Forever ago, in the forlorn wilds of late 2020, I wrote about the twinge of hope I felt that, despite being filmed concurrently, the second season of His Dark Materials would improve upon the failings of the first. And I think I was right. Also a little bit wrong. TL;DR: Season 2 of HDM is a moderate improvement on the first, with a few lingering issues that sour the experience a bit.
First up, here’s what worked:
Ruth Wilson’s Continued Tour-de-Force Performance
Ruth Wilson continues to put out career-best work (in an already great career) as the series’ most complicated and nuanced character, Marisa Coulter. While some of this is certainly is due to having a meatier part within the series’ best arc, Ruth Wilson’s ability to convey barely contained rage with a twitch of her eyebrows or a pout of her lips remains one of the show’s greatest assets.
I have long thought that the moment in Chris Weitz’ much-despised 2007 adaptation, The Golden Compass, where Mrs Coulter slaps her daemon-familiar as it tries to put away a picture of Lyra was the gold standard in terms of conveying the character’s tortured self-loathing and the ever-present conflict between her desire to be mother and her political ambitions. Then the season two finale brought us Marisa Coulter alternating between screaming in anguish and cajoling her daemon into obedience. The tiny, CGI-rendered bit of her conscience, long rendered mute by Coulter’s suppression of her own humanity, acquiesces to Wilson’s terrifying display, contenting itself with the lightest touch to show that there is any affection between them. It was a chilling scene that capped off one of the few truly satisfying arcs on the show. Here’s hoping they stick the landing as the series continues.
Mrs Coulter’s Feminist Fury
It’s important to note that Wilson’s excellent performance is built upon a far more thoughtful revision of the character. There was much debate when I covered the first season as to whether or not viewers should see Mrs Coulter as a sociopath or as a woman pushed to the breaking point by her rage against patriarchal oppression. I feel like this season did an amazing job of clarifying and refining that debate. Where the Mrs Coulter of the books is ruthless in her pursuit of power, seducing and murdering Carlo Boreal to learn more about the subtle knife, screenwriter Jack Thorne’s adaptation pushes the tragic angle.
The high points of the season, for me, were her speeches to Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) in which she points out how selfish and privileged he has been in keeping the existence of Our World from her. Where Boreal sees a faithless world, bathed in corruption and consumerism, she sees a world of greater gender parity. Marisa Coulter is a ruthless powerhouse whose talents come from being able to suppress her fundamental humanity, but we see her at her most sincerely surprised when she realizes that, in Our World, she might not have needed to sacrifice as much of herself to be respected and powerful. This season wisely contrasts her with Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) to show a semblance of what Marisa Coulter might have been had she been allowed to publish under her own name or been awarded her doctorate.
Will and Lyra’s Chemistry
Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) need to be the heart of the show. Thankfully, the performances of both young actors seem to be brought to life by their pairing. While Lewin Lloyd’s mawkish moppet, Roger, was an endearing foil, Lyra becomes a much more dynamic and animated character, prone to the sorts of subversive play and contempt for authority that book-readers expected, and lamented the loss of, in the first season. Wilson and Keen are much closer to the characterizations of Will and Lyra from the books when they are in one another’s presence and the show is much, much better for it.
Deviating From Some of Pullman’s Plots and Updating the Source Material
I spent a lot of the season dreading the death of John Parry/Jopari/Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott). In the novel The Subtle Knife, Parry is ultimately killed by his spurned witch-lover, Juta Kamainen. I was especially worried that the show might have combined Juta with witch warmonger, Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka), thereby making the show’s only two Black women into Andrew Scott’s abandoned lovers. Luckily, this did not come to pass and the show version of Parry meets his end shielding his son from a Magisterium bullet.
It’s one of a number of examples of Jack Thorne’s good judgment when it comes to revising some of Philip Pullman’s worst impulses. This second season relies much more heavily on original material which roughly follows the plot of Pullman’s second book but plays out on screen rather than being related to Lyra, Will, or Mary secondhand. Lee Scoresby’s journey to recover John Parry makes for some chemistry between the two characters, and the increased screen time lets Lin Manuel Miranda have more fun with his daemon, Hester (Cristela Alonzo). Likewise, as stated above, the expansion of Mrs Coulter and Boreal’s plot is dynamic and riveting, as opposed to the largely off-page litany of sins presented in the books. There are even some necessary check-ins with James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel and Joe Tandberg’s Iorek Byrnison which will help non-book readers remember that those deeply important characters still exist and will show up in season 3.
On a related note, I do like the updating of the setting both in terms of some minor details and larger thematic elements. On the more ephemeral side, the grounding of Our World in details that make it feel both familiar and contemporary work to evoke stronger contrasts to both the broken ruin of Cittàgazze and the theocratic nightmare of Lyra’s World; Lyra and Will watch Paddington in an Oxford movie theatre and Boreal plays Lighthouse Family’s song “Lifted” for Mrs Coulter when she comes to visit. In terms of the updated details that actually matter, Thorne gets in a few digs at the 2019-era USA and UK with his observation that, though it isn’t run by an oppressive church, Our World is far more corrupt than the Magisterium, and the witches comment on the environmental collapse brought about by Asriel’s breach, which helps bring a timely message about the reckless actions of entrepreneurial men and its impact on climate change.
