There are stories you discover at just the perfect time, those you rediscover at the perfect time, and then there are those upon which you reflect and decide that you have simply outgrown the lessons they first offered you. I first read The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman because it was on a list of banned books. It was a pleasant and horrifying story in equal measures, but the ending terrified me–it was an ending I could not forget. That sense of tragedy, unfairness, and irony was powerful at the time and it has deepened since then.
The ending to The Subtle Knife, the second novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy and the foundation of the second season, hit differently. The novel’s tone was more in line with intrigue–a reflection that the whimsy with which the series began was no longer appropriate for the manner in which the story was progressing. In that vein, I was reminded of the ending to The Fellowship of the Ring, which made it quite clear that the adventure had morphed into something much more mature, real, and consequential. But the novel never lost the sense of wonder and the show never quite entirely captured it in the first place.
In the second season of His Dark Materials, Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) are at similar stages in their respective journeys. They found each other in moments of immense loss, confusion, and distrust. Like many characters in fantasy stories who find themselves caught up in larger forces and battles beyond their scope of understanding, those burdens weigh heavily on them. Lyra has no desire to be at the center of a prophecy, let alone one in which she assumes the role of the Biblical Eve. Will wants his father back and his mother to be well–not the responsibility of keeping safe a knife that can cut between worlds and wield terrible power.
But unlike The Fellowship of the Ring, His Dark Materials took a broader epic scope from the beginning. In the former there was the opening intro and then a slow build-up, whereas in the show, that didn’t necessarily happen. For example, the premise of multiple worlds was introduced in episode two, as Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) crossed over from one Oxford to another through a shimmering window hidden in a garden. From the perspective of introducing Will much earlier to ensure a smoother second season, the earlier break was justified and, at the time, seemed fine enough. But in hindsight, it was still a little bit too soon. The world was still new to audiences and it was a mistake to introduce another world before firmly establishing the first one.
Within the first few episodes, several pieces were laid out. An authoritarian religious order loses respect for boundaries in a quest for power. Groups of witches must unite in spite of their differences to combat the evils of that religious order. Kids face an unforgiving world and often have to fight adults who range from cynical to cowardly to downright evil. Each thread is compelling on its own and they ought to have resulted in a dynamic story when put together.
The struggle of His Dark Materials is put into starkest relief when the audience compares the amount of investment and care the show places into a character. Lyra and Will’s relationship succeeded in the show because the writers treated it with a lot of care and patience. The same is absolutely true for Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter, who is the MVP of this show and will presumably remain so for its next and concluding season. The same cannot be said for the witches and Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the latter also dragging down Andrew Scott’s charismatic John Parry.
The witches are either exposition machines or incredibly powerful destructive forces who use their abilities in ways that are almost incomprehensible. For example, it would have taken Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) two seconds to murder Mrs. Coulter towards the beginning of the season and she didn’t. Instead, she chose to conveniently kill the leader of the Magisterium. “This is badass!” the show seemed to say, but the logic of that scene is nonexistent. The badassery, therefore, is simply confusing. None of the witches is really a character in her own right. Since they function more as a shapeless entity when together, their place within the story just doesn’t mean anything in relation to the other characters. The witches should inspire wonder, courage, and fear. They do none of these things.
Lee Scoresby is the biggest casualty of this adaptation. I understand the desire to add more levity into a series that literally features child cruelty and mutilation as a key plot point, but radically changing this character doesn’t help mitigate that problem. Miranda is simply not a good actor. Moreover, the writing does nothing to establish Scoresby’s care for Lyra–at no point did I buy that this man was anything but an annoying famous person cosplaying himself onto the set of a BBC and HBO co-production. The accent, which comes and goes with abandon, becomes morphed into an earnestness that Miranda simply dials up so much that he turns himself into a caricature.
His Lee Scoresby is not a loner gun for hire who develops a strong paternal affection for an obstinate and brilliant young girl. His Lee Scoresby is not, really, a character at all. Scoresby’s love for Lyra doesn’t amount to much more than Miranda yelling at the audience with the tone of a teenage boy who wants to convince his parents of something they’re clearly not buying. His scenes with John, in which he talks about how much he loves the family he left behind, also fall flat. Miranda’s performance is cloying, like glitter you can’t get off of yourself after you attend a New Year’s Eve at a gay bar when there isn’t a raging pandemic. At least the glitter gives you a fun time.
Miranda’s death scene is well-done with an excellent assist from Critsela Alonzo’s Hester, a relief that his attempt to purchase the audience’s affection in this role is finally at an end. Speaking of Hester, the strongest upgrade between the first and second seasons is the show’s commitment to demonstrating the importance of the relationship between an individual and his or her dæmon. I wasn’t as hard on the show in the first season as some others were, but I’m glad that they were able to tinker with their budget and give more money to establishing just how important these relationships are and how much they mean. It’s a critical element to the story and they elevate it at a critical time.
