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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The honeymoon’s over in a dreary second season of A Discovery Of Witches

Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in A Discovery Of Witches
Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode in A Discovery Of Witches
Photo: SundanceNow

Don’t be alarmed, ’shippers of Diana Bishop (Teresa Palmer) and Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode)—their bond is only strengthened by the events of A Discovery Of Witches season two. The forbidden love between witch and vampire powered the first outing for this fantasy drama, an adaptation of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy. Whether A Discovery Of Witches struck you as “Harry Potter for grown-ups” or “a more soulful Underworld,” the real show was the sparks between Palmer and Goode, which flew around them in sumptuous setting after sumptuous setting: the Bodleian library, an ancestral château. In gorgeous knits and equally beautiful outerwear, with aching glances and ancient languages, Diana and Matthew seduced each other and audiences.

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But their charms are muted in a new season packed with plot and circular storytelling. Season one made it clear: A Discovery Of Witches works best as a supernatural romance. For all the ominous talk of prophecies and hissing over age-old enmities—between witches and vampires, with demons just kind of along for the ride and humans (mostly) none the wiser—the battle brewing among these preternatural beings takes a backseat to the relationship between Diana and Matthew. Still, the worldbuilding was confidently done, the conflicts mapped out; directors Juan Carlos Medina, Alice Troughton, and Sarah Walker ensured A Discovery Of Witches was often as picturesque and sweeping as a big-screen fantasy adaptation.

It was great-looking escapist fare, the kind that’s only become more in demand since the series’ 2018 premiere. In its second season, A Discovery Of Witches makes even greater leaps across distance and time, to decidedly less transportive effect. When we last saw Diana and Matthew, they were preparing to hide out in the past long enough for Diana to learn to master her considerable magical powers, so they could track down the Book Of Life, which could hold the answers to, well, any number of quandaries faced by the four humanoid species. For Diana, a tenured historian with an abiding interest in alchemy, the Book Of Life could be the key to her past. Matthew, meanwhile, hopes the book will help him figure out why the “creatures” are dying out. We know these life-and-death stakes because they were introduced last season; they continue to loom as Diana and Matthew get all gussied up in period-appropriate fashions to scour Elizabethan London for clues on the book’s whereabouts and a teacher for Diana.

While on their quest, the pair hit a few of the usual time-traveling snags, including worrying about running into your past self (luckily for modern-day Matthew, he spent the 1590s on covert missions in Scotland) and being a walking, talking anachronism (Diana’s accent raises all manner of eyebrows). Everywhere the couple turns, there’s a new peril: The Anglican Church, whether sniffing out witches or Catholics, poses a great threat. Then there are all the other witches and vampires roaming London, including the leader of a vampiric sect who seems to know Matthew well. Virtually every encounter with a local is fraught; even Matthew’s old “friend” Christopher Marlowe (a satisfyingly brooding Tom Hughes) is as wont to turn them in as he is help them find the mystical tome.

A Discovery Of Witches
A Discovery Of Witches
Photo: SundanceNow

As important as the mission to obtain the book is, A Discovery Of Witches invests so much in this trip to the past that the contemporary storylines are left threadbare. Diana and Matthew may have successfully evaded their pursuers, but their friends and family are still open to attack from Gerbert d’Aurillac (Trevor Eve), Peter Knox (Owen Teale), and Satu Järvinen (Malin Buska). But if there’s a running clock on when such action will take place, it’s not evident in the show’s pacing. The first seven episodes of season two move unhurriedly, despite the throwing around of such piquant terms as “blood rage” and the arrival of historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh. Diana and Matthew are in the 1590s so long, they have the chance to sit for portraits (which pop up in the present day); they get so bogged down with side quests and other secondary adventures that, at one point, a title card flashes the words “Bohemia, 1591,” to give us back our bearings.

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Season two of A Discovery Of Witches follows the blueprint laid out by Harkness’ Shadow Of The Night, the second book in the All Souls Trilogy, right down to the unwieldy plethora of characters and plot points. But one new addition cuts through the clutter: Philippe de Clermont (James Purefoy), Matthew’s stepfather and husband to Ysabeau (Lindsay Duncan). Once an unseen figure whose lingering disapproval haunted Matthew, Philippe is made flesh and blood (albeit immortal) by Purefoy’s performance, which is equal parts gravitas and rakish charm. Some of the most resonant emotional beats come from father and son confronting their past, but former Rome co-stars Purefoy and Duncan also give Goode and Palmer a run for their money in the romance department. The time in Sept-Tours, the de Clermonts’ ancestral home in Auvergne, France, is actually well spent—a rarity in a season overstuffed with narrative detours.

James Purefoy
James Purefoy
Photo: SundanceNow
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Though their chemistry helped even the silliest or most opaque fantastical aspects get over in their first outing, Diana and Matthew are also victim to the extraneous storytelling. A pattern is established early on: Matthew tells Diana something is too dangerous, she assures him she can handle herself. He tells her to stay inside; she goes out anyway. This repeats ad nauseam—they encounter new threats, which usually leads to Diana freeing up more of her magic powers. There is something powerful in seeing Diana so sure of her own abilities, but her well-earned confidence just makes the ongoing bickering over whether or not she can handle being in Elizabethan London pointless, even dull. Their fighting and the noticeable decline in romantic overtures could represent a very earthly development: the first rush of infatuation is over. But the series never properly folds such an observation into Diana and Matthew’s story this season. It’s also just unlikely that the show’s writers, including Sarah Dollard, Susie Conklin, and Pete McTighe, are ready to move the couple out of their honeymoon phase—not when their romance is still the strongest element of the series. Because Goode and Palmer still shine together, especially in the moments when Diana and Matthew are allowed to as well.

The premiere of Bridgerton proved once again that viewers are readily swept away by richly detailed period or historical drama. A Discovery Of Witches is just as well made a show, and equally as swoony (despite having nowhere near as much sex). But both its fantasy and romance are too weighted down in season two; in its dedication to recreating the historical setting of Elizabethan London, the series loses some of its magic. The remaining three episodes have a lot of ground to recover, which will be hard to do with or without the Book Of Life.

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