If you find this image of an angry Geralt staring furiously at Jaskier as unsettling as I do, good. Because if you’re a lover of “The Last Wish”, The Witcher, and good television in general, you should walk away from Netflix’s The Witcher’s fifth episode, “Bottled Appetites”, and immediately start fishing in the nearest body of water for a djinn to help you forget this experience. The episode is simply unforgivably bad, and while there have been some dramatic highs this season interspersed with some damnable lows (I’m looking at you for the first, Declan De Barra, and at you for the second, Jenny Klein, and your wretched little eels), the Witcher’s fifth episode almost tries to be bad whereas its other trainwrecks merely fall limp. To quote the eminent halfling field surgeon, Milo “Rusty” Vanderbeck, from Sapkowski’s final chronological Witcher novel, The Lady of the Lake, “Damnit! Fuck it! Why is it like this? Why does it have to be like this?”1The Lady of the Lake 332 And just as there is ultimately no explanation for why men must die on his operating table, so there is no explanation for why this episode ever made it out of production. The patient has flatlined. What the hell went wrong? In short, everything that could, did. Enough blathering. Lets get on with the autopsy.
The episode opens with the menacing bit of cardboard formerly known as Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach enlisting the help of a doppler assassin who seems to have a fetish for constructing his own original form from trophies taken from his victims. As my colleague Sampson Berlinski points out in his episode six review, this is a fine bit of nonsense that will ultimately go nowhere. After hiring said psychopath to kill and impersonate Mousesack, the assassin (who inexplicably refers to himself using “the royal we”), stabs our favorite druid in the heart, saying “Everything you’ve ever done, ever debated, ever dreamed is in our head now.” What a lovely bit of lore–accuracy!This surely won’t be chucked aside for plot convenience an episode later.
By far however, the greatest problem that emerges from this cold open isn’t this useless bit of setup, but the augury it presents of Nilfgaard’s gallop over a characterization cliff in the next three episodes. I turn your attention to exhibit A, the Amazon Prime package villain formerly known as Cahir aep Ceallach. Hissrich and her team don’t understand The Witcher, and nowhere is this more evident than the flattening of Nilfgaard from a sophisticated, “enlightened”, but nonetheless utterly cynical Empire redolent of Nazi Germany into the poorly armored religious fanatics they have become in the show. While Sapkowski always portrayed them as unequivocally evil, there were shades of grey that elevated them beyond mere cartoon villains.
If the greatest example of this ambiguity was ultimately Emperor Emhyr Var Emreis himself, the most compelling and likeable (though extremely problematic) southron of the novels was always Cahir. The Black Night. “The Nilfgaardian who does not like to be called a Nilfgaardian”, in Dandelion’s memorable phrase. Cahir in the novels is essentially a model of chivalry, an earnest and valiant soldier no older than twenty-five, a cross between a medieval knight-errant and a 19th century Prussian officer imbued with a heavy sense of German Romanticism. He is also, which is very uncomfortable for the audience, in love with Ciri, a girl who for most of the main saga is only 15 or 16. While the Witcher is both based on and satirizes Medieval societies in which the developmental phase we now call adolescence was not believed to exist (and this is a historical fact), Sapkowski at least had the good sense to leave Cahir’s love unconsummated and entirely chaste. He eventually dies defending her from her nemesis, Leo Bonhart. The show’s Cahir, suffice to say, has no resemblance to this somehow at once noble and yet creepy character.
Next we move to some very poor set-up for the show’s adaptation of “The Last Wish” later in the episode. Yennefer, now living off the grid and in open defiance of the Brotherhood of Sorcerers’ rules, has set up a sex shop in Rinde curing various ailments “of a mechanical nature”. She is promptly arrested by Monsieur Beau Berrant, who has been promoted from his status as a Novigradian ambassador in “The Last Wish” to the mayor of Rinde, a simplification that might make sense for pacing purposes, but which will ultimately be detrimental down the line. Yennefer quickly recognizes she can pimp this situation to her advantage, and ostentatiously presents her wrists to be handcuffed.
In Brokilon, Josette Simon continues to be miscast as a bland and bizarrely kind Queen Eithne, Ciri continues to do nothing, and the choice to all but eliminate “Sword of Destiny” while leaving Brokilon in the show continues to be ridiculous. Regarding Simon, I should add in fairness that it is hard to flesh out a compelling character when one is given no good lines and hardly any narrative purpose for being in the production. Eithne was a literal force of nature in the books, an unshakeable Queen locked in a struggle to the death between the sanctity of nature and the greed of humanity,
“Long ago, long, long ago, before [King] Venzlav was in the world, heralds rode up to Brokilon’s borders. Horns and trumpets blared, armour glinted, and pennants and standards fluttered. “Humble yourself, Brokilon!” they cried. “King Goat Tooth, king of Bald Hillock and Marshy Meadow, orders you to humble yourself, Brokilon!” And Brokilon’s answer was always the same.”2Sword of Destiny 291
“Brokilon’s answer” is an arrow through the heart. Brokilon was a place of foreboding and dread in the novels; where the snake Ouroboros tightens into a noose, and man plans while destiny laughs. Duettaeánn aef cirrán Cáerme Gláeddyv. Yn á esseáth. Va’esse deireádh aep eigean, va’esse eigh faidh’ar. “The Sword of Destiny has two edges. You are one of them. Something ends, something begins.” In the show, for all their nonexistent efforts, they might as well have changed the motto of Brokilon to A d’yaebl aép arse.
