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His Dark Materials follows its characters into a new world, but the story's much the same (for better or worse)

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i follows its characters into a new world, but the storys much the same (for better or worse)
Photo: HBO
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By the time a television adaptation of a book series reaches its second season, it needs to feel as though it can stand on its own. This is not to suggest that those who have read the books and those who haven’t will be on an even playing field: even when Game Of Thrones reached the point where the series ran out of books to adapt, the “experts” and “newbies” were still coming from very different perspectives. But by a second season, the two audiences share the experience of carrying the weight of expectation, albeit a bit heavier in one case than the other.

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As you may have noticed, these audiences will now be experiencing His Dark Materials together here at The A.V. Club, as two reviews converge into one. I acknowledge this upfront because I’m not going to be able to “shut off” the fact that I come to the show from the perspective of a book reader, but I want to be clear that these reviews will not solely be gripes about changes or adjustments to the original text if you’re a “newbie.” This is partially because I had my fair share to say about that in my reviews of the first season, sure, but it’s also because the show itself has now given us plenty of material to work from in terms of evaluating what it has set out to accomplish in a different medium. Although the second season begins Jack Thorne’s adaptation of The Subtle Knife, the second novel in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, it is now primarily understood as the byproduct of work done last season to set the stage for the next step in Lyra Bellacqua’s—sorry, Lyra Silvertongue’s—journey.

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“The City Of Magpies” is at its best when it’s focused on Lyra, who wakes up in a jungle after having followed her father Lord Asriel through a beam of light in search of answers to questions and revenge for the death of her friend Roger. She is torn up by her grief, but marches on until she reaches a seaside city on a hill, towering above the ocean in a fashion similar to France’s Mont Saint-Michel. After spending much of the first season jumping from guardian to guardian, Lyra enters Cittàgazze alone, with only Pantalaimon to walk her through the eerie, empty streets of the city. If there was one central critique I had of the first season, it was how rarely the show just allowed Lyra to work through her feelings in conversation with her daemon, and so it was refreshing to see how her isolation forced the show to reinvest in their dynamic. In the moments before Lyra realizes she isn’t the only new arrival exploring Cittàgazze, we get to see what makes the connection between human and daemon so valuable, as their anxieties and feelings become manifest through an extension of themselves. Lyra refuses to turn to the alethiometer for assistance, believing that it led to Roger’s death, and that leaves her only Pantalaimon to process the uncertainty of the path forward.

Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i follows its characters into a new world, but the storys much the same (for better or worse)
Photo: HBO
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Her encounter with Will Parry is the beginning of the next stage of her journey, which plays as something of a reboot in the context of “The City of Magpies.” Even if it’s harder to imagine someone dropping into the second season of a show in the streaming era, where catching up is as easy as downloading an app, the second season of His Dark Materials has a built in form of exposition in Will, who understands nothing of the world we just spent a season exploring. If Lyra’s isolation helps to bring Pantalaimon into the story more significantly, Will’s confusion at the very idea of a daemon—the talking seems like the biggest hurdle for him, mentally—is an excuse to lay out the terms of their relationship more closely, forcing Lyra to vocalize something that it would have been weird for her to discuss with people in her own world. Some of the other exposition for Will—like the stuff about dust—ends up being a bit clunkier, but it never crosses the line of acceptability that I generally afford premieres given that I too occasionally need to be reminded of where things left off a year ago.

It’s a bit weird, though, that despite spending all of that extra time on Will’s story in season one instead of introducing him in the second book as Pullman did, the series still struggles to articulate his perspective on these events. Eventually, Will pulls out his satchel of his father’s letters and Lyra uses the alethiometer to remind us that Will murdered someone, but the premiere was missing a clearer articulation early on as to why Will would be suspicious of Lyra and secretive regarding his own origins. The scene where the two characters piece together that they are each unable to safely return home is a decent start, but everything up to that point was told through Lyra’s perspective, and I don’t think that serves Will’s arc. This is always going to be Lyra’s story, but there needed to be more work threading what we know about Will’s experience into his early interactions with Lyra. Subtlety is one thing, but the delay in pulling Will’s point-of-view out in the episode seems counter-productive to leveraging the complexity that the choice made last season was intended to create. I am on the record here that the choice of introducing Will last season—necessitated by child labor laws needing to reduce Lyra’s screentime, per producers—could be beneficial to this season, but that benefit didn’t materialize here as it could have, and switching to Lyra discovering Will as opposed to the other way around—which is how it plays out in the novel—didn’t quite live up to the story’s potential.

