His Dark Materials season 2 primer: Your guide to the characters, locations and artefacts that drive the BBC-HBO epic

Season 2 of His Dark Materials brings 'The Subtle Knife', the second book from Philip Pullman's trilogy, to glorious onscreen life.

Rohini Nair November 17, 2020 18:59:30 IST
His Dark Materials season 2 primer: Your guide to the characters, locations and artefacts that drive the BBC-HBO epic

Detail from poster for His Dark Materials season 2 | HBO/BBC

As nearly three-quarters of 2020 have been spent in varying degrees of lockdown and self-isolation by people all over the globe, as a pandemic has reduced the window of our experiences into rectangles roughly the sizes of our screens, pop culture has been among the few escapes afforded to us.

His Dark Materials' season 2 (BBC/HBO) couldn't then have come at a better time. As its characters slip and slide into multiple worlds when we — the viewers — are restricted to the limited corners of our own, its sweep and scale feel even grander.

Before we proceed, obligatory warning: this post contains a few spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of His Dark Materials.

Our return to Lyra's world sees the aftereffects of Asriel's action — opening up a doorway to another world — playing out in intended and unintended ways. The Magisterium's grip on the populace isn't as tight as it was, now that people know they aren't being told the truth about their universe. The schism — the portal Asriel rent in the fabric of the world — has led to the polar ice caps melting quickly, endangering the habitats of bears like Iorek Byrnison. The North is under siege as the Magisterium and the witches escalate hostilities. And within the Magisterium itself, there is a change of guard as Father MacPhail becomes its leader.

But this troubled world is not the main stage for this section of Lyra's story. Instead, we follow her and Pan to Cittagazze, the otherworldly city whose contours Asriel could see in his photograms.

His Dark Materials season 2 primer Your guide to the characters locations and artefacts that drive the BBCHBO epic

Alas, we will not be seeing too much of Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) in season 2 as the focus shifts to another absentee father figure with a penchant for multi-world exploration: John Parry/Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott)

At the end of season 1, a devastated Lyra (and Pan) had decided to follow Asriel through the portal. Their aim is to find out everything they can about the mysterious particle known as "Dust" before Asriel gets to its source. They hope in this way to gain some measure of justice for Lyra's friend Roger, who was killed by Asriel in his bid to open the doorway.

Season 2 starts with her stumbling onto Cittagazze, a seaside Mediterranean-ish city, which serves as a thoroughfare between different worlds. The city looks like it was abandoned in a hurry: The streets, stores and houses are empty, hand-carts with goods are turned over in the alleys, produce rots on the ground. Here, she encounters another human; it is Will.

In season 1, we got a few glimpses of Will's complicated life: his father John Parry never returned from his Arctic exploration mission, his mother has mental health issues, and strange men seem to want the letters John wrote to Will's mother when he set off on his journey. Of course, we the audience knew that John was none other than Stanislaus Grumman, the missing scholar Asriel was looking for in far reaches of the North. We also know the men who were watching Will's house and trying to steal the letters were acting at the behest of Lord Boreal, who seemed to have found a far more inconspicuous way of travelling between worlds than Asriel.

Will has discovered Lord Boreal's pathway and found himself in Cittagazze too. Initially mistrustful of each other, Lyra and Will develop a close bond as they embark on an adventure together: Will to aid Lyra in finding out what she can about Dust, Lyra to help Will trace his father. The chemistry between Dafne Keen (Lyra) and Amir Wilson (Will) is what gives His Dark Materials' season 2 its emotional resonance.

The other characters to keep an eye on this season:

Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson): Lyra's mother is on her trail. She didn't cross over through the portal with Asriel because she wanted to be in the same world as Lyra. Well, imagine her consternation when she discovers (after inflicting lots of torture, and then being the recipient of some intelligence) that Lyra herself isn't in her world at all. Marisa Coulter is among the most intriguing grey characters of pop culture, and season 2 allows us to observe her tics and motivations a whole lot more closely. Who could Marisa have been had she been born in another world? As always, her relationship with Lyra makes for very compelling viewing — as fascinating as Mrs Coulter's interactions with her own daemon, the equally vicious and pathetic golden monkey.

