HBO’s HIS DARK MATERIALS adaptation is blowing its world of magic open for season two of the series. The season one finale left us hanging after the sweater-wearing conquistador Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) literally tore the multiverse open and left the world as we knew it to go fight God and colonize heaven. The show’s opening title sequence wordlessly explains the mechanics of this multiverse with an image of each world as a different layer of the universe, zooming out to reveal a potentially infinite amount of parallel worlds layered like thread in the fabric of the universe. The opening looms over each episode as a reminder of the cosmic scope the repercussions of each episode will have, since the narrative itself stays intimately zoomed in on the journeys of individual characters.
The new season of HIS DARK MATERIALS covers the events of the second book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, “The Subtle Knife”. With plenty of time to cover the plot of the book in seven episodes, the series so far has not only been faithful to the source material, but also has the luxury to add welcome changes that expand upon elements barely hinted at in the book. The starkest change for fans of the book series will most likely be the wildly different take on Lee Scoresby (Lin Manuel Miranda), although I personally find the new Lee heartachingly lovable if you can let your preconceived idea of the original character go. This season also diverges from the book in interesting ways that don’t erase or change the original plot, but allow us to see new scenes that deepen our understanding of the lore and character motivations.
It helps that season one diverged from the writing of “Northern Lights”, the first book in the series also known as The Golden Compass, by introducing elements from the first act of “The Subtle Knife” early on. Unspoiled viewers of the show already know and love young Will Parry (Amir Wilson) as a co-protagonist in the story before our main heroine Lyra (Dafne Keen) has yet to meet him. The first episodes of the series focus on their relationship cautiously inching closer as our two heroes finally cross paths and come to realize they need each other. Despite all they’ve suffered as two children with no one to take care of them and nowhere to go, it warms my soul to see Will and Lyra cooking each other breakfast, sharing popcorn at the movies, and ferociously looking out for each other in a world that’s out to get them. Actors Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson perfectly perform Lyra’s adorable savagery and Will’s noble ruthlessness.
The forces working against our protagonists are mostly united under The Magisterium, a theocracy that seeks to control Lyra’s homeworld. The Magisterium’s art direction, from wardrobe to architecture, combines imagery of corrupt churches, corporate evil, and fascist regimes. Even the language used by the church is evocative of white supremacy; One scene discusses the urgent importance of “cleansing” the world of witches, a cleansing which turns out to be a holocaust in the literal sense. I suspect that many horror fans reading this will have no trouble cheering on a story where the heroines are killer witches and the villains threatened by them are a patriarchal system of child-murdering, eco-terrorist oppressors.
If the monolithic church seems like a flat antagonist, that’s because it simply is. The standout force that brings the Magisterium alive is Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a complicated femme fatale who resents her own sensuality, pulling the priests’ strings and leading them to temptation with her apple-red lips and dress. In season two, she continues her manipulative attempts to draw Lyra under her influence, tempting her daughter with knowledge by dangling all the answers she has that Lyra desires. Conducting human experiments on children in the first season should be enough to mark her as irredeemable in my mind, but over and over again I catch myself falling prey to her tactical charm. In spite of the horrors Mrs. Coulter has committed (and, no doubt, will continue to commit), it’s hard not to relate somewhat to the barely constrained rage of a powerfully intelligent and charismatic woman forced to roleplay subservience to the men who reap all the benefits of her efforts while devaluing her work at the same time. When she bites the hands that feed her, it feels good.
Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is another member of the Magisterium with all the airs of a double agent. I have no idea what he’s up to, but man, is it compelling to watch him go. The mystery of Boreal’s motivations has had me at the edge of my seat since season one and the episodes I’ve seen of season two keep delaying this payoff while laying a trail of ambiguous crumbs. A less captivating actor would make Boreal’s cryptic subplot feel dragged out, but Ariyon Bakare has me spellbound with each scene. Each time Lord Boreal and Mrs. Coulter share a scene, I am feasting on the delicious tension between these two cunning agents with mysterious agendas.
One clue that we have known since the first season is that Lord Boreal wants to find Will’s father, John Parry (Andrew Scott). That’s right, Fleabag’s Hot Priest is now playing a Hot Shaman in a manbun and hipster jacket. As if that wasn’t a brilliant choice on its own, I shouted at my screen when the credits rolled at the end of the episode where his daemon is introduced and I found out she is voiced by none other than Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. An absolute stroke of brilliance in casting. John Parry’s Coachella-style look is its own unexpectedly clever choice as well, since it subtly reminds me of the witches. John Parry has enough in common with witches that when Lee Scoresby first meets his daemon, Lee assumes she must belong to a witch. And our main witches, Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) and Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), exude pure rockstar energy as they’re styled to look simultaneously feral and runway-ready.
Another interesting character connection drawn to the witches via their daemon is Mrs. Coulter’s relationship to the golden monkey. Mrs. Coulter’s own brand of feral elegance is a narrative foil to the power of the witches and I am fascinated to see the show exploring in depth her cruel curiosity toward witches in a way the books barely hinted at. As well as expanding on Coulter’s abusive relationship to her daemon, season two also addresses one of the areas in which I thought the first season dropped the ball: showing the intimacy of the human/daemon relationship. The sense of being part of each other, literal soulmates, was somewhat lost due to the fact that in the first season Lyra and Pan (Kit Connor) rarely touched, much less held and caressed each other. Within the first minute of season two, my worries that the intimacy between them would continue to only be implied with expository dialogue and never shown, were proven wrong. I’m delighted that the VFX team have gotten the hang of showing instead of telling the fact that daemons are more than just talking pets by emphasizing the physical connection to their human counterparts during emotionally meaningful and cathartic moments. Also, it’s just so darn cute.
The cutesiness is something I also took issue with in season one, but what I’ve seen of season two helped me make peace with it. The tone of HIS DARK MATERIALS is something I’d describe as “morbid Disney.” After all, a major plot point in the first season involved children being stolen from marginalized families by the church in order to be used in unfathomably gruesome experiments. Dark, disturbing, and violent scenes are commonplace in the series, which I had a hard time reconciling with the kitschiness of Lin Manuel Miranda singing a duet with a talking rabbit in a hot air balloon. Seeing the lead child actors finally unite and share most of the screen time reminded me that I was only ten years old when the books were coming out. It’s easy to forget, when an array of stunningly talented adult actors are taking up the screen, that this is not an adults-only event.
Mature viewers who enjoyed Game of Thrones and want to chase that high could feel disappointment that the show won’t go as gruesomely dark as it easily could. Comparisons between the two were so common in reviews of season one that I’ve started to feel like HIS DARK MATERIALS was given a standard to live up to that it shouldn’t even be trying to meet. It could never be the next Game of Thrones because the source material is a controversial but still family-friendly series that revolves around the fate of two children. Sure, the focus of the story could easily be shifted to show the gruesome details that the novels kept offscreen. But does alienating children from the audience actually serve any purpose?
The horror and disgust in HIS DARK MATERIALS do not come from cheap shots to shock the audience. It is an existential horror. A cosmic horror. It is subtle, looming horror holding its cards for stomach-turning twists that come from deep within the characters. I find it incomparable to any existing fantasy series in its sense of breathtaking magic, cosmic adventure, and epic scope. The series’ unique blend of science fiction and high fantasy hits home this season as our characters find uncomfortable connections between dark matter, original sin, human consciousness, and the existence of heaven. HIS DARK MATERIALS Season 2 is now available on HBO and HBO Max.