A Discovery of Witches returns with a moody season 2 premiere as the star-crossed couple, Diana (Teresa Palmer) and Matthew (Matthew Goode), time-travel to 16th century London in search of the Book of Life — all while seeking answers to Diana’s perplexing magical powers.
The first season of A Discovery of Witches introduces Diana and Matthew, a witch and vampire respectively, as they cross paths when Diana, who is also an Oxford scholar, unintentionally discovers the Book of Life. An alchemical text that tells the secrets and origins of the world’s creatures, the Book of Life is a powerful, magical tool that is dangerous if it falls in the wrong hands. The book and Diana and Matthew’s budding romance are the main focus of the first season, but in this next part of their journey, their relationship is tested in ways neither of them could have expected. With this premiere episode alone, the stage is set for an exciting season that will expand the series’ world.
The long-awaited second season, which will release a new episode weekly on Sundance Now, begins with absence and desire. Instead of the dramatic title cards that began the first season’s episodes, the sentiment is newly rendered in the opening scenes. The villainous trio — the vampire Gerbert (Trevor Eve) and the witches Peter Knox (Owen Teale) and Satu (Malin Buska) — stand in the absence of Diana and Matthew who have just disappeared by time-walking out of the Bishop house. The next scene takes the viewer to the 1590s as Goody Alsop (Sheila Hancock), a new character who plays an integral role this season, announces the desired arrival of “our fearsome witch.”
This is a much more effective opening for the series, as the first season’s title cards and Matthew’s opening voiceover (“Once the world was full of wonders…”) grew tiresome and frankly verged on the edge of camp. The new season exchanges that for unnarrated cold opens and new, improved opening credits. The season also hits the ground running, so to speak.
Once Matthew and Diana land in the middle of London street in 1590, we are pulled into this new world with a cast of new characters. Based on Shadow of Night, fans of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy may find this first episode disorienting—at least I did as a fan of the novel. The show reorders some of the narrative’s timeline, and it proves useful to let go of what you know of the book to better enjoy how the show will layout this season’s plot. One of the things I liked about the previous season was how economical it was with its adaptation of the first book. Now, starting with Matthew and Diana in London thrusts them into the action much sooner, with Diana having access to the witches that will teach her magic.
In this first episode, one of the many things established is the pathway to Diana’s understanding her magic. She is unintentionally lured outside by Susana Norman (Aisling Loftus), the identical ancestor of the daemon Sophie that provided Diana with the chess piece that helped her time-walk to this period. Norman is reluctant to help Diana because she doesn’t understand Diana’s magic and is fearful of it, especially during a demonstration, when Diana causes a bowl of fruit to decompose. However, it’s more of the fact that Diana keeps in the company of other creatures, vampires and daemons, among the queen’s noblemen and courtiers, that drives Norman’s fear. In a time when witches are being hunted down, it makes sense that Norman wouldn’t want to be involved with Diana’s uncontrollable powers and conspicuous company.
It’s an obstacle Diana didn’t anticipate, and neither did Matthew apparently as within moments of their arrival, he introduces Diana as his wife. (While in the book series the two hastily wed before stepping back into time, the TV series forwent that detail.) Matthew is a liability to Diana, as much as she is to him in the 1590s.
This causes a major shift in their dynamic. Diana’s sense of agency and independence is at stake as Matthew’s “wife.” She refuses to be kept but Matthew’s instincts and the advice of his confidantes don’t allow her to have the freedoms she once had. “You don’t protect me Matthew, we protect each other,” she tells him. Matthew isn’t entirely convinced, and Diana is left to balance the expectations of a wife of that period and her own desire for independence.
Meanwhile, Matthew must reckon with how London society and other creatures will react to the news of his relationship. A relationship between a vampire and witch is forbidden by the creature’s Congregation rules. We see just how taboo and shocking their relationship is perceived through Kit Marlowe (Tom Hughes) — yes, that Christopher Marlowe — Matthew’s close friend who is also in love with him. 21st century Matthew’s arrival displaced his 16th century self, a change that is quickly noticed by Marlowe and others. Also, Diana’s arrival sparks Marlowe’s jealousy. Of all the new characters we meet in this congested episode, Marlowe is the most complete, a foil not only to Matthew and Diana’s quest but also their relationship.
While the books have been from Diana’s point of view, the TV series opened the narrative up to two perspectives, including Matthew’s. It’s a decision I wrestle with as a fan because this is Diana’s story; it’s her journey of self-discovery. The TV show lets Matthew co-opt part of that journey, adding new scenes or depicting moments that have happened off-page in the books, such as William Cecil (Adrian Rawlins) playing a more visible role in the show. However, by showing more of Matthew’s exploits as the School of Night’s Matthew Roydon, it compounds the conflict and makes for a moodier, darker series. We see him wrestle with his past and the tasks Cecil forces him to inflict as the queen’s spy.
Beyond the narrative, the moodier tone is translated visually. The dim lighting, detailed production design, and dark clothing have been boasted as unerringly period appropriate. The recreated sets look realistic and contribute to the claustrophobic feeling the season imparts. The world opens up as Matthew and Diana stroll around London, but the busy, maze-like streets feel confining. Also confining is women’s wardrobe of the time. As Harkness noted on the costuming, “in the late sixteenth-century, nothing said status like BLACK — and that was the color that the School of Night, [Queen] Elizabeth, and her courtiers preferred.” If they couldn’t use color, they make it up in using rich textures that the camera and lighting picks up very well. I found my eyes gravitating frequently to the textures of Matthew’s leather vest, Kit’s smooth dark top, or Diana’s layered dresses.
Whether intentional or not, it is Diana who opens up this world as she uncovers Matthew’s secrets. She finds Matthew’s crawl space which leads to a room full of his secrets, letters dangle from the ceiling and a rosary hangs on the wall. Matthew’s Catholicism hasn’t really been brought up before, so the revelation is used to show just how precarious and emotionally taxing his work is as the Queen’s spy. He is identifying Catholics and witches betraying them to the Crown, all under his father’s orders. This only feels like the tip of the iceberg in regards to Matthew’s secrets, a sentiment confirmed by the final scenes of the episode.
Diana searches for Matthew, who left their home to do Cecil’s bidding. Kit is there waiting and warns her that her Matthew may be different, but being back here and having to play his old self will change him. He doesn’t think she can handle that, but Diana doesn’t back down or hesitate to explain her devotion. Until that is, Kit recalls the not-so-singular experience of meeting Matthew and falling under his charms. It’s an unnerving, familiar story for Diana. This season isn’t just about Diana controlling her magic and finding the Book of Life. It’s about finally understanding just who Matthew Clairmont is.
A Discovery of Witches releases a new episode every Saturday on Sundance Now.