CD Projekt Red (ironically) created the best ending possible to its Blood and Wine expansion in 2016. How do you earn it? Simple: makes choices based on how Geralt or any other normal man could reasonably be expected to act and get everyone killed. Detlaff. Annarietta. And most of all, Syanna. Of the three, the first and last are immensely deserving, and the middle is an unfortunate but realistic casualty of their downfalls according to the narrative’s internal logic. Likewise, this is the most plausible outcome based on a reading of Geralt’s personality congruent with the books and show, and the overarching tone of both. The Witcher is a tragedy. The books confirm this. The show has embraced it, though the sheer number of awful things awaiting our heroes down the pipeline has scarcely begun in Netflix’s first season. But make no mistake, in their insufferable attempt to wring a feel-good ending out of The Witcher 3’s coda in Toussaint, the developers left you a perfect option to object by refusing to play by their warped logic, which makes the good of the Duchy contingent upon dealing a slap on the wrist to one or more mass murderers. Fuck the ribbon. Fuck Detlaff. Fuck forgiveness and empathy for Syanna. Blood and Wine’s “Worst Ending” is the hero we deserve.
The Philosophy Of Witcherverse
Broadly speaking, The Witcher books follow a core set of principles that have mostly carried over to the show. First, there is Destiny and the Sword Of Destiny. This is the principle that the universe of The Witcher is directed by a shadowy and not necessarily benign providence. This is not Abrahamic “divine” providence in a theological sense, but something closer to Baruch Spinoza’s deus sive natura, a universe governed by an impersonal god that acts out of and is one with necessity.1https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza This is a rough approximation, and it is complicated by a principle espoused by the dryads of Brokilon Forest: The Sword Of Destiny is doubledged. You [the rational decision maker] are one of them. The other is death. It is continuously explored in The Witcher whether humanoids have free will or merely the illusion of it. The question is unresolved and unresolvable over the entire 2,700 pages of the Witcher Saga, but a provisional answer essentially comes down to: sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. As we can never be certain if we have free will in this particular moment or not, but life goes on and demands action from us anyway, it is advisable and in fact necessary that we simply assume we do. This issue is the basis of the choice mechanic in the Witcher videogames, and it leads into the principle of The Lesser Evil, following the short story of the same name. We seem to have choice and are in fact often forced to choose actions as moral agents in the universe.
There is a massive problem though, which is tied in with the ambiguity of Destiny in Witcherverse and the author’s general attitude towards religion: this universe is (seemingly) godless and evil. Cosmic justice is a fantasy and the wicked often prosper while the good suffer and die. Whatever destiny is, it is probably not the divine providence of Christ, Allah, or YHWH, though the discussion of the Cult of Melitele in The Last Wish at least leaves the door open to traditional religion. Sapkowski preferences an atheist perspective in the books, but even if there is a god in Witcherverse, again, that God or Destiny is not good or bad. Evil in the Witcherverse does not exist in the present for the service of future good, as in Christian fantasy like The Lord of the Rings. There is probably a God or Destiny, and it is certainly interested in us, but that by no means implies it is working for or against our benefit. Destiny in The Witcher is a God, but she is what is in academic parlance called The God of The Philosophers, not The God of Abraham. This is a very old distinction in philosophy that arose out of the struggle to reconcile the rationalistic and impersonal God of Greco-Roman antiquity presented by Plato and Aristotle with the faith-based and active God of Judeo-Christian, and later Muslim, scripture. The first God(s) sets rules for the universe and then goes about his business undisturbed by and uninterested in our problems. The latter God is personal, created the universe out of nothing in addition to supplying rules for its maintenance, and is deeply interested in the morals and governance of mankind, making his will manifest through a prophet or messiah in order to instruct his people/all peoples how to live virtuous lives. Destiny is the first type of God. She governs a world where both evil and good are natural, condemning the individual to The Lesser Evil, the thankless task of choosing the least bad option available to get the least bad outcome. This is otherwise known as the human condition, but I digress.