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Illustration for article titled iHis Dark Materials/i follows its characters into a new world, but the storys much the same (for better or worse)
Photo: HBO

That having been said, the Cittàgazze portions of the episode remain the strongest parts of this premiere. Although the production design eschews the empty promenades and open spaces of an abandoned resort town that I got from reading the books, the choice to focus on the close-quarters of a fortress city is logistically sound and often beautiful, particularly in the shot of Will reading through the letters in front of the cafe. You don’t get the full impact of the city’s emptiness, but the iconography works, and I was thrilled to see Bella Ramsey—also known as Lyanna Mormont—show up as one of the sisters Will and Lyra encounter to provide some helpful exposition regarding the spectres. The mythology of Cittàgazze remains fairly abstract, but Pullman was never really one for subtlety, and so the parallels between Lyra’s world’s obsession with dust and sin and the idea of soul-sucking creatures that attack only those who have reached adulthood form quickly and effectively. While the characters’ quest narrative is quickly repositioned to returning to Will’s Oxford in search of answers to the truth about dust, the world-building is enough to kickstart the next step in Lyra’s journey, which I’m hopeful will leverage the development of Will’s character more moving forward.

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I have to admit, though, that the rest of the premiere didn’t do a lot to suggest the other pieces of this story are going to match this momentum. As much as Ruth Wilson smooth-talking the Cardinal or whisper-yelling at her witch prisoner plays into what remains a compelling performance, the inner workings of the church continue to feel more isolating than immersive, and the claustrophobic feeling aboard the submarine didn’t help matters. The takeaway here seems to be that Coulter is on her way to taking control of the church and steering toward something different than the denial of dust that the Cardinal was advocating, but the show shifts this away from a matter of circumstance—the Cardinal is killed in the chaos following the interrogation of the witch in the books—to a political machination, and I don’t know if that really benefits the story. I see the logic of taking a story wherein Coulter’s motives are questioned and generating more characters to be suspicious of what is really driving her search for answers regarding the witches’ prophecy and the name they have for Lyra, but I wish I cared more about the result if it’s going to be the second rail of three in the story this season.

The third rail, meanwhile, is Lee Scoresby and his parlay with the witches. As I noted last season, the version of Lee the show is deploying is not the one from Pullman’s books, pulling moreso from his prequel novella about Lee and Iorek’s relationship. And I’m curious to see how that version of the character plays out through the rest of Lee’s journey, but this introduction to his story does nothing to take advantage of the change in energy between characters. The machinations necessary to get Lee into his own quest to find Stanislaus Grumman in the book involve a fair amount of aftermath from the battle at Bolvangar, as well as some connective tissue going back to Lyra witnessing Lord Asriel’s presentation to the scholars at Jordan College that Lee pieced together with his own knowledge about Grumman from his travels. It also comes at the end of a chapter that uses Serafina Pekkala as a window into both the Church’s torture of her fellow witch and the investigation into Asriel’s experiment. Here, though, Lee arrives to speak to the witches without a clear purpose, and just announces that he heard a rumor about a guy who has a weapon that could help, without doing the work to connect the dots. It results in what feels like a paper thin quest narrative that doesn’t do what it needs to in order to reinforce Lee’s relationship to Lyra and the story broadly. And while I’m open to the swashbuckling Lee playing the hero and doing his part to see the story through, there was a narrative propulsion to the book Lee putting off retirement to care for Lyra that was poetic, and none of that poetry came through here.

