This review is based on the first five episodes of His Dark Materials.
Whilst some might be familiar with the 2007 movie, The Golden Compass, not much is known about the books that inspired the motion picture that failed to launch a movie franchise over a decade ago, let alone the latest HBO series that is both a visual stunner and an emotional rollercoaster. Based on the books by author Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials is a fantasy and adventure surrounding key character Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen).
First and foremost, the world of His Dark Materials is one that is filled with daemons that take animal forms of one’s soul, a religious organisation called the Magisterium and of course, witches, alternate worlds, magic and everything in between. With season one finale proving viewers time and time again that adults are kings and queens of messing things up, we not only grieve with Lyra on the loss of her best friend that she spent an entire season trying to save, but are also piqued with curiosity as to what exactly lies on the other side of the portal that her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) opened.
Starring Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson as Will Parry, Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter and Ariyon Bakare as Lord Carlo Boreal, season two starts with Lyra exploring the new world she entered through the portal at the end of season one. Called Cittagazze, she meets with Will Parry, whom we briefly met in the previous season, and their fates quickly intertwine. Wil is a key character from the later books but was introduced earlier in the TV series and his backstory and destiny are largely explored in this season.
With the alethiometer, a golden compass that tells the one who reads it the truth about anything in the world, Lyra promises to help Will find his father and in return, Will will take her back to his world so that she can connect with scholars that can help her understand ‘Dust’. In the world of His Dark Materials, ‘Dust’ is seen as an original sin that falls on humans once they reach puberty and hit adulthood. It’s the very reason why Mrs Coulter had her inhumane experiment of separating children from their souls in season 1.
The two make a home in Cittagazze and run into street kids who warn them of dark spirits called Spectres that suck the soul out of pubescent teenagers and adults. Spectres are His Dark Materials’ version of dementors, and like the ones you see in Harry Potter, are truly terrifying.
Back in Lyra’s world, a war begins between the Magisterium, a religious government party and the witches. Mrs Coulter, having fallen from grace for letting her ex-lover Lord Asriel go away unscathed, grapples with maintaining her power in the Magisterium whilst remaining heavily concerned for her daughter Lyra. In Mrs Coulter fashion, she manipulates the men around her and uses whatever means necessary to get what she wants, including hurting innocents along the way. Lord Boreal soon squirms his way into her life and she discovers that despite being the smartest person in the room, there is more she’s yet to learn, to touch, to hear.
Season two is based off Pullman’s second book The Subtle Knife and remains true to the source material in which the season does place more emphasis on learning more about WIll himself and what lies in his destiny. Lyra is gifted and special, and so is Will.
Whilst the main theme discussed in season one is trust, season two delves deeply into the discourse and conflicts between religion and science. The show carefully treads to show the fallacies present in religion without naming or appearing offensive. It is highly symbolic, though the occasional references to Fathers and Nuns, and kissing of the Pope’s ring is as explicit as it gets. Not to mention they call God the Authority and subscribe to a rather patriarchal lens where women are subordinate and witch-like temptresses and that any man who believes in the teaching of science are enemies of the Magisterium.
Present are also topics like abuse and generational trauma as seen in the toxic and abusive ways Mrs Coulter treats her own daemon and in her very painful exchange with aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda). Again, as a TV show that caters to childlike imagination and all things magical, the show presents difficult topics in subtle ways that aren’t scarring or difficult to watch. It is after all a fantasy, and the way in which these themes are being weaved into the show’s storytelling are both beautiful and impactful.
Child actors Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen are a joy to watch. The two clearly have a strong friendship on and off stage as the close friendship portrayed in His Dark Materials despite Lyra and Will having zero trust in the world and only just knowing each other comes off naturally and believable. Ariyon Bakare does well as a suave villain. Like his daemon, Lord Boreal is sophisticated and affluent, but also suspicious and cunning. The man easily captures your attention when he’s on screen, but it is unfortunate that we don’t see him play a bigger role in the season’s narrative as we wished.
The star of this season has to be Ruth Wilson who is a phenomenal Mrs Coulter. As a very complex villain, Wilson does greatly in portraying her as the power hungry and manipulative woman she is yet, still come off as humane and kid you not, likeable. Forget the child kidnapping and killing – Wilson’s Mrs Coulter is someone viewers can sympathise with. Though not explicitly mentioned, Wilson displays that Mrs Coulter has had a rather hard and abusive childhood, making her hate herself and her daemon. The hatred she has bleeds into the way she treats her daemon and why despite being so evil and terrible to other kids, she puts protecting Lyra as a huge priority. Some twisted way of not having history repeat itself, maybe?
Taking away the focus from main characters Lyra, Will and Mrs Coulter, other characters in the show are truly likeable – particularly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby who is also on a mission to save Lyra. His loyalty to finding her makes him more of a father figure than Lord Asriel ever was and during his journey of finding Lyra, he comes across another father figure, John Parry (Andrew Scott).
Ruta Gedmintas as Serafina Pekkala received more screen time here than she did in season one, but for a season that’s focused on the war brewing between the witches and the Magisterium, the witches are treated like an afterthought, instead of being pushed to the front and center. New actress Simone Kirby plays a scholar named Dr Mary Malone and is rather key to the storyline, particularly in regards to Will’s destiny and the research around Dust, though one has to watch the series first to know what her role exactly is and what adventures lies ahead for her.
In all, His Dark Material season two is an enjoyable watch and truly deserves more love and recognition than it does right now. It is a fantasy show that has the likes of Harry Potter without the soap-opera styled family drama. Instead, the show focuses on science, religion and to not underestimate children whilst having stunning visuals and lovable talking animals comparable to that of Fantastic Beasts.
It’s got the elements of magic, adventure and eyebrow-raising discourses that is an easy watch for adults looking to reignite their childlike wonder and suitable to watch with families and kids.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
An enjoyable fantasy series that focuses on science, religion and to not underestimate children, all while featuring stunning visuals and adorable talking animals.
Story - 8/10
Direction - 7/10
Characterisation - 7/10
Geek Satisfaction - 8/10