His Dark Materials returned in fine form with the premiere of season 2 on the BBC and HBO this week. The new season dives immediately into adapting the second book of the series: The Subtle Knife. And based on the first episode alone, season 2 already looks much better than the first season did. But the key to this season, and the rest of the series really relies on the chemistry between the characters of Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry. So how did actors Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson do in their first episode together? Let’s dive into the episode to find out, and see what is in store for the rest of season 2 of His Dark Materials.
Image via BBC/HBO
Traveling To New Worlds In Season 2 of His Dark Materials
Image via BBC/HBO
The end of the first season of His Dark Materials found Lyra traveling through the portal that her father Lord Asriel opened between worlds. The power needed to create this portal unfortunately came at the expense of her dear friend Roger’s life. At the same time, Will Parry stepped through an invisible doorway while chasing a cat (this will be important later). They both ended up in a strange and unfamiliar world that has seemingly been abandoned. This is where they find each other, and team up to figure out what is going on.
Soon they discover other kids running around the empty city (featuring Bella Ramsey aka Lyanna Mormont in one of the roles). These girls tell them that the adults have left the city. Or they are affected by the ‘Spectres’ that kids cannot see. The spectres only affect adults, so Lyra is fine but Will is dangerously close to the change that will allow the spectres to come after him (that change is puberty). Understandably weirded out by this information, Lyra and Will decide to hole up in a fancy old house to stay safe. Will doesn’t understand why Lyra wants to stay, but given Lyra’s wide-eyed excitement about having a bed and a large room of her own it is important to remember that she has been living in a tiny room at Jordan College for most of her life. Or sleeping on ships for the past however many months it has been.
Lyra’s World Is Still Obsessed With Her
In the meantime, chaos rages back in Lyra’s world as the Magisterium arrives to investigate the portal between worlds. The ranking members of the Magisterium (all men) argue amongst themselves and throw things at the wall (literally). Before Marisa Coulter rises smoothly from her chair to give them all a significant dressing-down. They are all failures she says. She has failed as well, but she will not fail again.
Marisa gains permission to question a witch that the Magisterium has in captivity. This leads into some gruesome torture scenes where Mrs. Coulter peels the pine cloud bark from beneath the other woman’s skin. The pine cloud is allegedly what gives the witches their power, and allows them to fly. The light in Mrs. Coulter’s eyes when she first glimpses the small branch indicates that she might have some witchy plans of her own.
The Search For The Subtle Knife Begins
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The witches of the world have also come together to convene and discuss the beginning of the prophecy that is now unfolding before them. The opening of the portal was the first step, and Lyra is the child of prophecy that is the key to everything. Lee Scoresby joins Serafina Pekkala to speak at the meeting of the witches, where he pledges to find an artifact that will protect Lyra. He clearly feels guilt for having lost her last season, and now he is firmly in the fight.
Lee mentions an explorer named Doctor Stanislaus Grumman who is rumored to have a powerful object that can help. This is an important name, but before we can think too closely about it more witches arrive. Led by Queen Skadi, this contingent of witches is less concerned about the prophecy and more alarmed by the current Magisterium crackdown on witches everywhere. Skadi wants to rescue the very witch that Mrs. Coulter is questioning (and torturing) at that moment. She also wants to fight back against the Magisterium who are a direct threat to the witches. She flies off to get the job done, leaving Serafina Pekkala and her witches behind to worry over Lyra.
Tonal Dissonance Doesn’t Take Away From The Episode’s Achievements
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel | Image via BBC One/HBO
It must be said that the competing storylines of season 2 don’t quite mesh so far. Lyra’s world seems like they are still stuck in the first season. The Magisterium wants to continue denying the existence of other worlds even though they are now clearly visible in the sky above. Mrs. Coulter is still endlessly searching for her daughter, and keeping the fact that Lyra is her kin to herself. The witches are still trying to protect Lyra and fight the Magisterium.
Lord Asriel is sadly nowhere to be found. This is in keeping with the book although I was personally hoping that season 2 would show us Asriel traveling through the multiverse. The showrunners actually had a bottle episode planned that revolved entirely around him and what he was up to in this book. Unfortunately due to the pandemic and production shutdowns, that episode was never filmed. (This means no James McAvoy in this season and I’m very upset about that personally.)
