'His Dark Materials' Season 2, Episode 2 Recap: "The Cave"

Photograph by Simon Ridgway/HBO

His Dark Materials landed in Cittàgazze for the premiere episode, introducing a third world between Land Will-Earth and Lyra-Counter-Earth, sort of an "Earth Mark 3," in which Dust is a malevolent force.

This week, Will and Lyra take their leave of the city of children (after a bit of arguing over Lyra's wardrobe) and head to the place that holds more magic for Lyra than anywhere else: Our world of 2019. She discovers cell phones, which are (to her) best understood as a variation on the alethiometer, computers, 21st-century cars, and a brand new Oxford, one that doesn't have a Jordan College.

Mrs. Coulter: "Sometimes, subtlety is overrated."

Unfortunately, this journey also splits Will and Lyra up again after last week's massive upgrade of putting the two actors together. Even though they are both fine actors on their own, their chemistry and instant connection seem to bring out the best in both. On the other hand, dividing them again gives the show a chance to prove taking Lyra out of her comfort zone, in general, does wonders. That utterly unnecessary cut through the kitchens to get to the blank spot where Jordan should be, for instance, instead of running around the outside of the building, like ordinary people do, was as effective in emphasizing how self-centered and thoughtlessly childish her character is, as any scene with Will.

Also, putting Dafne Keen with Ariyon Bakare as Lords Boreal drew sparks in a way little of her interactions did last year and reminding fans of something the show failed to emphasize enough last season: how naturally lying comes to her. But, despite not having as much context for her lying ways as one might like (or that the book provides), the scene with Mary Malone (Simone Kirby) still works well, especially since Lyra must now struggle with trying to describe the truth. Also, the contrast of Lyra's experience being hooked up to a computer reminds us of how much gentler our scientific experiments feel in comparison to Mrs. Coulter's Nazi torture. 

Photograph by Simon Ridgway/HBO

That brings us to Will, once again navigating his home turf. These Earth scenes were some of the best stuff last year, as they were both unexpected and brought the magic out of Lyra's POV and into ours. There's little magic in talking to lawyers and hostile grandparents, even if it was an excellent way to check back in with the Plae Faced Man, who is still playing a cop on Will's planet. However, the scenes do the job of putting Will on equal footing with Lyra narratively by the shortest route possible: adults you're supposed to rely on cannot be trusted or are too weak to protect you. 

Speaking of Lyra's Counter-Earth, a lot went down this week, starting with the super impressively staged funeral for Cardinal Sturrock. MacPhail is now acting cardinal, but his position is precarious, as Father Graves (Sean Gilder), a bombastic true believer with a knack for theatrics, is stiff competition. There a lot dedicated to this plotline, with Coulter as puppeteer moving the Magisterium pieces around the board. Using the inside baseball of jockeying for power to present why Coulter is so revered and feared does wonders. It also highlights how much these men bend easily to her.

It also shows a willingness to depart from the books with Lyra and her Counter-Earth, something the series stodgily refused to do in Season 1. Moreover, the "rise of fascism" parable isn't part of the series original plotlines. That's because, in the novels, fascism is already here. That's not to say the choice to make that rise more immediate doesn't have resonance, especially in the year 2020. And it certainly gives the whole Magisterium section of the series something to do. Will Keen (yes, he's Dafne's real-life father) primarily benefits as a man who is murdering millions to gain power and knows it's the wrong choice. (Though one could argue allowing Graves to take it instead would be far worse.) 

Photograph by Simon Ridgway/HBO

It also gives more balance to the series, with the adults destroying society while Will and Lyra are off having adventures to save it. And it reminds the audience that Will and Lyra's sense that adults are not here to help them is the correct one. Serafina Pekkala can make all the noises she wants about focusing on the prophecy and the child, but her hands are too full as it is. More importantly, she's a fool for thinking she can send Dr. Lanselius (Omid Djalili) as an envoy to make this all go away. Ruta's murder of Sturrock would be beyond the pale, even if MacPhail didn't need to make an example of the Witches to consolidate his leadership.

Without this storyline, what else would we be left with, other than Lord Boreal refuses to give Mrs. Coulter any information while dropping broad circular hints about Lyra's whereabouts? And yet: The final scene when Coulter kicks MacPhail and the Magisterium to the curb so she can follow Lyra through the doorway and find her daughter. That was an awkward one, partly because the series only just decided to start showing us (instead of telling us) that Coulter is a prime mover and shaker within the Magisterium's walls.

It would have been one thing to have her doing this for a full season and growing bored with it, only to have her world shaken when she realizes how small she's made herself by not crossing through to these other worlds when she learns Lyra has. As it is, like a lot of places where the show is righting the ship, the reversal feels deeply sudden. That being said, it is a welcome one. It's time Coulter's assumptions about the world get shaken through to the core by the discovery of other Earths.