By this point, most of you who were going to watch the Witcher have already watched it.
And I’m not just saying that because it’s been out for over two weeks, but because Netflix has reported that streams of the Witcher were some of its highest of the year in 2019. (According to this article, it’s surpassed the Mandalorian and second only to Stranger Things in 2019, which seems unlikely to me but, if true, marks a huge accomplishment.)
Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen it, or even if you have, I’m still gonna talk about the last two episodes of The Witcher (2019), because I really enjoyed it and, well, it’s my blog. So here we go.
Yennefer of Vengerberg, Extra AF
And I don’t just mean wearing a rope dress into a battle.
The show overall has shifted dramatically among its three characters and their multiple timelines. (Well, Ciri wandering around the forest learning that life is hard for two weeks has been very consistent.) But these last two episodes, they are YENNEFER’s episodes. She gets the most character development, makes the hardest choices, participates in the most action, and is basically the star of the show. And this is simultaneously the least Witcher-like of the episodes and the most, because it is such a great encapsulation of the world and its feel.
Just like with her origin story, a *lot* of this Yennefer stuff is entirely extrapolated from the book material, not actually shown on the page. We don’t see her adventures in creepy Hogwarts in the books, nor do we see her return to Aratuza and the emotions therein contained, nor the battle of Sodden. (Though that DOES happen and it’s a big deal–Geralt *does* go to Sodden, in the wake of the battle, in desperate hope of not finding evidence that Yennefer has died in the battle. No chance she’s dead.)
We get to see all of Yennefer’s plot-arcs get resolved, with all of her early relationships reflected in subsequent events. We watch her play off all sorts of people she knew before, and how her relationship to those people has changed, sometimes dramatically. And though that actress is quite young, we get a real sense of how old Yennefer is, how much she’s seen, and the keen sense of disillusionment that has shadowed her present life. The scene with her boytoy from early on (I don’t remember his name, and I’m not sure he’s worth looking up) is her full circle moment: she refused the concept of a mediocre life with a fairly handsome but weak-willed guy when he betrayed and disappointed her, and now that she’s had her life full of magical power and influence, and she’s got to see how shitty it has been, she wants to recapture some of that early promise. But it’s no good, and we know it’s no good even as she heads into it. Too much time has passed, too many shitty things were said, and she realizes that only shortly after we do. It’s disappointing for her, and into that disappointment comes Vilgefortz: a moderately handsome, fast-talking, over-confident mage who you just KNOW is going to make life difficult for Yennefer and everyone else.
Now. For those who haven’t read the books, Vilgefortz is a pretty major character in the books, and he becomes essentially an antagonist. It’s a little complicated, but basically he wants what everyone in the books seems to want, which is Ciri. He wants to harvest her vast, ancient power, and when I say “harvest,” I mean that probably in exactly the painful, unpleasant way you’re imagining right now. In the books, he combines magic and science–sort of a mad scientist wizard–and does the “evil experiments on people” thing, which will come up several times in the books. (Also, he fights Geralt hand-to-hand in a pretty memorable scene with major consequences in the books, so look forward to that when it comes up.)
Vilgefortz here–well, he seems like kind of a smarmy, optimistic, overconfident asshole, but not a *villain*, exactly. By the end of episode 8, however, we’re going to see him injured and traumatized by the events of the battle, and one can draw a clear line from “OMG, I really fucked up there” to “I need more power, at any cost.” So really this humanizes him in a way I never expected from the show, and that was cool.
It also makes Frangilla look *really* evil, and that was an interesting viewing experience. Obviously, Nilfgaard are the bad guys (in the show, the books, the games, etc), but Fringilla never seemed quite that evil before the show. (The way she just orders the wizard to create a fireball to catapult? Oh man. And the revelation about the storm? That is Fringilla being a Lawful Evil cold-hearted witch-queen all day and I am here for it.) I like it, and I think the actress did a great job.