Lyra’s world keeps spinning the same way that it always has. But she has moved onto a new world, and made a new friend. Will and Lyra’s storyline in this episode is almost light-hearted compared to the rest of the plot. Despite the shadow of the spectres lurking around them, the two of them are almost having fun in this episode. At times this provides relief from the heavy darkness and malice of the rest of the episode. But at other times it does strike a discordant note. Transitioning from Lyra and Will bargaining over bedrooms to Mrs. Coulter torturing a witch felt like the channel had been flipped to an entirely different show. However this doesn’t detract from what is otherwise an excellent episode.
Daemons Take On Larger Roles In Season 2
Red Pan-da! | Image via BBC/HBO
One of my major complaints about the first season was that the daemons felt too much like background noise. They didn’t feel like distinct characters. And there was just not enough of them in the world to really drive home the fact that everyone has a daemon and those connections are essential. The first episode of season 2 changes that in subtle ways. It feels like some primary daemons got major upgrades. I particularly enjoyed the lively Hester who feels like a real character now for Lee Scoresby to work with.
Lyra’s daemon Pan also enjoyed some renewed focus in this episode. Several shots frame Pan as a character unto himself during conversation. This makes it obvious that he is the one speaking, something that was not always clear in the first season. Pan also gets a couple of new animal forms in this episode including my personal favorite – red panda! Please let us have more red Pan-da this season. And the fact that the other people (and Will) in this strange world do not have daemons is significant, and allows for the primary daemons to take center stage in order to reinforce their importance.
Season 2 of His Dark Materials Looks Significantly Better
Image via BBC/HBO
I also want to commend the cinematography and visual effects team for their outstanding work in this episode. The overall look of the show is also drastically improved in season 2. The cinematography in the first episode is beautiful, with Lyra and Will’s scenes often framed through doorways inside of doorways. This obvious visual metaphor works well, indicating the many paths they can choose and the many worlds they could travel to. The overall composition of the shots in this episode are gorgeous and layered. I had some issues with the Tom Hooper of it all in season 1 (I don’t think he is a very good director and his camera work leaves a lot to be desired.) Thankfully it looks like season 2 is moving away from Hooper’s aesthetic of dark wide-angle close-ups and into new territory that feels true to the world.
Image via BBC/HBO
The magic of the witches are also taking advantage of the CGI budget. Their flight and smoky movements are natural and feel real. The final moment between Skadi and the captive witch is given a slow-motion freeze-frame that works beautifully on the screen, and has a real emotional impact. I also deeply appreciated the daemons for Serafina Pekkala and Queen Skaldi discussing the real issues at stake, while the coven of witches argued below them. This is just one more way the show has shifted the focus onto the importance of the daemons. The way the camera focuses on the daemons when they are speaking now is a simple yet effective tool. It shows that they are characters integral to the story as much as any human or witch.
Lyra and Will Are The Key To Everything
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So what about Lyra and Will? In the first season of His Dark Materials I wasn’t entirely sold on Dafne Keen or Amir Wilson in their roles. Lyra was too sly, and not charming enough for her character description. Will was too timid, and Wilson just didn’t have enough other people to act off. I think the problem was that the actors were playing off adults for the majority of season 1. Now they have the chance to act together and I think the closeness of their ages makes a huge difference. Keen and Wilson are great together. They have the natural chemistry necessary to carry this pivotal relationship. And it is clear that they are having fun together as actors.
As they slowly begin to trust one another, Lyra finally consults her alethiometer to find out more about her new friend. The magical device tells her that Will is a murderer, but Lyra concludes that he is ‘the good kind’ like Iorek Byrnison. I think the better word here would be ‘killer’ because murder implies intent. But I don’t want to talk too much about that for fear of spoiling anyone who hasn’t read the books.
Season 2 Improves His Dark Materials
Image via BBC One/HBO
All in all, I was very happy with the first episode of season 2 of His Dark Materials. I thought the show made some drastic improvements over season one in terms of focus, direction, cinematography, and acting. The worlds are starting to feel real and true to the spirit of the books. Even though the disparate storylines may not be blend well right now, that is bound to change as the season progresses. I love the renewed focus on the witches, and the subtle politics between the different factions. Will and Lyra are great together and will make an excellent team to follow through the rest of the season. And the overall look and feel of the show is beautiful and intricately layered compared to the straightforward thrust of season 1. Fans of the books should be happy about the direction that season 2 is taking so far.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.