Lyra (Dafne Keen) has travelled to another world through a hole in reality. There she meets the similarly displaced Will (Amir Wilson) and they decide to work together to find their missing fathers. But Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is still determined to find Lyra, and new enemies lurk.
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It’s a tricky thing to get the balance right between fantasy and fact. Too much magic and your story becomes consequence-free fluff; too much fact and you fall into an uncanny valley where magical bits don’t seem plausible. What’s always been great about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is that it expertly hovers between the two — and what’s impressive about the BBC’s adaptation is how it has nailed his tricky tone. If anything, these first few episodes suggest that it’s getting better.
This time child stars Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson are noticeably more comfortable in their roles as Lyra and Will respectively, and both were already more than solid. Something clicks into place when the pair, from literally different worlds, meet. Will fled his home after killing a threatening stranger, an attack that had something to do with his missing father, John Parry (Andrew Scott), while Lyra came through the rift her father created between realities, looking for a mysterious substance called ‘Dust’ that the theocracy in her world wants to destroy.
The absence of these authority figures often gives this season more of a sense of fun — though the stakes have only grown more cosmic.
There’s a theme here of absent fathers and the mess they leave behind, drawn out even further than in the book. Will is in search of his dad; Lyra’s furious at hers; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Han Solo-alike aeronaut, Lee Scoresby, says in a new and emotional scene here that he was abused by his. The great church of the Magisterium in Lyra’s world is entirely built around the dictats of an absent father, the Authority that they worship. The city of Cittàgazze, too, where Will and Lyra meet, is one where only children can survive. In the absence of these authority figures children can run wild, which often gives this season more of a sense of fun — though the stakes have only grown more cosmic.
As with last season, the storytelling is leisurely, revelling in small character details and emotional connections, though this time there’s less exposition to build in. But that’s not to say it gets any less complex: showrunner Jack Thorne does not only focus on Will and Lyra. There’s Ruth Wilson’s superbly slippery Mrs Coulter; Scoresby, searching for a missing scientist who may be able to help Lyra; witch Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) challenging Lyra’s friend Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) to lead the witch clans; a struggle for power at the Magisterium; and the introduction of physicist Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), a potential new ally in the search for Dust.
It’s a lot to process, and little of it is obviously child-friendly given that this is ostensibly the adaptation of a YA novel. Then again, that is remarkably true to the book, hewing closely to the tone and focus of the story, if not always the exact order of play. Thorne and team have drawn out just enough of the adventure elements to keep things racing along, but kept their eyes on a bigger picture that will prove to have cosmic consequences.
With the necessary exposition of Season 1 finished and these multiple worlds established, Season 2 starts to dig into its characters and its worlds. They may face new and terrifying dilemmas, but that’s only going to get audiences more hooked.