A boy breathlessly tells the tale of a vukodlak, a monster born of tremendous pain and horror, as the camera slowly pans backwards to show us the horrendous gashes across his chest. He speaks to a witcher of the School of the Wolf, who demands a sum of three thousand orens up front for his services. Yet, all too quickly, the witcher is caught off guard and slain off-screen. So begins the fateful tale of the third episode of Netflix’s The Witcher, an episode of highs and lows for the series as it also continues the tale of Yennefer in a way that we have never seen before.
We find Geralt in a position that many newcomers to the series might not have thought they would have seen the witcher, in the bed of a prostitute. Not so strange to fans of the books or games however. She gently traces Geralt’s many scars as she softly sings their origin stories, obviously provided with great glee by Geralt’s newest friend “the bard”. It doesn’t take long before Geralt is asked to leave the whorehouse, but not before getting the juicy tip that another witcher just passed through recently. The story goes he took some Temerian miners’ money up front and ran off, leaving the job unfinished.
Following up on the lead, Geralt is initially sent away as Temeria’s “had their fill of witchers”. It’s in the following scene where we are finally introduced to Triss Merigold, a crucial character in Geralt’s story, though one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise given how she’s treated by the show. Reduced mostly to an exposition tool, Anna Shafer’s portrayal of Triss in this episode is missing something. She does what she can with what little was given to her, but overall felt not much more than a plot device to keep the striga at bay for the final few moments later in the episode. It is through her assistance, though, that Geralt learns what the monster truly is after examining the dead witcher’s body. We get another great instance of Geralt actually being smart and good at his job as he explains that the monster is a striga, not a vukodlak as the miners thought. Geralt explains how the curse has taken hold of the daughter of Adda, Temerian King Foltest’s sister.
Geralt and Triss go to speak to King Foltest about gaining access to the abandoned castle where the creature lies. With Geralt’s ability to discomfort normal folk on excellent display, his description of the creature causes King Foltest to demand they all leave. Geralt’s quick actions lock him in the room with the King, having already found it strange that he didn’t flinch at the mention of his sister’s murder, but was quite perturbed when the question of the girl’s father was raised.
It is here where we get another peek into how witchers are normally viewed. King Foltest tells Geralt how he had heard stories of witchers and how their mutations give them their powers but rob them of all emotion. To accuse a king of incest is a risky move, Geralt, but it seems by his smile as he leaves that he expected the response he got.
Triss and Geralt find evidence of the union between Foltest and Adda, and thanks to Geralt’s extremely keen senses they even find out who placed the striga curse. Adda’s “confidante” and “protector”, Ostrit, was jealous of Foltest and Adda’s relationship. His attempt to curse Foltest backfired, and fell upon his daughter instead.
The entire episode is full of moments where Geralt truly feels like he is what he’s supposed to be. He speaks of strigas with the knowledge of a scholar, one who has studied monsters his whole life. He infiltrates the abandoned castle and uses his senses to smell what truly happened to Adda. As a massive fan of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, getting to see Geralt use his senses and uncover a mystery just like he does in the contracts he takes on in the games was a refreshing sight. This is the first episode in which Geralt feels like a proper monster hunter: doing his research, following clues, taking his witcher potions, using every weapon available to him.
The battle with the striga is fast-paced and brutal. Admittedly, the special effects of the monster itself were slightly wonky when it was first shown in full, its initial leap at Geralt looking like a marionette on strings, but as the battle rages on you start to really believe in the power and threat the striga presents. Add on to that the horrifying screeches and screams, not just of the striga but Yennefer as well. The scene switching back and forth in parallel between the two disfigured women fighting back as hard as they could was an excellent production choice. We see both of them, battered and bloody in the fetal position, both having overcome their ordeals, though at grave costs.
Geralt, having seemingly succumbed to the grievous wound that the scared girl surprised him with, is saved by Triss who gives her best speech of the episode telling Geralt that there is more than just money and monsters out there for him.
On the other end of the sorceress spectrum, we have a killer episode for Yennefer and Anya Chalotra herself. Putting aside the still rather odd decision to have these staggered timelines with no explanation as to when one event is happening compared to another, the addition of Yennefer’s origins is very much a welcome one.
Yennefer’s romantic relationship with Istredd is tested and found wanting once her plans to return to Aedirn better than she ever was are taken from her. Her elven blood is a sticking point for the Brotherhood of Sorcerers and she puts the blame on Istredd, who blabbed to his superiors about her heritage.
The revelation that both of them were spying on each other for their individual schools comes to light. Istredd tells Yennefer that she missed initiation and her “chance to be beautiful”. He proposes that she follow him to his research position, a prospect that seems to Yennefer a “slow suicide”. Both Chalotra and Royce Pierreson put on great, vivid performances as the truth of the cruel world they live in starts to close in around them.
The transformation of Yennefer;s body is both frightening to behold and strangely empowering. One can’t help but root for the girl that has had so much taken from her because of her birth, yet the reality of what she must go through for the transformation is horrifying to watch. Her bones and muscles twist and reform, she screams bloody murder, and by the end of it is drenched in her own blood. Somehow, she’s able to clean herself up fast enough to make it to the fancy ball where King Virfuril of Aedirn just immediately, almost comically, drops Fringilla Vigo for the newly minted Yennefer.
Finally, we come to the short scene at the end of the episode. Ciri is laid out on the frozen forest floor when mysterious, ghostly voices begin to call to her. She follows them, almost in a trance, to a line of trees in the distance. Dara tries to follow and stop her, but a well placed arrow knocks him down among the corpses of dozens of others, all with arrows lodged in their remains. Readers of the books will probably recognize this forest as Brokilon.
Personally, I thought this episode was full of excellent character development, particularly for Yennefer as she finally takes her future into her own hands. Geralt also begins to display the true trappings and abilities of a witcher. The fight with the striga, despite a few moments of campy effects, was an enjoyable one. The final few moments left me wanting to see how the show would handle the dryads of Brokilon.
Overall, it was a successful episode to be sure, full of memorable moments and meaningful plot development. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that, for season two, the developers get a slightly higher special effects budget.