James McAvoy’s absence looms large over His Dark Materials – but is it actually a benefit for season 2?

Lord Asriel’s storyline this year was cut due to coronavirus, but it sometimes makes for more interesting and unusual TV.

James McAvoy as Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials episode 7 (BBC)

In an odd twist, by far the most highly-publicised episode of His Dark Materials’ second season is one that doesn’t actually exist.

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You see, while most of the Philip Pullman adaptation’s new run was completed before the coronavirus pandemic shut down TV production, one episode starring James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel had to be abandoned after just a few hours’ shooting, in a move that writer Jack Thorne said was “really upsetting” but ignited fan interest in the missing piece of the story.

Now, having watched four instalments of the truncated seven-episode (rather than the planned eight) season two, I have to wonder whether there isn’t something positive to be said for Asriel’s absence. Not that I wouldn’t love to see James McAvoy back in the series (fingers crossed for season three!) or that the scrapped episode idea in question (Asriel’s off-page adventures, newly created by Thorne with help from Philip Pullman) isn’t enticing – but just that the series without him is much more unusual and interesting.

Take episode four. Throughout Tower of the Angels, characters are talking about, dismissing, trying to find or planning to team up with Asriel, making him a big presence in the story. Rather than a loss, his absence on-screen makes the world of the series seem bigger, more mysterious, and increases anticipation for his eventual return.

“Don’t confuse the man with the mission… if the right side has any chance of success, Asriel will need the knife,” Andrew Scott’s series newcomer Jopari tells Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) as the pair discuss their plans, as just one part of a larger discussion about Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) elusive father.

Asriel’s not been forgotten or overlooked, or written out – in fact he’s still central to the story, with everyone from the Magisterium and Serafina Pekkala’s witches to Jopari keen to seek him out in this week’s episode. What other TV shows would have such a crucial figure completely absent, but still central, for such a long time?

Dafne Keen and James McAvoy in His Dark Materials on BBC One
Dafne Keen and James McAvoy in His Dark Materials on BBC One
BBC Pictures

Of course, in Philip Pullman’s novel The Subtle Knife (which this series is based on) Asriel is similarly missing, before playing a large role in His Dark Materials’ concluding book The Amber Spyglass, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the series works so well without him.

In fact, when speaking to RadioTimes.com in 2019 McAvoy himself seemed somewhat unsure whether it was the right move to include Asriel at all in season two, suggesting that a closer match to the books would be no bad thing (though once he’d read the standalone script, he was clearly persuaded).

“I’m still waiting to read that and it had better be good – because the book’s perfect as it is, so if they’re going to thrust me into it, it had better be worth it,” he told us at the time.

“I’m still waiting to see that, so I can’t really comment. Fingers crossed it’ll warrant it.”

Cittagazze
BBC

With that said, while the lack of Asriel works in the book these sort of missing characters are rarer in TV, where audiences are assumed to be liable to forget or move on from characters and storylines if they’re not seen on screen. Game of Thrones pulled it off from time to time with certain characters – Bran Stark disappeared for a season, and more minor figures sometimes sat out a year or two before a return – but His Dark Materials is a smaller and more focused story without the vast number of plotlines and characters seen in Westeros.

Plus, Asriel is still talked about and included in almost every episode he’s not in. It’s a pretty unique way of keeping a character both alive and mysterious, and I’m intrigued to see how the series continues to deal with McAvoy’s unavailability in its final entries.

Intentional, planned or not, Asriel’s absence from His Dark Materials season two stands out as a daring bit of storytelling that audiences aren’t altogether used to. Would I rather have a fun episode of unseen story that doesn’t conflict with Pullman’s original work? Yes, of course – but if I can’t, these more unusual, teasing hints at what Asriel is up to are a significant silver lining.

Usually, it’s His Dark Materials’ changes to the source material that have our attention – but this time, it’s sticking closer than ever to the text that seems the most revolutionary.

Read more about the His Dark Materials cast (including Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter), the His Dark Materials release schedule, the His Dark Materials books and the His Dark Materials age rating, plus find out where His Dark Materials is filmed, including the scenes set in Cittàgazze.

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His Dark Materials continues on BBC One on Sunday 6th December at 8:10pm. While you’re waiting, visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight, or check out our guide to new TV shows 2020 to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.