his dark materials the city of magpies review

His Dark Materials is going through some growing pains. The first season couldn’t quite meet its own Game of Thrones-sized ambitions, which hobbled the show before it could really find its footing. Was it a dark, serious epic fantasy? Or the whimsical YA adventure that Philip Pullman‘s novels first presented as? His Dark Materials ended up falling somewhere in the middle, and while the first season was a far more respectful adaptation than the disastrous 2007 film The Golden Compass, it was a tonally confused series that didn’t seem to know where to place the pieces of whimsy in Pullman’s book within its larger narrative.

While some remnants of its Game of Thrones ambitions remain in the first episode of His Dark Materials season 2, especially in the show’s insistence to show the epic sprawl of the growing ensemble, “City of Magpies” enters a brave new world: one where the show is much more confident as a rich religious fantasy epic that isn’t afraid to let out a laugh every now and then. But season 2’s premiere still finds itself stumbling over the spillover from season 1, taking a little too long to establish its setting and its characters before it can get to the real meat of the story.

Lyra of the Flies

A witch’s prophecy casts an immediate shadow over the season: “It’s time to prepare…to draw sides,” the witch declares, as Asriel’s portal to another world sends everyone — witch, priest, an animal, alike — into a frenzy. There is a prophecy that follows this “tear in the sky,” the witches warn, of a young girl lost in another world. But unaware of the coming war and her prophesied part in it is Lyra (Dafne Keen), who wanders the warm climates of the new world while mourning her best friend Roger’s death at Asriel’s hand. It doesn’t take long before she finds the city in the sky that so captivated her when she saw it in Asriel’s pictures — a vibrant, Mediterranean city that is eerily empty.

It’s nice to see Lyra’s daemon Pan have an even stronger presence right off the bat in season 2 (after the show’s budget in season 1 allowed him a few key appearances before disappearing for random intervals), voicing Lyra’s thoughts as they wander the abandoned streets and acting as her conscience when Lyra’s bullishness gets the best of her. The latter comes into play when Lyra is suddenly approached by Will (Amir Wilson), the boy from our Earth who had wandered into the city through a window in the air. Lyra, still stung by Asriel’s betrayal and her part in Roger’s death, is unwilling to put her trust in this strange boy with no daemon, but Pan is oddly comfortable with him, speaking to Will for Lyra while she gives him the cold shoulder.

Finally, we get to see our two protagonists interacting, and both Keen and Wilson’s performances are all the stronger for it. I still think it was a mistake to introduce Will in season 1 — writer Jack Thorne was too eager to push up the story’s big game-changing twist of multiple worlds, and as a result, Wilson felt a little lost throughout the season. There’s no replacing the whopper of beginning The Subtle Knife from Will’s POV, only for Lyra to suddenly crash in like a feral child. But Keen and Wilson finally gel when they’re together, Keen loosening up her portrayal of Lyra a little and finding a little humor in the role, and Wilson finding a wild-card character to bounce his turmoiled YA hero persona off of. The two of them immediately strike up a wonderful little screwball dynamic, teasing each other and clashing with each other — whether over strategies (Lyra, always the type to dive headfirst into conflict, while Will is ever the mediator) or over the differences in their worlds. It’s embodied by the hilarious omelet two-part sequence, in which Will cooks an omelet for a suspicious Lyra, who sniffs it and eats it like a burrito before calling him a kitchen boy, then later attempts to cook an omelet for Will made mostly of cracked shells. I can’t exactly explain why this scene was so important to book fans (we willed it into being!) but it’s such a nice refreshing piece of levity in an otherwise heavy episode that shows that His Dark Materials is ready to lighten up a bit.

A Question of Faith

The first episode of season 2 is very much an establishing episode, and that’s where “The City of Magpies” begins to drag. The series seems determined to show itself as a sprawling epic, so the check-ins on our disparate storylines à la Game of Thrones begins: there are the witch tribes congregating to discuss whether to follow the prophecy surrounding Lyra and join Asriel’s fight, or to wage war against the Magisterium, who has kidnapped one of their own. There is the Magisterium, debating whether to reject Asriel’s tear in the sky, and what information the captured witch can give them. While the witches and their dark fae design make them a least impressive to look at, the Magisterium subplot will never be interesting, no many British character actors smirk and chew scenery.

The only saving grace of the Magisterium (leaning into their fascist designs even more this season, with a very Soviet-style submarine setting) is Mrs. Coulter, played by series MVP Ruth Wilson. Ever so chilling and unpredictable, Mrs. Coulter volunteers to torture the witch for information, resulting in one of Wilson’s standout scenes of the show. By simply removing her rings and earrings while talking clinically to the witch, Mrs. Coulter strikes a terrifying figure, which only becomes more frightening as she clicks a pair of tweezers while approaching her subject. Mrs. Coulter pulls the cloud pine from the witch’s back as the witch screams in agony — it’s not as gnarly as the finger-snapping torture of the book, but it’s a dash of body horror that may be even more effectively disturbing. The scene escalates as Mrs. Coulter realizes that the prophecy refers to Lyra, and Wilson once again puts her whole body into her performance: her voice becoming deep and hoarse as she becomes desperate for answers about her daughter. But the interrogation is cut short by witch queen Ruta Skadi (newcomer Jade Anouka) who stabs the captured witch before she can reveal more, and cuts a bloody streak through the Magisterium submarine.

The Spectre of Adolescence

Meanwhile, Lyra and Will discover that they’re not so alone as they thought, spotting two young girls who immediately run away upon being seen — Lyra, in classic hotheaded fashion, taking off after them while Will takes a more strategic route to corner them. One of the girls is played by none other than Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey (little Lyanna Mormont), as salt-of-the-earth and quick-witted as her past famous role. Ramsey’s Angelica reveals to Lyra and Will that the city of Citagazze had been invaded by Spectres, soul-sucking creatures who only attacked adults. Their parents and most of the adults in the city were killed, while the rest fled, leaving only the children to roam the empty streets — until they came of age. “That one’s close,” she nods to the visibly older Will, on the cusp of adolescence. But after raiding a bakery with Will and Lyra, Angelica and her sister Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats) remain evasive about what they were there to do, and run off, leaving Will and Lyra to ponder this strange new world they’ve found themselves in, and what to do next.

But upon realizing that the two both hail from two different Oxfords, worlds apart, Lyra insists that Will take her back to his world so that she can find out more about Dust, to which Will reluctantly agrees. 

Subtle Sidenotes

  • Keen has found a knack for physical comedy: first her accidentally dropping an egg and rubbing it into the floor with her shoe, then her sniffing herself when wondering whether she needs a “standing bath.”
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda makes his best attempt at noble anxiety, but feels enormously out of place in the witch’s council. His brand of cheesy charisma ends up being drowned out by the heaviness of his scenes.
  • I complimented Ian Peck‘s performance as Cardinal Sturrock last season, but his over the top performance was starting to grate so much that I was glad he was gone.
  • Ruta’s fight sequence is fantastic — though too short — and Anouka makes an impression, though her performance as the vengeful Ruta is still fairly one-note.
  • The show has thankfully shed Tom Hooper’s cramped, shaky style — already the series looks brighter, bigger and more vast under director Jamie Childs, aided by the lush production design of Citagazze.
  • I feel like the “he’s a murderer” revelation from the alethiometer would hit harder if Will’s story kicked off the season, but alas.
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