Earlier I praised the show for presenting us with ethnically diverse characters–you know, the sort of people that the games and right-wingers in Poland pretend don’t exist or actively want to remove, respectively–and Frangilla is, well, black. This isn’t ideal: fantasy (and a lot of fiction in general) often has a problem with presenting black people as the villains, suggesting by association that black people are evil or untrustworthy, etc, while our heroes are lily-skinned and bright-eyed, which supports a subtle, pernicious white supremacist narrative. It’s one of the ways the white hegemony reinforces itself through our stories without hitting you over the head screaming “whites are the superior race!” (Subtlety is often more powerful than direct propaganda.) And in this case, well, it’s still not ideal to make the evil wizard the darkest skinned wizard on the show, but it’s tempered somewhat by several factors: 1) she plays opposite Cahir, who is also evil and basically the whitest guy on the show, and that’s including Geralt’s white hair, 2) she’s a foreign transplant to the nation of Nilfgaard, which is not coded as some kind of middle eastern “savage” race of people (thanks, Tolkien! And Howard! And Abercrombie! And– ) but is instead about as white as it gets, including at least one other wizardly type who is briefly there in episode 8 (before THING happens to her), and 3) there are a bunch of other non-white people in this show, so it’s not on Fringilla to represent *all people of color* or anything–she isn’t the token black woman, she’s just *a* black woman.
Anyway, she’s tough and cruel and fanatical and such a great villain.
 The construction of race is more complicated in Lord of the Rings, Conan, and The First Law series, amongst others, so I hope you don’t take this as me off-handedly saying these series are horrible and/or racist. (I mean, sometimes they are, but that’s not my point.) What I’m saying is that fantasy AS A GENRE has a serious issue with race that a lot of its readers and many of its writers (especially such right-wing and/or neo-nazi organizations like the Angry/Sad Puppies–f*** those guys) miss and/or argue very vehemently against, I really do like and admire Joe Abercrombie and his work, and I think he presents a grimdark fantasy world full of racism *purposefully* in order to comment on that racism, not because he himself is racist. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog post or series that maybe I’ll write someday. Joe, if you’re reading this (or, more likely, your fans are) I think your work is great, keep writing it, no aspersions from me. 🙂
Anyway, back to #TeamYen
We get huge emotional payoffs in how she interacts with the new students at Aretuza, her evolving relationship with Tissaia (from cautious awe to outright loathing to fiery banter to a kind of daughter-mother respect by the end of episode 8. And in episode 8, she’s forced to work with all these other mages who she has various reasons to dislike or has offended often in the past. Only Triss, does Yennefer like, and I’m glad we’re getting to see them be good friends in this show. (That will eventually be more complicated, to offer the understatement of the decade.)
Like when we saw Yennefer get emotional over the baby she couldn’t save, seeing her supervising the mages at Sodden and then getting emotionally invested in their pain and suffering is wrenching. Yennefer is a woman who feels things deeply and is always trying to hide that fact–most of the time she’s successful, but if you know what to look for, it’s all right there. (She’s like Geralt in that way, actually–see below.)
And when she stops reserving her chaos? (You know the scene.) That is both amazing and horrifying.
You get a real sense for how vicious and horrific magic is in this world, and how much it can pain the mages who use it to kill people. Triss looks like she’s in real pain when she summons poison magic to take out marching soldiers, both physical and emotional. She does what needs doing, but she doesn’t relish it–not by a long shot. I’m obviously #TeamYen here, but let’s just say, I can see the argument.
Also, the show is baiting us with the cliffhanger disappearance, but don’t worry, Yen will obviously be back. #spoiler #butnotreally
Toss a Coin to Your Witcher… or Maybe Just Put Him in Your Cart
Geralt takes kind of a backseat in these episodes. His main contribution is to re-contextualize the fall of Cintra: we realize he was in the city, looking to protect Ciri, but that Calanthe did everything she could to make that not work out. Her hubris ended in tragedy, not that she necessarily could have avoided any of this anyway. Destiny, right? And aside from being an absolute unit with that sword, Geralt doesn’t actually do anything significant in these episodes other than get bit by ghouls and end up in a semi-dying trance for a while.
It’s almost like Sapkowski decided sometime during Blood of Elves or possibly the Time of Contempt that Ciri was his favorite character, and he wanted to write mostly about her. Unfortunately, he had this white-haired superhero to deal with, and he needed to do something with him. So… well, yeah.
Healing in this world isn’t like healing in your standard fantasy world. Characters don’t brush themselves off after a battle and they’re fine. Generally, healing magic doesn’t exist, or if it does, it doesn’t function the way it does in, say, D&D or Pathfinder or something like that. The most efficient vehicle of healing is the human body, and the best most people can do is speed its efforts along. Or just let some muscle-bound witcher heal in his own time. And boy, does it take a while.
Anyway, it’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fine.
