His Dark Materials season 2 review: HBO epic gives up on philosophising, embraces action and adventure

His Dark Materials (Season 2)
Cast: Dafne Keen, Amir Wilson, Ruth Wilson, Lin Manuel Miranda, Andrew Scott

After a full season of almost putting one to sleep with heavy dialogues and dull expositioning, HBO’s His Dark Materials, thankfully, appears to have given up on the shallow philosophising. Philip Pullman, on whose works the series is based, intended for his alien world and its conflicts to mirror our own. The war that rages between knowledge and ignorance, between fact and blind faith, between science and religion, formed the core of the three novels –The Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Glass. But His Dark Materials, the show, had failed to capture the essence of the books, and their political and social themes despite its eight-hour run time. Finally, it seems to have given up on the pursuit entirely and lean into the shallower, more adventure-driven side of things. And for once, I am quite happy with a show telling itself to dial back on bigger ideas.

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Season 2 of His Dark Materials registers a stark change in tone and execution. Smaller and larger adventures are peppered all over the story board and dialogues are quick and snappy. A few even manage to elicit an emotional response. Things are also greatly helped with the oft-repeated but still quite charming ‘fish-out-of-water’ angle to Lyra Silvertongue’s (played by Dafne Keen) story. After walking through the rip in space created by her father Lord Asriel, Lyra enters a new world that looks like something straight out of your Mediterranean vacation dreams. She lands in the gorgeous and sunny island town of Cittàgazze where she runs into the show’s second protagonist, Will Parry. While she is on the run from her mother, Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson), he has the police on his back for murdering a man.

As they team up, the show finds a more humane side. He asks her about the talking ferret by her side, she grows suspicious about his missing daemon. He makes her the perfect omelette, explains what is an iPhone and how a shower is a ‘standing bath’, while she shows him her alethiometer that tells you whatever you ask of it, including how his father (Andrew Scott) is still alive. But the paradise is not without its serpents. Spectres, as they are called, are large, swirling dark clouds of smoke that attack adults, removing their souls from inside them. The surviving grown ups have fled the town, leaving behind a handful of children to fend for themselves.

But our hero and heroine do not stay put in their rent-free AirBnB. They have fathers to find, theological mysteries to solve and crises to avert. To find more answers and knowledge about dust, Will brings Lyra into our world. As soon as the fish jumps out of water, she gets hit by a car. Lyra’s journey through this new world makes for a few interesting minutes before they are replaced by her meeting with a physicist studying dark matter. Their scenes together infuse new life and intrigue into the story, even adding life to droll mentions of dust that have become monotonous by now.

Elsewhere, Mrs Coltrane is trying her scheming best to turn the Magisterium into her puppet. Her love for torture has not waned in the slightest, but she is turning more human everyday. She will perform horrifying torture techniques on witches as she plots to destroy an entire species, but still worry about the whereabouts of her daughter and ruing how her world was not feminist enough. As polarised as Mrs Coltrane may be, Ruth Wilson performs her part to perfection and she is easily the best thing about the show. She stands out specially in a tender scene shared with Lin Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby and another when she writhes in pain as Lyra exacts her revenge. There is unbridled rage in her eyes and also a tragic helplessness that her daughter will never accept her as mother.

Dafne and Amir, while well suited for the roles, rarely find little else to do than run all over Oxford and look nervous from time to time. Lin, too, has been tasked with a storyline even more boring that last time. He hops from on place to another, rarely landing on something interesting enough. Even Andrew’s arrival, after two-third of the season is over, is uneventful at best.

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His Dark Materials has tried to change course for simpler ideas in season two. The chosen kids are tasked with saving the world while the grown ups continue to find answers of their own. It’s easier to catch up with this time, but even those changes may not make His Dark Material inviting enough for some.

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