It’s rare for an adaptation to top the source material, but His Dark Materials definitely comes close. Based on the first of Philip Pullman’s best-selling fantasy novels, Northern Lights, season one took a dense literary universe and made it shiny enough for newbies, but sufficiently detailed to keep fans happy. With its second series (book two, The Subtle Knife), the show returns bigger, darker and even better.
Here’s where we left off: Asriel (James McAvoy) has just murdered his daughter Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) best pal Roger on top of an icy mountain. His ritual experiment tore the fabric between worlds – and allowed him to hop over into another realm. In the new episode, everyone’s working out their next move. Lyra can’t decide whether to follow her bonkers dad through the inter-dimensional doorway, while Mrs Coulter is busy blackmailing her way to power in the church. Meanwhile, all-round good egg Lee Scoresby has joined the side of the witch clans. Eventually, Lyra does cross over and meets Will (Amir Wilson), the show’s other protagonist who has his own problems to outrun. At first they mistrust one another, but after swapping sarcastic remarks the unlikely duo build up a rapport as they explore Cittàgazze – a hot, dry city that’s haunted by invisible spectres which feed on the souls of adults.
This relationship is key. The Subtle Knife, it’s no spoiler to say, revolves around Lyra and Will – so if there’s a lack of chemistry, everything collapses. Luckily, sparks fly between Keen and Wilson from the start. They banter about how to cook eggs in the kitchen; rib each other for their differences and solve problems together. Both actors are young, but not inexperienced. Keen starred in superhero blockbuster Logan three years ago, while Wilson has a medieval Netflix series under his belt. Obviously, they learned a lot on season one too – and it’s a treat to watch such exciting talents spar so early on in their careers.
Elsewhere, Ruth Wilson continues her stint as the most evil woman on television. Mrs Coulter can’t chase Lyra down at the moment – she doesn’t know where she is – so finds something else to do. Namely, crushing her enemies in the Magisterium – a cross between Darth Vader’s evil Empire and the Vatican – while literally torturing those out of it. We weren’t sure how nasty Lyra’s mum would be after season one’s finale – she snogged Asriel and seemingly remembered she loved her daughter – so it’s reassuring to find she still enjoys dolling out violent punishment, like ripping the wings of witches. In the same scene, we get our first proper look at Ruta Skadi, played by Jade Anouka. The queen of Lake Lubana clan swoops in to stop Mrs Coulter squeezing any witch secrets out of her victim – and it’s the coolest bit of action you’ll see on TV this year. All acrobatic fight moves and clever CGI trickery, the gripping sequence proves the show’s enormous budget has been put to good use.
In The Subtle Knife, it’s Serafina Pekkala (played here by Ruta Gedmintas) and not Skadi who saves the day. The showrunners have largely stuck to Pullman’s script, but there are a few fresh subplots involving Asriel’s manservant Thorold and Will’s extended family which mix things up. When His Dark Materials was first announced, the basic goal was to improve on 2007’s woeful film version The Golden Compass. The first season jumped that hurdle easily, but as with any second series, book or album, the follow-up must give fans more of the same, while adding new elements to sustain interest. His Dark Materials season two does all that and more.