There’s a lot that’s been said about the superiority of the second chapters over their opening acts. And now season two of His Dark Materials is saying even more. We were given early access to the first five episodes of the second season of HBO and BBC’s adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy novel trilogy, and right from the get-go things feel more enlivened. We’ve gone from required lengthy worldbuilding to exploring new worlds in a multiverse, with all the danger and excitement that brings.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 7

Adapting most of Pullman’s second book, The Subtle Knife, season two of His Dark Materials picks up right after the events of the season one finale, which saw firecracker young heroine Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) and her daemon Pan, step through the giant tear in the very fabric of reality created by Lord Asriel (James McAvoy, nowhere to be seen in these episodes). Not only is Asriel actually Lyra’s estranged father who pretended to be her uncle her entire life, but he ripped open the way between worlds using the energy released when he separated Lyra’s best friend from his daemon, killing the young boy.

Following Asriel through the tear to find answers and retribution, Lyra instead finds herself in the abandoned city of Cittàgazze. It’s here she runs into Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a young boy from our very mundane world who escaped into a different mysterious portal after accidentally killing a man in self-defence. The very same portal used by Lord Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare), a high-ranking member of the theocratic Magisterium in Lyra’s world with a scheming interest in Will who long ago discovered how to cross between worlds.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 8

That’s knowledge he’s kept secret from the rest of the zealots in the Magisterium who believe that the sheer existence of the multiverse – and especially “dust,” the strange particle that makes crossing worlds possible – is heresy of the highest order. In order to reinforce that belief, the Magisterium has amassed armed forces around Asriel’s tear, putting them even further into opposition with the super-powered witches of the North. And the witches don’t take too kindly to gunships bombarding their lands.

Led by Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) and Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka), the witches going to war is a spectacle to behold. A daring infiltration by Ruta to rescue one of their own from the barbarous torture being inflicted on her by the Magisterium is the type of jaw-dropping action sequence you would expect most shows to hold back for their expensive finales. Here HBO and BBC don’t even flinch at such a polished display early. That same level of big-budget production work applies to the stunning Cittàgazze, a towering vertical edifice of a city that evokes Tuscan architecture twisted to fantastical designs. It’s in these wending streets where Lyra and Will spend most of their early time, getting to learn about each other and the stark differences of their respective worlds.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 9

Will’s shock at Lyra’s daemon Pan – essentially the external manifestation of her soul – is just as astounding as Lyra’s discovery of Will cooking omelets. The latter leading to a hilarious sequence of Lyra trying to duplicate Will’s culinary skill. As Will takes Lyra back through his portal to our world a few times, there are more of these funny beats to be found in season two – while this is still very much a fantasy drama rather than a light adventure, it’s not as morosely self-serious as season one. This gives Keen and Amir Wilson a lot greater range to play, especially Keen who gets to truly cut loose emotionally later on.

There’s also a new sense of wonder I found lacking in season one. These are fantastical events – including golden armour-wearing polar bears who talk! – but I never really felt awed by them. We mostly get that newly appreciated perspective from Simone Kirby’s Dr Mary Malone, a theoretical physicist specializing in dark matter to whom Lyra is led by the alethiometer – the mysterious arcane device she’s able to read which tells her truths. Through Malone’s interactions with Lyra, we also finally get to peek behind the curtain of just how these worlds fit together, and it’s thrilling stuff.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 10

Not that there isn’t darkness, as Lyra and Will discover when they encounter the malevolent reason why Cittàgazze is deserted. A deadly power is trying to get at an object of great importance and one to which Will’s fate is linked: the titular Subtle Knife, a blade capable of slicing through the very fabric of reality.

Cutting through the entire show though with just as much efficacy is Ruth Wilson’s villainous Marisa Coulter, who still remains the show’s best special effect. While the rest of the cast is good – great even! – Wilson is simply on another level yet again. The complexity of her character (she’s also Lyra’s mother) combined with her position as an extremely competent and capable woman who has been forced into the subservience of lesser men in the Magisterium lends her a deliciously dangerous unpredictability. And Wilson, with her impeccably stressed diction and those fiery eyes mounted over her iconic red lips, just owns it all.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 11

She may be getting some competition in the crazy eyes department though, thanks to season two’s introduction of Andrew Scott as Stanislaus Grumman. A self-proclaimed “shaman” in the world of the Magisterium, Grumman has key knowledge that intrepid aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is in search of to help his friend and erstwhile travel companion Lyra. Of course, anybody who paid attention during past episodes – or just possesses a modicum of deductive reasoning – will immediately work out exactly what Grumman’s story is, but His Dark Materials chooses to still play coy with it in the episodes I saw.

There are a few more of these slightly odd narrative decisions – mostly to do with Lyra needlessly putting her and Will in danger at times – but they’re luckily not too prevalent. Writer Jack Thorne, who penned the entirety of season one, co-scripts here with Francesca Gardiner, Sarah Quintrell, and Namsi Khan, and that additional creative backup seems to have bolstered up where his solo work was previously lacking. With composer Lorne Balfe’s boisterous, swelling score underpinning everything, the result is all-around improvement on just about all fronts for the second season of His Dark Materials at this point.

His Dark Materials season 2 advance review – A cut above the first season 12

My biggest concern though is that even as enervated as the show is this time around, after five episodes it still only feels like we’re halfway through the story of this season. And yet, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic affecting production, there are only two episodes left.

HBO and BBC have not been too rigid when it comes to sticking 100% to the structures of Pullman’s novels. Season one mostly adapted The Golden Compass but also pulled forward several elements from later in the story. With the shorter episode count, unless the final two instalments for season two are super rushed, I have a feeling that some of The Subtle Knife’s story beats – which, reportedly are huge and leans even harder into Pullman’s unapologetic iconoclastic texts – may be kept back for season three. That’s if we get a season three.

The first season’s ratings never really set the world on fire, but production on a second season had been greenlit and commenced before the first episode ever aired. Now, that built-in future commitment isn’t there and I can only hope that enough viewers tune in again for this new, superior season of His Dark Materials so that we can get the massive, sprawling, magical finale this story deserves.

His Dark Materials season two will premiere on Showmax as from tomorrow 17 November 2020.

Last Updated: November 16, 2020

The second season of HBO and BBC's adaptation of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels is not just stepping through portals to new worlds, but also stepping up in quality overall with a more balanced tone and better pacing as it dives into the heart of this fantasy epic.
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