Audiences in the U.S. and Canada finally have a second season of A Discovery of Witches to watch. It premiered on January 9 on streaming platforms Sundance Now and Shudder, with a new episode dropping every Saturday thereafter for 9 weeks. The show is based on Deborah Harkness’ popular All Souls Trilogy, following the adventures of witch Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer of Hacksaw Ridge) and vampire Matthew de Clermont (Matthew Goode of Downton Abbey).
Despite being in the twenty-first century, Diana and Matthew’s romantic attachment is considered forbidden by the Congregation, a small committee of elite witches, vampires, and daemons. The Congregation also feels threatened by Diana’s powers and her ability to call forth Ashmole 782, a special alchemical book containing secrets that everyone wants. At the end of season one, Diana uses her “time walking” ability so that she and Matthew can travel to the past and hide in 1590s London.
Season two opens with the pair arriving successfully in Elizabethan London, an old haunt of Matthew’s. However, everything is more complicated than Diana and Matthew expected. First, they attempt to explain why Matthew is married all of a sudden, since 1590s Matthew was very much a single vampire. Those moments make for entertaining scenes with some of his old friends, including Sir Walter Raleigh (Michael Lindall) and Gallowglass (Steven Cree).
Second, even though Diana is powerful, she needs a teacher to help her learn how to make spells and defend herself effectively. Europe is a dangerous place for witches because of witch burnings, so one must tread carefully. Other challenges in the mix include a search for Ashmole 782 and an inevitable encounter with Matthew’s father, Philippe de Clermont (James Purefoy).
It’s tempting to conclude that A Discovery of Witches may be taking on far too many plot points. It certainly was an issue with season one, where screen time for Juliet’s impending arrival over several episodes could have been cut. From what I’ve seen in the first seven episodes available to reviewers, season two does a better job at staying focused with the narrative and its momentum. The only part so far with a slight wobble is the very long horseback ride to Sept-Tours. The riders’ anxiousness before the journey and upon arrival was more than enough to convey the weight of the upcoming meeting.
Season two is based on Harkness’ second book in the All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night. The events transpire in a different order in the television adaptation. Introducing vampire Father Hubbard (Paul Rhys) and witch Goody Alsop (Sheila Hancock) much earlier is helpful for showing who the power players are in London, aside from Queen Elizabeth I (Barbara Marten). Additionally, Teresa Palmer has a more active role in one of the fight scenes later in the season, which is a welcome adjustment.
When I read the book, I didn’t feel very sympathetic towards the plight of Christopher or Kit Marlowe. Tom Hughes (Victoria) gave a compelling performance that made me think a little differently about Marlowe and his feeling left out. James Purefoy (Pennyworth) was an excellent casting choice for the role of Philippe, offering the right amount of scrutiny, mentoring, and loyalty as a de Clermont patriarch. Steven Cree (Outlander) shines as the humorous and good-natured Gallowglass in this dark world, affectionately referring to Palmer’s Diana as his “Auntie” and serving as her occasional bodyguard. Anton Lesser (Endeavor) briefly appears in an episode as Rabbi Loew, but leaves a lasting impression nonetheless with his wry smile and twinkling eyes.
As in the previous season, the new episodes are laden with lovely sweeping shots of the landscapes and towns Diana and Matthew travel through. The costumes for the time period, especially Diana’s, are quite beautiful with ruffles and collars one might expect. It’s a delight to follow her astonishment and amazement with visiting another period of history from her own perspective as an Oxford academic.
Overall, season two of A Discovery of Witches is darker than season one as Diana, Matthew, and their allies try to gain ground against their enemies. It also reveals personal trials for the couple as they try to grow in their relationship. With the series was renewed for more episodes, it’ll be interesting to see if and how they defeat the Congregation in the third season.