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'His Dark Materials' season two is dark, deranged and utterly compelling

In a year so full of darkness, the explosive second series of His Dark Materials (2019-) shines with all the lustre of its predecessor.

By Briony Havergill, Second Year, Film & Television

In a year so full of darkness, the explosive second series of His Dark Materials (2019-) shines with all the lustre of its predecessor.

After a first series that introduced Philip Pullman’s cornerstone of modern fantasy to a new audience, the second instalment returns to take aim at religion, the patriarchy, and the very idea of what it means to have free will.

Starting from where series one left off, series two follows Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) as they embark on a journey to fulfill their destinies. Will is searching for his father, John Parry (Andrew Scott), who he had previously thought to be dead. Along the way, he accidentally becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, a magical weapon with the ability to cut doorways into other worlds. Lyra is running from her obsessive mother, Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), as well as the all-powerful Magisterium, both of whom wish to prevent her from fulfilling her role in a deliciously blasphemous prophecy.

Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (2019)

The series is packed with convincing performances, but specific commendation must be awarded to Ruth Wilson, Dafne Keen, and Amir Wilson.

Ruth Wilson continues her reign as the terrifying Miss Coulter, somehow managing to be at once irredeemably evil and uncomfortably sympathetic. We watch Coulter tame spectres, supernatural beings that feed off adults, by repressing her own humanity. We watch her repeated cruelty towards her monkey daemon, distancing herself from her own soul. We watch her lament a life spent in the shadow of the men around her, constantly abused and abusive. Ruth Wilson is utterly captivating and impossible to look away from; a dark, deranged but undeniably compelling female power fantasy.

One scene that cannot be ignored takes place in Lord Boreal’s (Ariyon Bakare) basement, in which Will and Lyra have come to reclaim the stolen Alethiometer. Unbeknownst to Lyra, her mother has teamed up with Boreal, resulting in them coming face to face for the first time since she escaped her world. Paralleling a pivotal scene in series one, in which Coulter’s daemon attacks Lyra’s daemon, Pan, Lyra sets her soul upon her mother’s. Keen manages to display Lyra’s rage and pain deftly, mimicking Ruth Wilson’s expression from the parallel scene with uncomfortable accuracy.

Ruth Wilson is utterly captivating and impossible to look away from

Amir Wilson also shines throughout, conveying Will’s quiet sadness with maturity. His reactions to Lyra, to Pan, and to his father are heart-wrenchingly endearing. It was Will’s pivotal moments that had me crying, above all others.

Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (2019)

Despite being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic, filming for His Dark Materials managed to produce a multitude of worlds from very few locations. The entirety of the Cittagazze set was built at Bad Wolf Studios, whilst the ethereal-looking portal between our world and Lyra’s was filmed in the orangery of Bristol’s very own Blaise Castle!

The production and effects crew also managed to portray the knife itself with success. I admit that one of my main concerns about transferring Pullman’s story from page to screen was that the textural magic of the Alethiometer and the Subtle Knife would be lost, or else simplified. Yet series two of His Dark Materials manages to not only preserve the thrill of cutting open a doorway through worlds, but gives it a new aesthetic appeal.

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Another fear I had was that whilst series one had stuck closely to the controversial storyline of the first book, the comparatively more inflammatory storyline of The Subtle Knife would be quashed, softened, or tainted by nervous showrunners unwilling to provoke a bad reaction. This, however, was not the case, and I found myself surprised at the directness with which series two not only attacked the dogmatism of the Magisterium, but also took aim at the misogyny of academia and the complexities of familial relationships.

Never at any point does the series shy away from these thematic elements, which are thrust into harsher exposure than they were in series one. Instead, the cast and crew embrace them wholeheartedly, challenging the audience to do the same with each and every episode.

After a truly devastating series finale, I, as well as many other viewers I’m sure, await the third and final series with eager anticipation.

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