But these issues pale in comparison to the sheer foolishness of the episode’s depiction of “The Last Wish”, at once the zaniest and most heartfelt of short stories in its eponymous anthology, and whose butchering earns this episode my opprobrium.
The adaptation begins with Jaskier chancing upon Geralt fishing near Rinde. As is often the case, Jaskier begins by offering needless exposition while Geralt yells at him, in this instance that he’s searching for a Djinn to cure insomnia. The first problem here is the very fact that Hissrich decided to leave Dandelion’s name untranslated as “Jaskier”. While “Dandelion” is technically a mistranslation (the Polish actually refers to the buttercup flower), the name is sufficiently iconic, and the use of Jaskier sufficiently distracting, that this was a misstep from the jump. Secundo and more importantly, the show offers no rationalization for why Geralt so much as tolerates Jaskier’s existence, let alone company.
In the books, Geralt and Dandelion are quarrelsome, but there is a definite affection between the two of them, and their infighting is closer in spirit to the bluntness, insincere mockery, and casual one-upmanship which tends to characterize close male friendships than the vitriol found in the show. In other words, a bromance. Seldom is this more evident than the way this scene plays out in “The Last Wish”, where no interregnum has elapsed between Geralt and Dandelion traveling together, and the two trade jovial put-downs while struggling in vain to catch a catfish. This of course leads into point three: In the book, Geralt wasn’t looking for a Djinn. It’s simply another day in the life when they happen to catch a Djinn by mistake. Geralt tries to save Dandelion from his own stupidity before unintentionally ripping off the seal and releasing the beast, which nearly kills them both before Geralt drives it off with an exorcism whose meaning he is oblivious to (to whit: Begone, and go fuck yourself), thus inadvertently expressing his first wish. The episode proceeds to follow the plot of “The Last Wish” closely while neutering virtually everything that made the story great. After contacting the elven medic Chireadan, who is in love with Yennefer, Geralt proceeds with Jaskier to Beau Berrant’s house to enlist Yennefer’s help. This begs the question however, “why is Geralt carrying Jaskier, who is coughing blood and on the brink of death, to Yennefer, when the more medically sound option would be to bring Yennefer to him?” Indeed, this is what actually happens in “The Last Wish”, because that story wasn’t written by an amateur who lacked common sense.
From thence, bloodied Jaskier in tow, we get a gratuitous scene in which Geralt carries a vial of apple juice through a hall in which Yennefer has conjured a mass hallucination to induce an orgy among the mayor’s houseguests. This is childish on many levels. First of all, while “The Last Wish” had its share of gratuitous nudity, this was played for comedic effect and served the actual plot (namely, Geralt’s falling head over heels in love for Yennefer at first sight). The orgy, however, seems to be a misguided attempt to reference the “balls and extravagant parties” Yennefer is said to hold in Rinde at Berrant’s residence in defiance of the town councilors, who are relentlessly occupied with spreading witch hunting hysteria and sexual slander against her.3The Last Wish 255 (Hardcover Edition) Even more bewildering is the decision to include the iconic apple juice at all, since it serves no purpose in the episode, whereas it was integral in “The Last Wish”. In the story, after awkwardly carrying the apple juice through a corridor littered with Yennefer’s discarded clothes and various accoutrements, a very embarrassed Geralt brings the juice to Yennefer as she lies hungover in bed. Naturally perturbed when she recognizes a strange man has entered her bedroom, she attempts to fry him with a spell that sends him hurtling against the wall. Ultimately, however, his considerate brining of the aforementioned juice persuades her to help him.
Something to note at this juncture is that the writing makes Geralt come across as oddly base in the bathing scene that follows. It’s not simply that Cavill and Chalotra, while excellent individually, have zero chemistry together. The issue is that Geralt seems rather intent on comparing Yennefer to a prostitute in this conversation, which is the polar opposite of the respect Geralt shows Yennefer in the books, despite his, ahem, difficulty ignoring the outline of her breasts under a cover of foam. In the book the scene is marked by genuine sexual tension. Geralt is completely smitten with Yennefer and Yen, while not entirely unreciprocal, actively uses this to manipulate him once she learns a Djinn is in the area. Cavill’s Geralt is much too stoic in the show’s depiction, and when Yennefer asks him “Do other women find this coarseness charming?”, it is actually the least cringeworthy remark in the entire scene.
