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An improved second season of His Dark Materials stumbles a bit at the finish line

Illustration for article titled An improved second season of His Dark Materials stumbles a bit at the finish line
Photo: HBO
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In the opening scenes of “Æsahættr,” we reunite with Ruta Skadi, who wakes up on a random cliffside and overhears a conversation among some cliff ghasts. Apparently able to understand their language, which is subtitled for the audience, Ruta listens as they talk about the stakes of the pending war, and reveal that Asriel’s battle with the Authority—God, if we disperse with the vague language for a second—will fail unless he is able to wield Æsahættr, which is some kind of weapon. She then returns to Serafina Pekkala, who is following her own prophecy about Lyra’s importance to the war ahead.

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Even as His Dark Materials has found its footing in its second season, the Witches have remained an issue, and it’s because their function in the story has been reduced to superhuman fighting scenes and exposition that is insistent as opposed to involving. The idea that prophecy is guiding this story is thematically meaningful: in a story about the power religion holds over society, the idea that Lyra and Will are each unknowingly in a cosmic struggle over the fate of the world places each of their choices in sharp relief. We’re reminded throughout this finale that what Will and Lyra are really wrestling with is the process of coming of age, where you’re making these seemingly definitive choices about who you are, and accepting changes that will lock into place your future (in Lyra’s case with Pan settling in one single form). What they don’t realize is that the fate of the very world depends on those choices, and Pullman’s novels are effective at creating a story that never loses the thread of connection between choices made and fates foretold.

Every time the TV adaptation has used the witches to spout exposition about prophecies, though, this thread is lost. To be clear for the non-readers, these pieces of prophecy are also in the books, and so it’s not as though the show is straying from Pullman’s intention. But somehow it’s as though the show has spent too much and too little time on the witches simultaneously: the show has presented them as major characters, but they have failed to actually provide enough depth and purpose for it to feel as though their scenes are saying something about them as people as opposed to simply the broad strokes of the story. We’re spending time seeing the story from their point of view, but it’s failed to amount to much of anything, and the show has actually reduced the role of the witches overall in ways that make their presence even more arbitrary: the two witches who joined Serafina were reduced to cannon fodder for the specters, whereas in the books it’s one of the witches who ends John Parry’s life. For a non-reader audience of the series, it’s hard to imagine the witches registering as anything other than a convenient way to keep repeating what we already know, lest we forget that something larger than Lyra and Will searching for his father is at hand.

Illustration for article titled An improved second season of His Dark Materials stumbles a bit at the finish line
Photo: Simon Ridgway (HBO)

I know I’ve complained about the witches plenty this season—and apologize for belaboring the point—but it was frustrating to feel like “Æsahættr” was the show falling on old bad habits, especially since other parts of the finale delivered on the promise that developed throughout the season. The scene between Will and his father is a perfect example of how the story is about the lived reality of these prophecies: John Parry is carrying a message to the bearer of the Subtle Knife without knowing it’s his own son, and when he realizes this is the case the scene takes on an entirely different purpose. John is focused on telling his son that he has an immense responsibility to something bigger than himself, but Will is trying to get his father to understand how this very idea destroyed their family, with “Jopari” waging a meta-war against an unspoken threat while his wife was losing her grip on her sanity, and his son was growing up without a father. The scene has a natural push and pull of the macro- and micro-level parts of the story, and Andrew Scott and Amir Wilson do a great job of highlighting how fraught this is. It’s an emotional reunion, but it’s also a turning point in the story, and the tension between those two functions is the kind of dynamic storytelling that the scenes with the witches are missing.

Essentially, the more involved Will and Lyra are in a given storyline, the stronger it is, and the more we move away from them to stories that we’re told involve them His Dark Materials starts to lose its impact. The one exception to this rule is Marisa Coulter, through sheer will of Ruth Wilson’s magnetism: there was a moment as she’s working through the Golden Monkey’s sudden conscience regarding her plan to use the specters to hunt down Lyra—and rescue her from committing the original sin as the proverbial second-coming of Eve—where I had to remind myself she was acting against nothing. There’s something so intensely physical about Wilson’s performance as she interacts with Coulter’s daemon, mirroring its simian postures and getting on its level in order to reconcile the inner struggle that his hesitation represents. It’s an effective episode for the connection between human and daemon: the Monkey’s growing alarm at Coulter’s relationship to the specters is one side of the coin, but then you have Pan confiding in Will how Lyra values their friendship, only for Lyra to later correct the record and offer that her friendship with Roger hangs over her responsibility to him. Daemons are a manifestation of your inner monologue, but that is always in tension, and I was glad to see that be a central theme of the piece of Coulter’s story as she eventually teleports to the caves to kidnap Lyra with seemingly no resistance (a weird choice given that in the books it is a full-scale attack by the specters that envelops a large host of witches, as opposed to just one).

