His Dark Materials season 2 review: A masterpiece of delayed gratification

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife was brilliantly adapted for the BBC – with a couple of caveats.

Dafne and Amir
4.0 out of 5 star rating

After seven weeks of world-hopping, knife-battling adventures His Dark Materials season two has come to an end, short one aeronaut, a shaman, a couple of fingers and an entire episode of James McAvoy. Really, it’s been a triumph.

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The clue’s in the title when adapting Philip Pullman’s second novel The Subtle Knife – it’s a subtler work than the original, focused storytelling of his first in The His Dark Materials series The Northern Lights or the wide, bombastic spectacle of sequel The Amber Spyglass, requiring a gentler touch as our heroes Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) meet for the first time and begin that crucial relationship.

It’s also a book that manages to introduce parallel worlds, deadly Spectres, reality-slicing weapons (the Subtle Knife of the title) and a host of new characters on top of the rather stuffed His Dark Materals cast list and lore already established in Lyra’s first outing, and overall it must have been a faintly daunting prospect for Jack Thorne and his writing team (Francesca Gardiner, Sarah Quintrell, Namsi Khan and Lydia Adetunji) and the rest of Bad Wolf Studios down in Cardiff.

So when season two began I had my doubts. Was it a little slow compared to season one? Could Wilson and Keen keep up the energy and drive without their adult acting partners, as Lyra and Will struck out on their own? And how would His Dark Materials adapt some of the most crucial scenes from the books into live-action, with the added pressures of a pandemic postproduction?

Little did I know that I was actually experiencing a masterpiece of delayed gratification. Just like season one’s slow build to a smash-hit final three episodes, His Dark Materials season two was just waiting in the shadows to club viewers round the head with the extraordinary fourth episode, which finally introduced the long-teased knife with a thrilling action sequence, added Andrew Scott to the cast (resisting the temptation to drop him in earlier than he appears in the books) and sent Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter to another world.

Oh, and it introduced angels. No biggie.

Ruth Wilson Mrs Coulter
Picture Shows: Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) – (C) Bad Wolf – Photographer: Simon Ridgway

Following this, episode five was a tour-de-force performance for Wilson as the series plumbed the depths of what Mrs Coulter might find in a more progressive world, while adding new layers to her mysterious relationship with her daemon.

Then we were treated to the epic two-part finale, which saw enough characters killed off to make a Game of Thrones extra wince, brought James McAvoy back for a surprise cameo (did anyone else think they were a bit too keen to emphasise that he wasn’t around this season?) and set up a truly momentous, God-defying third season. In hindsight, it was worth a couple of episodes of build-up.

Of course, not every aspect of this series has worked perfectly. I’ve written a few times about how His Dark Materials changes (or rather adds to) Pullman’s original text, and at its best (Mrs Coulter and Lee Scoresby’s two-hander, more Golden Monkey drama) it definitely brings new shading and layers to the story.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials season 2 episode 3 (BBC)

But sometimes, like the gyptian story in season one it feels superfluous, just there to fill time. Did we really need the polite, not very dramatic political wranglings between the witches? Did we really need to know how Father MacPhail (Will Keen) got the top job at the magisterium, or see what happened to Dr Lanselius (Omid Djalili)?

I’d say we probably didn’t. While these storylines were perfectly fine to watch they often felt like filler, not adding much to the main story and were significantly less interesting than the main plot Pullman had originally created. For me, the most engaging, exciting moments in the series were almost always where it brilliantly adapted what was already on the page – for example Lyra’s meeting with Mary Malone, played by standout newcomer Simone Kirby – rather than creating new material in the margins.

Simone Kirby Dafne Keen
Simone Kirby and Dafne Keen in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Still, it’s hard to complain about having too much of a good thing. Overall this series of His Dark Materials has been even better than the first, and it sets the stage for a truly grand clash whenever season three is able to be filmed and put on our screens.

Tune in next time when Lyra helps kill the Authority. It’s sure to be divine.

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His Dark Materials season two is streaming on BBC iPlayer now. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide or our guide to the best Christmas TV.