‘His Dark Materials’ Season 2 Strains Under the Weight of its Exposition, but Flourishes in its Performances

A promotional image from 'His Dark Materials' S2. Lyra is front and centre, and all the characters of the season are surrounding her in a photoshopped montage image.
HBO

**NOTE: Contains spoilers for Season One**

HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials brings another season of rich visuals, expanding worlds, and unfolding prophecy as the show continues to explore the connections between universes the first season slowly introduced. Season one left us hanging after explorer Asriel (James McAvoy), the father of protagonist Lyra Belaqua (Dafne Keen), sacrificed her best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) to tear open a portal from their world into others. Lyra follows her father through it, and in season two, she finds Will (Amir Wilson) on the other side, a boy from our world who also has an important role to play in Lyra’s prophecy. Together, they navigate a season’s worth of obstacles, bonding over shared loneliness and feelings of responsibility.

His Dark Materials’ greatest weakness is finding ways to give its characters room to stop to breathe; time to vocalise and embody their emotions to themselves or others. The exposition stacks on and on each minute, adding more intricacies to the machine of the plot, but the characters often serve as cogs rather than the hands guiding that machine. The first season struggled under the pressure of its demanding and relentless exposition, and although the second season allows for more moments of introspection, there still feels like missed opportunities to explore the richness of its characters. With that said, those same characters, thanks to the talent of their actors, still push through in the pensive and powerful moments they receive.

Despite the fact that Lyra is the child of the prophecy and the sun around which all the other characters orbit like a solar system, she never quite feels like the show’s emotional core. In fact, those other planets do, vibrant and distinct in their own approaches to orbiting Lyra, particularly her estranged mother Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson). Wilson gives a juggernaut of a performance as a calculating and manipulative woman who can’t fully contain her vicious frustration and woundedness in a world that doesn’t value women as equals. She craves power and position, although it isn’t always clear why, but her palpable, feral need to be in control comes through with such force that the audience knowing her precise motivation feels less necessary than it normally would. We know she is a woman in a society where women can’t be official scholars, and that environment itself might be enough to drive her to prove herself at all costs. Although one could make an argument that Coulter is a character in tension with two stale archetypes for women—the self-sacrificing mother and the femme-fatale career woman—Wilson never lets her character be so binary.

A still from 'His Dark Materials' Season 2. Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is shown in close-up, centre frame wearing black funeral dress, including a veil. Her pale face is wet with tears and a dark plum coloured lipstick stands out in the dark image.
HBO

In terms of the orbit around Lyra, Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) serves as the warm, protective foil against Mrs. Coulter. Aside from his charming energy in the show, he also brings important diversity for a Western-inspired character. Instead of a solemn, stoic white man that traditional cowboys are, Lee, portrayed by Puerto-Rican actor Miranda of Hamilton fame, brings a lightness and transparent vulnerability to the archetype. The series does in fact tend toward its “dark material,” but Lee serves as a stubborn beacon of heart that breaks up the tone of the series and the more bleak worldviews of his fellow characters. He’s no doubt a highlight of the series, but unfortunately isn’t allowed the same active participation in season two that he had in season one. All the same, Miranda’s presence in the show, as passive as Scoresby may be, is satisfying and worth witnessing.

Season 2 also introduces a refreshing new character in Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), an astrophysicist who studies dark matter, which proves to be “our world’s” equivalent of Dust. Although Dr. Malone is a side character, she receives enough screen time to develop her into a character to root for. Unlike Coulter, she is down-to-earth, earnest, and highly intuitive to others’ emotions in order to help rather than manipulate them. It’s rare on television to see a woman academic with such “ordinary,” everyday eagerness and openness, and Kirby plays that groundedness with a deftness that elevates it into something all its own.

Although not given the same room to flourish as Coulter and Scoresby, Lyra and Will both have important and compelling moments of growth, especially once Will begins to move into his role in the prophecy. Will is a strained, conflicted boy, and Amir Wilson brings a brooding presence to him that never feels like mere teenage angst. The series lets Lyra, too, mature toward a better understanding of what it means to feel responsible for others and how despite losing Roger, she can continue to form meaningful connections.

All in all, His Dark Materials proves to be an enigma. Although it privileges plot over character, the acting performances prove to be the most compelling part of the series in both seasons. For audience members who enjoyed the first season, it’s worth seeing where the new seven episodes take the established worlds and the people who occupy them, but for new viewers who privilege character over plot, the series overall might be a grind due to its denseness, especially on a binge. The series has been renewed for one last season to wrap up the trilogy, and it certainly has the potential to give us a satisfying conclusion to Lyra’s and Will’s final roles in the prophecy.

His Dark Materials is now streaming on HBO and BBC iPlayer

by Bishop V Navarro

Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter 

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