Malice makes for a slightly strange penultimate episode to His Dark Materials‘ second season. There’s definitely the sense that all of the characters and story threads are converging together for an epic climax, but the script by Jack Thorne and Lydia Adetunji has no intention of rushing through things, instead taking the time to tell the story and keep everything moving so that next week’s finale can be the blockbuster ending Season 2 desperately needs. There’s not a huge amount of action in Philip Pullman‘s The Subtle Knife, at least compared with Northern Lights, which tackles everything from bear fights to the battle at Bolvangar, right through to the shocking final moments as the world is literally ripped apart. Instead, The Subtle Knife was always a story about Lyra meeting Will and the two bonding as they adventure through a new world, which has been greatly expanded upon in this TV adaptation, which focuses a fair amount of time on Mrs Coulter, Lord Boreal and the Magisterium itself – with admittedly rather mixed results.
It’s not that I don’t like Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter – on the contrary, I think she’s absolutely terrific in the role – but Season 2 has greatly expanded upon her character in ways that ultimately feel unnecessary. Mrs Coulter often explains herself too much, and too easily, which feels completely out-of-character even in this TV incarnation (last week’s episode The Scholar particularly suffered from this), but thankfully Malice doesn’t linger too long on her story thread. Her adventure into Cittàgazze is interesting to see, not to mention her (inevitably) double-crossing Boreal, but once again she seems to over-explain her motivations without any real reason. Ruth Wilson conveys so much with one look that giving her so much dialogue not only slows the pace but lessens the character’s strength and presence. Boreal’s demise isn’t too nasty (this is a family show, after all), but at least it closed the book on his character. I wasn’t a fan of the extra focus on him in Season 1, and now that we’ve seen his full arc, I still don’t think it adds anything to this TV adaptation. If anything, it makes he wonder if each season could have been an episode shorter. Ariyon Bakare is good in the role, and it’s fun to see him outwitted by Mrs Coulter at the end, but as a villain he lacked a strong presence – potentially because he featured too heavily in the series.
Whilst we’re discussing the show’s weaknesses, we finally got an episode that gave the witches more than a single minute of screen-time, and I was reminded once again that yes, the witches seem to have been given the short-straw in this adaptation. They lack the mystical aura one would expect, their dialogue is almost entirely expository with virtually no characterisation, and they have no real impact on the main narrative. After not really contributing anything all season, Ruta Skadi (Jade Anouka) just flew away at the beginning of this episode to find Lord Asriel – potentially in the eighth episode that was cut earlier this year due to the UK Lockdown. I’m still unsure as to whether or not we’ll see this Asriel-centric instalment (I’d still really like to, even if it’s just a special), but with or without it, Ruta’s involvement in Season 2 feels utterly superfluous – regardless of what’s yet to come. Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas) fares a little better here, but it felt like there was a scene missing where she actually introduced herself to Lyra and Will (who didn’t even know witches exist), and her dialogue scenes still feel entirely expository and devoid of characterisation.
The real strength of this entire series is still the ever-endearing Dafne Keen as Lyra Silvertongue, who brings a lovely sense of energy and warmth to the whole thing. Keen’s performance is always a joy to watch, and I really like the dynamic she’s developed with Amir Wilson‘s Will Parry. Now that he’s settled into the role, I think that Wilson has really tried to focus on the brooding loneliness of Will, and his determination. It’s a nice contrast to Keen’s bubbly Lyra, and Wilson does well with the heavier material. Anytime the show focus on just the two of them, it’s great to watch. Their escape from Angelica, Paola and the other Cittàgazze kids was surprisingly intense – although I do wonder if it could have made for a good cliffhanger scene to last week’s instalment (in which Angelica threatened Will and Lyra with revenge).
There’s more focus on the adventures of Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Jopari (Andrew Scott), although it’s a shame to see their story get more time so near the end. If this season was going to expand on any story-line beyond that of the books, then the Lee/Jopari thread feels like the one most deserving of embellishment. Each actor brings a completely different energy to not just their scenes but the show as a whole, and I feel like more adventures for the two of them could have expanded their characters in interesting ways. I’m always surprised how good the balloon-flying scenes look, and it was cool to see Jopari use his shaman powers in the climactic sequence as the Magisterium airships pursue them. It was really well directed by Jamie Childs, and the performances from Miranda and Scott sold it. As the balloon crashed to the ground, however, it did feel like we were cut-off mid-story, as if a single-episode, double-length finale might have flowed better, but I also felt satisfied that at least the build-up here was good.
That’s ultimately what Malice is: build-up for next week’s explosive finale. Nothing really starts, nothing really concludes (apart from Boreal, of course), but everyone converges in another world to decide the fate of the entire multiverse. The Magisterium know who Lyra is, Mary needs to figure out the next step in her journey, and Will and Jopari are one step closer to being reunited once again. Let’s just hope nothing goes wrong with that.