The first season of His Dark Materials, the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s classic fantasy trilogy, had its share of critics, particularly with regard to its sometimes sluggish pacing. Fortunately, those shortcomings have been successfully addressed in the riveting second season. Freed from the creative burden of establishing an elaborate fictional world for viewers unfamiliar with the books, S2 was a briskly paced, yet still emotionally resonant experience, despite being one episode short because of pandemic-related production difficulties. Ruth Wilson’s fiercely feral portrayal of the complicated Mrs. Coulter remains a highlight, and the heartbreaking season finale perfectly set the stage for the final showdown of S3, which has already been green-lit by the studios.
(S1 spoilers below; also some S2 spoilers below the gallery, especially for audiences who haven’t read the books.)
As we’ve written previously, the three books in Pullman’s series are The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. They follow the adventures of a 12-year-old girl named Lyra, who lives in a fictional version of Oxford, England, circa the Victorian era. Everyone has a companion daemon in the form of an animal—part of their spirit that resides outside the body—and Lyra’s is named Pantalaimon. Lyra uncovers a sinister plot that sends her on a journey to find her father in hopes of foiling said plot. That journey takes her to different dimensions (the fictional world is a multiverse) and ultimately to her own coming of age.
The first season mostly covered the events of The Golden Compass, although it also included characters and events from The Subtle Knife. Most notably, S1 introduced the character of Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who befriends an on-the-run Lyra (Dafne Keen) and has possession of the titular knife, which can cut the curtain between universes. Reviews were mixed, but the series has proven to be wildly popular in the UK. In our 2019 TV roundup, where the series merited an honorable mention, I declared His Dark Materials S1 to be:
[A] visually gorgeous, deftly paced and plotted series that brings Pullman’s fictional multiverse to vivid life. Dafne Keen is perfectly cast as the feisty and adventurous main protagonist Lyra, while Ruth Wilson’s taut performance brings out Mrs. Coulter’s almost feral ruthlessness, along with her cunning sophistication and a hint of vulnerability. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely an improvement over the uneven 2007 film adaptation, The Golden Compass.
In the S1 finale, Lyra finally found her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), but she was horrified when he sacrificed her best friend, Roger, by severing the boy from his daemon, which killed him. He did it in order to channel enough energy to open a bridge between the worlds of the multiverse, thereby furthering his research and his ultimate objective: a war against the Magisterium and heaven itself. A grief-stricken Lyra followed Lord Asriel across the multiverse bridge to another world, just as Will found his own way into that same world through another doorway.
S2 picked up from there, covering the remaining events of The Subtle Knife, which establishes Lyra’s central quest and sets up the climactic showdown portrayed in The Amber Spyglass. Both strangers in a strange new world, Lyra and Will team up to reunite him with his own father, a quest they believe is linked to whatever destinies they are each meant to fulfill. Complicating matters in this new city of Cittàgazze are the soul-eating specters from the book, which prey on adolescents and adults, although a mysterious object known as the subtle knife (formally known as Æsahættr) can repel them. It can also cut through the fabric between worlds.
(Warning: a couple of major spoilers below. Stop rereading now if you haven’t yet finished watching S2.)
Will eventually becomes the Knife Bearer, sacrificing some fingers in the process, enabling him and Lyra to move between Cittàgazze and his own version of Oxford. That’s where Lyra is drawn to Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), a physicist (and former nun) who has built a computer that can communicate with dark matter—which appears to be the same thing as the mysterious particles linked to consciousness known as “Dust” in Lyra’s world.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter (Wilson) has tasked Lord Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) of the Magisterium, who has found his own gateway between worlds, with finding Lyra and bringing her home. And the Magisterium is determined to maintain its power, putting it in direct conflict with Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and her coven of witches, among others. With war brewing between Lyra’s people and the Magisterium’s forces, both sides are eager to acquire the subtle knife, including Lyra’s ally the aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who teams up with a man named Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott, better known these days as Fleabag‘s “hot priest”), aka Col. John Parry—Will’s long-missing father.
If that seems like a lot of narrative threads to weave, it is, and the writers deserve praise for how various storylines flow effortlessly into and around each other throughout the season. All those threads ultimately converge with tragic consequences, as we bid farewell to several characters, most notably Lee Scoresby, who sacrifices himself so that Parry can briefly reunite with his son and instruct him to bring the subtle knife to Lord Asriel. It’s a loss that devastated book readers, and Lee’s demise is no less heartbreaking here, as the aeronaut and his trusty daemon, Hester, console each other to the end. Miranda’s acting style has always been a bit stagey—no surprise given his Broadway bona fides—which doesn’t always translate well to the small screen. But in this scene, he restrains himself admirably and lets the moment unfold without excessive dramatic flair.
McAvoy’s Lord Asriel was conspicuously absent this season. There was supposed to be a standalone episode centered on his mission, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and there simply wasn’t time to finish writing and shooting that episode before production shut down. We do get one final scene, depicting Lord Asriel essentially declaring war on the Authority by calling on some angels to join him. Hopefully we’ll see the omitted standalone episode next season. War between worlds aside, expect some recriminating father/daughter fireworks should Lyra get the chance to confront the man who killed her best friend.
All episodes of His Dark Materials S2 are available for streaming on HBO Max.