03 January 2021

‘His dark materials’ (HBO, season 2)

in Bucharest, Romania
His Dark Materials season 2 poster

After Lord Asriel sacrifices Roger to open a permanent portal to another world, the grieving Lyra follows her father through the opening, determined to uncover the mysteries of Dust. She arrives in the city of Cittàgazze, where she meets Will Parry, who fled his home world to hide from Boreal and his men. The city is deserted, save for a group of children who tell tales of menacing Specters attacking grown-ups. These attacks have grown more frequent since the portal was opened, so the surviving adults have vacated the city, apart from a lonely silhouette in the tower. Together with Will and guided by the alethiometer, Lyra ventures back into his world, the analog of our Earth, to find a scientist who can answer her questions about Dust.

The second season keeps up the fast pace and fun sense of adventure, as we now have a new city to explore, with a striking Italian influence (it reminded me instantly of Cinque Terre). Soon, the entire multiverse opens for the duo when Will obtains his own magical device: The Subtle Knife that can cut windows to any other world.

To a greater degree than in the previous season, Mrs. Coulter feels like the actual star of the show. Her cunning and ruthlessness is unparalleled, and she deftly takes control of every situation in pursuit of her ultimate goal: to reunite with her daughter and convince Lyra to join her side. Despite her usual composure, she experiences a wide range of emotions. On one end of the spectrum her rage and frustration when she realizes the freedom women enjoy on Earth as opposed to their submissive role under the Magisterium. Her erudition and perseverance would have easily awarded her a doctorate here, on par with Dr. Malone. She is equally capable of reluctant empathy when she encounters Lee Scoresby in a prison and recognizes her own childhood suffering in his words.

Unfortunately, as it goes on, more cracks and faults slip into the story. From the first season we get a sense that Mrs. Coulter is somehow special, since she can spend time far away from her daemon, an ability only known among witches and shamans. Her daemon is, as far as I noticed, the only one in the show who never speaks, nor does she ever mention his name. So far nothing too out of the ordinary for this universe; but when Mrs. Coulter arrives in Cittàgazze and suddenly can command the local Specters, I was raising an eyebrow in disbelief – talk about a deus-ex-machina!

I initially liked the scene when Lyra meets Dr. Malone, an Earth scientist studying dark matter. But the longer this plot went on, the more contrived it felt. Inventing a scientific justification for magical forces rarely goes well, and equating Dust to dark matter felt forced and unnecessary. I almost rolled my eyes when the author shoved I Ching into the plot; same when Dust started talking to Dr. Malone through a dark matter detector and revealed it was in fact sentient angels…

The author connects puberty and the emergence of sexual desire in people to the ‘settling of Dust’, the moment when daemons assume their final form and Specters start attacking people (to consume their Dust), and implies Dust confers consciousness. This is another aspect I found confusing and frankly pointless. For the Church, this makes Dust a sign of the original sin, but I am unsure what the author’s actual intention is. Are children not entirely conscious because Dust has not yet bound to them? If so, then why do they become inert when they are separated from their daemons in Mrs. Coulter’s experiments?

The leap from first season Asriel (intrepid explorer and researcher of forbidden topics) to current Asriel (leader of a massive multidimensional war to overthrow the Authority) comes almost out of nowhere. Here at least there is an out-of-world explanation: because of the pandemic, the production team was forced to scrap an entire episode focusing on Asriel. We are left with a single scene in the final episode and small hints throughout the season, mainly during conversations between witches.

The trilogy has been presented as atheistic criticism of the Christian faith and the Church, but from my own point of view there is not enough valid criticism here. The author adopts many of its concepts (Eve, the original sin, the fall, angels) without changing them significantly – it does not even seem he understands original sin beyond the extreme protestant version. He manages rather well to paint the image of a monolithic, highly centralized and authoritarian clerical institution that stifles individual liberties and scientific progress, but its main role seems to be to send faceless soldiers into battle – the same could have been easily accomplished by a generic tyrant (hence my comparison to Star Wars in the previous review).

The critic on Christianity fails entirely, as the author replaces an adult man savior who fully understands and embraces his sacrifice (Jesus Christ) with a teenage girl savior who needs to be kept ignorant to fulfill her destiny (Lyra as Second Eve). From this perspective, you can argue that Lyra is manipulated into her role by circumstances and people around her. Moreover, this undermines any feminist message the books were intending to deliver, by stripping the main female character of her agency and individual choices.

With this in mind, I am tempted to give a lower rating to this season compared to the first. But for now, I will give credit to my excitement at watching the series – I consumed this season even faster than the first, in just one day. I will probably revise my opinion after the third and final season.

My rating: 4.0

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