Andrew Scott’s John Parry is a bit of an enigma in the books and he is here as well. Scott is so charismatic and takes his role within this story so seriously that he can’t help but feel grounded and true to the environment. That he is ostensibly supposed to originate in our world helps matters. His conversation with Will is particularly excellent, as is Parry’s understanding of the larger context that clashes with Will’s genuine hurt that his father had abandoned him and his mother for that context. Their relationship is more complex than that and the finale slows down for a few minutes to allow that complexity to breathe before John’s life is brutally cut short.
I’ve noted this above, but the most triumphant element of this adaptation is Ruth Wilson’s Mrs. Coulter. A complex figure in the books, she doesn’t have a particularly major role in The Subtle Knife. It therefore makes her journey in the final instalment of the trilogy a bit difficult to track as cohesively as I would have liked. But here, having more room to breathe into the story and realizing what a triumphant casting choice they made in Wilson, the writers unpack the complexities of the character and likely lay the foundation for her decisions in the final instalment better than the original text did.
It is telling that the show’s best episode is largely unbothered by the word “prophecy.” Instead, it delves deeply into Mrs. Coulter in an attempt to understand what it means to be able to travel between worlds and the difference between existing in one world or another. It isn’t simply a difference of fashion and technology, which is a simplistic reading of stories that travel through time and different worlds. It is an understanding that our lived environments shape us in ways that are sometimes indecipherable until we find ourselves in an entirely lived environment, suddenly faced with new opportunities and social systems that would have completely changed her life.
It is one thing to talk about prophecies (and another to mention that word like a thousand times over dialogue for no good reason) but unless you’re invested in the characters who encounter said prophecy, your investment is unlikely to more than quickly recognizing something as cool…for a few seconds. More often than not, the show doesn’t provide the gravitas in its storytelling, instead relying on underdeveloped characters to convey such gravitas in stilted dialogue. Even by the end of this season, where the stakes are established, I am not invested as much as I should be and instead am pulling back a bit with vague interest.
The show puts in such effort with Mrs. Coulter, however, and it is therefore a bit frustrating that that effort isn’t matched elsewhere. Her conversation with Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) is the single best scene in terms of character development, but it lasts or only three minutes or so. But as she tells Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare, with whom Wilson has an excellent, toxic chemistry) if she had been born in this world, she could have been a researcher and professional in her own right who is respected for her ideas. We know that misogyny is far from gone in this world, but to Mrs. Coulter, compared to the authoritarian grip of the Magisterium, this new world is a wonder. Perhaps she would have been a researcher in her own right, able to raise Lyra without the shame and stigma. And perhaps most importantly, she maybe would have never descended into such depths of depravity for the purpose of claiming respect through power.
The journey of Lyra and Will is mostly well done and, by the finale, where the two are tragically separated from one another by bad timing, the show does a good job of establishing just how much these two come to rely on one another. They trust one another, which is no small feat considering how much trust they lost. From the Oxford of our world through the immaculately produced alleyways of Cittàgazze, they help each other move forward. This earned companionship and trust will prove to be incredibly important in the series’ third and final instalment.
Visually, this show is impeccable. The production, art, and costume design all come together to create multiple worlds that each feel lived in and distinct. (I easily lost track of how many times the phrase “that is gorgeous” audibly escaped my lips.) The production of Cittàgazze in particular is a massive accomplishment, from its faded walls to the abandoned wine and coffee bar to the Tower of Angels, which is impressive beyond measure. The show certainly sets a standard for what television can accomplish in the visual aspect of medium and it deserves a lauded place in that pantheon.
What the show suffers from in its deepest form, and keeps it from being as great as it could be, is its inability to create a sense of wonder. To bring in The Fellowship of the Ring for just another brief moment, you follow characters who have never left their home into a broader, much more terrifying world. Yet amidst the danger and death, they never lose track of wonder, nor does the audience. Yes, ghostly knight-like demons wielding giant swords are gliding into an inn in a really cool way to find and kill people – but one also sees some of the most beautiful mountains, the grandest of cities, and the heavenly home of the elves. The danger and the beauty weave together in The Fellowship of the Ring in a way that they don’t in His Dark Materials.
The show doesn’t achieve that level of wonder because its visual magnificence is not matched by character significance. Lyra and Will have so much on their shoulders but they are also literally travelling between worlds! There’s one scene where they seem to wonder as they should but it’s too fleeting to leave a lasting impression. And, frankly, if the central characters are not awed by what they discover, why should the audience? Only Mrs. Coulter, again, seems to find a dark sort of wonder and reflection in the different worlds and she will likely deliver more of that to life the rest of the story up in its final season.
The third season will bring this story to a close as the war between Lord Asriel and the Authority comes to fruition. There is a lot to unpack in that final season, but if the pattern of improvement holds from this season to the next, there is the likelihood of a mostly satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. I expect catharsis, some genuine emotion, and maybe some epic fight sequences if the budget allows. But there will be a little bit of regret at the story’s conclusion regardless because, while the story travels between different worlds frequently, it never quite reaches the heights of which it has shown itself to be capable in its strongest moments.
Seasons one and two of His Dark Materials are now streaming on HBO and Crave.