His Dark Materials has a storied adaptation past. Originally a beloved series of books by Philip Pullman, it was made into a film in 2007 that, despite being chock full of big names, utterly flopped. It was no Cats or anything, but it was promptly abandoned, and the second and third installments of the trilogy were never even filmed.
In 2019, HBO and the BBC launched an all-new attempt. Led by Dafne Keen (fresh from her dazzling Logan success) and spread out over an undefined number of TV seasons, it held the promise of being grittier, truer to the source material, and unflinching in the telling of an unreligious story for children. And yet it too fell short of expectations. Mine, in particular.
With two lackluster attempts and counting, I chose not to approach the second season of the HBO series with my hopes set oo high. The chances of a beloved part of my childhood flopping, or at least being fumbled, were just too great.
That’s why I’m thrilled to report that His Dark Materials Season 2 is miles better than the first.
To be fair, it’s still not perfect. I would love a window into the mind of a viewer who hasn’t read the books because I imagine some things are still totally baffling. But by now at least the concept of daemons (human souls embodied by physically separate talking animals) ought to be old hat, and the interaction with a familiar universe (presumably our own) should finally clear up any longstanding confusion about the way Lyra’s world works.
This expansion into a new universe, and the resulting meetings and culture clashes, go a long way to make the show more accessible. Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), in particular, undergoes some remarkable development. Unexpectedly confronted with a world in which women are allowed to compete with men, her deadly confidence and enigmatic self-loathing are cast in a whole new, sympathetic light.
To the best of my memory, this isn’t addressed in the books. It’s quite an interesting turn.
These little departures from the source material, while still remarkably few and far between, go a long way in making the show more lifelike, and less as though it’s just checking off a list of plot points — a serious problem in the first season). In particular, Mrs. Coulter’s relationship with Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is played up far more here than in the books, showing the incompatibility of two people firing on utterly different wavelengths in a way that’s refreshing and almost — almost — laugh out loud funny.
The most exciting change, of course, is the long awaited meeting of Lyra (Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson), the series’ two protagonists. It’s much more interesting to watch two people slowly grow to trust and like each other than it is to watch one person struggle along on her own. Or at least in this case it definitely is. And the two have genuinely good chemistry together. I’m excited to see them grow into their roles.
That being said, the show still has its problems. There’s an entire subplot focused on the witches warring with the Magisterium that slogs on. Never before has a conflict been portrayed with less nuance, or featured more stilted avowals of vengeance.
On the whole, however, the series has far more life than it did in its previous season. The action is picking up, the scope of the universes is expanding, and the stakes are becoming clearer. The two main characters have finally met and, thankfully, they get along. With luck, this show just might find its soul yet.
His Dark Materials premieres on HBO on Monday, November 16th at 9 pm EST and will continue to air every Monday at the same time.