The Witcher’s Second Episode Is A Mess, But Hey, At Least We Got “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” Out Of It. S1E2 Review: “Four Marks”

By: Sampson Berlinski

Grade: 6/10

Episode two follows Ciri after the fall of Cintra, includes a watered-down adaptation of “The Edge of the World” from Sapkowski’s first anthology, The Last Wish, and shows us the humble beginnings of the sorceress Yennefer. This last narrative is created for the show, since Yennefer’s childhood and her induction to the Council of Wizards isn’t shown up close in Sapkowski’s novels. 

The episode opens with Yennefer’s “conduit moment” opening a portal trying to escape some kids harassing her for her deformities. By including Yennefer’s origin story, we are also privy to other events that happen “off screen” in the novels, Yennefer’s relationship with rectoress Tissaia de Vries, and with Istredd. I enjoyed their budding romance, and Istredd’s portrayal as the awkward archaeologist is actually pretty sweet. His studies in forbidden elven magic also open the door for Yennefer’s growth and experimentation with her own magic. 

We also see the foundations for Yennefer’s insecurities and power-hunger, coming from her childhood defenselessness. 

Starting at the beginning of Yennefer’s exposure to magic also lets us learn the ins and outs as she does. However, while the show should be given some leeway in writing original scenes, there is an odd inconsistency in the way the episode portrays magic. Tissaia de Vries presents a sort of “law of equivalent exchange” function to her students —  a give and take. The life of the flowers allows the students to use telekinesis, and when Tissaia turns the failed students into eels, their life powers the magic of Aretuza. But at other times, this connection is missed; Yennefer portals with no apparent consequence or fuel, and the students catch lightning in a bottle. I suppose we could assume that the tradeoff was something less obvious, but then why focus on it at all? At other times, Istredd fuels his portals with the blue feainnewedd flowers. Applying these restrictions when it’s convenient makes it hard to follow what magic is and isn’t capable of in this world. 

Meanwhile Geralt and Jaskier’s adventures in Dol Blathanna seem rushed and nonsensical. Firstly, we see Geralt and Jaskier’s first encounter on screen, as Jaskier attaches himself to the rough and tumble eponymous witcher to dig up material for his ballads. The fatal flaw of this scene and the following tromp through the Valley of Flowers isn’t the screenwriters’ decision to stray from the source material in favor of creative liberty. I welcome change, and I understand that adapting a series of novels and short stories to film wouldn’t work as a one-to-one translation. Here, however, this small change makes a significant impact, particularly on my suspension of disbelief. Geralt and Jaskier’s long history of these sort of monster hunting shenanigans is wiped away, and I am forced to ask myself why Dandelion would invite himself to join  a dangerous killer that is virtually a stranger to him, especially after being punched in the gut. The next scene just picks right back up, Jaskier as lively and tolerant of a beating as ever. Yes, Jaskier is an incorrigible, lovable nuisance, but I find it hard to believe that physical violence isn’t an effective deterrent. This slapstick comedy lowers the stakes for the episode, especially when literal death is on the table in later scenes. Conversely, aside from that blow, Geralt has a strange tolerance for the bard, which he would reasonably and reluctantly build over their time together, as he does in the novels. The rapport seems less likely here, for how long they have known one another. The dynamic duo’s chance encounter seems forced, all the more so because it was a willful change for the show. I understand that Jaskier at times functions as a stand-in for the audience, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be trusted to read into a relationship that began outside our view. 

 This sort of handholding is a problem throughout the season, to varying degrees. In this particular instance, the result is a world that feels smaller, where the characters aren’t living, breathing people on their own paths, but actors who only come into the picture when it’s convenient for the story. Geralt has been a monster hunter his whole life, which makes it odd that everything seems to “kick off” as soon as we tune in. 

That being said, I must say that Joey Batey’s performance throughout this episode was wonderful, and a light in the dark for this episode. He fits the bill of the insufferable yet naive minstrel in a way I didn’t know I was looking for. Not to mention a lovely voice to boot; Batey is part of the folk-rock group The Amazing Devil, and hiring a career actor-musician for the bard’s role plays wonderfully on screen.

