A Discovery of Witches season 2 arrived a week ago, to brighten up our bleak January. I expect it didn’t think it would face such stiff competition for viewers’ attention from things like, uh, the news, but if you are seeking some harmlessly enjoyable escapism from real life, and brooding vampire love stories are your cup of tea, I would recommend switching off the real world peril for a while and checking out some fantasy peril instead. If you need to catch up on season 1, you can find a refresher here.
Based on the second book of Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, Shadow of Night, season 2 follows Diana and Matthew’s adventures in 1590, where they are hiding from the powerful enemies of the present day, whilst also trying to investigate the mysterious and elusive text Ashmole 782 and seek training for Diana so that she can master her unusual powers. If that’s not enough to contend with, there are plenty of enemies and obstacles lurking in 1590; it’s hard to blend in and change nothing, and knowing the fates of many of the people they meet is both a source of power and a terrible burden. (If at any point you start to feel bad for the de Clermont associates through the ages, trying to manage the tangled web of Butterfly Effect ripples from this extended excursion to the past, you’re not the only one.)
For a historian like Diana, time-walking is initially a dream come true; the dusty sources come to life and she’s suddenly face-to-face with all her historical heroes. Unfortunately, most of her heroes turn out to be quite unpleasant. This was one of my favourite parts of Shadow of Night, and if you enjoy some historical geekery, watching season 2 will give you plenty of ‘Leo pointing at the screen’ moments. Case in point: Kit Marlowe, who in this world is a petty, bitchy demon with a doomed crush on Matthew, and a visceral hatred for Diana that is one part anti-witch prejudice, and ten parts anti-THAT WOMAN WHO STOLE MY MAN. Suddenly all those figures who are great to read about in books are living, breathing (and in Kit’s case, seething) people, with a deadly unpredictability that injects peril to characters we assume we know. I love historical fiction, but stories about real historical figures almost always have that crushing sense of the inevitable hanging over each narrative twist and turn, and it’s much more interesting to have these ‘real’ characters as secondary to a narrative about fictional characters, because it creates some space for the unexpected.
Thematically, Harkness has created the same dynamic with fictional characters who are long gone before the events of the present, leading to some genuinely moving moments (in the book and the show) between Diana and Matthew and ghosts of their own pasts; story arcs they thought were already written long ago are suddenly still in progress, and offer opportunities to reconnect, forgive and heal.
Of course, this is made even more complicated by Matthew’s long life as a vampire, as there is the spectre of Past Matthew to contend with. No-one really seems to know where Past Matthew is — presumably floating in some mystical ether looking furious for a few months while Present Matthew hangs out with his friends, who must never mention any of it to Past Matthew when he comes back. But Past Matthew’s presence is felt anyway, even if only as an external pressure for Present Matthew, a role he has to live up to even though some of Past Matthew’s ideas now repulse him. Plus, he can’t remember everything that he was meant to be doing, which is absolutely relatable. He’s just gone back 400+ years! I can’t remember where I put my scissors last week.
It’s hard to befriend a community of witches when Past Matthew is renowned for hunting them, but Diana finds a helpful coven and a magical guru to guide her in understanding her weaving powers — powers which are dying out in the present. Once Diana gets to grips with weaving, she becomes exponentially more powerful, and for fans of the books, I can confirm that we do get to meet Cora in season 2.
In the present day, Diana and Matthew’s friends and family are trying to stay out of trouble while trouble haunts them at every turn. Chief instigators of trouble are familiar faces from season 1: the witch Peter Knox, and the vampire Gerbert, both of whom spend a lot of time skulking about and plotting.
Over at Sept-Tours, allies assemble from all of the species. Some are tracking historical artifacts so that they can check Diana and Matthew’s progress in the past. Some are trying out their own investigations. Alex Kingston’s hair is still fabulous, though her American accent is definitely jarring. And there’s a whole sequence with trying to find a hidden letter that made me sob.
I’m filing this show under ‘I don’t know why I love this, but I bloody do’; I talked about some of the slightly eye-rolly tropes last season, and yeah, they are all there, but who cares? Sometimes tropes are fun. Gimme all the tropes. And yes, they recycle the same establishing shots of Venice over and over again, and the CGI is a bit wobbly, and vampires being able to tell if you’ve had sex or not by sniffing you is kind of gross, and blood rage is silly, and the growling is a bit odd, and no-one really cares about demons… and yet. And yet. Let’s enjoy some fantasy romance for a while, OK?
And did I mention that James Purefoy is playing Philippe de Clermont? Maybe I should have led with that.
A Discovery of Witches season 3 is currently in production.
Header Image Source: Sky