And now for the bad, or what didn’t work well this season:
Not Enough Updating of Pullman’s Books
Last year I discussed the problem of Thorne’s adaptation failing to address some of the novels’ cringier racism and cultural stereotyping. Left intact were references to villainous Tartars, and the word “Gyptian” (a reference to an anti-Roma ethnic slur), alongside a failure to build a world that was as multicultural as Pullman’s promised. While this season, being set mostly in the vaguely-Italian city of Cittàgazze and Our World’s Oxford, had fewer opportunities to bring up racist stereotypes, it still managed to disappoint in a way that hopefully will be absent in the final season.
At the top of the list are Pullman’s Orientalist and Primitivist leanings when it comes to the occult. Mary Malone finally makes contact with the sentient Dust by consulting the I Ching. John Parry uses trepanation to grant himself psychic access to supernatural powers that make him into a shaman. In both cases, Pullman uses the gaze of the Western occult tradition to make the point that all divination is essentially the same. The world of HDM, subversions and twists aside, is essentially Catholic. Having a former nun use the I Ching to reconnect with angels feels like the kind of nonspecific cultural gloss that Western occult societies like The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society adopted to assert that non-European mystic traditions—everything from the Kabbalah, Egyptian Magic, and Sufism to Hindu and Bhuddhist spiritual practices and rites—were all part of a cohesive worldview which was rooted in Christianity and European philosophy.
The John Parry of the series never says that trepanation gave him his magic powers as he does in the books, but Lyra and Lord Boreal discuss the practice and the makeup department has clearly given Andrew Scott a trepanation scar at the right temple. Connecting it with the shamanic traditions of the global North is not only culturally inaccurate but it further solidifies the idea that non-white magical traditions are barbaric and primitive. It’s disappointing to see these sorts of facile and outdated ideas continue to come up in a series that has taken such care to revise its gender politics.
Related and very minor but worthy of note is how much of Pullman’s limited worldbuilding is still in play. Lyra’s World still went through some European colonialism and is fuzzy on the exact historical details but some of its less thoughtful iterations make it into the adaptation needlessly. Scoresby states that he is from the country of Texas which has always been a titillating bit of alternate history in Pullman’s books. As Miranda’s Scoresby heads into his gun-slinging last stand, he reminds Hester that they used to play Alamo, recreating the epic battle between the Danish and the French. A show that can cast a Lee Scoresby of color surely can imagine a world where the lack of British colonialism in the Americas didn’t instantly lead to the gap being filled by other white nations, right? It’s the most minor thing on some level. But I feel like there was an opportunity to make Pullman’s vision of the world less white and while the casting department tried to grasp it, the writing department didn’t keep up.
Largely Purposeless Stunt Casting
I love David Suchet. I also love Terence Stamp. I especially love Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But all of them were given nothing to do in the series but deliver some flat exposition or deliver a line and be done with it. If you have Phoebe Waller-Bridge, let her say anything amusing. If you have David Suchet, don’t stick him with weird, pidgin-English lines that mostly just comment on the action. If you have Terence Stamp—okay, well, Terence Stamp had a bit more to do and his death scene was surprisingly moving. But the presence of great actors in this series was often incommensurate with their roles and as a result it was more distracting than fun. Relatedly: they go out of their way to make Cittàgazze look and feel as Italian as possible and yet all of its residents have UK-based accents. I might buy a Bella Ramsey character named “Angelica” but I draw the line at a Terence Stamp named “Giacomo Paradisi.”
In the end, I mostly enjoyed HDM season 2. I found that the slightly slower pace and fewer spectacular set-pieces meant that Thorne and his co-writers could develop a more interesting voice for what was a slightly rote adaptation in season 1. I am looking forward to seeing how some of the otherworldly and fantastical elements of the final book play out on screen, and I hope that there is more of an opportunity to flesh out Lord Asriel, who (likely because of McAvoy’s schedule) hasn’t really gotten to do much.
I am both hopeful and worried about what’s to come as the third novel is, frankly, a gigantic mess. This could either result in an equally messy season of TV or a fantastic opportunity to streamline and fix the aspects that made the last installment so tedious and baffling (passages on mulefa intelligent design dynamics, I’m looking at you). I continue to enjoy the majority of performances and am definitely relieved that Wilson and Keen seem to be talented and well-directed as they come into their own—and I am obviously always going to want to see more of Ruth Wilson doing what she does best: simultaneously chewing the scenery and breaking our hearts.
We also need to thank the true MVP of the season: Mrs Coulter’s Our World shoulder pads. The costume and set design of this show has always been wonderful, but whoever decided to give Ruth Wilson’s toned-down, more believable wardrobe a set of upturned shoulder pads that are both sinister and the height of fashion deserves all the Emmys and BAFTAs available.
That’s a wrap on His Dark Materials season 2 folks! Hopefully we’ll have more to talk about, both in the comments and at the eventual premiere of season 3.
Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on Apple Podcasts or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary