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'His Dark Materials' 2.02 Review: The Cave

Will and Lyra head off on an emotionally driven journey in this stellar second episode.

Will Parry and Lyra sit on a bench in Oxford's botanical gardens
(Image: © HBO)

Our Verdict

After a slightly slow start, 'His Dark Materials' soars with this engaging adventure.

For

  • ✨Will & Lyra are the heroes we need but do not deserve.
  • ✨Exploring the real Oxford feels like a fresh kind of fantasy.
  • ✨Dafne Keen and Simone Kirby are *chef's kiss*
  • ✨Their final scene in the botanical gardens is perfection.
  • ✨Feels like it could be a good jumping off for new viewers.
  • ✨Ruth Wilson rules!

Against

  • ✨Can Mrs. Coulter just destroy the Magisterium already?
  • ✨The witches are still a weak point but that seems to be changing...

This post contains spoilers for His Dark Materials.
You can check out our last review here

It's almost a shame that the second season of His Dark Materials couldn't start right here because this is one of the best entries into the series we've gotten yet as Will (Amir Wilson) and Lyra (Dafne Keen) venture into our world. Sadly, for the beautiful children Lord Boreal (Ariyon Bakare) is in our Oxford too, meaning that danger won't be too far behind. 

Back in Lyra's world, Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) is machinating as usual, overseeing the arrival of a new leader of the Magisterium, one who is far more willing to do her bidding. It's hard to overstate just how great Wilson is in this role. She adds a complexity to the absolute villainy at the core of Coulter, and the series' decision to make her more maternal just adds to the absolute opaqueness that makes her so terrifying. Why does she care about Lyra? Is it truly because of the genetic connection they share? Or is it simply a part of her greater plan for power and the control of Dust? Wilson's performance only ever allows us glimmers of the truth, making Coulter a puzzle that needs solving rather than solely a villain to be feared.

As Will and Lyra explore Oxford, the witches are beginning to fray from the inside as they try to determine whether they should be keeping the peace and helping Lyra or begin to free themselves from the grasp of the Magisterium. Just like last episode, the witch's storyline only serves to distract from the epic fantasy of Lyra, Coulter, and in this case Will Parry. While the witches do play an important part in the story, the show has struggled to balance them in the wider narrative arc. We do get a little bit closer to that balance this week, though, as the witches send an envoy, Dr. Martin Lanselius (Omid Djalili), to treat with the Magisterium. The tense sequence builds stakes for the coming battle while revealing why the witches are so hated by the Magisterium and the authority. It turns out that the magical women have been capable of splitting youngsters from their Daemons without killing them or destroying their souls. 

Both Will and Lyra have their own separate quests to attend to here, but the mutual setting of Oxford makes the episode feel far more whole than the season premiere. Thanks to the alethiometer, Lyra discovers a female particle physicist, Dr. Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), who she questions about Dust. It's an emotional moment as in her version of Oxford women aren't allowed to become scholars, but also because Keen and Kirby imbue the scene with such a definite power. The conversation feels like the closest the show has managed to get to the lyricism of science as magic that is such a vital part of the books. It seems like Lyra has found a true ally in the doctor. and Kirby brings such life to the role that I really hope that's the case. 

But Lyra's connection to Dust could be the undoing of that. After all, hasn't every adult that she's ever trusted ended up using her for their will? With the help of Mary, Lyra begins to communicate with the dark matter that she studies, revealing that it is Dust after all. It's a huge breakthrough in Mary's studies, especially as Lyra can apparently read what the dark matter/Dust is trying to communicate. Before Mary can discover too much, though, Lyra heads off to meet Will who has been on a mission of his own, one that is sadly just as steeped in betrayal as Lyra's former life. 

I definitely haven't gushed enough about Amir Wilson this week, but he's back once again giving a powerhouse performance as Will Parry. Will is the key to this arc, and his journey is one filled with strife and sorrow, and Wilson delivers at every turn. He makes Will the kind of kid you want to wrap up in a hug and protect, while being spikey enough to be completely believable. His connection to his mother has always been at the heart of his journey, but this week he discovers that to truly protect her he'll likely have to leave her behind and follow Lyra on her quest. He only comes to that realization after locating his paternal grandparents who quickly try and sell him out to the nefarious forces hunting the young boy and his absent father down. It's a terrible revelation and one that leads him straight back into the proverbial arms of his new friend, Lyra. 

In an episode that's filled with monumental moments both in the emotional and narrative sense, Lyra and Will's reunion at the Botanical Gardens stands above them all. Keen and Wilson deliver mature, heartbreaking performances filled with honesty and realness as Will and Lyra come clean to each other about their mistakes in order to move forward together as one. Will's guilt over the accidental death of a henchman at his hands has been an albatross around the young boy's neck, but sharing the truth with Lyra seems to lighten his burden. Lyra reveals her own dark secret about the loved one that she betrayed, and after sharing the truth of the alethiometer she reassures Will that his mother will be safe and that his father is still alive. 

With our two lovely brave children set on their path, we learn more about the horrors that will be facing them from the other world which are sadly ever growing. With the help of Mrs. Coulter's meddling, the Magisterium rains fire down on the witches, sparking a war that will soon burn out of control. But while the new leader thinks Coulter has been doing all of this to assist him, she has other plans. And after learning the truth about Lyra and her explorations of other worlds from Thorbold (Gary Lewis), Coulter lets rip and verbally decimates the Magisterium and the maniacal men that rule it. She's bored of their reign and with the knowledge that the worlds she and Asriel always dreamed of are real, Coulter ends this episode a woman reborn, one ready to do whatever she has to in order to gain the power that she's always wanted.