Why HIS DARK MATERIALS (Season Two) was Underwhelming

Title in white on dark brown next to image of Lyra

The second season of HIS DARK MATERIALS (BBC) has just concluded, and my persistent feeling throughout the entire season was one of being underwhelmed. I loved the first season and went into this season expecting another brilliant experience, on the edge of my seat. While this second outing was as visually stunning as the first, the story failed to grab me. I was often on my phone, uninvested in what was happening on screen.

I am going to do my best to avoid spoilers for the second season, and instead focus on the story telling techniques and elements, but there might be some contextual spoilers ahead.

Season One

The first season was a lot of fun. I think I want to do an analysis of it as an adaptation at some point because it was one that struck me as particularly well done.

I’ve watched the film many times (which mis-orders the events and doesn’t go to the book’s end – and has many haters). PLus, THE NORTHERN LIGHTS (I believe THE GOLDEN COMPASS in the US) is the only one of the three books I remember. Usually, I do not enjoy adaptations because I know what’s coming so the tension fails to build. Plus I am usually measuring it against the book.

However, the tension was really well done and I was utterly hooked throughout the series. It is well paced and builds a sense on anticipation that something bad is coming, even as the Bolvanger sequence passes.

Second Entry Woes

In trilogies, the second book can be underwhelming and meh – second book syndrome. I can name countless books that fall into this category. After the success of the first book, the next falls flat. Part of this is because there is a greater expectation of the story after you’ve read the first – you know the world, you know the characters. You expect another great read. And expectation is not always the healthiest thing for enjoyment.

You also want more of what you loved in the first, but if the second book is just like the first, it will be repetitive and dull. A second book has to take what was loved about the first and improve on it. Make it something new and familiar all at once.

These two issues alone sound like pretty daunting challenges for a second book to overcome. However, there is another challenge in the path of a series longer than two books – one that is particularly acute with trilogies. It is an inherent danger in the way series are constructed.

The first book gets to introduce the world, the protagonist, and the antagonist. The protagonist has their first taste of victory, but their world has irrevocably changed.

In the final book, everything is rushing towards the climax. The villain and hero are going to finally meet after their various engagements so far. They have history to supercharge the emotions of the finale, and the reader knows that it’s coming.

Yes, there is a potential issue in the ending not sticking – not living up to everything that comes before – but that is more a matter of craft and remaining true to the core story to deliver something satisfying. Are the emotions correctly conveyed? Do the character arcs come to conclusions that are true to the basic character established over the series? Does the story’s ending fulfil the themes?

The middle book has to bridge the gap between the well defined expectations of the first book and last. It needs to move the characters into place for an explosive finale and increase the threat posed by the villain, all while functioning as a complete, satisfying story of its own.

It’s a large ask, and often the complete and satisfying story isn’t delivered, and the book instead feels like all it’s doing is getting the characters from A to B in preparation. This garners them the name filler books.

This was what this season felt like. It was as if it needed to get Will and Lyra to meet, and arrange the pieces for the final battle, getting everyone to meet, killing off those who needed to die for emotional impact (though the deaths fell very flat).

Lack of Focus

One of the reasons I think this season fell into the filler book trap is because there wasn’t an obvious end point, no overarching goal to build towards. It meant that pacing was hard to sustain or measure as the episode could not be judged by how much progress had been made towards the goal.

In the first season, the first six episodes build towards the fight at Bolvanger – a concrete goal of rescuing the missing children. Once that has passed, the season switches to the unease of what is to come, complete with the witch’s prophecy that Lyra is to betray someone. This meant that, even once the primary goal had been achieved, there was still a sense that there was a show-down coming, mysteries to be revealed and Azriel to return.

While season two had the subtle knife as a gizmo to find and master, it was not a substantial, overarching goal. It only comes in for episode three, and is claimed by episode five. It added some direction to the middle episodes, but was not enough to link all the episodes together, to drive the pace towards the anticipation of the finale.

There were some other goals around, like “find out what happened in the city”, but these were rather vague, with shifting goal posts. As new information came up, the goal changed because there was another thing to discover. Then the goal of “find Will’s father” came in halfway through, to stop up the gap of the knife’s goal (at least, that’s what it felt like).