Geralt and Jaskier’s truncated interaction with the sylvan Torque cuts out much of the original short story. Only the essential characters are shown, and even those, only briefly. The time they spend in Dol Blathanna is cut down so much it feels like the showrunners just wanted to get it over and done with. I might rather they have cut it entirely. What it does include, however, is a dick-and-balls joke that I nearly laughed at, if only because it was so unexpected. As I mentioned earlier the rapport between the Witcher and the bard grows quickly, and this isn’t the only joke of the episode, but unfortunately cutting much of their more mundane adventures also means there’s less opportunity for them.

Geralt takes a boot to the face, and he and Jaskier (having already been thwacked unconscious) are abducted by the Aen Seidhe, the elves of the hills. When they awake in a cave, bound back to back, the elven forces are revealed—  Toruviel, Filavandrel, and another nameless individual who leaves as soon as the “elf king” arrives. This low budget recreation is almost laughable, and turns what could have been a poignant, despairing reflection on the evils of humans and elves into a dialogue that’s on-the-nose to the point of rolling my eyes. It didn’t help that I really did laugh out loud when Filavandrel entered the room. It is said that elves are incredibly beautiful, and no offense to the guy, but I don’t know if Tom Canton lives up to that impossible standard. 

To be fair, the opening scene is executed beautifully, one elf strumming the lute in increasing ferocity and broken chords with each of Toruviel’s hits to Geralt’s face, until the final blow snaps the neck of the instrument. However brief, this moment carried even better on screen than in the books, since that sort of simultaneous choreography is hard to convey in text. 

The show seems to be making an effort to paint nonhumans in even more of a sympathetic light than Sapkowski does, but it comes off as pitiful mockery that even the characters acknowledge. Filavandrel and his “army,” are on foot, their numbers reduced. Not in hilltop golden palaces, but hiding in caves from the humans they are supposedly a menace towards. Again, creative liberty is not to be looked down upon per se, I only worry that a totally helpless depiction paints the show into a corner in terms of a legitimate elven threat down the line.

These two storylines weaves with Ciri’s, on the lamb from Nilfgaard, in turn in the company of another fleeing boy, Dara, and those of the Cintran refugee camp. While it was a little heavy-handed, we do see some more development of the tenuous relations with nonhumans in the refugee camp. When Ciri’s new boots come right off of the feet of a dwarf, she is assured he is “one of the clean ones.” While nothing particularly important comes of this narrative thread and I could probably do without the tromping in the forests and eating rats, it does give some insight into the lives of regular people, and is more likely a vehicle to show Ciri that evil and prejudice have always been around, and that the people she loved were not exactly what she believed. 

Ciri’s exposition-heavy conversations with the refugees do provide some helpful clues in placing the timelines, however. Since we hear mention of Filavandrel’s uprising, we get some context for Geralt’s conversation with the elf-king later in his scenes. 

The episode concludes with Jaskier returning the way they came, having traded the bounty from the sylvan to Filavandrel for allowing them to leave with their lives. If this was out of sympathy or comradery with the elves is left up to us to decide. Jaskier breaks into song, embellishing their tale with heroics, villainy, and combat, and when Geralt objects that this isn’t really what happened, Jaskier replies, “Respect doesn’t make history.” We’re treated to the rest of Jaskier’s ballad, as Ciri and Yennefer’s scenes from across timelines play out in the foreground. In Aretuza, the academy built on the bones of slaughtered elven sorceresses and the blood of unlucky girls, Yennefer pushes her once-friends into the conduit pool. As Ciri escapes the raid on the refugee camp, her friend Dara is revealed as an elf—  a member of the people her grandmother and her subjects killed mercilessly. 

The episode gives us a view across time. We see Filavandrel’s inner struggle and the choice he eventually makes in Ciri’s lifetime, the great cleansing, and the war to come. As Geralt reflects on Jaskier’s words, we too are left to think on the wheel of history. This reflection makes the episode come together much better on a rewatch, but the fact remains that you shouldn’t have to put in that much work to find nuance in the first place. The dialogue is heavy-handed and dripping with exposition, which even Jaskier realizes, nearly breaking the fourth wall. The cast of characters is strangely limited, and the scope of Geralt’s adventures is amputated short of its potential. The episode strays from the source material, sometimes in a great way, providing us with a more realized past to Yennefer than we are treated to in the books. Unfortunately, the same mentality that provides us with more backstory also poisons what should have been an incredible discourse between Geralt and Filavandrel.    

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