Next we see Yennefer curing Jaskier while preparing to summon the Djinn. At this point, show Geralt has already shown Yennefer the magician’s seal on the Djinn’s jar, which makes little sense if he is actually as distrustful of her as he claims to be. Geralt and Yennefer’s witty repartee from the source material is reduced to forgettable nonsense, while the scenes overt femdom references are omitted entirely. In the book, after trapping him with her spell, Yennefer dismisses Geralt’s pose of masculinity as an insolent ruse before literally forcing him to crawl on hands and knees to kiss her hand in submission. The bit is erotic and hilarious, being a complete reversal of the Geralt we’ve known up to that point, and is only heightened when Chireadan informs him in prison that, while charmed, Geralt went around town beating up various municipal and religious authorities before harranguing the townsfolk in front of the local temple on the evils of slut-shaming and other forms of misogyny.
In both these scenes, drastic missteps are made. The BDSM display and the overt feminism of Geralt’s “rampage” are cut, robbing each scene of both humor and thematic weight. Worse still, while the “rampage” is told entirely through Chireadan’s exposition in “The Last Wish”, imagine that same exposition being interspersed with visual representation of the “rampage” in the show, complete with Cavill’s Geralt declaiming (in his Batman voice, no less!) upon the sanctity of “a Lady’s honour” while thrashing some impudent pawnbroker with a belt. It’s almost as if Hissrich and Sneha Koorse (the episode’s writer) took internet trolls’ claims that “radical feminism is ruining the Witcher” to heart and watered down the episode accordingly. Were these decisions the product of incompetence or cowardice? I don’t know, nor do I care.
The rest of the episode is so inane as to almost prohibit viewing, though I have now had the misfortune of viewing it three times. The character Neville has been replaced by Beau as the mayor of Rinde, and his banter with Geralt, Dandelion, and the priest Krepp (also cut from the show) ignored accordingly. Speaking of Dandelion—in “The Last Wish”, Yennefer, knowing Geralt will be executed for his rampage, sends Dandelion through a portal to wish that the town authorities believe Geralt is innocent. While this is ultimately useless, seeing as how Geralt is soon after revealed to be the Djinn’s master, the act lends an element of decency and moral depth to Yennefer that is absent in the episode. With the earlier bathtub scene and this act of mercy having been botched, it makes no remaining sense why Geralt would go rushing back to Berrant’s residence to save Yennefer. Also, “leave the very sexy witch to her inevitable demise?” Who wrote this drivel? The books always included myriad anachronisms, but they never included dialogue that could’ve been lifted from a nineties American sitcom. Shut up, Jaskier.
But the last straw for me was the depiction of the Djinn and Geralt’s wish. Firstly, this Djinn is pathetically low-budget compared to the enormous monster of red smoke it was represented as in the text. It’s barely a transparent cloud. Secondly, why is Yennefer painting a uterus on her abdomen and serving as the Djinn’s “vessel”. Who thought this was a good idea? Thirdly, Geralt is yelling now despite the ridiculously unpersuasive bathtub scene earlier and the ridiculously unpersuasive threat posed by the low-budget Djinn, so you know he is EMOTIONAL and THIS IS THE CLIMAX, GUYS. Spare me.
The wish itself is a travesty. In “The Last Wish” Yennefer hears Geralt’s last wish, even if we the readers don’t , and is, in short, profoundly moved by it. Whatever the content of the wish (which is never revealed at any point in the series), it is widely agreed among the fandom that the wish in no way controls or obligates Yennefer to enter into a relationship with Geralt, as Yennefer will later claim in episode six. The wish is implied in the text to be specifically tailored to satisfy the following difficulty: as the Djinn’s master, the Djinn cannot kill Geralt, but has every reason to kill Yennefer for harassing it once Geralt has made his wish. As Yennefer grows weaker and weaker in a fruitless effort to tame the Djinn, Geralt wishes, in an unspecified way, to tie their fates together by destiny so both of them are destined to die at the same time. Yennefer is absolutely astonished by the wish, remarks that no one has ever been willing to sacrifice so much for her, and the two promptly make love in the wreckage of the house after the Djinn has fled. Not only is the wish a positive from her perspective, but the sex that follows is downright romantic in a way the show never bothers to attempt recreating. Because it can’t.
“He gazed into her violet eyes, the most beautiful eyes in the world, eyes which he feared would become…Everything. He knew. ‘Your wish,’’ she whispered, her lips very near his ear. “I don’t know whether such a wish can ever be fulfilled. I don’t know whether there’s such a Force in Nature that could fulfill such a wish. But if there is, then you’ve condemned yourself. Condemned yourself to me.’…They broke the silence very gently, lazily, and they were considerate and very thorough. They were caring and tender and, although neither quite knew what caring and tenderness were, they succeed because they very much wanted to…
‘Yen.’ She repeated, giving in to him completely. ‘Nobody’s ever called me that. Say it again.’
‘Geralt.”4The Last Wish 306―307 (Hardcover Edition)
The prose is wooden, yes. But even in a translation my Polish acquaintances routinely blast as terrible, if you’re invested in these characters, it has its charms. In the episode, Yennefer and Geralt have meaningless sex, Yen asks Geralt what his wish was, and Geralt promptly falls asleep. Intimacy be buggered.
This episode is a dumpster fire. 4/10.