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Sunday, 8 November 2020

REVIEW: His Dark Materials continues to dazzle as it returns for Season Two


In the second series of His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel (James McAvoyhas opened a bridge to a new world, and, distraught over the death of her best friend, Lyra (Dafne Keen) follows Asriel into the unknown. In a strange and mysterious abandoned city, she meets Will (Amir Wilson), a boy from our world who is also running from a troubled past. Lyra and Will learn their destinies are tied to reuniting Will with his father but find their path is constantly thwarted as a war begins to brew around them. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) searches for Lyra, determined to bring her home by any means necessary.

Beginning with a recap of the previous series, the new season of His Dark Materials has its audience on its toes from the very start. The world is in chaos following Lord Asriel’s sacrifice of his daughter Lyra’s young friend Roger Parry in order to open a bridge between worlds.

Asriel hopes that by opening this bridge he can explore new worlds including one photographed by the expedition of lost explorer Stanislaus Grumman alias Colonel John Parry (Andrew Scott). As Lyra searches for her father she finds herself meeting Will, son of Colonel Parry who has fled from our world to this one through Asriel’s bridge. Will is escaping from the attempt by agents of the Magisterium who were attempting to find out exactly what his father knew. 
Together they discover that the world they have arrived on has been attacked by Spectres, creatures who can only attack adults in order to remove their life force.

Whilst Lyra and Will deal with their own problems, the Magisterium, 
who have declared it heresy to suggest there are other worlds out there, must deal with the political fallout of Asriel’s portal making the evidence of other worlds existing abundantly clear to everyone. This sudden shifting in the sands of certainty brings panic to the Magisterium which is evident throughout the episodes; they appear twitchy and uncertain how to act when faced with such a calamitous threat to their domination. Mrs Coulter, Lyra’s mother and one of the Magisterium’s top agents attempt to help calm the situation by interrogation one of the captured Witches, Katja Sirkka (Marama Corlett) in order to find out where both Lyra and Asriel are and to bring them back.

As with any great fantasy epic, such as The Lord of the Rings or CS Lewis’ Narnia novels, His Dark Materials involves multiple characters in multiple locations all acting towards a greater goal. This not only complicates the plot but also allows for diversity of storytelling and tone. This is perfectly demonstrated in the first episode of the new season of His Dark Materials. We have wonder from Lyra when she arrives in a new world, political intrigue with Mrs Coulter and Father MacPhail (Will Keen) and a touch of comic relief from Lee Scoresby (Lin Manuel Miranda). These various elements never jar, and it is a testament to Jack Thorne’s skill as a writer that he is able to juggle each element without ever making the audience feel confused or disenchanted.

Indeed, like the audience, Lyra, is still reeling from the ending of the first season in which it was revealed that Lyra’s parents were working together in order to discover the truth behind dust. By following him through the rip he has created in space and time, Lyra enters a new world – splitting the action between her home world and the new one she arrives in. This allows not only for the episode to have momentum – continually switching between one subplot to another allows the episode to never feel stayed or repetitive – but it also allows two of our central characters to properly connect.

Whilst we had been following Lyra and Will’s stories throughout the first season, they did not meet until now and the clash of cultures that we see in the episode between the pair provides necessary characterisation from both. Will’s initial inability to comprehend what Pan (Kit Connor) is helps set up the relationship between them. Lyra is not only more used to being flung into bizarre situations but also knows how to convince people she is on her side.

Both Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson bounce well off one another which makes this dynamic all the more compelling. Thorne’s words become electric when delivered by them and this really sells the episode to the viewer – we aren’t seeing abstract characters but real people
interacting in a fantastical world. This believability helps sell both the series and this episode, the true magic of His Dark Materials lies in the intertwining of the ordinary and the unbelievable.

Whilst Will and Lyra are exploring the new world they find themselves in, Lee Scoresby is attempting to meet with the leader of one of the covens of witches, Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) in order to figure out how they can retrieve Lyra and continue with their
opposition to the Magisterium. However perhaps the most interesting sub plot is that involving Mrs Coulter. As always  Ruth Wilson smoulders with ambition and her exchange with Father MacPhail in the corridor about ensuring his succession to a higher rank in the Magisterium reeks with Macbethian connotations.

The ending of the episode is particularly strong with the juxtaposition of Lyra discovering that Will is “a murderer but the good kind” and Will being unaware that a Spectre behind him, implying that he may soon fall prey to it. This not only ensures that the audience are on the edge of their seats waiting for the episode to end but also changes the power dynamic in the relationship between Lyra and Will – she now knows something about him that he is attempting to hide from her.

The performances from all the cast are as per usual extraordinarily good but once again Ruth Wilson steals the show as the sublime and seductive Mrs Coulter – never has villainy looked so good. Wilson dominates any scene she is in and easily manipulates those around her.
She exudes an effervescent coolness that is present throughout, regardless of whether she is conspiring or torturing a prisoner. Wilson’s burning rage is ever present in ever sequence as well and it lingers behind her eyes. That so much can be told about a character by the way the actor holds themselves or even by looking at their eyes is evidence of a truly remarkable performance and Ruth Wilson gives a truly remarkable performance as Mrs Coulter.

The first episode of the second season of His Dark Materials is a whirlwind tour de force by cast and crew. It not only reminds viewers what they found so engaging about the series in the first place but also allows them to once again become tense with expectation as to
what is yet to come. The interweaving of the various subplots give the episode variety and it is certainly not a chore to sit. It is truly a first rate piece of television that is certain to be enjoyed for years to come.

His Dark Materials continues on Sunday Nights on BBC One. 

Contributed by Will Barber Taylor. 

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