By Benjamin Rose
After a strong opener, The Witcher has begun to meander a bit. Episode 3 is decidedly light on action, and at times grows a bit tedious. The Witcher is building up to bigger and better episodes this season down the line, but for now not much is going on and some of the attempts at deeper character work feel melodramatic. On the whole, the weakest aspect of Season 2 so far has proven to be Kaer Morhen, where Paul Bullion’s Lambert has decidedly earned my shit list for sheer boorishness and insufferability, possessing none of the cynical charisma of Christian Contreras’s Witcher 3: Wild Hunt counterpart, and Kim Bodnia’s Vesemir feels miscast. As to that bizarre decision to have a, wait for it, Meaningful Character Death by doing Eskel dirty in episode 2, I really don’t see what the show is trying to accomplish here. At the moment, Yasen Atour, that is Coen, is the only background Witcher who at all resembles his book counterpart (there was no game Coen), and the choice to have a bunch of random, mostly unnamed background Witchers populating the keep seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. I long ago accepted fully that this show is not an accurate representation of the Witcher books, but a cardinal rule of adaptation should be that when you cut something, make sure it’s unnecessary, and when you change or add something, make sure it works. At times in the past, the show has made radical changes, such as its presentation of Cintra and the screen time it affords to Yennefer and Fringilla, that actively improve on the source material. But as we get deeper into season 2, the fanfiction quality of the show is starting to become a mess, at least when the changes it makes to characterization and other elements are not only noticeably inferior to The Witcher’s other outings, but don’t even serve the story the show is trying to tell all that well.
Still, it would be a mistake to embrace the most extreme criticism that resulted in mass review bombing by the audience back in December 2021. This is the only Witcher show we’re going to get, and I care more that the spirit and overarching narrative of the books is respected than that the exact plot details are followed minutely or the actors’ races correspond in a one-to-one concurrence with those in the books (are people seriously still complaining about that?). On these criteria, the show is flawed and often silly, lacking the maturity of its Polish counterparts, but nonetheless satisfying more often than not. Still, this is a very uneven episode.
In Kaer Morhen, Ciri trains relentlessly on the Pendulum (!) while Geralt and Vesemir seek to unravel the secret of Eskel’s mutation. After holding a somewhat bizarre funeral rite for Eskel (watch it), Geralt observes Ciri try and fail valiantly to conquer the Pendulum and then dispenses some fatherly wisdom about the risks of seeking to be “a great fighter” without adequate training. Ciri begins to open up to Geralt about her psychic abilities, and Geralt follows her telepathic lead to the woods outside Kaer Morhen, where they encounter Eskel’s leshy. The leshy is almost immediately killed, however, by a myriapod, a giant bug creature that Geralt must defeat in a callback to Geralt and Ciri’s very first meeting in Sword Of Destiny, the second Witcher novel. Something weird is happening in Witcherverse, and with Ciri’s powers holding the secret to these shenanigans, Geralt reaches out to Triss Merigold to instruct Ciri and get to the bottom of it.
In Aretuza, Yennefer has returned to find herself in the middle of court intrigue between Tissaia and Vilgefortz on the one hand and Stregobor and Artorius on the other. Yen continues to struggle with (and conceal) her loss of magic, until Tissaia forces the secret from her. When a scheming Stregobor abducts and tortures Yen for information on both Nilfgaard and the use of fire magic, and is subsequently arraigned before the Council, Stregobor counter-accuses her of spying for Nilfgaard, both as a prisoner of war and on account of his perennial fixation with her mixed-race quarter-elven heritage (which has always been a fixture of the show, though it was barely touched on at all in the books, which treat the elves much less sympathetically). So Yen is forced to execute Cahir in a show of loyalty, after first rejecting Istredd’s plea to join him in defecting to Nilfgaard. I have long been a fan of Royce Pierrson’s Istredd: a younger, less pretentious, and more human creation than Sapkowski’s middle-aged elitist asshole from “A Shard Of Ice ”; the sensitive Rock Dude, who clearly possesses some level of moral character but at crucial moments in the past has shown a lack of spine, his former relationship with Yennefer clearly based more on shared experience than compatibility. But Istredd and Yen are, as always, not on the same page, though he does manage to warn her that Stregobor has her under surveillance and she has no chance to escape Aretuza alone. Forced then to participate in Cahir’s execution, Yennefer returns once more to Sodden, where Vilgefortz, now the de facto head of the Council, has organized a ceremony to commemorate the victory. Yet rather than carry out such a (barely) judicial murder or ask the insistent voice of the Deathless Mother for help, Yen frees Cahir at the last minute and the two, now fugitives, make for asylum in Cintra. Though it suffers from the in transit feeling that plagued episode 2, and to a greater degree, this is still a serviceable hour. The Witcher’s writers have demonstrably improved since their first 2019 outing, but an episode this dialogue heavy and focused on character work still lags. They’re getting there, but not quite. Adapting a novel like Blood of Elves, by far the least action-packed entry in the written Witcher canon, is no easy task, but one wishes these last two episodes that more effort had been spent leaning into the spectacle of the series and less on intricate plotting that, while far more believable than season 1, starts to feel like low rent Game Of Thrones politics after awhile. As was widely remarked by reviewers at the time, Cavill and Freya Allen have both grown well into their roles, with Geralt shedding the Grumpy Snowman alter ego he was often consigned to in season 1 and Ciri adopting the familiar stubbornness, courage, and grit of her book counterpart. The writers continue to seem unsettled about what to do with Yen, but despite the show having to invent the vast majority of her plotline, at times with very mixed results, Anya Chalotra’s remarkable charisma and conviction still tends to cut through some of the less sensible directions her story has taken (and this is true even in the back half of the season, where things go a bit batshit). All in all, The Witcher’s third episode is meh, but the series remains far better in its sophomore outing and has the potential to grow further.