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Review: The Titular Subtle Knife Finally Makes An Appearance In His Dark Materials Season 2

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BY February 10, 2021

Season 2 of His Dark Materials is progressing along nicely through the second book of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy series. And in the most recent episode we finally got to focus in on this season’s deux ex machina. The subtle knife finally makes an appearance in His Dark Materials. This is of course the magical implement that the second book is named for, and it will have larger ramifications on the story that follows. So let’s take a look at the fourth episode of season 2 of His Dark Materials. An episode titled “The Tower of Angels.”

Can We Please Stop With All of The Expository Voiceovers?

Lyra and her Daemon Image via BBC/HBO

First this episode begins with my least favorite fantasy trope of recent years. There is an extended voiceover from the witch Serafina Pekkala (who doesn’t even know about the knife yet, as far as we know). She speaks over scenes depicting the history of Cittàgazze (this is the mysterious empty island city that Will and Lyra are hiding out in). Essentially, she explains to us exactly what the subtle knife is and why it is important.

Now, this intro certainly looked cool but it drives me crazy every time the show does this. There have been multiple instances in His Dark Materials of voiceover just delivering exposition. And they are always telling us something that we should naturally learn over the course of the episode. By revealing right away what the subtle knife is; where it is located, and the repercussions of its creation sucks all of the mystery out of the episode. It was also so similar to Galadriel’s voiceover at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring that my brother immediately texted me, aghast at the blatant rip-off.

Another quibble I have with this episode (and I’ve noticed it is a running theme in the show) has to do with the editing. Far too often a scene cuts away immediately after a line of dialogue. The camera needs to linger for at least one more second, to let the dialogue sink in before rushing off to another scene. This happened several times during “The Tower of Angels,” the most egregious being after a dramatic line from Queen Skadi that needed space to breathe.

Okay those are my nitpicks with the episode. Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Will Finally Learns His Destiny

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

This episode is all about Will Parry. (In fact it is so much about him that there are entire scenes where Lyra is just kind of hanging out: not doing anything, watching quietly. This feels… out of character for her.) In their mission to retrieve the subtle knife for Lord Boreal (who is keeping Lyra’s alethiometer hostage) Will finally discovers that he is also a ‘chosen one.’ The two of them find a way (very easily) into the seemingly impenetrable tower at the heart of Cittàgazze. There they find an old man trussed up, his name is Giacomo. The old man was the “Bearer of the Knife” before the Spectres came and some teenager (Tullio) entered the tower to steal the knife from him.

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

It turns out that the knife has the power to destroy Spectres (useful) and keep them at bay. That is why Tullio wanted the knife, because he has clearly passed puberty, and is in danger of having his soul sucked out by the Dementors… I’m sorry, the Spectres. Will gets into a knock down, drag out fight with this other kid for possession of the knife. In the end he wins it, but not before two of the fingers on his hand are sliced clean off.

Apparently losing the fingers is a sign that the individual is meant to be the new Bearer of the Knife. So Will spends the rest of the episode training with the old man. The blade of the Subtle Knife has two edges. One that can cut through any material in the known universe (including “immortal beings.” This throwaway line has major significance in the future of the story). The other side can cut between the fabric of the universe, opening doors to other worlds. So Will gets some quick Jedi training in before old Obi-Wan… Sorry, Giacomo tells them that they must leave so he can die in peace (because the Spectres will get him now that he isn’t the Bearer anymore). It is really hard to keep a father figure around in this show isn’t it?

Lee Scoresby Finds A Shaman

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

But this isn’t entirely Will’s episode, it also focuses on his father Jon Parry. Otherwise known as Dr. Stanislaus Grumman, the man that Lee Scoresby has been searching for all season. When Lee finally finds him, he introduces himself by yet another name – Jopari. Played by the excellent Andrew Scott with a haunted and mysterious air to him, we have been waiting for this character’s introduction since last season. Turns out that Jopari is working with Lord Asriel as the worlds draw ever closer to a major battle between good and evil. A battle between curiosity and blind obedience. Between exploration or subjugation. Or rather, a battle between free will and destiny.

Jopari traveled from his world (Will’s world) to the world of the Magisterium (Lyra’s world) at some point in the past. But after he passed through, his doorway closed behind him and left him stranded. He has been there long enough to go through several identity changes, becoming both a scholar and a shaman. He has also found his own daemon, and discovered that part of his soul is female. His daemon is a beautiful bird with the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge – an amazing Fleabag reunion.

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

Lee agrees to help Jopari after they have a heart to heart about parenting. Lee loves Lyra like a father, and will go to any lengths to keep her safe. Jopari left behind his own son (Will) and is clearly still emotional about it. But he refuses to let emotion cloud his judgement or affect his mission. He is seeking the Subtle Knife for Lord Asriel (I still miss James McAvoy in this season of His Dark Materials) who needs it in the great battle to come. But little does he know that his own son has just become The Bearer of the Knife.

Setting Up The Endgame Early

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

And so we set up the endgame for season 2 of His Dark Materials in this episode with the introduction of the Subtle Knife. Now that Will is the Bearer of the Knife, he holds grave responsibilities. The first step for Will and Lyra after this is to steal back the alethiometer from Lord Boreal. Since they obviously can no longer honor their bargain to give him the knife. But we see that Marisa Coulter has finally crossed over between worlds, with Boreal’s help. She is lying in wait for Lyra to appear so she can claim her (although we don’t know why exactly Marisa wants Lyra back so badly…)

Also in this episode we saw Mary Malone finally contact the consciousness behind Dark Matter/Dust. In a spooky exchange with a voice emanating from her supercomputer, Mary learns that the consciousness is made up of many minds. And that they call themselves “Angels.” For a former nun turned scientist, this is a huge revelation. But when Mary asks why they have interfered in human evolution on Earth she gets a chilling response. For “vengeance.” What this means will have long-term ramifications on the story ahead.

His Dark Materials S2 Image via BBC/HBO

And let’s not forget about the Witches, still recovering from the Magisterium’s attack on their home. Queens Ruta Skadi and Serafina Pekkala meet up to make a plan to go through the portal that Asriel created last season, in search of Lyra. The final shot of the episode shows them doing just that, taking down the Magisterium’s airships and flying straight into the beam of light. Where they end up is a mystery for now, but something that we should find out in the next episode.

In the end I felt like “The Tower of Angels” was a bit rushed, considering how important these moments are in the book. I was shocked to find the moment when Will claims the knife happens in the middle of the episode. In any other show, this would have been a climactic final moment that ended on a cliffhanger. The pacing was a little off in this episode. But it was still full of important emotional beats and character moments. Lyra is also continuing to grow and mature as a character, and her relationship with Will grows deeper and more heartfelt with each episode.

And so now we finally have the Subtle Knife in play during season 2 of His Dark Materials. What it will cut next remains to be seen. Stay tuned for our reviews of more episodes this season by following Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.

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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.

Andrew ScottBBCHBOhis dark materialsPhillip PullmanThe Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife

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