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Illustration for article titled An improved second season of His Dark Materials stumbles a bit at the finish line
Photo: Simon Ridgway (HBO)

Yes, admittedly, this is a review that’s returning to a comparison with the books more than others, and there was a comment someone left on an old review over the holidays that effectively asked why I was still focusing on changes the show has made, given that they’ve already happened: it’s not as though, for example, they’re suddenly not going to make Lee Scoresby younger in the show, so why bother continuing to complain about itt? However, depending on the nature of an adaptation choice, there are short-term and long-term consequences. In some cases, changes clearly have short-term benefits but carry little long-term consequences: having Marisa interact with Lee and Mary, for example, does nothing to change any of their respective stories but fleshes out some characterization in productive ways to better sell the idea that she isn’t inherently evil, but is undoubtedly making an evil choice in using the specters as she does here to do what she’s convinced herself is right. However, in other cases, it is immediately clear that whatever short-term benefits exist for a change from the books, there is a long-term consequences that is hanging over the show, a ball waiting to drop. And this is, indeed, the case with Young Lee Scoresby, who dies fending off the Magisterium to allow John Parry to find the bearer of the knife, with the belief that it will serve to protect Lyra Belacqua.

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Put simply, no matter how many times the show has Lee tell us that he sees Lyra as a daughter, it just doesn’t actually make sense for a younger version of this character to devote his entire life to her cause. It’s not a question of Lin-Manuel Miranda not selling dialogue that would have otherwise managed this: the problem here has always been that Lee’s sacrifice is framed in the books as an alternative to his retirement, and replacing that with “giving up decades of your life solely because you felt paternally toward this girl and a witch said she was important” is a huge burden for the story to carry. As with the witches, Lee told us often that he felt like Lyra was a daughter to him, but a “daddy issues” backstory isn’t going to turn that into real pathos, especially not when the contrast with the books is fresh at mind. I acknowledge that this is one case where not having read the books means that the scene—which was pretty much straight out of the book otherwise, and well-realized with Hester and Lee’s increasingly emotional interactions—might well have played very effectively, but I would argue the show never found a way to resolve the problem their adaptation choice created. Whereas in the books Lee’s death registered as the end of his life and his story, here it feels more like Lee has concluded his part in this story, which goes back to the witches and the sense that too many of the show’s characters exist to serve the narrative instead of their story becoming integrated into it.

That process of integration was, with Will, the second season of His Dark Materials’ greatest accomplishment: I was unsure of whether there would be long-term damage done by making the short-term decision to introduce Will in the first season instead of in the opening of the second, but in the end the show understood what needed to be done in order to leverage the benefits of the choice to offset what was lost. And if there is any part of this show that needs to be in solid shape heading into the third and final season—which was formally announced last week—it is Lyra and Will’s relationship, and thus I leave the second season more confident in the show than I was after the first. I may struggle with some of Jack Thorne’s choices as showrunner, but his priorities do seem to be in order, and that will carry a lot of weight as the story marches to its conclusion.

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Illustration for article titled An improved second season of His Dark Materials stumbles a bit at the finish line
Photo: HBO

But watching “Æsahættr,” I nonetheless felt like I did back during the first season, as though the disparate parts of the show just weren’t coming together. The show has Mary Malone still wandering through the mountain reading her I Ching, instead of sending her through to the next stage in her journey. There’s a glimpse of the Cardinal and the Magisterium in the final montage, but the season gave us no reason to particularly care about that story, and its presence there felt unearned. And while I know that COVID-19 robbed us of a standalone Asriel episode that would have better set up his speech to the Angels, it still felt like it was coming from a different show, and that the montage was insisting these were integrated narratives when the season itself had never managed this. Aside from my aforementioned issues with the witches, I’d defend most of His Dark Materials’ narrative threads on an individual level, but after showing glimmers of hope that it would start to coalesce into something transcendent in the middle of this season, this finale settles back into feeling like a well-made missed opportunity.

