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‘His Dark Materials’ season 2 recap – episode 1: ‘The City of Magpies’

(Courtesy of HBO)

"The City of Magpies"

Directed by Jamie Childs

HBO

Monday

By Paige Hua

Nov. 16, 2020 11:35 p.m.

The alethiometer spins once more – although perhaps it wavers upon true north.

The second season of HBO’s “His Dark Materials” premieres Monday, welcoming audiences back to a world of worlds. Episode one picks up right where the last season left off, following Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen) as she exits Brytain and steps into the new world of Cittàgazze through the portal Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) had torn through the sky. Titled “The City of Magpies,” it’s clear that HBO doesn’t plan on cutting any production corners, packing the pilot with top talent and special effects.

However, the season premiere suffers the same downfall as the season prior, namely the inability to drum up a cohesive storyline.

[Related: ‘His Dark Materials’ season 1 recap – episode 8: ‘Betrayal’]

The majestic opening visuals spotlight Lyra’s trek through jungles and cliffsides with her animal familiar, or daemon, Pan (Kit Connor) until she arrives at Cittàgazze, a curiously abandoned city built into a mountain. The questions are just beginning for her when the episode cuts to Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), thus introducing a new parallel to Lyra’s storyline. In an introductory scene devoid of any dialogue, it becomes clear that Mrs. Coulter is reeling from the fallout of Lord Asriel’s actions with the Magisterium.

A veritable master class in acting, Wilson’s reprisal of her role remains as gleefully chilling as ever. The raw emotion portrayed through her expressions and body language in her first minutes on screen surpasses that of any shouting match seen in previous episodes.

Between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, it’s obvious what the dual storylines are in the first act of the season. However, the initial inklings of confusion begin largely with the latter’s arc.

With a gaping hole in the sky undermining the Magisterium’s rule, Mrs. Coulter volunteers first to interrogate a witch currently held hostage. In brilliant Mrs. Coulter fashion, she hisses out a promise to Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck) and all the Fathers in the room that she will not fail to wring out answers about a multiverse. Except she does.

The witch in question eventually dies in a failed rescue mission, leaving Mrs. Coulter to deal with the consequences of her failure – but there also seem to be none. Cardinal was left bedridden with injuries in the wake of the botched mission, paving the way for Mrs. Coulter to offer Father MacPhail (Will Keen) the open seat of power. In their tense interaction, she slyly suggests she will willingly commit the slight sin of treason by letting the Cardinal’s condition worsen until death.

[Related: ‘His Dark Materials’ season 1 recap – episode 7: ‘The Fight to the Death’]

Not only does Mrs. Coulter’s instant manipulation of Father MacPhail’s trust seem all too convenient, the scene also blurs her motivations. In last season’s finale, she chose to stay in Brytain with Lyra rather than chase Lord Asriel into the new world. But with Lyra following her father’s footsteps, Mrs. Coulter seems to be left with muddied intentions for staying behind to deal with the deteriorating state of the Magisterium.

Luckily, Lyra’s journey in Cittàgazze is slightly easier to follow. Lyra and Pan are not alone for long in the empty town as her storyline quickly crosses with Will Parry (Amir Wilson), the boy from the real-life Oxford whose arc originally ran parallel to Lyra’s in season one. Their long-awaited encounter is no disappointment either. Lyra’s stubborn and suspicious nature is at odds with Will’s friendliness and desire to band together, injecting a lightheartedness into their scenes as they find a way to work with each other to solve the mystery of the city.

While exploring the streets of Cittàgazze, the pair comes across a band of children who explain the city has been abandoned by the grown-ups because of the so-called Spectres. Throughout the episode, the Spectre entity becomes as confusing as Dust, further packing the world of “His Dark Materials” with ideas that aren’t entirely fleshed out.

With no sign of Lord Asriel’s whereabouts, it seems that Lyra and Will will be left to their own devices for a while longer – meaning the answers to season one’s cliffhangers might just have to wait. Yet there is still plenty to look forward to in the second season, even if answers are not on the horizon. Based on HBO’s run with fantasy television, the network knows exactly how to distract with epic locations and deft character development until it is able to tie up all the loose ends.

With Lord Asriel in the wind once again, one might as well appreciate the joyride of Mrs. Coulter’s viciousness and the children’s charming resourcefulness.

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Paige Hua | Arts senior staff
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
Hua was the 2020-2021 Arts editor. She was previously the Theater | Film | Television Arts assistant editor.
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