Season two of The Witcher is gorgeous, exciting, and has some franchise fans howling for blood
Season two of “The Witcher” is a perfect example of just how perilous the adaptation game can get. If you express a slavish devotion to the source material, you’ll come off as derivative, and you’ll probably still fall short of perfection. Should you stray too far, diehard fans will run you out of town on a rail for disrespecting everything they’ve come to love about the books/movies/games. It’s one hell of a tightrope, and, seeing the potential mother lode of cash on the opposite end, of course Netflix opted to go for it.
Since the debut season managed to attract plenty of eyes on screens and didn’t entirely screw the pooch for longtime fans, the streamer upped the budget for the follow-up, much to the anticipation and anxiety of Witcher geeks everywhere, from avid readers of Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels to enthusiasts of the award-winning game series. One thing that all fans of the Witcherverse know is that it is an intricately detailed, lore-deep world filled with terrifying monsters, compelling and richly drawn characters, romantic entanglements, delicious political intrigue, and all the swords and sorcery you could possibly want in a high fantasy series that doesn’t rhyme with “Shmord of the Shrings.”
Trying to get all that across in roughly eight hours is a fool’s errand, for sure, even if you’re mostly keeping to only one of the books, which each season of this series means to do. Still, would showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich use this precious time and a hefty budget to placate the fickle fans? Would she create something wholly unique within the narrative architecture? Or, the most difficult trial of all, would she attempt to thread the needle between the two without raising the hackles of the entire Witcher fandom? At the very least, would casual and new fans of the show have something fun to binge on over the holidays?
The epic tale of Geralt of Rivia picks up exactly where season one ended, with no weird time jumps and, pretty much everyone will be relieved to know, in a good old-fashioned linear form. Having season one skip confusingly between three distinct timelines covering roughly 150 years was a creative snafu derided by almost everyone who tuned in. The show’s writers even pay mocking lip-service to the controversy in one episode when a disgruntled fan of bard Jaskier says that he loves his tunes but couldn’t follow the timelines, calls the magic kiss “cheap,” and also saw the dragon reveal coming a mile away. It was a sly wink at angry Witcher fanboys and reviewers alike that I enjoyed, but I’m sure didn’t sit well down in the comments section.
As we pick up following the battle of Sodden, our hunky monster-slayer Geralt has finally found his “child surprise” Cirilla (aka “Ciri,” not to be confused with Apple’s digital assistant), to whom he’s bound by destiny, after searching for her all of the previous season. Not knowing what else to do with her, he decides to take the young princess of Cintra to Kaer Morhen, winter fortress and training ground for the remaining witchers.
During their journey, the two take refuge at a mysterious house in the middle of the woods, in what’s clearly the strongest and most fun episode of the season. We find Nivellen, an old friend of Geralt’s, transformed by a curse into a kind of giant ginger were-boar and possessing some nifty magical powers that allow him to conjure items at will, including plenty of food and drink, which hilariously fall to the table from the ether in a humorous “thunk.”
What’s most wonderful about this particular episode is that much of it’s removed from all the weighty politics and machinations of the various realms, focusing instead on this one cursed man and his absolutely terrifying girlfriend. The monster’s slow and creepy reveal, a satisfying burst of action, and the resolution of Nivellen’s curse gives us so much of what we know and love about The Witcher, and proves once again to fans of the games that side quests are sometimes more satisfying than the main story. It’s a brilliant start to a season that, unfortunately, never quite recaptures the magic or momentum generated here.
Here comes The Deathless Mother
The rest of the season unspools as Geralt, now burdened with the myriad frustrations of fatherhood, attempts to protect Ciri from the various forces trying to get their hands on her, ranging from magical to human to monstrous. The writers, cleverly, create a new BBEG this season that’s both unique to the franchise and serves to bind together several simultaneous narratives: Voleth Meir, aka “The Deathless Mother,” an ancient, otherworldly demon who feeds on pain and despair, and whom Ciri unknowingly awakened after unleashing her mysterious powers to escape Cahir, her Nilfgardian captor, at the end of season one. As a monster, she fits well into the established universe, and like many witcher beasties harks back to Eastern European folklore by having her reside in a Baba Yaga-style hut, giant chicken legs and all.
Early in the season, the Deathless Mother has set her sights on three of the show’s sorceresses by tapping into the deepest fears and desires of each. First, we have Francesca, the elven mage whose people is imperiled by anti-elf pogroms. She seeks to either make peace with humans or start an interspecies race war. Also, she seeks a baby, a cringy trope many of us hoped the writers would have retired from last season, to no avail.
Then there’s Nilfgardian court sorceress Fringilla Vigo, desperate to ingratiate herself to the mysterious emperor in their quest to conquer the northern realms. Finally, and most importantly, we have Yennefer of Vengerberg, who now finds herself literally powerless after tapping too deeply into forbidden fire magic in order to win the battle of Sodden Hill at the conclusion of last season. More than anything, Voleth Meir wants Cirilla, and makes a Faustian bargain to restore Yen’s magic in exchange for the girl.