His Dark Materials season 2 primer Your guide to the characters locations and artefacts that drive the BBCHBO epic

Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) joining forces is everything a His Dark Materials fan could hope for

Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda): Lee may have lost track of Lyra when she fell out of his balloon as they were headed to Asriel's mountain outpost, but he's still watching out for her. He hears of an artefact that grants protection to whosoever possesses it, and determines to secure it for Lyra. He also finds out that the one individual who may know where the artefact is, is Stanislaus Grumman. Lee tries to track down Grumman, armed with little more than rumours and half-truths as to the long-missing scholar's whereabouts. Lee may be leagues from Lyra, but he has an important part to play in Lyra and Will's story nonetheless.

Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott): We first heard of the missing explorer all the way back in season 1, episode 1, when Asriel convinced the scholars at Jordan College that he'd found Grumann's remains, and that the latter had found out some essential truths about Dust. We then discovered that Asriel may have faked the remains, and further, that Grumman wasn't of their world at all. That he, in fact, was from another world, and disappeared whilst undertaking an Arctic mission. Now, we'll have a chance to finally hear John/Grumman's side of the story, and witness a father-son reunion when he comes across Will.

Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare): He may not be able to match Marisa Coulter in terms of wits, but Lord Boreal is a formidable foe nonetheless. And he has Will and Lyra in his sights. Like Lee, Boreal too is looking for an artefact — a knife — that an alethiometer reading from the Magisterium's expert Fra Pavel had told him would be procured by Will. Unlike Lee, Boreal's motives are anything but altruistic. How far he'll go to get this knife, and earn some brownie points from Marisa Coulter in the bargain, is unravelled over this season.

Dr Mary Malone (Simone Kirby): An entirely new character introduced in season 2, Dr Malone is an Oxford-based astrophysicist and neuropsychologist in Will's world who is studying dark matter. Specifically, her area of expertise is "shadow particles", and Lyra will find at least some of the answers she's looking for, in her quest to understand Dust. In return, Mary will learn a lot more about what's possible with her own research subject too.

Father MacPhail (Will Keen): How far will the new Cardinal of the Magisterium go to hold on to power and the status quo? And how far will he let Marisa Coulter push him?

His Dark Materials season 2 primer Your guide to the characters locations and artefacts that drive the BBCHBO epic

Promotional photo for His Dark Materials season 2 | HBO/BBC

Apart from the characters, the locations (and timelines) that the season 2 storyline is primarily set in, include —

Cittagazze: The thoroughfare between various worlds has been "infested" with spectres — shadowy beings that attach themselves to adults and consume what makes them human. Only a ragtag group of nearly feral children remain. The city has a mysterious central tower that will have an outsized influence over Will and Lyra's stay.

Modern-day Oxford: Will brings Lyra to Oxford in his world so she can research Dust while he checks up on his mother. Lyra finds that Jordan College does not exist in Will's world, although many of the features of both their versions of Oxford coincide. Oxford, however, is fraught with danger for both Will and Lyra as Boreal is aware of their whereabouts there.

Old world London: Where the Magisterium is headquartered.

Old world North: Where the witches' lands, and Asriel's schism are the centres of increased surveillance and control by the Magisterium's forces.

Old world Yenisei: Where Lee is tracking Grumman.

And as the very last destination of our primer, the two key terms to acquaint yourself with for season 2 —

The Subtle Knife: Also the title for Philip Pullman's second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, the narrative arc this season depends heavily on this artefact. Season 1's focus was on the alethiometer, and Lyra's gift for reading it; the Subtle Knife — and Will's mastery of it — is the alethiometer's equivalent in season 2. The knife can cut through any material, but more than that — it can also slice through the very fabric of the world, opening doorways (or windows) into different worlds.

Dust: Lyra learned through Asriel that this most maligned of elements may not be the evil force the Magisterium made it out to be. That far from being Original Sin, Dust may be the very matter on which our worlds are premised. Expect some exposition on dark matter that will illumine Philip Pullman's creation a whole lot more.

His Dark Materials season 2 is now streaming on Disney+Hotstar. A new episode is released weekly.

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