His Dark Materials: 2.01 The City of Magpies
Once again, dark autumn nights signal new episodes of His Dark Materials, the lavish BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman's trilogy by the same name. The first season - based on book one The Golden Compass - provided great prestige family drama last year. This time, it's the adaptation of book two - The Subtle Knife. Fortunately, filming was completed on series two shortly before the first Covid-19 lockdown, meaning we're getting the continuation of the story as planned. Only a self-contained, Lord Asriel-focused episode never made it to cameras, and its absence apparently won't interfere with the series ahead.
After travelling through portals from their respective worlds last series, The City of Magpies wastes no time uniting lead heroine Lyra (Dafne Keen) with Will (Amir Wilson), finally colliding the two main plot threads running through series one. Will's story is lifted from The Subtle Knife, but by introducing him last series, it means the second series can hit the ground running. After a quick trek through a rainforest, dealing with the loss of poor Roger last series, Lyra arrives at the mythical city of Cittàgazze, AKA the titular City of Magpies, with her faithful demon Pantalaimon, only to find it abandoned.
The city itself is an impressive, gorgeous feat of design. With it's long, narrow stone streets, cafes and archways, it looks entirely as if it were filmed on location. And yet, it was entirely built from scratch in Cardiff. Production designer and executive producer Joel Collins told Radio Times that the production crew looked at 120 different towns, from Bonn, France, Italy, Morrocco, Croatia to Spain and couldn't quite get the right place to film such an essential location for His Dark Materials moving forward. And yet, it doesn't look fake in the slightest, drawing strong influences from those Mediterranean locations to offer a very real and vivid city. The rising staircases feel particularly evocative of M.C. Escher’s famous painting, Relativity, giving it an other-wordly feel too.
It's easy to take for granted just how good Dafne Keen is in the role of Lyra; she holds her own against seasoned cast members and holds the show on her shoulders. This episode we saw her go out on her own, dealing with her trauma and finding the grit and determination to move forward. While not as strong a performer as Keen, Amir Wilson certainly prove himself, given a bit more meatier material as Will, now that his story doesn't exist entirely in isolation of the other events taking place. Both actors worked together well, the characters bouncing off each other well, and Will's honest optimism contrasted nicely with Lyra's already seasoned bitterness, bringing her back somewhat to the courageous, adventurous girl we saw last series.
There was also a compelling mystery to hook to viewer too. Once again, I write this as someone not familiar with the books, so I'm certain there are those who found plenty to excite in the foundations here. For me and my family, the mystery of the spectres, the stolen adults and the abandoned children, made for great television. The sense of danger permeated the episode; the encounter with the zombified man at the well was particularly creepy for a family drama and there was an intriguing cliff-hanger concerning the fate of poor Will at the end. I'm fascinated to see how he ties into Lyra's story moving forward.
The City of Magpies wasn't entirely confined to this new, third world. The machinations of Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and Magisterium saw the fallout of Lord Asriel opening the portal in the series one finale. We were introduced to the ignorant leader of the religious order, Cardinal Sturrock (Ian Peck), a man refusing the believe the blasphemy of other worlds, even with the evidence just outside his submarine.
Coulter remains the real villain of the series; whether it was torturing the poor captured witch for information or taking advantage of the near-fatal attack on Paradisi by the vengeful witch Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka), she is clearly the real source of power, despite what the male-dominated Magisterium might think. Suggesting Sturrock doesn't survive, while elevating ill Keen's Father MacPhail as her puppet leader, she remains an utterly fascinating character, particularly in light of last series' revelations regarding her connection to Lyra. Like Keen, Wilson remains one of the big stars of His Dark Materials.
The City of Magpies was a solid series two opener. It didn't try and cover too much material, instead focusing on Lyar's journey to the mysterious Cittàgazze and her encounter with Will, setting up a compelling mystery regarding the fate of its inhabitants. While there was a brief check in with Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and the witches, the rest of the time was wisely taken up by the equally brilliant Mrs Coulter, reminding us the dangers that await Lyra back home too. With a gorgeous new location and compelling mysteries, His Dark Materials looks to make Sunday evenings great TV for the next few weeks...