His Dark Materials arrived on the fantasy television scene in 2019 with big expectations. A lavish, expensive HBO production that dealt with high-concept questions like faith, sin, and redemption, it was based on a popular series of novels by Phillip Pullman that had everything from armored battle bears to talking animal companions meant to be representative of human souls. Everyone basically thought it would be a big hit in the same vein as Game of Thrones, which had only recently wrapped up its run on the same network and also happened to be based on a set of hit fantasy books.
Unfortunately, that is … not what happened. Instead of a complex fantasy epic, we got a plodding drama with little heart and dull characters, set in a world that was overly difficult to understand, let alone care about. Yes, the first season of His Dark Materials was well-made and gorgeous to look at, but often felt emotionally flat, as though it were simply ticking off the plot points from Pullman’s novels on a Notes app list and waiting to get to a more interesting part of the story. Save one, its characters were often dour and tedious, with little in the way of interiority or understandable motivation.
Given the dense and complicated subject matter of Pullman’s trilogy, this isn’t entirely surprising—simply covering the introduction of concepts like animal daemons, the magical substance known as Dust, and the theocratic bureaucracy represented by the Magisterium was always going to be a lot for any single season to attempt. And that’s before you got to the literal child soul trafficking stuff. But for fans who had been waiting an awfully long time for a version of His Dark Materials that was worthy of its source material (let’s never mention the 2007 Golden Compass movie ever again), it was hard not to feel painfully disappointed.
Thankfully, Season 2 has course-corrected in the best way possible, keeping everything that worked from its first outing (Ruth Wilson’s incredibly complex Marisa Coulter and her icy, ferocious rage) and adding heart, humor and a sense of fun in spades. Finally, this show feels like the must-see adventure series it was originally meant to land as, and one can only hope that audiences will tune in for this far superior outing that is also a much better representation of the sweeping appeal of Pullman’s story.
As the new season begins, we follow Lyra (Dafne Keen) through Lord Asriel’s (James McAvoy) crack in the sky to a lush, silent city populated by terrified children and haunted by fog-like monsters who suck the souls from adults. There, she meets a boy named Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who comes from our Earth and has a mission of his own: To find the father that abandoned him so long ago.
Back in the world Lyra left behind, something dark and dangerous is brewing. The oppressive and theocratic Magisterium is targeting all those they deem heretics. The witch clans are debating whether to engage them in battle or to pursue the prophecy that sees Lyra as a key to the future. Mrs. Coulter is relentlessly searching for the daughter who escaped her even as she manipulates the Magisterium for her own ends. And aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is on the hunt for a missing explorer named Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott), now a shaman who is himself looking for a weapon known as the subtle knife.
It’s an awful lot to take in, but what Season 2 seems to understand that Season 1 did not is that simply telling its audience things is not enough, it must show us who these characters are and why their stories matter along the way. His Dark Materials makes the absolute most of the expansion of the series’ canvas in its second season and the locations—the stark, desolate city of Cittagazze, the dark and foreboding woods in which the witches make their homes, the exchange of Lyra’s version of Oxford for the more recognizable one that Will inhabits, the dead-end towns visited by Scoresby—are all richly detailed and beautifully realized.
Lyra benefits from the addition of a friend and partner in crime in the young Will, and star Dafne Keene truly shines with a non-CGI partner to act against. (No offense, Pan!) The two characters complement each other nicely—Will’s thoughtful caution is a perfect counterweight to Lyra’s often impulsive recklessness—and the narrative is all the stronger for their mutual ignorance about their surroundings and mission. Now, the audience is allowed to learn along with our protagonists, and His Dark Materials loses the heavy, expository feel that colored so many of its initial episodes. As a result, the narrative becomes something that feels all of a singular piece, rather than three or four different stories that happen to be occurring at the same time.
The return of Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) suddenly seems like a necessary twist that ties multiple disparate story threads together. Lee’s Indiana Jones-esque adventure subplot allows him to interact with characters he might not have ever met otherwise, and introduces one who will clearly have a significant role to play moving forward. Even the arrival of an Oxford dark matter physicist (which, let’s be real, should be the dullest thing in the world) becomes an appealing intertwining of faith and science, as she realizes her work, Lyra’s Dust, and the theology she herself once left behind are more connected than she could ever have imagined.
In short, His Dark Materials finally feels as though it has found its groove in its second season. The series feels more lush, propulsive, and epic than it ever has before, with a tightly paced plot and characters we can actually care about. Are there weak spots? Sure; the show still doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with its largely interchangeable cadre of witches, and the pasty misogyny of the Magisterium is painfully one note. But despite its flaws, His Dark Materials has finally become a series that that feels worthy of the trilogy it’s based on, and that is no small thing.
His Dark Materials Season 2 premieres Monday, November 16th on HBO.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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