In addition to The Sword Of Destiny and The Lesser Evil, there are three last meta-elements of Witcherverse that are extremely important: irony, moral ambiguity and what I call “justice as an ideal”. Irony in Witcherverse is in a real-world sense a reflection of Sapkowski’s writing style, but in-universe, the relentless irony of The Witcher, both in its dialogue and its plot, is a manifestation of the chaos and tragedy created in human life by human actions. Given limited or illusory free will, an obligation to act, and bad options to choose from, humanoids are doomed in Witcherverse to frequently make self-destructive and/or evil choices for self-preserving and/or good reasons. The archetypal example of this in The Witcher series is the massacre at Blaviken, where Geralt is nearly stoned to death and demonized as a mass murderer for preventing a massacre. In the books it is actually worse than in the show, because Renfri never takes Marilka hostage. She renounces vengeance once Stregobor refuses to give in to her threats, but since Geralt has already killed her men, she has no choice but to fight him for vengeance and die. In both the short story and the show, however, the outcome is the same: Geralt makes a rational choice to risk his life and save others which completely backfires.
Moral ambiguity is self explanatory. In a world where all must do some evil, no one is totally good.
And finally, justice as an ideal. This is the belief in Witcherverse that despite the immense injustice of the world, justice is still an objective ideal worth striving for. The Sword of Destiny and The Lesser Evil frame every choice in The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt. Moral ambiguity and the pursuit of justice are expressed in the game’s competing arguments for each individual choice as well as the opinions Geralt offers through dialogue. Irony is demonstrated frequently in the outcomes of major choices, sometimes in ways coded as self-evidently “good”, and other times in ways that are coded as “bad”. The problem with the ending to The Witcher 3: Blood And Wine is that if moral choices are weighted according to all the available evidence, the “best” ending (only Detlaff dies) is morally terrible, while the “worst” ending is actually the most just, and by far the ending most consistent with the internal logic of Witcherverse.
The Worst Shall Be Best, And The Best Shall Be Worst
Dettlaff Van Der Eretein is an emotionally unstable mass murderer and war criminal who deserves death. Syanna is a murderer, criminal opportunist, and accomplice to war crimes who deserves to be punished for her role in Detlaff’s killings with imprisonment or death. She does not deserve sympathy and Geralt would not extend her such or advocate mercy. Her traumatic childhood doesn’t excuse her actions, which are premeditated and vicious. These opinions are supported by the weight of in-game evidence in Blood and Wine. It is just to kill Detlaff and convict Syanna. And it is tragic and horrible that doing so as Geralt results in Annarietta’s death and the political destabilization of Toussaint. Tragic, but true to the values of Witcherverse, true to the tone of the books, and true to life itself. The argument for doing the right thing is seldom reducible to “everyone will live happily ever after”. Usually it involves sacrifice. And setting aside our indifference to meaningless NPCs for a second, put yourself in the shoes of the average Beauclairois. Your city has suffered devastating economic damage. Many of your friends and family have died awful deaths on the fangs of vampires. But we’re just gonna ignore that because the Duchess loves her sociopathic sister more than the people she is charged with ruling. Her sister who literally also planned her assassination.
What? So you’re telling me that a family rapprochement trumps thousands of deaths and millions of Novigrad crowns in property damage? We’re going to handwaive a woman’s grisly campaign of political assassination that escalated to all-out war because she’s a member of the feudal 1%? Well, yes, that’s feudalism after all. Except that assumes there isn’t an ornery and self-important Witcher in the picture whose arbitrarily been granted significant decision-making authority over the whole affair. Or that, as the script indicates, the people are literally a knife’s-edge away from rioting to lynch Syanna before Detlaff assaults Beauclaire. The same people are now magically content that her initial crimes have been compounded by shit way fucking worse that has affected them personally?! Yep, because CD Projekt Red says so. The ending is a sham; a haindwaved attempt to end Geralt’s story on an uncomplicated positive note. I prefer the bloodbath.