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Review: 'His Dark Materials,' Season Two, is the Fun Escapist Fare We Need Right Now

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 16, 2020
Kit Connor and Dafne Keen in 'His Dark Materials'
Kit Connor and Dafne Keen in 'His Dark Materials'  (Source:HBO)

HBO's series adaptation of Philip Pullman's epic fantasy "His Dark Materials" continues, with Season Two proving to be a remarkably faithful (and big-budget) adaptation of the trilogy's second volume.

Season Two picks up immediately after the events of Season One, with young protagonist Lyra (Dafne Keene) having flung herself into a sky-splitting bridge between parallel realities and ended up in what looks, for all the world, like an abandoned Italian village. There, she meets up with Will (Amir Wilson) who, like her, has an absentee father.

In Lyra's case, Daddy is none other than Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a fearless adventurer - and an opponent of the all-controlling, theocratic Magisterium (more or less a dystopian version of the Christian faith on steroids, a literary creation that's drawn heat from various religious groups alleging anti-religious bias on Pullman's part). Season One was all about a search for Lyra's best friend, a missing boy whose fate was to be sacrificed by Lord Asriel in order to open that very portal between realities - less a portal, actually, than a very bright, world-melting superhighway, the towering immediacy of which has thrown the world into disarray (and embarrassed the Magisterium by allowing the world's inhabitants to see alternate planes of existence, which the Magisterium denies exist, for themselves).

Will's father is a different, but no less wide-ranging, explorer, John Parry (Andrew Scott) - the same John Parry who is the subject of a search by aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a search that continues even as Lyra and Will launch their own quest to locate him using a magical device - a "golden compass" called an alethiometer that's actually more like a Magic 8 ball, only more apt to provide details - which the preternaturally gifted Lyra instinctively knows how to use. (This is not such a surprise when you consider that Lyra is also the subject of an apocalyptic prophecy, which makes her - like her father - a subject of intense, and unwelcome, interest by the Magisterium.)

Magical epics such as these know that the most boring distance between any two points is a straight line, so it's not long before a host of new and branching complications start up (though they are, of course, designed to re-converge). A mystical tower, feral children, soul-destroying phantoms, angels, and a "subtle knife" all come into play. So does a whole secondary, yet intertwined, storyline about a cold war between a population of (female) witches and the (heavily male-dominated) Magisterium. This storyline is also propelled by the Lyra-as-savior (or perhaps destroyer) prophecy, and pits the series' most relentless secondary players against each other in a delicious, and sometimes malicious, take on the eternal war of the sexes.

There's also Lyra's other overriding concern; though committed to helping Will find his father, she's burning with a need to figure out the true nature of "dust," an elementary form of matter that the Magisterium fears and hates, thinking it is the physical manifestation of sin and evil. Dust and its secrets are behind Lord Asriel's ventures, after all; if she's ever to understand her own father's actions, Lyra figures, then she's got to unlock the truth about dust. It's this parallel quest that brings Lyra repeatedly into our world - or one very much like it - with visits to Oxford University, Lyra's home territory in her own world but turf that's seething with enemies as well as allies here in ours.

Helping keep the story's through-line taut is the constant pursuit of Lyra by Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), who, we learned last season, is actually Lyra's mother. By turns ruthless and devoted, Mrs. Coulter is perhaps the most compelling of all the show's characters, which is no mean feat in a series bursting with fascinating characters (some of whom - like the one played by Terence Stamp - exert a greater impact on the overall viewing experience then their limited screen time would suggest).

As faithful as the series is to the books, it does depart in certain ways, especially in the settings - mainly, by bringing the parts set in our familiar world into... well, into our familiar world, the world of today, rather than the past. There's a certain amount of fun to be had in this, as when Lyra queries Will about his iPhone. "You're always looking at it," she notes. It's a multi-layered moment, both a rebuke to our cultural addiction to everything online and also an understated paralleling of another sort (since what, if not a sort of alethiometer, is an iPhone? After all, you can ask it anything you like and get an answer. The difference, crucially, is that an alethiometer tells you the unadorned truth - like it or not - whereas with an iPhone you're more than likely to find your individual preferences catered to, regardless of the truth content of what you're being served up.) At another point, as Lyra and Will hide out in a movie theater, Lyra samples Will's popcorn and declares it awful - "like wood shavings." "Then stop eating it," he says, to which she says, in confusion, "I can't!" Welcome to our world, kid.

There's so much shiny, slightly dopey, and sometimes sinister fun to be had in this series - more so here than in the sometimes too-obscure first season - that, like Will's popcorn, you can't leave it alone. The books have been fawned over by some as repositories of deep spiritual wisdom (a view I have never understood), but the HBO series doesn't need and doesn't want, that sort of reverence. What they're building here with "His Dark Materials" is a bright, if heavily shaded, world of magic and adventure, and that - as it happens - is exactly what we need.

"His Dark Materials," Season Two, begins streaming on HBO Nov. 16.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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