We Won't Know If 'His Dark Materials' Gets It Until It Starts Getting Really Weird
It's still unclear whether HBO knows the story it's telling—or if it's willing to go there.
Any fan of Philip Pullman's groundbreaking fantasy book series will tell you: His Dark Materials, the trilogy comprising The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, is weird. It's not a typical young adult adventure, as it deals heavily in complex quantum-physical and theological themes—the series' title comes from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost, not something a child of this era is likely to pick up on. It's more melancholy than other books marketed towards kids, and it's that willingness to embrace adolescent sadness that makes it so great. It's also something that makes it singularly hard to adapt.
In its second season, His Dark Materials—that airs on BBC One in the U.K. and HBO internationally—has less of the choppy nature of its first, and seems to have a little more confidence in what it's doing, partially likely because it's finally adapting the part of the story that hasn't yet been filmed (The Golden Compass was adapted into a very disappointing movie in 2007 that did not end up getting any sequels), and also because the more abstract themes of the series are no longer just subtext.
Without getting too deep into spoiler territory for those who haven't read the series and are experiencing this story for the first time, the first two books of His Dark Materials act as the lead-up to an all-out interdimensional cosmic war that is literally over humanity gaining (or losing) the power of free will. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is given a bit of a remix, and the notion of "original sin" is turned on its head, all through the actions of the main characters Lyra Silvertongue (played by Dafne Keen in the series) and Will Parry (Amir Wilson). Because the whole thing is told from their perspective, and because the whole point is that they don't fully grasp the far-reaching implications of what they do, the true purpose of this plot they're involved in is never completely and definitively explained in the text.
You do get plenty of clues to piece it together for yourself, though, such as lines from the witches in Lyra's world saying that she is a legendary figure who "goes by another name"—if you're up to date on your biblical theology (and if you have some sense of what these books are about and why they're controversial in some circles), you can probably guess what this name is.
The second season of the show, which is adapted from The Subtle Knife (parts of which, mainly the introduction of Will Parry, were actually funneled into the first season), introduces a new object of power into the show, and explains definitively what this magical "Dust" actually is, and why all the bad guys out there want to harness it to their wills, or deny its existence altogether. The real weirdness won't come until new character Mary Malone, basically the third lead of the series, starts doing what she spends all of the third book doing—which, incidentally, we may see a bit of in the latter half of the second season. (I personally have been waiting for years to see Mary's friends, creatures called mulefa, adapted visually.) We're also likely to meet two angels in the last few episodes, Balthamos and Baruch, who appear to help Lyra and Will on their quest. In the third book, they open the door to the literal underworld full of lost souls. What I'm saying is: It's gonna get weirder.
Whether or not the show embraces that weirdness still remains to be seen, nine episodes in. The first half of the second season bounces back and forth between the Magisterium's battle against the witches of Lyra's world, the machinations of Lord Boreal in Will's world (our own), and Lyra and Will seeking a very special weapon in Cittagazze, a city in a crossroads world Lord Asriel's big interdimensional rip opened up into in the Season 1 finale. Though we're traversing multiple universes in each episode, the story remains earthbound—even famed aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) has had to trade his balloon for a boat.
The plot is getting stranger, the settings more fantastical, and the characters more otherworldly, but we won't truly know if His Dark Materials is willing to go all in on the driving theme of the story until we get closer to the end. For now, both the writers and their characters are still figuring things out.
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