The whole scene wherein Geralt is healed of his wound (or at least the infection gets treated, maybe metaphysically, it’s a whole fantasy thing) is highly reminiscent of the framing device from The Last Wish, albeit with less random hooking up with hot young priestesses who can’t talk, and even in the books there’s some implication that his long-lost mother may be involved in some way. It’s complicated and a little hard to follow, much like this scene. For me, what’s most effective here is seeing Geralt get highly emotional about his memories, his abandonment trauma, and his bittersweet loathing of the mother who left him. We get to see him be vulnerable, which is a rare thing, especially considering how strong Cavill’s Geralt is in so many ways.
And I really like how Renfri keeps showing up throughout the show, tying it all together. The way it’s plotted, the implication is that Renfri was a kind of breaking point for Geralt–she poked a hole in his defensive stoicism, and his emotions have been leaking out ever since. It isn’t that way in the books–she’s just a minor character who shows up in one story, and it’s not even the first story, in The Last Wish–but she was such a great character in the first episode of the show, and her influence on Geralt gives the show an extra level of cohesion it would otherwise be missing.
The Child of Destiny
Ciri… well, we see her magic in its most dramatic, murderous form, and she goes all Galadriel Dark Queen to shout the prophecy, including her foretelling of the Time of Contempt (crikey–sounds like a great name for a novel).
Otherwise, there’s not a lot to say about Cirilla. She’s important, but she doesn’t really do a lot in the show. Generally speaking, she’s a very passive character, in that things happen *to her* and she lacks the agency to do much to influence events. The show makes good use of her in certain world-building efforts, such as the forest of Brokilon and way back in episode 2 when she bore witness to the exiled noblewoman mistreating her halfling slave in a *very* Jim Crow white supremacist sort of way, and soon after getting stabbed by that very same halfling (who probably would have stabbed Ciri too, had he got the chance). It’s very much a “princess who thought she was street-smart learns life is harder than she thought and adapts”–the sort of story we’ve got in basically every fairy tale including a princess ever, particularly the ones put out by Disney. It’s neat to see that same resonance in a much darker world.
I also really liked the consistency of her blue cloak–the color marking was a big deal–and how it got dirty and scuffed over time.
There’s one thing in episode 7 that seemed to me like a contradiction on first watch. Here, we see that Queen Calanthe’s fake Ciri is indeed fake, and how do we know that? We the audience can tell immediately (because it’s just a different actress), and Geralt is immediately suspicious (because he’s Geralt), and confirms his suspicions when he witnesses the fake Ciri going up to the real Ciri playing knucklebones with a bunch of commoner kids, gives her a little bow, and addresses her as “Your Highness.” That’s not the contradiction I mean, though–that’s just a convenient plot contrivance.
The seeming contradiction was that this group includes a boy named “Anton” who shows up toward the end of episode 7 in a group of Cintrans approaching Ciri in the tall grass as she’s escaping. He says “I told you it was her in the marketplace.” When I initially watched this scene, I took to mean that he’s going “I had this theory and it seems I was right.” Which of course would be silly, since the fake Ciri called her “Highness” right in front of him (the episode makes it seem like it was just a few hours, but these timelines aren’t the same, since this is actually the end of her wanderings).
But on second watch, I realized that he’s talking to the other dudes in his entourage, who weren’t involved in the knucklebones games, and have no immediate experience of Ciri. When he told them about her, they probably laughed him off, and now he’s doing an “I told you so moment.” So it *does* make sense ultimately, but it’s a subtle thing I missed on first viewing. I really like things you can and should watch multiple times to pick up more.
I’m glad Ciri and Geralt FINALLY found each other, in a way that is reminiscent of the book and games. It represents a sort of respite for them–this tranquil, bucolic forest glade where they meet–and a respite for us after the relentless darkness of the show. It is seriously the most fairy tale thing that happens in this show which can be described as “grimdark fairy tales,” and it was one of my favorite parts of the show. I guess we’ll see where it goes in season 2, which is obviously in production now.
Other Things about the Show
A fun detail about Episode 8 is the intro sequence, where all the various images we’ve seen in the previous 7 episodes come together to become the Witcher symbol. This is showing us that everything is going to come together in this episode, and sure enough, it does.
Check the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3U_LIMpzlMY
I really enjoyed seeing the explosives. Bombs are a big part of the Witcher games, particularly the Witcher 3, and seeing them presented in a logical visual format really made the whole concept for me. Maybe I’ll do more with bombs if I ever get around to finishing Blood and Wine.
Also….. MARK HAMILL FOR VESEMIR! C’mon, Netflix! Make it happen!