I held off on the next review until I had watched what I expected would be the fulfillment of Yennefer’s backstory, both episodes 2 & 3. And I was basically right, though she still has some development to do–getting her “sexy” body isn’t going to be the end of her journey, not by a long shot.
Or at least it shouldn’t be, let’s see where the show goes.
And that’s what I want to talk about this time–the main character of these episodes, Yennefer of Vengerberg.
The Witch in the Last Story in The Last Wish
I don’t have a copy of The Last Wish on me (I’ve given most of the books to my equal-intensity fantasy fan of a father, who I credit with turning me into the geek I am today), but as I recall, we see NONE of Yennefer’s backstory.
Indeed we aren’t introduced to her with all that much dignity or sexy mystery, as Geralt comes upon her when she’s sick and/or drunk abed, hoping to get her help for dealing with a Djinn (and not Robin Williams or even Will Smith). Of course it’s more complicated, because Yennefer wants to bind the Djinn for herself, but she can’t take control of it because Geralt is technically its master, and he has one wish left and, well, I’m not going to spoil it further. This might come up in the show. I hope it does.
The only real hint we get about it is Geralt’s observation that most spellcasters have dramatically changed their appearance upon acquiring their power, and he wonders what she used to look like. It’s something about her eyes, I think–he sees this cruelty and self-loathing spawned of decades of abuse–and he makes the connection that she was a hunchback (I guess they have very specific eyes?). That’s it. We don’t see her as a hunchback, she doesn’t much talk about her past, and she’s all volatile-and-somewhat-wicked sorceress all the time.
I love her. Team Yen all the way.)
(Again with me gravitating toward the complicated bad girls. I must have a complex.)
The Piglet Worth 4 Marks
In the Witcher TV show, however, we see Yennefer from an early age, before she knew anything of magic, let alone had her transformation into the long legged temptress who has a thing about unicorns. We see her here as a beleaguered peasant girl with a twisted spine–clumsy, little loved, and constantly abused. Not something we saw in the books or the games, but rather than simply be told about this, we see it.
I’m not going to weigh in on how they treated her prosthetics and appearance, or on the ethics of portraying such a disabled character on screen (that’s a whole other topic), but I will say this gives us the viewer a rare insight into Yennefer’s character. We get to see her being, well, human, and not just in the context of occasional displays of warmth toward Geralt or later Ciri. The long drawn-out backstory invites us to inhabit her perspective and see exactly how much she’s struggled with, even if it’s only two episodes wherein we see her, mostly at weird/kinky Polish Hogwarts.
And I suspect we’re meant to see her conversion into the symmetrical beauty we get at the end of episode 3 as triumphant–she does suffer and sacrifice and cheat and deceive to get that reward–but the show did a pretty good job making her sympathetic as her normal self that when we finally get to the finish project she seems oddly diminished. She has lost something–some measure of fundamental humanity that we saw her fight to assert in the previous episodes. This is a new person, one who is turning her back on what she managed to pull together for herself: even as she thinks she’s got what she always wanted, she’s lost just as much.
Which is, of course, thematically right on the nose, because…
The Worst Monsters are the Pretty Ones
I don’t think it’s a coincidence Geralt faces Foltest’s Striga in the same episode that Yennefer undergoes her transformation. Remember, this show is about the line between human and monster, and that question infuses both the story of the Striga and Yennefer’s ascendance.
(Oh, and Geralt does a thing with a Sylvan and some elves and a bard who for some reason they don’t call Dandelion near a city that looks like something out of a video game. It’s not a big deal, other than it being thematically on the nose and an interesting discussion of imperialism, colonization, and racial oppression. But I digress.)
The Striga is about a monster who thinks she’s a monster (and she is), for whom Geralt fights really hard to break the curse and turn her into a human. And it works, though, I mean, she still bites, so watch out.
Yennefer’s story is about a human who thinks she’s a monster (which she isn’t–yet) and so she does increasingly cruel and inhuman things to become the human she always wanted to be, but once she gets there, is she really a human at all?
But of course Yennefer has AGENCY in her own evolution, whereas the Striga is just following her own instincts and actively tries to AVOID having Geralt forcibly change her. And making one’s own choices and fighting for what one wants is a distinctly human trait…
Anyway. This is a fascinating dynamic, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.
What am I missing…
The Lion Cub of Cintra
Though Ciri is mostly running through the woods, lost and confused, the way a princess who’s only a *little bit* prepared for the world would be, there’s still plenty of room for her to advance the “monsters vs humans” narrative, too.
She’s befriended by an elf boy, who is literally the only other decent person in her whole story arc at this point. We shortly thereafter see her enter the camp of some humans, who seem nice but very quickly are shown to 1) kill elves and wear their ears on a necklace–yikes, and 2) bully the shit out of a halfling servant (slave), who gives up his shoes so Ciri can have new shoes. This is presented as a kindness on the part of his human masters, who reassure her, “don’t worry, he’s one of the clean ones.”
(Don’t worry, halfling slave bud stabs the hell out of his owner eventually, and there’s a bit of catharsis there.)
So… this show is dealing with race in a pretty big and specific way, which is to use the fantasy peoples (elves, dwarves, halflings, etc) as stand-ins for human ethnic groups. (Which is, of course, a big part of the books and the games.) There’s nothing surprising or even uncommon about this, as fantasy has been doing that since Tolkien’s day. (And Tolkien wasn’t the best about it, see greedy dwarves that are Jewish caricatures, “the dark men from the east,” etc.) But Sapkowski, from the beginning, went quite far into the racial metaphor, and it’s good to see this show honoring that.
They’re not necessarily doing it very WELL (that’s a whole other topic), but they’re going with Sapkowski’s original vision, and it’s definitely relevant to the grimdark world on the screen. We’ll see how it unfolds going forward.
The other thing I want to say about race in the Witcher is that the games had a not-undeserved reputation for including only white people (some darker complexions, sure, but all of the folks on the continent were basically white people), and a lot of folks defend this decision as “historically accurate”… as though the Witcher is about an actual historical period, or that a fantasy author isn’t 100% on tap for what they choose to include or ignore about the world, or that black people weren’t around in Europe during the Middle Ages (they were), etc., etc. (And of course it connects to modern Poland’s increasing move toward right-wing racial purists and nazis-in-all-but-name, so…) Heck, there are fake geek boys all over the internet RIGHT NOW screaming about how Yennefer isn’t white enough or whatever bullshit they want to spew in their racist idiom.
Also, isn’t it frankly INSULTING to think so little of Poland as to limit it to an all-white ethnostate for its entire history (even the grimdark fairy tales period)? The ignorance that is white supremacy must be laughed out of the building when it can, or stamped out when its marching in the streets with swastikas, JESUS CHRIST…
Oof, I’m gonna have a heart attack.
The point is, the show isn’t doing that all-white-everywhere BS. This is an AMERICAN show (or possibly a BRITISH show), and we frequently at least make an effort to cast diverse actors. Often, all our lead actors are lily-pale, but that isn’t the case here: Yennefer has a very dark complexion, and Triss has an even darker one. Frangilla is DEFINITELY a woman of color. We see a range of skin tones, and that is fantastic, and I’m glad it happened.
So… suck it, racists.
Still quite fun, and I will definitely keep watching.