The His Dark Materials trilogy is made up of three very segmented novels. Book one, known either as The Golden Compass or The Northern Lights, depending on which side of the pond you're on, exists utterly in Lyra's world. It's a mirror universe where one small change in human physiology has radically altered the course of history.
Book two, The Subtle Knife, begins here on Earth, introducing Will Parry, revealing that his father, John, is already travelling between universes. The same explorer is known to Lyra as Stanislaus Grumman. It takes several chapters before Will travels to a mirror universe, meeting up with Lyra, who escaped her world at the end of the first book, in Cittàgazze.
Mrs. Coulter: "Pragmatism: Such an underrated quality."
One of the smarter choices made by the BBC/HBO adaptation is to break down these walls and bring Will in early on in Season 1. That gave viewers a recognizable world to grab onto and revealed people from both Lyra's world and Earth are already crossing between mirror worlds. It also made it so Season 2 could open in Cittàgazze and bring Lyra and Will together right away. It changes the perspective as well. Here, Lyra runs into Will, instead of him stumbling into her adventure, already in progress.
But the best news here is that bringing Amir Wilson and Dafne Keen together solves the first of what were several problems in the first season. Critics reviewing the season ahead of time seem to regard these improvements as proof the show recognized what was wrong with their first-round and course-correcting after the show only received mediocre reviews. Unfortunately, this is probably not the case, as Season 2 was greenlit and began filming well before the series debuted on the BBC (where it received rapt reviews), let alone over here in the states (where said reviews were less kind).
And yet, the improvements are everywhere, beginning with Lyra. The most massive issue last season was seeing the world through her eyes. It drained her world, so different from our own, of all magic, since childish Lyra regarded most of these wonders with the incuriosity reserved for the everyday mundane. Taking her out of her comfort zone and allowing her to view things with awe helps restore the wonder and magic the first season lacked.
Moreover, for the first time, we have a character who does not regard Lyra with wonder. Everyone treats her spoilt self with kid gloves in her world, knowing she is a "child of prophecy." Lyra assumes this is the way of the world for all. Suddenly having Will to contrast against — a boy who has had to learn maturity beyond his years after his mother's collapse — brings out just how childish she is and how much growing up there's still to do. The chemistry between Wilson and Keen also gives both a boost, creating a real "two against the world" feeling as they find themselves confronted with Angelica (Bella Ramsey), Paola (Ella Schrey-Yeats), and the feral children who now run Cittàgazze since the Spectres drained the adults of their souls.
The introduction of the "Spectres" brings a new dimension to the Dust debate, beyond Lyra's assumption that if bad people hate Dust, therefore it must be good. Here, for the first time, we see Dust as something to fear, not because it is good or bad, but because there are monsters who feed off it. One could argue that both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are also monsters who feed off Dust, just from a different angle. But with Lord Asriel nowhere to be seen and Will and Lyra having not made the connection between Dust and Spectres, it might take a while before viewers get there.
Speaking of which, Lord Asriel does not appear in The Subtle Knife at all, and the COVID shutdown derailed the show's attempt at working him in for the final episode, so there will be no James McAvoy this season. Not to worry, Ruth Wilson's Mrs. Coulter more than makes up for it. With Lyra and Will heading for Earth in an episode or two, the series spends all its non-Lyra-time back in her world. While there are a few breaks to discuss Witch politics and a scene or two setting up Lee Scoresby's eventual hunt for Lyra, most of the episode focuses on Coulter and the Magisterium's machinations.
The show's attempts to separate the Magisterium from the real-world Catholic Church in Season 1 were an unnecessary distraction. But for the first episode in Season 2, it feels for the first time like the show has gotten a handle on it by leaning into all that is evil here. It helps that in an age of COVID, Cardinal Sturrock's (Ian Peck) denying what is right in front of his lying eyes takes on an all-new "fake news," meaning the show didn't realize would be there when they filmed is all to the better. And leaning in on Coulter as a sort of religious Nazi scientist in her torture of the captured witch, Katja Sirkka (Marama Corlett), helps make this less about religion and more about what horrors man does to man, no matter what universe you're in.
But Mrs. Coulter's real strength is in using her femininity and the patriarchy's assumptions to manipulate those around her. By the end of the episode, Sturrock's denialism has been removed after Queen Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) sneaks aboard his ship for a mercy killing of Katja and stabbing the head of the Chruch on her way out the door. It gets everyone what they want. Ruta, who is itching to go to war against the Magisterium, ensures it will come whether her sisters like it or not. Meanwhile, Coulter can now install a new head indebted to her in Father MacPhail (Will Keen), a frightening alliance that seems to be as unholy as the one between her daughter and Will is pure.
The premiere ends with Will slowly being drawn to the tower in Cittàgazze's center, as Lyra's alethiometer spurs her to follow him. But will she arrive in time to stop the Spectres from attacking his budding adult soul?