Devotees of fantasy romance A Discovery of Witches have had to be more patient than most TV fans, with over two years passing between the airdate of season one’s final episode and season two’s premiere in a delay that even a long-living vampire might think was a little steep.
Still, after all that waiting season two is finally here (with season three currently in production), and for fans of the Sky One series it’s sure to have been worth the wait – though as you step back into the world of Deborah Harkness’ All Soul’s trilogy (adapted for screen by His Dark Materials studio Bad Wolf) you’d be forgiven for thinking no time had passed at all.
In fact, despite a quick recap at the top of season two even the most ardent of viewers might find themselves a little discombobulated by A Discovery of Witches’ new season, which throws viewers right back into the complex story with little fanfare or chance to recall exactly what went down in autumn 2018.
Before watching, I’d recommend reminding yourself of season one by revisiting old episodes (or just reading summaries online), but for now the shorter version is this: A Discovery of Witches takes place in a world where vampires, witches and demons (spelled daemons like in His Dark Materials, confusingly) are real, and live in an uneasy truce ruled over by a multi-species group called The Congregation.
However all three species are also declining, turning to madness or dying out, with various figures trying to discover what’s causing this degradation and halt it before it’s too late. One such person is vampire Matthew de Clairmont, a centuries-old bloodsucker with a penchant for standing in shadowy corners and being suave, and another is spellbound (i.e. unable to perform magic) witch Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer), and the pair form a romantic attachment as they search for a crucial book that could help them solve the mystery.
Thrills, chills and spills ensue, and at the end of season one Matthew and Diana “time-walked” into the past to escape the Congregation (who forbid inter-species relationships) and find Diana a magic teacher – which is exactly where season two picks up as the pair land in 1590, at a time when a younger Matthew was terrorising Elizabethan London.
Apart from a short catch up with the Congregation back in the present day, this opening episode takes almost entirely in 1590, and the series benefits hugely from this focus. While later episodes do return to the season one storyline and contemporary side characters (most notably episode four, which centres solely around Edmund Bluemel’s likable vampire Marcus) there’s so much for Matthew and Diana to discover in the 16th century that it’s no harm to streamline things to begin with.
Watching Matthew (who has only hazy memories of his time in the 1590s) bluff his way through this time period and pose as his earlier self is great fun, even as “wearing the cloak” of this darker identity causes him to slip into some bad, murderous habits. Meanwhile Diana is thrown even more on the back foot in a world of new allegiances and dangers, even as she learns more about her magical powers and how best to use them.
If there is a criticism of this time-travel storyline it’s just how complicated it gets, with a host of new characters (most notably Tom Hughes’ Kit Marlowe), subplots and objectives even as the already-stuffed plot of season one continues to play out alongside it.
Notably, Deborah Harkness’ original novel Shadow of Night (upon which season two is based) focused exclusively on Matthew and Diana’s journey to the past, excising the present-day story altogether. Despite this, it was still critiqued by some as having too many secondary characters and plot elements – so a TV version that also keeps the present-day storyline going alongside this risks becoming almost too sprawling.
Still, A Discovery of Witches just about holds it together, with the world-building and performances compelling enough to pull you through the new complex web of spies, witches, religious vampires and historical figures to focus on Matthew and Diana’s story.
Because as ever, this series is only as strong as its leading couple. Matthew Goode and Teresa Palmer’s chemistry is as palpable as ever in season two, and those who watch this series for their romance alone won’t be disappointed.
Overall, A Discovery of Witches season two is compelling, escapist fun, and eminently addictive even for the most casual of viewers. After planning to watch an episode or two ahead of time, I ended up burning through four in one sitting, and if that’s not a sign of just how enjoyable this series can be I don’t know what is.
So tuck in, All Soul’s fans – you’ve waited long enough.
A Discovery of Witches returns to Sky One on Friday 8th January. Want something else to watch? Check out our full TV Guide.