By Benjamin Rose
Let me start off by saying that my expectations for Netflix’s The Witcher were impossibly high. As a fanatic of Andrzej Sapkowski’s prose (and The Witcher’s introductory anthologies, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny in particular), any adaptation, much less one that makes so many compromises in style and substance to the exigencies of hit television (real or imagined) was bound to disappoint. Lauren Hissrich’s adaptation of the first two Witcher anthologies and elements of the first novel is an incoherent mess, riddled with abrupt tonal shifts and awkward humor, excessive abridgement of source material and nonsensical additions. So I must say that on my first viewing of “The End’s Beginning”, when the credits rolled I was left with a taste of bitter amusement and disgust in my mouth. The series seldom improves, in this writer’s opinion. Its narrative progression and abrupt shifts in timeline have justly been labeled incomprehensible to non-initiates. And while the series looks set to be a popular success despite critical failure, and while “professional” reviews of the Witcher have largely been preoccupied with asinine comparisons to Game of Thrones, those critics who have been bothered to actually watch the show have not been wrong when they judge it on its merits. Hissrich has been adamant that she’s concerned with the opinions of “real fans”. Well, that’s great, Lauren. Because as a “real fan” whose read every Witcher anthology and novel bar Season of Storms twice, I say unto you, you messed up, badly. The majority of these episodes are woefully incompetent; a teenage dilution of The Witcher that eschews the books’ rich character work and meticulous dialogue for asinine sex jokes and artistic assassination. Even the misogynistic drivel that was CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings never succumbed to such consistent stupidity.
This makes it all the more heartbreaking that the pilot, one of only two episodes Hissrich wrote personally, and one of only four demonstrating compelling storytelling or competence, is pretty damn good. Like every episode bar “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials”, it has its share of groan-inducing moments (I counted ten distinct utterances of the word “destiny” by multiple characters in an hour); but, as an adaption of Sapkowski’s “The Lesser Evil”, it is a serviceable and occasionally brilliant translation.
The episode begins with a pitched, if only moderately interesting, duel between our hero and the Kikimore he slew off-page in “The Lesser Evil”. Though Geralt’s charmingly useless petition while riding through the streets of Blaviken for someone, anyone, to pay him for the Kikimore’s corpse has been cut, opening the show with an added scene of Geralt practicing his trade was a wise decision to set the tenor of the episode. In Blaviken, Geralt is accosted in a tavern by Nohorn before he and his fellow gangsters are called off by Renfri, played with aplomb by Emma Appleton, whose sensitive performances adds a layer of humanity to Renfri that contrasts nicely with her colder book counterpart. Given the difficulties of bringing to life a complex character whose arc had to be resolved in a single hour, she should be commended for her work, some of the best of the season.
The story then proceeds in much the same manner as its book counterpart, with the book’s alderman Caldemeyn’s role substituted by that of his wonderfully amoral young daughter Marilka, who brags of killing and selling her dog to the mage Stregobor to earn some coin. Geralt and Stregobor meet, and a simplified exposition of the Curse of the Black Sun and Geralt’s “Evil is Evil” dialogue ensues. The scene then skips into the present at Cintra, were Ciri and King Eist exchange a number of suitably childish dad jokes while Calanthe officiates, knighting people and such. The choice to cast Eist as a “dirty grandpa” type is tonally jarring, but Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson and Hissrich’s writing successfully turn Eist from a grave Jarl to an impish frat boy with no loss to the quality of the episode. It is a rare change from the source material I welcome.
Soon, Nilfgaard invades and the Battle of Marnadal is fought between Cintra and the South. While Nilfgaard’s armor remains a travesty and the battle, like most big-budget fantasy adaptations of medieval warfare, is sheer nonsense from a strategic perspective, the combat is fast and ferocious. There is no swinging swords like thirty-pound clubs in The Witcher. There is quite a lot of lighting-quick impalement. Shortly after declaring (rather laughably) “We’re losing!”, Eist gets picked off by Cahir aep Ceallach with a bowshot to the eye, giving Jodhi May’s otherwise perfect Calanthe a break from acting to scream in exaggerated grief like a moron. Within a short time afterwards, Nilfgaard is at the gates, murdering and pillaging and geeking out on how many fire arrows they can shoot at Calanthe’s palace to no effect. Adam Levy’s Mousesack holds the line with a magical barrier. “How long will it hold?” Ciri asks. “As long as I hold” replies Mousesack. For a character that was little more than a taciturn old man in the books, Levy brings a charisma and gravitas to his interpretation of Mousesack that was foreign to either the books or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Calanthe, now having returned to her duties as the best actor in Cintra, bids farewell to Ciri with pathos and dignity before ordering Sir Danek to inform the court the time has come to save themselves through suicide. As Ciri flees from Cahir through the outskirts of Cintra and her protector Sir Lazlo gets an arrow in the throat (in an accurate nod to the books), she erupts in a feral child scream of Elder Blood power which knocks down a tower between them, allowing her to flee. Let me take a moment to talk about Ciri. Freya Allan was an excellent cast, portraying 12 year-old book Ciri’s mix of kindly naivete and royal haughtiness with aplomb. Her sarcastic banter with Levy’s Mousesack earlier in the episode is a joy to hear.
