Cutting Through Season 2 of “His Dark Materials”

Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

His Dark Materials, the HBO/BBC show based on the bestselling Philip Pullman young adult fantasy novels, tells the adventure of our protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), later joined by Will Parry (Amir Wilson), as they travel through different worlds in the multiverse. Together they fight against the evil Magisterium, make alliances with witches, bears, and aeronauts to take the Magisterium down and prove the existence of something known as “Dust”. 

 Through two seasons, Materials proves to be significantly better than The Golden Compass film adaption from 2007. This is largely due to a premium channel like HBO letting it explore its full potential, without trying to make it appeal to children. The approximately eight hours per season also allows for more plot and character depth than a two-hour movie. As a fan who read the books before either the movie or the show came out—and has watched both—I can confidently say that this story works better as a television series.

This past season started off with our two main characters from season one, Will and Lyra, meeting each other for the first time in the desolate city of Cittàgazze, which was exciting for fans to finally see. While Lyra and Will were the protagonist and deuteragonist in season one, the show followed their stories separately, because they lived in different worlds. It wasn’t clear how they would eventually impact each other. The final scene of season one shows them both entering portals to leave their respective worlds, but we don’t get the payoff of that scene until this season’s premiere, when they finally meet.

Will and Lyra. Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

After waiting all of season one to see them meet, this was a very satisfying episode. The only small con was that it was a little frustrating to wait yet another week to see Lyra’s reaction to Will’s world, since they met in what was effectively a world between worlds. Will is from our world, the real world, so with all of the modern technology that comes with it, I was waiting to see Lyra’s reaction since she comes from a quaint, 19th century-inspired world.

With that said, the first interactions between them in the season premiere featured quite a bit of lighthearted humor, as they couldn’t understand some of each other’s words, the dissimilar foods they ate, and disparate customs they had. One such moment was when Lyra tries to explain to Will that, in her world, people’s souls exist outside their own bodies, in the form of an animal, called a daemon. The best moment of the episode came when they showed each other their most precious possessions—Lyra’s alethiometer and Will’s smartphone, respectively—that the other had never seen before. Giving Will a smartphone, something that didn’t exist when the books were first written in the ’90s, was a genius decision—especially since it can answer questions just like the alethiometer.

Will earning the subtle knife. Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

Before getting much further, I feel this is the right time to explain the titular object of the book this season is based on, The Subtle Knife. Much like how season one, based on The Golden Compass, focuses on Lyra being some sort of “chosen one” who is the only person able to read the alethiometer without the codebooks, season two focuses on Will being chosen in a different way. It turns out he has also been chosen to wield a sacred item (these items together make up the “Dark Materials” the series is named after). His item is an interdimensional knife. It allows him to cut open portals, or windows, from one world to another. Instead of needing to locate preexisting windows as they did before, Will and Lyra can now create their own!

Lee Scoresby. Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

In a show with many moving parts and parallel storylines, where scenes can be as short as 1-2 minutes and jump all over the place, it was nice to slow down a bit in episode three, which almost entirely focuses on my favorite character, Lee Scoresby. After leaving Lee out of episode two entirely, the showrunners finally return to a character who attracted many new fans, since he’s played by Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. The majority of his season two storyline happens in this one episode, and it not only uses this great actor in more scenes, but also helps to delve into who Lee is as a person. For example, he expresses great regret after killing Dr. Haley, despite it being in self-defense, something that action heroes rarely feel remorseful about. This later comes up again in the finale when he tells his daemon Hester that he is able to bring himself to shoot at the Magisterium soldiers because, while their lives may not be less important than his own, he knows they are less important than Lyra’s.

Lee is also used to do some world-building, as he introduces himself to John Parry (Andrew Scott), Will’s dad, as being “from the country of Texas.” This shows the viewer that in the world Lee and Lyra are from, Texas is an independent nation, and it serves as another reminder that while their world may seem similar to ours in many ways, it has just enough differences to confuse Lyra when she comes into Will’s. As a Texan myself, I became really emotional in the finale when Lee told Hester to “remember the Alamo” as he took his final stand, knowing he would die.

Mrs. Coulter. Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

The climax of episode five is not only my favorite scene of the season, but it just might be the best of the show so far. This is when Will and Lyra take back the alethiometer from Lord Carlo Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) basement, a scene containing so many interesting character dynamics. It’s the only time in the season when our two main protagonists and two main antagonists, Boreal and Mrs. Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), are all in the same place at the same time. It was the only time I sat at the edge of my seat, even shouting at my TV “Use the knife! Use the knife! What are you waiting for?” as I wanted them to open a window to escape. While Mrs. Coulter is distracted by her drink and is looking the other way, the viewer actually wonders whether Will might be able to steal the alethiometer without Mrs. Coulter noticing, which we know isn’t likely, but just shows the power of the directing and Ruth Wilson’s acting.

The fight scene itself is mostly split into two parts: Will vs. Boreal and Lyra vs. Mrs. Coulter. The camera pans in such a way to show one fight in the background while the other fight is in the foreground, which is just great cinematography. The directing also doesn’t focus on any one fight for too long, appropriately cutting between the two to maintain both suspense and importance.

The key character moment is when Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra she’s just like her. Lyra replies she doesn’t want to be anything like her, then ironically attacks Mrs. Coulter in the same way she herself was attacked in season one, proving Mrs. Coulter’s point. Funnily enough, even though Mrs. Coulter was right about Lyra, this ended up being her downfall as her plan backfires and her daemon is defeated by Lyra’s. This gives Will just enough time to open a window and allow Lyra and himself to escape. It’s a shame that after this breathtaking scene, the rest of the season isn’t up to snuff.

Sadly, I think the finale was much, much worse than the season one finale, and it barely felt like a finale. Much like the previous episode, it just felt like more setup.  A good finale should be able to set up the next season while also having its own “wow” moments. Last season, that moment was the big fight scene between the witches and the magisterium, which resulted in Lyra’s friend, Roger’s, death and Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, opening the gateway to the other world. That emotional moment also set up other events that lead into season two, like Will and Lyra both leaving their worlds. 

On the other hand, in the season two finale, there were a few more important plot events like Will meeting his dad, Lyra being kidnapped, and Asriel meeting the angels. But it still felt like a slow, disjointed episode. Several characters were in totally separate areas, there was a lot of talking and setup, and no major “wow” moment made it feel like a proper finale. To be honest, if everything up to the fight scene in episode five had been stretched a bit longer to make that the finale scene,  I would have actually felt like that was a good finale. Everything in episodes six and seven could have been moved to the beginning of season three instead.

I guess in this finale, the two actual “wow”-type moments were meant to be Asriel meeting the angels, and Lyra being kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter. However, neither one of them felt as big as they were supposed to be. First off, I don’t think the angels storyline has been properly set up at all. As someone who read the books, I know who they are, but if I hadn’t, I would have just been like “wtf is happening?” during that final scene, instead of feeling like it was an epic moment. Angels had only been mentioned once before, seeming only like an introduction to the concept. As far as Lyra being kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter goes, show it actually happening! How did Mrs. Coulter overpower Lyra this time after losing their last fight? Perhaps with the help of the spectres (pictured below) now under her control, but we don’t know for certain since it’s never shown.

Mrs. Coulter and a Spectre. Photo courtesy of HBO and BBC.

In conclusion, while the season started off great, it personally fell flat for me in the final two episodes. I can only hope that season three can finish the show off better than Game of Thrones did. The bright side is that at least, in this case, they actually have another book to go off of, and the problems in season two can be easily fixed.

Leave a Reply