These small goals were not satisfying enough to push the entire season onwards, because there was nothing at stake. Lyra, the main character, has nothing she is fighting for, nothing personal at risk. Sure, there are some mentions of a big war and a prophecy,, but it doesn’t relate to her life and wants directly. And she doesn’t know about it either. Overarching, impersonal villains are fine IF there is something personal at stake.

In season one, she is searching for her best friend Roger. What is she fighting for in this season? No idea at all. And without that, there was nothing for the audience to root for her to gain and hope she didn’t lose. Without these stakes, she lacked motivation.

A good character’s journey has three: goal, motivation, and conflict. As Lyra has neither goal nor motivation, there was no chance of a compelling conflict because there was nothing personal to her that could be challenged.

This problem was not just in Lyra’s story, but in all the different stories weaving together. And there were a lot of different story lines and a lot of characters to follow. It could be very difficult to see how they were interlinked, so the story felt very scattered at times.

There was Will and Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Charles Brandon (I think that was his name? The Black man who crossed between worlds), Lee Scorsby and Will’s father, the witches (whatever their names were), and the Scottish researcher (the inaccuracy of the physics lab was hahahaha). Oh, and whatever was happening with the Magesterium.

Remember Azriel? The man who kicked it all off in the first season? Whose presence was felt even though he was off screen most of the time? Yeah, well, he’s not in this. He was going to have a standalone episode showing what he had been up to, but due to Covid that didn’t happen. He wasn’t built into the main episodes because his adventures weren’t directly linked to the storylines.

However, this is a perfect example of the problem with this season; a character who had been so pivotal to the first season could be completely removed because he wasn’t linked to Will and Lyra. And yet, he is going to have a major role in the third season – because he takes his war to the Authority and that propels a lot of the book. So the driving character is absent. Though his name is sometimes mentioned – more as the season goes on – his presence wasn’t felt at all, when he should be used as a catalyst pushing it on. A shadowy figure in the background.

There are so many threads that I cannot remember all the characters and their names. I love big, expansive stories, but there needs to be concrete goals to help invest in the characters. I need to see how they are fundamentally interlinked. They’re coming together must be an inevitable of the conflict, not simply as a “they need to come together so they’re in place for the final season” – which is what the final episode felt like.

The Finale

The final episode was the most disappointing of all the episodes. It did not feel like a series finale. Partly, I think it’s because of the issues discussed above – the lack of feeling like something was being built towards – but also because when the episode happened, well, frankly, nothing happened.

It lacked any sort of confrontation. Lee Scorsby runs from a few gun-wielding men in a forest, but that is the sum of any confrontation. This is a fantasy TV show – you are expecting a battle of some sort. We got that in the first season with the bears and the magisterium racing for the mountain, here we get another episode of Will and Lyra walking through woods with witches talking, as everyone else manoeuvres into position for season three.

The episode also lacked an emotion heart. With no motivation throughout, she was not risking anything, so the focus was on Will instead. He was searching for his father. However, his father so far had been presented solely within the lens of Lee finding something to help Lyra. The meeting between Will and his father had all the impact of two random strangers meeting, because the father isn’t fleshed out.

The problem is that Lyra is the heart of the story. Will is not a susbtitute able to hold up the episode because he came in halfway through season one, whereas Lyra has been there from the start.

Lyra’s “cliffhanger ending” is further undercut by not seeing the moment it happens, or seeing Will react to that. There isn’t a chance to see characters close to Lyra react to the situation. We might have had a chance to care that she was gone if Will was upset and blamed himself. It would have brought the emotions back to Lyra.

The Solution?

The main thing is to give the series an overriding goal, something all the characters are directly or indirectly working to achieve or prevent. And all of them needed to be going the same way, so that they did all collide in a big confrontation at the end.

They also needed things at stake. What did they risk losing? These stakes needed to be at odds, so that only some characters could have what they wanted, but the watcher had to want all the character to succeed. That would have given an emotional heart to the ending – watching some succeed and some lose. You would have gone into the final episode knowing only some could get what they wanted, generating tension and anticipation.

Overall, it was a pretty disappointing season that highlights the necessity of goal and motivation in crafting stories.

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