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His Dark Materials season 2 review: HBO’s fantasy saga finds its groove

His Dark Materials | Season 2: Official Comic-Con Trailer | HBO

The first season of HBO’s His Dark Materials won over audiences with a blend of fantastic world-building, groundbreaking visual effects, and memorable performances from its talented cast. Adapted from Philip Pullman’s series of novels by screenwriter Jack Thorne, the series follows the adventures of a young girl, Lyra Silvertongue, caught in a war between science and faith that takes her to places far beyond the world she knows.

Digital Trends was given an early look at the first five episodes of season 2, which premieres November 16 in the U.S. and introduces a host of new characters to Lyra’s saga. In addition to dramatically expanding the scope of the saga, the second season of His Dark Materials also takes a deeper dive into some of the most fascinating elements of Lyra’s world — and other worlds, for that matter — established in season 1.

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The story continues

Season 2 of His Dark Materials picks up where the first season’s story left off, with little time elapsing between the events of the first season and the show’s next story arc.

As the season begins, Lyra (played by Logan actress Dafne Keen) has stepped into a strange new world after following her father, Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), through a tear he ripped in the one they knew. Her journey coincides with that of teenager Will Parry (Amir Wilson), who flees his own world — a world more similar to our own — through a portal he discovers.

As the young characters venture into the unknown, they continue to find themselves pursued by powerful, mysterious forces — including Lyra’s estranged mother, the cold and calculating Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson). The second season adds a host of new allies and enemies to the mix, including Peaky Blinders actress Simone Kirby as the scientist Mary Malone, whose research into dark matter overlaps with Lyra’s own investigation into the enigmatic particles known as “dust” in her world.

Slowing it down

The eight-episode first season received some criticism for how quickly it sped through the complicated concepts of Pullman’s saga, from the nature of “dust” to the relationship between humans and their daemons, the animal companions that are a physical manifestation of each person’s soul. Although the pseudo-science and sociopolitical dynamics of Lyra’s world added to its richness, the rapid pace of the season often left little time to explore that fascinating environment.

Fortunately, season 2 of His Dark Materials feels a bit less rushed, despite its shorter (seven-episode) length.

The first five episodes of the season add plenty of new elements to the series’ mythology and wrap some of the existing material in complex metaphysical concepts, but it seemingly does so with a bit more care for the audience’s ability to absorb everything they’re learning. Instead of feeling dragged along by the story, you receive new information right along with the characters, making the major revelations and developments of season 2 feel a bit more manageable.

This holds true for the concepts presented in season 1 of His Dark Materials, too, which get a bit more attention in the second season, thanks to Lyra’s need to explain her world — and her daemon — to some of the new characters introduced during the season. The end result is a better understanding of the story’s most interesting plot devices, as well as a greater appreciation for the world-building of Pullman’s saga.

Good gets better

Keen and Ruth Wilson were standouts in season 1 of His Dark Materials, and their performances in season 2 continue to provide some of the show’s most captivating moments.

The camera isn’t afraid to linger on the two actresses, and for good reason: Their expressive faces add layers of depth to every scene they’re in and can make a dramatic moment infinitely more so with the slightest movement of an eyebrow or lip. But they’re not alone in providing some of the first five episodes’ most memorable performances.

As Carlo Boreal, the enigmatic agent of the Magisterium who travels between worlds, actor Ariyon Bakare rises to the standard set by the series’ two female leads. His role is expanded in the show’s second season, and he uses that extra screen time to develop into an even more sinister threat to the story’s protagonists. Amir Wilson also builds on his season 1 introduction with a strong performance in the second season, holding his own in scenes with both Keen and Ruth Wilson.

Season 2’s visual effects also live up to the high standard set by the show’s first season, whether it’s the spectacular vistas of the new worlds Lyra visits or the imperceptible magic that goes into making the story’s daemons feel physically present in every scene. The additional time spent with the witches of Lyra’s world in the show’s second season allows the series’ talented visual effects team to show off some new tricks, and the resulting scenes offer some of the show’s most exciting action sequences.

Not quite there

Not everything takes a leap forward in season 2, however, and His Dark Materials still falters in areas that were weak spots in the show’s impressive first season.

Some of the subplots introduced in the new season feel tacked-on and lack a sense of urgency or importance — particularly when they’re unfolding alongside Lyra or Will’s world-hopping (and potentially world-saving) adventures. Whenever the story strays away from Lyra, Will, Marisa Coulter, or Carlo Boreal, it tends to deflate a bit and feel like filler.

This is particularly true for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s screen time in season 2. The Hamilton star is one of the entertainment world’s creative darlings on stage and screen — and deservedly so — but his disappointing role in season 1 of His Dark Materials doesn’t improve much in the show’s next story arc.

Miranda’s portrayal of intrepid aeronaut Lee Scoresby never quite syncs up with his character’s cowboy dialogue, and neither Miranda’s performance nor the story itself sells the more emotional moments of the part he plays in season 2. Scoresby’s intense affection for Lyra is a recurring element of the season’s story, but it feels unearned by his performance so far, which is unfortunate, given how important this aspect of their story becomes in the second season.

Brave new worlds

Fortunately, season 2 of His Dark Materials improves on the first season and raises the bar far more often than it treads familiar waters, and the season benefits from the opportunity to expand the series’ world and take a deeper dive into its mythology through the addition of new characters.

The universe of Pullman’s novels feels too big for any series to adequately encapsulate, but the second season of His Dark Materials goes a long way toward making it easier to wrap your head around its concepts and characters. Where the first season took you on a whirlwind tour of Lyra’s world and her impending adventure, season 2 lets you absorb the saga on your terms — learning about its latest complexities along with the story’s characters.

That makes a big difference — and a welcome change — in the second season of the series, which takes a big step forward and deserves to be recognized as one of HBO’s most beautiful and enthralling new shows.

Season 2 of His Dark Materials premieres November 16 on HBO.

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