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Filled with prophecies and clearly-defined goals, His Dark Materials is never without basic narrative momentum: by the end of the premiere, we know where characters are headed, what their goals are, and what kind of threats could stand in their way, and there’s something satisfying about that kind of clarity in an adventure story like this one. And at least for this episode, some of the problems that kept this satisfaction from blossoming into something transcendent are less of an issue: with Lyra now in a world without daemons, their absence for budget reasons is less troubling, and between the novelty of Pan to Will and the scene of the witches’ daemons arguing in parallel to their humans we got plenty of daemon action. But the clumsiness of some of the plotting serves as a reminder that this season was filmed at the same time as the first, meaning that any adjustments to the show’s narrative approach had to happen in isolation from audience or critical responses. And although the core components of the show will carry His Dark Materials at a certain level, the execution is what held back the first season, and I’m not convinced there’s enough self-reflection embedded within this premiere to suggest this is going to change in the season to come, as much as I’d like to be wrong about that.

Stray observations

  • Welcome back to our reviews of His Dark Materials, and welcome to those who were perhaps reading the Newbies reviews previously. I’m hopeful that these reviews can provide a space for discussion for both audiences, but to those who are book readers I hope you’ll understand that we may need to avoid explicit book spoilers in the comments if it seems there’s a large Newbie presence. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if there’s something explicitly spoilery that you want to discuss.
  • I thought about writing a full paragraph about this but decided that I didn’t want to dwell on it, but boy howdy is the decision to turn the witches into smoke monsters incredibly dumb. It makes them far too powerful: why, for example, does Ruta Skadi not murder Mrs. Coulter at the same time as she’s giving the tortured witch a noble death? I understand why someone was excited about the idea of cloud pines being twigs embedded in their skin instead of actual brooms, but the execution of their magic just doesn’t make any sense, and it’s never going to.
  • If you, like me, were wondering what was up with a third season: they say they intend to film it next year, although how they’re going to explain the kids aging so significantly is anyone’s guess.
  • While I always read Cittàgazze as tropical, the lengthy period of Lyra traipsing through a jungle was a little bit confusing to me, spatially speaking.
  • The alethiometer is a really convenient plot device to articulate themes and motives, and one thing Lyra’s story does well is withhold its use as part of her grief over Roger, which pushes for more consideration of Lyra’s agency and her choices, and spawns some good dialogue with Pan.
  • There’s a whole class commentary about Lyra’s presumption that Will was a “kitchen boy” because he could cook, but the idea that Lyra never even saw someone cook an egg struck me as a bit strange, even if I loved the moment where she went to clean up the broken egg and just, like, rubbed it into the floor.
  • Pan’s Red Panda form reminds his cutest form, and it’s not even close to be honest (the official Twitter agrees).
  • “If bad people think it’s bad, maybe it’s good?”—words to live by, Lyra.
  • I liked the little shot of Lyra’s fist balling up when she went to approach the older boy who had been attacked by the specters.
  • I realize that setting this in a contemporary context means Will having a cell phone makes sense, but I refuse to believe he remembered to pack his charger when he was running away from home.
  • The show’s opening credits are mostly the same as before, and while they already featured some subtle spoilers for the second season if you were paying attention, there’s been some adjusted that foregrounded those details if you want to dig a bit deeper.

Through The Amber Spyglass (A Note on Explicit Book Spoilers)

So, given that we’re only doing one review at this point and I don’t want to incite discussion in the comments that involves spoilers unnecessarily, I’m may retire the original purpose of this section, which was to create space to discuss long-term story ramifications of adaptation choices. If there’s a huge demand for this to remain a part of the reviews, and if it seems like the readership invested in the comment section is mostly people who have read the books, we can revisit this down the road, but for now we’re going to let season two be season two.

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That said, one small thing before we go: it’s interesting to think about how differently the idea of the Subtle Knife as a macguffin of sorts plays when it isn’t the title of the book. We see it show up here—in the credits, in Will’s weird vision—but when it’s the title of a book you’re thinking “What’s that?” in a way that the show doesn’t really push to the same degree.

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

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