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Stray observations

  • In case you missed it, they snuck in a post-credits scene featuring Roger, in a shadowy space, calling out to Lyra. The implications of this are pretty vague, although book readers know what they’re pointing to in a way non-readers really couldn’t figure out at this point.
  • HBO wanted me to keep McAvoy’s appearance a secret (they filmed it during the pandemic to rescue at least some of the standalone episode), which is admittedly a little tough given it already aired in the UK, but I do admit that I was also just presuming we’d see him, and so when he didn’t show up in the credits I just kind of presumed there would be a surprise cameo as there was.
  • I realize that it may have been intended to be part of the standalone episode, but it was confusing to be unclear when we first see Ruta Skadi with the cliff ghasts whether this was before or after she caught up with the angels and found Asriel. The lack of context for that seems like it would have been even more confusing for non-readers.
  • So they had Mary run into the girls from the city so that she could...escort them into the mountains to reunite with their families? I’m puzzled over this. It’s clear they wanted Mary to be a part of these episodes instead of just transitioning her to her final destination, but other than the glimpse of the angel protecting her from the Specters it didn’t add up to anything.
  • The show has been so good about showing us how transfixing Coulter can be, so it was weird that they reframed her attack on the witch and her extrication of the “Eve” name from the books, where the witch is too taken with her to attack as she should. Having the witch instead naively treat her as an innocent is far less interesting.
  • Red Panda Pan Update: Honestly, not enough Red Panda Pan, but note that Pan was in Red Panda form when he was talking about how he will eventually stop changing form, so THE DREAM IS ALIVE.
  • I wish they would have shown us Lee’s last stand as a single scene, instead of cross-cutting it with other stories: I realize that it’s inevitable when adapting a story with focused chapters that you’re going to need to cut things against one another to maintain temporality, but they would have gotten more mileage out of the scene if we had seen it start to finish in real time.
  • On that note, it’s a little weird that they did nothing to explain what exactly Serafina was doing to help Lee: it’s confusing that she abandoned Lyra even after she knew he was dead, and so it seemed like some dialogue with her daemon to discuss what her ritual was designed to do might have helped clarify why that wasn’t a really dumb call on her part.
  • I get why it would have been difficult to set up the spurned lover setup to the witch murdering Jopari, but it was still disheartening to see a random Magisterium general play the role instead, even if it did give us a nice “daemon avenging human by killing murderer’s daemon, and thus murderer” moment.
  • I allude to this above, but it’s so strange that the show gave no indication how Coulter went from whispering in Lyra’s ear to having her sleeping in a trunk on a steamboat. How much time passed? How did we get from Point A to Point B? Lots of questions with no answers.
  • Before I get to some discussion of the implications of this finale for the third book (with probably some more explicit spoilers than usual, but I’ll try to keep it vague), I want to thank everyone for reading: I regret in a way that this finale review ended up spending as much time as it did rehashing some old book/show discussions that I hoped this season would move past, but I can only be honest about my response to the show, and as always encourage you to use the comments to explore your own responses in relation to mine and to each other. More than with a typical show, adaptations are built to create divergent responses, and while we’re only doing one review now I’ve been really pleased to see those perspectives come together in the comments, and so thank you all for that. We’ll hopefully be back sometime in 2021/2022 to see how exactly the rest of this story is going to fit into eight more episodes.
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Through The Amber Spyglass (Spoilers for the Remainder of the Story)

Based on the fact that the show announced casting for the two angels ahead of the season’s debut, we can be fairly confident in saying that there was a time when this was not the ending of the second season of His Dark Materials.

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Now, it’s possible that we would have seen Baruch and Balthamos in the Asriel standalone episode, which would have explained their casting, but part of me wonders if there was a point where they intended to bring us further into the story. It does seem strange that we don’t actually see Will discover Lyra’s absence despite the fact she’s allegedly on a steamboat already, and so one wonders if that scene was shot and then whether due to the pandemic or due to a shift in their storytelling plans, they went in another direction.

The related question, though, is how the show intends to deal with the fact that Lyra and Will are going to look very different when the show returns, with both actors having aged considerably since they filmed the second season last summer. Presuming the show won’t be in production until Spring 2021 at the earliest, I’m curious if part of how they’ve shifted the ending is building in a more significant time jump tied to Lyra’s captivity than what you have in the books. I would speculate that part of why they might have abandoned what they’d shot with Will and the angels was in order to drop us back into the narrative with Will having been searching through different worlds for Lyra for a year or more, in line with the real-world timeline.

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Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.