In Season 2, HBO’s ‘His Dark Materials’ Expands Into an Exuberant Journey Across Worlds

HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” enters a second season with visual and narrative confidence. This is because it is a show that does not need to keep finding some new way to expand. It is simply following the course of Pullman’s trilogy, keeping intact its sense of both wonder and rebellion. Joining the saga with a wider role is Amir Wilson, who as Will Parry becomes a virtual partner to our main hero, Lyra (Dafne Keen). The two meet at the beginning of the season when Lyra crosses into the schism created at the end of the last round by Lord Asriel. Will accompanies Lyra through the season’s grand twists and turns, as she tries to find the answer to the substance known as Dust, and evades the malevolent Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). 

“I worked hard to get to know the character well before jumping into season two,” Wilson told Entertainment Voice. “That was good for me. I also got to work with Dafne, who is closer to my age, and that was nice because we get to go on this journey together.” As the season opens Lyra is still reeling from the death of her friend Roger at the hands of Asriel, who happens to be her father (played last season by James McAvoy). Accompanied by her daemon, Pan (Kit Connor), Lyra crosses into another world and enters the city of Cittàgazze. Looking and worn and abandoned, Cittàgazze has buildings with large, mysterious angel statues and a massive, monolith of a building at its center. It looks exactly as the “tower surrounded by angels” decoded by the alethiometer Lyra took from the Magisterium and carries with her. Then Lyra runs into Will. At first there is an expected untrustworthiness from Lyra, but Will explains he too comes from another world. A wandering group of children soon explain that when Asriel opened the schism, deadly creatures known as Specters sucked up all the adults. Meanwhile Mrs. Coulter and the dark Magisterium grapple with the fallout of Asriel’s actions, since for the rigid religious order the existence of other worlds is a dangerous affront. What Coulter cares about is finding Lyra, even if she has to use torture to get the information she needs.

Never toning down its visual grandeur, “His Dark Materials” nonetheless becomes a more personal story this season. Gone are all the exuberant introductions and world building of the first chapter. This season is more about Lyra’s full on quest to find the secret of Dust. She is no longer an innocent, clueless young girl, but a personality learning and growing. She gradually comes to accept Will in her presence, yet still keeps essential secrets from him such as her possession of the alethiometer. But a unique camaraderie builds between the two. “The whole time on set was great energy and vibes,” said Wilson, “when you’re around the same people for seven months it’s hard not to build a bond, especially when they’re all great people. The more you get to know someone, the more you get to play off what works well between you all.” 

To the writing team’s credit, “His Dark Materials” refuses to be dumbed down. Still present are the major and for some, provocative, themes of the books. Now that Asriel has opened the schism, the Magisterium feels threatened. Their theocratic order is now wobbling. In a brilliant commentary on the nature of fanaticism, Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck) still refuses to acknowledge the schism is even real, despite everyone seeing before their eyes what is going on. “This show can be about how young people can make things right,” said Wilson, “Adults can make things pretty bad. Young people need to step forward. And you see that more and more in today’s world. Look at how we’re stepping up to tackle climate change for example. Hopefully we can provide role models for others to look up to.” 

Indeed, the adults in this show range from the admirable to the monstrous. In one episode Lyra and Will enter another alternate world where her beloved Harvard has been altered. But she meets a scientist studying black matter who could help with exploring Dust. Yet at the same time Coulter is torturing the witch Katja Sirkka (Marama Corlett) in her quest to find Lyra. The Magisterium meanwhile holds Inquisition-like trials to cover up what has happened with the schism and how it challenges their order. Speaking of the witches, they get some great moments this season, including quiet ones as when Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) calls a council meeting to interrogate Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who is himself searching for a magical device that might be able to help Lyra. In an absolutely thrilling sequence Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) goes rogue and carries out a raid to rescue a comrade, killing a cardinal and declaring war on the Magisterium. “You always feel a little funny having to say goodbye to these people you’ve grown so close to after shooting,” said Wilson. “That’s the hardest part about making this show. Everyone in it is brilliant.” 

For writer Jack Thorne, “His Dark Materials” continues to evoke an important tradition in fiction, whether it be Pullman’s novels or this magnificent adaptation. “Our biggest skill as writers, as a collective, is empathy. We’re living in a very strange time when people are being encouraged not to empathize with others and are encouraged to hate or to think that people are cheating them. For example, Donald Trump has persuaded people that this election was corrupt in some way and people are believing him. By just talking about the world and trying to show the different realities in the world, writers can play a role in countering that and encouraging people to look up a little bit more.”

His Dark Materials” season two premieres Nov. 16 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.