Meanwhile in Blaviken, Appleton’s Renfri seduces Geralt after trolling him a bit for monologuing to his horse. The transposition of Geralt’s “My first monster” monologue from “The Voice of Reason 4” (delivered to Iola the First of Ellander immediately after “The Lesser Evil” in The Last Wish) is a slightly bizarre choice, and turns what was a searing confession in the book into comic relief, but the fact that such a phenomenal bit of dialogue was included at all, even if in abridged form, is a coup. Geralt awakes the next morning to find Renfri gone, and realizing what’s at stake, rushes to the market, sword in hand ( or technically under arm), to face her.
In “The Lesser Evil” the stakes were higher and the denouement brutal in its irony. Renfri, having secured a royal pardon, was immune to prosecution, effectively giving her free-reign to massacre Blaviken’s inhabitants in a recreation of an earlier event called the Tridam Ultimatum. Geralt rushes to the market and carves a bloody swath through Renfri’s gang only to learn Stregobor has left the town to its fate, and Renfri had renounced her vengeance as futile. With her men dead however, shots have been fired, and telling Geralt “you made your choice”, Renfri fights and dies. The pardon and Stregobor’s dismissal of Renfri’s potential victims to their fate were cut from the show; but in the end, it matters little, for the show’s depiction of the massacre is without a doubt the greatest action beat in Netflix’s The Witcher, and possibly the greatest small-scale swordfight in television history.
In Sapkowski’s short story, Geralt was said to move as fast as a shadow as he turned his bloody pirouettes through Renfri’s swordsmen. In “The End’s Beginning”, Henry Cavill ‘s Geralt moves like a shadow and hits like a freight train. The battle begins with an unnamed crossbowman, corresponding to the half-elf Civril in the book, firing at Geralt from barely twenty feet away, just like it began in Sapkowski’s story. And just like in “The Lesser Evil”, that shot is the equivalent of signing a mass death warrant. Geralt hacks and spins through ten or so men in under two minutes, disarming many of them and killing them with their own weapons before stabbing Nohorn twice and decapitating him for good measure. The choreography is impeccably taut, without a single sword swing or half-turn pirouette with a quarte from dextra looking gratuitous or wasted, whatever the fuck “a quarte from dextra” means in practice (I’ve never bothered to look up Sapkowski’s swordsmanship terminology despite his excellent fight scene writing.) The duel with Renfri is similarly rhythmic and vicious, with her whirlwind onslaught grating to a hault against Geralt’s parries before exploding again in furious, though highly skilled, desperation. Several times, each combatant lands minor wounds, before Geralt disarms Renfri and allows her to yield, a moment she takes to lunge into a final knife attack which Geralt redirects straight into her own throat. As she dies in Geralt’s arms, Renfri prophecies that “The girl in the woods will be with you always. She is your destiny,” a canonical digression foreshadowing Geralt’s fated meeting with Ciri as a throughline in the season. And just as in the books, Geralt’s reward for choosing the lesser evil is a stoning and an injunction to “never come back”, a sentence rendered all the more devastating for its delivery by Marilka, whom Geralt had just saved from Renfri’s blade, than Caldemeyn. “A monster slain, a butcher named.”
Sapkowski’s novels were never without their superficial camp despite their foundation in serious character work, intellectual discourse, and emotional potency. “The End’s Beginning” is only a moderately good adaptation of the Massacre of Cintra, the Battle of Marnadal, and “The Lesser Evil”, but at its strongest, it’s great television. At its worst moments it’s quite trollable, but trollable in the manner that Geralt’s friends and lovers troll him in the books as a pompous drama queen. If you’re new to the series it may well underwhelm, but for even the most casual fan, it’s a genuine delight. How sad then that the rest of the season more often than not seems to be predicated in terms of narrative coherence, intellectual depth, visual style, and special effects quality on a philosophy of giving viewers the greeting inscribed on Geralt’s Mahakaman Sihil from Baptism of Fire, translated by David French in rather odd but hilarious fashion as the following: “Confusion to the Whores’ Sons!”.