This review originally published January 4, 2021
For those of us who love to indulge in richly-appointed period piece adaptations, we’re living in heady times. From The Crown to Bridgerton to Outlander, television has been giving us the goods of late, with an abundance of productions that have amply-funded costume and production design departments. And returning to the fray this month is one of the most beautiful of the genre, A Discovery of Witches.
Season 2 is based on the second book, Shadow of the Night in author Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy, which shifts the action from contemporary times to 1590s London and France. Whether you’ve read Harkness’ books or not, it’s important to bank that the novelist is a professor of Western European history at the University of Southern California, and an extremely involved executive producer on the series. All of that translates into authentic history being heavily woven into the season’s 10 episodes, including a plethora of historical and religious name-dropping, a revolving coterie of costumes to drool over, and enough true events of note to invoke midterm studying sweats-by-proxy.
A nicely recreated Elizabethan London serves as the primary locale of the early episodes, as it’s where Oxford scholar and burgeoning witch, Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), casts herself and her vampire lover, Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode), at the end of Season 1. As a brief primer, the duo has gone back in time with a very specific mission to find the mythical Book of Life. The much-coveted tome is integral to not only unlocking Diana’s untapped powers, but Matthew has researched that the rumored codex is key to saving the dying supernatural species of the world.
Bringing to mind a whole set of potential paradox pitfalls familiar to anyone who’s seen Back to the Future, the series solves the “don’t mess with the past” problem by leaning on Matthew’s immortal vamp status. As it turns out, his old self also exists in 1590. But that less refined version is up in Scotland doing the Catholic church’s bidding, which makes it easier (in theory) for time-hopping future-Matthew to slip into the footprint of his former life.
Adding an earring and more brooding to his countenance, Matthew tries to “fake it ‘til he makes it” by introducing Diana as his wife to the de Clermont ancestral home’s staff, as well as his sullen BFF, Kit Marlow (Tom Hughes), but they all quickly sniff out she’s not kosher with the blood suckers of the time. That creates plenty of strife for the pair, which dominos into Diana finding out a whole lot that she didn’t expect regarding to her current love’s distant past (present?). It sounds more confusing than it plays out, but to say there’s a lot more density to this season than the last is an understatement. What with both vampires and Catholics hating witches, Diana trying to find a witch mentor in a town who is actively trying to wipe them out, Matthew’s attic full of secrets, and even the addition of a pickpocket moppet into their familial fold, there’s more than enough going on in parallel to the primary quest.
For audiences that fell in love with the series because of the potent chemistry between Palmer and Goode in Season 1, there’s some stumbling in that area until Episode 6. While the two actors look incredible in their historically accurate duds, the initial scripts repeat variations of scenes with the two bickering over the myriad of dangers threatening Diana in this time, as Matthew postures and blusters broadly about trying to keep her secure while she stubbornly resists. It gets a bit tiresome and soapy, especially as the romantic interludes are almost nil in the London-centric episodes, which strips the show of its previously earned sexiness. Much like Outlander post-Season 2, A Discovery of Witches also seems to be wrestling with trying to find the right alchemy of romance verses historical narrative.
What fills the romance gap are a lot of machinations in both 1590 and the present. The contemporary timeline is mostly serviced in brief glimpses of what’s going on as Ysabeau de Clermont (Lindsay Duncan) plays protective host to Diana’s worried wiccan aunts Sarah (Alex Kingston) and Em (Valarie Pettiford), or Gerbert d’Aurillac (Trevor Eve) sneeringly seeking out Matthew and Diana’s whereabouts. However, for those missing more of the Season 1 cast, Episode 4 is set entirely in present day London, as a rash of murders that look vampire-caused becomes the connector of the de Clermont’s past and present legacies.
How well this season will land for you depends on your sweet spot when it comes to the balance of historical and supernatural storylines. For my taste, the season feels more leaden as the narrative keeps Diana and Matthew busy with almost too many side quests that end up rather dire and bleak. Not that a show about witches and vampires needs to be light, but there isn’t much to break up the gravitas aside from Hughes’ jealously bitchy Marlow, or later in the season, James Purefoy’s layered patriarch Philippe de Clermont. Both shine in their scenes with Goode and ground the series back into character-based moments instead of just plot moves. And Palmer gets to shine when she’s put into situations where Diana spends time with other formidable women, like eventual mentor Goody Alsop (Sheila Hancock) or early alchemist Mary Sidney, with whom she can put her luminous curiosity to task.
Having only seen seven episodes of the season, it feels like there’s too much narrative to wrap up concisely or satisfyingly with just three hours to go, even with expected cliffhangers (Season 3 is already in production). As is often the case in dense book adaptations, A Discovery of Witches Season 2 is an unqualified visual feast that may ultimately fall short emotionally because it tried to bring too much from the book to life.
The second season premiere of A Discovery of Witches hits AMC Sunday, June 27th; the series is available to stream on AMC+.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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