If it seems like everyone in the entire Witcherverse wants Ciri, it’s because they do, for good or ill, though mostly for ill. Our bright young Princess Cirilla, it turns out, is a child of the elder blood, the prophesized culmination of magical ancestry that gives her the ability to destroy or save the entire world. That’s some pretty powerful juju, and everyone’s angling for a slice. Throughout the season, as we learn the secret behind Ciri’s lineage, it gives us the chance to see Geralt as father and protector, and also trainer, as he uses their time at Kaer Morhen to instruct his adopted daughter the fine art of hacking up monsters and men with sharp pointy things. It’s a good look for Henry Cavill’s Geralt, a growling, charismatic tower of hunky man meat without whom the entire series would be dead in the water. Better still, it gives us the familiarity of a training montage on a vicious-looking mechanical wooden gauntlet, albeit without the cheesy 80’s music.
There are a number of other characters and minor plotlines threading through the season, including a menacing fire warlock, Rience, who’s hunting Ciri at the behest of a secret employer, power moves amongst the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, more screen time with fan favorite witch Triss Merigold, and a hunt to find the meaning behind some mysterious, otherworldly obelisks, among other distractions.
Mainly, though, this season is all about daddy Geralt and daughter Ciri, and the secrets behind blood that’s powerful enough to turn her into a WMD. All this, thankfully, told in glorious, straightforward linearity. Ultimately, we have the big CGI bossfight showdown with the evil spirit, and the season concludes with relationships tested and restored, secrets unveiled, and, of course, a few whopping cliffhangers to keep us on the hook until season three. You know, fairly boilerplate fantasy stuff.
So, does this season of The Witcher fulfill our lofty expectations? It depends on who you ask. Armchair enthusiasts of this world who know it only from the first season will likely find much to enjoy here. The locations, sets, costumes and scenery are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Much of the acting is outstanding, even when the writing lacks imagination or depth (which is more than I care to admit), and the creature design and effects are outstanding.
The monster at the end of this show
You can’t have The Witcher without great monsters, and here, at the very least, the show is an unqualified success. We see old favorites from the books and games like a leshen and bruxa, and new ones that come off without a hitch, including a giant scorpion-centipede thing and a few basilisks that give us all the gleeful violence we all hope for and expect in any Witcher adaptation. Further, even the fight scenes with humans come off as meticulously choreographed and deftly performed. For all the faults of its often clunky dialogue and plot or character issues, it’s hard to find much fault with the action here.
Oh, did I say character problems? Yeah, about that…unlike casual fans, the hardcore Witcher neckbeards have already found themselves frothing over their keyboards because of some of the writers’ and producers’ decisions this season. Firstly, there’s the issue of the other Witchers we finally meet when Geralt and Ciri retreat to Kaer Morhen, including the de facto paterfamilias/sensei Vesemir, as well as notables like Coen and Eskel.
The show’s Vesemir decidedly lacks the air of kindly wisdom and moral and physical fortitude that defines him in the books and games. He comes off as a bit paunchy, tired and a little desperate, far from the Papa Vesemir we fans adore. At one point, he even attempts to turn Ciri into a witcher while Geralt is away, a vastly life-altering metamorphosis with a low chance of survival. Not really the kind of thing you’d expect from a paternalistic figure, to say the least, and profoundly out of character for Vesemir. That was a major whiff on Netflix’s part.
And then there’s Eskel, who in the books and games is one of Geralt’s closest friends, a skillful witcher who, despite some intimidating facial scars, comes across as a scholar and a gentleman as well as an adroit warrior. Unfortunately, the writers here decided not only to turn him into a horny, petulant manchild with a single, gross lock of greasy blonde hair falling in his face, they (SPOILER ALERT) decide to unceremoniously dispatch him entirely after about three scenes.
Not only does it serve us an unsatisfying character death, it left me recoiling in horror at “how dirty they done him,” as the kids say. Where the snarky self-referencing in the Jaskier conversation came off as witty, this seemed like more of a giant middle finger right in fans’ faces. It’s like saying, “We have Chewbacca in this new Star Wars movie,” and then Chewebacca turns out to be an annoying, skinny Ewok who dies ten minutes in.
Unfaithful to the source material
Eskel isn’t the only change the showrunner and writers made to the source material that has fans, this reviewer included, reaching for their torches and pitchforks. An early episode features a hooker party at Kaer Morhen, which makes absolutely no sense at all in the context of this world. Not so much the hookers, but rather the location. How did they get to this remote fortress hundreds of miles from civilization, and which, by the way, is supposed to be a secret? How are they supposed to get home, by medieval Uber?
The only reason I can even think to include this scene is that Netflix execs wanted more boobs in the show, and all the female stars refused, so hooker party it is! Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy boobs in my fantasy shows as much as the next guy, but for crying out loud, don’t make me break my willing suspension of disbelief for their sake. Speaking of which, the characters this season seem to traverse an entire continent in the matter of a few hours by horseback, which is patently ridiculous, especially in a world where people can do that same thing via magical portal. I feel my fantasy nerd bile rising just thinking about it.
I, like many enthusiastic Witcher fans, can sit here and nitpick the series until the next Conjunction of the Spheres. And many do, which is why there are dozens of subreddits, podcasts, Slack channels and vlogs devoted to the franchise. At the end of the day, Season 2 has Witcher fans starkly divided, but it’s clearly not a complete disaster. In fact, there’s plenty to love about what they’ve accomplished here, and we can only hope that the showrunner, producer and writers will continue to learn and improve in future seasons. In the meantime, we have a prequel series, Witcher: Blood Origins, coming in 2022 to look forward to, and judging by the newly released trailer, it looks seriously cool.
So keep your torches and pitchforks at the ready, Witcher neckbeards. I have a feeling this battle isn’t going to end anytime soon. Until then, how about a round of Gwent?