeable Simone Kirby) and the book’s different particles of mythology really begin to collide, you’ll be relishing the journey we’ve undertaken so far, and desperate to travel further. What a remarkable achievement this programme is.