At its heart, His Dark Materials — the trilogy of young adult fantasy novels penned by Sir Philip Pullman — and the BBC-HBO co-produced series named after it and written by Jack Thorne (Enola Holmes), are both about control. In one sense, it’s control over knowledge. The shaman-like John “Jopari” Parry (Andrew Scott) crystallises the meaning when he first appears midway through His Dark Materials season 2. He notes that there are always two groups fighting for power. One, the Magisterium in this case, decides what the truth is, what people should know, and what they can say. It’s a pointed reference made by Pullman about the Catholic Church in history. The other, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) and his loose cohort, wants you to explore and think for yourself.
In another sense, it’s adults trying to control children. From the start, the series protagonist Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen) has been trying to escape the clutches not just of the Magisterium, but also Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who was revealed to be her mother in His Dark Materials season 1. The show is speaking to the young adults on the other side of the television, saying that sometimes they must take matters into their own hands. And in yet another sense, it’s control over certain sections of the populace. Deep into His Dark Materials season 2, Marisa wonders how different her life would’ve been in our world. In her world, she was denied access to a doctorate and her papers could only be published if she agreed to let a man take the credit.
Speaking of Wilson, the 38-year-old Golden Globe-winning English actress is easily the highlight of His Dark Materials season 2. Two scenes stand out particularly because they showcase a vulnerable side of her character, rarely seen in the series, and because they aren’t about moving the plot along, which His Dark Materials is unfortunately too much about. The first finds her opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays the aeronaut Lee Scoresby, as it digs into their similar upbringings. The moments between Wilson and Miranda go deeper in one minute than the show does in over 200 minutes elsewhere.
The second wordless scene is with her onscreen daughter Keen, and puts a reverse spin of sorts on the torture scene from His Dark Materials season 1, where Marisa set her golden monkey daemon loose on Lyra’s ever-changing daemon “Pan” Pantalaimon. Even though it takes place in the midst of chaos, their shared quiet moments are powerful and revealing, with Lyra realising in real time how she’s turning into her mother in front of her. But these moments are all too rare, and His Dark Materials season 2 is a lot less powerful and revealing when it’s left to the young adults to carry the show.
But the bigger problem for His Dark Materials season 2 is that it never really kicks into gear. The new season opens with a foreboding message — Asriel’s portal-opening actions have left the world in chaos, which the witches believe is the “start of a powerful prophecy, one that could destroy all existence or make it anew” — but then it takes forever setting up the pieces on the board. A brewing war should add some heft to a TV show, but there’s no momentum, no intrigue, and no sense of foreboding on His Dark Materials season 2. The glacial pace makes no sense when you’ve a seven-episode season in your hands to begin with. Critics had access to five episodes. It looks stunning — season 2 was partly filmed on the island of Kauai in Hawaii — but it’s inert.
His Dark Materials season 2 opens with a distraught Lyra, who blames the truth-telling magical device alethiometer for the death of her friend Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd), sacrificed by her father Lord Asriel to open a portal into another world at the tail end of season 1. Having followed her father through the portal, Lyra arrives in an eerie and mysterious city of Cittàgazze. It looks a bit like the island of Korčula in Croatia, and it sits next to a larger peninsula, but it’s different in that all the houses are crowded on top of each other on Cittàgazze and the land next to it is entirely devoid of any human presence. It makes little sense, but His Dark Materials season 2 never bothers to explain why that is. But more importantly, Cittàgazze seems to be a ghost city itself, with no one to be seen.
The first human Lyra meets turns out to be Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who has travelled from our world and is very surprised to see that Lyra has a “talking animal” with her. Lyra, on the other hand, wonders why Will doesn’t have one. A human without a daemon? You can’t be trusted. The two eventually find middle ground as they discover that they are from the same city of Oxford but from different worlds. Lyra and Will subsequently meet other children who reveal that Cittàgazze is empty because it’s filled with spectres — they are a like floating black liquid, something out of Lost or Fantastic Beasts — that suck all the humanity out of people. The caveat? They can only attack grown-ups. Only one adult is left in Cittàgazze, who lives in a tower that has no visible entrance.
Meanwhile, back in its original world, the Magisterium is scrambling to put a lid on the portal crisis, with news spreading that it’s a gateway to another world. Marisa offers her services and promises to unearth information out of a captive witch in Magisterium’s custody, for witches have always claimed there are other worlds. And now, it’s been revealed to be true, no matter how much the Magisterium’s top officials would like to live in denial about it. But just as Marisa is about to extract the full prophecy from the captive witch, fellow witch Queen Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) draws first blood in what will be a war against the Magisterium. The ever-scheming Marisa uses that to plot a Machiavellian coup, using Father McPhail (Will Keen) as her pawn.
Thanks to Lyra and Will’s world-hopping adventures, His Dark Materials season 2 spends a lot more time in our world than season 1 did — and a lot of it involves Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), who studies dark matter at the University of Oxford. There is a lot less screen time for Scoresby, who is trying to find a weapon that he is told can help protect Lyra, which he has made his life’s mission having failed in doing so in season 1. Though he doesn’t know it, the weapon he’s looking for is the name of the second book His Dark Materials season 2 is based on: “The Subtle Knife”. That drives the series into another chosen-one fantasy trope, as was the case with Lyra and the alethiometer in season 1, but it’s not as unbelievable because there’s at least a bit of guidance involved.
But His Dark Materials still hasn’t figured out what to do with daemons, which is disappointing because a talking animal connected to a human’s consciousness is the best way to reveal their inner thoughts. His Dark Materials season 2 also fails to elicit any humour out of them, with the sole exception of a single shot wherein Marisa’s golden monkey sits in a car wearing a seatbelt. That — the lack of humour — is one of many ways His Dark Materials fails to be the fantasy epic for HBO the way Game of Thrones was.
Of course, His Dark Materials season 2 has bigger problems. It doesn’t have a grasp on how to develop scenes or plan for the longer term. It feels like one of those “X-hour-movie” TV shows, where the entire season was planned as a long film. That is annoying by itself, and even more so when it’s not available as a binge-watch. Since it’s a BBC and HBO series, new episodes of His Dark Materials season 2 will air weekly. (It was originally going to be eight episodes, but a standalone episode centred on Asriel had to be cut due to COVID-19, and as a result, McAvoy is absent from season 2 entirely.)
Originally concocted for the Harry Potter era, and now remade for the post-Game of Thrones era, His Dark Materials is caught in an identity crisis. In season 2 — the midway point, if producers get their wish to turn the third and final book “The Amber Spyglass” into two seasons — it’s still trying to discover what it’s meant to be. Its multiple-worlds conceit turns it into sci-fi on a literal level, but metaphorically, it’s really about one world: our world. Even today, there are individuals that refuse to believe in science, and governments that propagate unscientific or pseudo-scientific claims. COVID-19 has only made that more obvious. By splitting that across two worlds, His Dark Materials season 2 can starkly expose the differences between the two sides.
But though it’s timely and relevant in places, His Dark Materials season 2 can’t shake off the feeling everything it attempts has been done better elsewhere before. It’s sifting through the dust — pun intended — and the answers are largely eluding it.
His Dark Materials season 2 premieres November 16 on HBO and HBO Max in the US, and November 17 on Disney+ Hotstar Premium in India. It began airing November 8 on BBC One in the UK.