By Benjamin Rose
The Path returns from a year-long hiatus to bring you the first new Netflix’ The Witcher review!
As we eagerly await the release of Blood Origin and season 3 in December/January of this upcoming year, Tanya and I will be writing the long-belated episode-by-episode and overall season reviews for season 2. Last year there was a massive amount of buzz around the return of The Witcher (not all of it positive). With the show expanding beyond the tight “monster of the week” focus of season 1 to encompass the fate of the entire Continent in its finale, season 2 was bound to involve deviations and expanded material not found in the books. As in the inaugural season, some of these changes enriched the material, others, less so. But leaving that aside for a later treatment, let’s discuss the first episode of Netflix’ The Witcher season 2.
The episode begins on the battlefield of Sodden in the aftermath of Yennefer’s scorching of the Nilfgaardian army in season 1. After Yennefer defeated the first wave on Sodden Hill, the regular forces of the Northern armies arrived, and we see the remains of a massive battle conducted in the open fields on a widely increased budget. As Vilgefortz prowls the battlefield executing survivors of the Nilfgaardian ranks, Tissaia searches the memories of dead and dying soldiers to find the thinnest glimpse, if any, of Yennefer’s fate. When Geralt and Ciri arrive on horseback, having immediately gone in search of Yennefer following their meeting in S1E8 (“Much More”), a mourning Tissaia informs them Yennefer is dead.
This is, of course, not true. Yennefer has been captured by Fringilla and a small squad of Nilfgaardian survivors, and the two engage in a predictable amount of psychological warfare through the remainder of the episode, each trying to turn the other to the enemy side to ensure her own personal safety (Fringilla, it should be noted, now well aware she faces discipline or worse for her failure at Sodden, hopes to bring Yennefer as a prize of war to dissuade Emhyr’s wrath). This runs into trouble when both of them are ambushed and captured in turn by Elves. More developments to follow in the next episode. At Aretuza, Triss languishes in the Brotherhood’s ICU after sustaining grievous injuries at Sodden while Tissaia, enraged at Yennefer’s presumed loss, tortures an imprisoned Cahir for information. But the heart of the episode is between Geralt and Ciri, who go off on their own self-contained adventure en route to the Witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen.
The bulk of “A Grain Of Truth” adapts the short story of the same name from The Last Wish, the first collection of Witcher short stories, and elements of the text are rearranged accordingly to accommodate such a drastic shift in chronology for a story initially set decades before Ciri was even born. In that text, Geralt’s encounter with the cursed noble Nivellen played out very similarly, but was a matter of happenstance. In this adaptation, Nivellen and Geralt are old friends with an invented backstory, and all the relevant backstory Nivellen already had in the book is moved to an intermediate stage between their last meeting years ago and this reunion, with subtle but important changes. Having sought lodging with his old friend, Geralt is surprised to discover Nivellen has been turned into, in effect, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.
This is less absurd than it sounds; the story is an old folktale and was adapted by Sapkowski with or without knowledge of the film version in the 1980s, when he drew regularly upon assorted tropes out of Medieval European fairy tale and romance to write subversive takes on them in Geralt’s adventures. So Nivellen (Kristofer Hivju, of Game of Thrones fame) is a sort of man-bear-pig with an enchanted house that can magically conjure baths, food, and crockery, among other things. He and Ciri take an immediate liking to one another; but Geralt, using his Witcher senses, so to speak, immediately senses something is afoot and spends much of the evening probing through Nivellen’s evasions to get at the truth. This creates a more adversarial relationship between the two of them than is present in the text, and ultimately culminates not in the equivocal redemption but unequivocal condemnation of Nivellen when the truth comes out. Having sacked the Temple of the Lion-Headed Spider and raped its priestess, Nivellen has been cursed to live as a beast till he has won and lost true love. This he finds, in a manner of speaking, in Vereena, a local Bruxa (vampire) whom he has allowed to prey upon his neighbors at will rather than be left alone and abandoned.
In the book, Nivellen was more complex, and his motivations more clear. His father was not, as in the show, merely a cold landlord, but a murderous bandit, and Nivellen’s atrocities were committed out of a weak teenager’s desperation not to be murdered by his father’s associates rather than impulsive malice. Vereena was seen to be actively psychologically abusing him in their relationship via hallucinations, and his role in tolerating her murders was less clear. In the show, Nivellen is clearly at fault and in denial of his own heinousness, with no appeals to a rough childhood or forced evil to soften his guilt. When the secret emerges, Geralt must battle his vampire lover to the death all the same, and with less pity for Nivellen’s ensuing despair than his book counterpart. The sum of this episode is that it represents a tremendous jump in quality at every level over any episode in season 1, and indicates well why the critic score at Rotten Tomatoes jumped up by nearly thirty percent in season 2’s overall rating. As a not very enthusiastic critic of season 1, who once called its fifth episode “Unforgivably Bad”, I was delighted to watch this episode now and when it first aired. The dialogue has improved, the budget has skyrocketed, and at the visual level, the show displays far greater craftsmanship, a wider color palette, and a greater variety of shots and camera work than anything in the inaugural season. The Bruxa fight is a less dramatic affair than the famous Wolfgang Stegmann-choreographed Blaviken massacre from season 1, but it serves nonetheless, ultimately moving at a deliberative pace that leans closer to horror and suspense than nail-biting carnage (though there’s plenty of gore, both of the red corn syrup and burst-into-flames kind). Overall, a grand opening.