Written by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich
Directed by Marc Jobst
We're reviewing and recapping all eight episodes of Netflix's new Witcher TV series—from the perspective of a fan of the Witcher game series.
We rejoin Geralt in Cintra, having just run his sword through a prophecy-spouting Nilfgaardian soldier. He realises he's in Ciri's room and looks through her belongings—a storybook, a dress, a set of knucklebones—and we hear an echo of his promise to Calanthe from episode seven: "I will take her, protect her, and bring her back unharmed, I promise you that." Later, outside the city walls, Geralt bumps into a man he mistakes for a graverobber. He's a merchant, Yurga, and he's giving the dead a proper burial, not robbing them.
Geralt says he's going back to Kaer Morhen—an old keep in the mountains of Kaedwen, where he was trained as a witcher long ago. Then something stirs in the earth beneath him. Zombie-like creatures with glowing eyes rise from the dirt and attack the witcher. He loses his sword and pulls one of their tongues out, using it as a makeshift weapon. Jason Bourne would be proud. Geralt manages to defeat the creatures, just, but notices a nasty, festering wound on his leg. "Not a happy ending after all," he grumbles as he slumps to the ground.
So we've reached the end of The Witcher's first season. Last episode, the Monster of the Week format was dropped to focus on the show's larger plot; namely Ciri looking for Geralt and the Nilfgaardian Empire's quest to conquer the Continent. This is a stronger episode, but I still think the show suffers when it dedicates itself entirely to the big picture. The smaller, self-contained stories—especially if they involve Geralt hunting a weird monster—are far more compelling. I can't help but think of later seasons of The X-Files, which became notably less good when the alien invasion stuff took over. Hopefully The Witcher, which has been signed up for a second season, doesn't meet the same fate.
We find Ciri alone in the countryside again. I really hope she gets more to do next season than just running through barren, wintry landscapes. The boys who attacked her in the previous episode, her former friends, are dead—twisted, broken, and bloody. One of them is impaled gruesomely on a tree. Seems our princess unleashed another blast of magical energy; confirmed by a neat bird's eye shot where we can see visual evidence of the shockwave. The kindly woman whose horse Ciri stole last episode finds her and carries her to safety.
A rowboat moves through foggy water, loaded with the rebel mages from Aretuza—including Yennefer, Vilgefortz, Tissaia, and Triss. They're travelling to an old Elven keep in Sodden: a place of great strategic importance. Nilfgaard has no choice but to move through the keep to continue its conquest of the Continent. Tissaia tells Yennefer that Temeria and Kaedwen are joining the fight, and that they will have to fortify the keep until the armies arrive in two days.
Vilgefortz asks Yennefer why she came, but she doesn't seem to have an answer—at least not one she's willing to share. Then we're treated to an aerial shot of the keep: a crumbling castle perched on the edge of a deep, rocky canyon. The keep guards the narrowest parts of the Yaruga River; the only thing standing between Nilfgaard and the North. In the castle the mages find tired-looking refugees, brutally driven from their homes by Nilfgaard. As the Empire's soldiers march, the mages and refugees prepare for battle: lining up bows, fletching arrows, and filling little glass bottles with explosive, magic-infused blue rocks.
It's the night before the battle and Yennefer is wandering the battlements as the others drink and make merry below. We even see the normally stoic, unamused Tissaia laughing and smiling. Yennefer finds a refugee woman making arrows, who talks about all the terrible things the Nilfgaardians have done to her—just to make doubly sure we know they're the bad guys. Later, Tissaia and Yennefer have a heart to heart. Yen says she's ready to die. She has no legacy to leave behind, no family. Tissaia disagrees: "You have so much left to give."
Now we join the Nilfgaardians, camped near the keep. A field marshal tells Cahir that 50,000 troops are on their way from the freshly-razed city of Cintra, and that scouts have spotted the rebel mages fortifying the castle. Cahir and Nilfgaard's resident mage Fringilla (a fellow student of Yen's at Aretuza, you may remember) decide to test the mages' defences. Fringilla orders some of her mage underlings to conjure up massive, raging fireballs—killing them in the process—which a Nilfgaardian catapult then hurls towards the keep. Yennefer wakes up just as one is about to land and magically tosses it to safety.
We also see Fringilla with a small, black box. She hands it to another sorcerer and says: "Draw the mages out." The next morning we learn that 22 of the rebel mages have abandoned the keep, fearful of those fireballs. Then a thick wall of fog—created by a Nilfgaardian mage—creeps across the forest, in the direction of the castle. Tissaia tells Yennefer to climb a nearby tower and watch over the battle, but tells her to reserve her chaos—recalling a similar instruction she gave her in Aretuza, back when she was a trainee. The battle, it seems, is about to begin. How are a handful of mages gonna defeat 50,000 soldiers?
In a forest nearby, a near-death Geralt is in the back of a cart being driven by Yurga the merchant. He's paler than usual and having visions of his past. He sees himself as a boy with a bucket on his head and a wooden sword, fighting an imaginary monster. "We must live and let live." his mother says, her face obscured. It's their code. Then Geralt sees a tiny golden dragon—it's Borch from episode six—which appears to be a hallucination rather than a childhood memory.
Later, we see more flashbacks to Geralt's childhood. His mother, her face still unseen, magics up an apple for him to eat—confirming that she's a sorceress. He also mutters the name Vesemir, an important character who will almost certainly appear in season two. Geralt eventually snaps out of his daze, drinks a potion, and pours some of it over his wound to stop the infection. For the record, I know the boy in those flashbacks is baby Geralt because the subtitles label him as such.
Geralt's origins have been something of a mystery for most of the season. Hell, they haven't even really said what a witcher is yet—which must be confusing for people unfamiliar with the lore. This series isn't particularly good at explaining things, which makes a background with the books or videogames a big help. Anecdotally, I know someone whose first experience with the world of The Witcher was this show, and they found it difficult to get their head around it all.
Anyway, back to the keep. We're treated to a lengthy battle scene here, which is the highlight of the episode in terms of pure spectacle. Triss poisons a bunch of Nilfgaardian soldiers by conjuring up poison mushrooms; Sabrina tosses those explosive bottles into the forest and archers shoot them, creating a fiery mortar strike; Coral levels a whole squad of soldiers with a telekinetic blast; and Vilgefortz fights Cahir with magical swords. It's fun seeing the mages in action. But despite their efforts, the Nilfgaardian attack is overwhelming, and the soldiers draw closer to the keep—then Fringilla joins the fray.
She destroys the keep's gate with magic and the fog sweeps in. The mage generating the fog collapses, dead, and drops the black box Fringilla gave him earlier. It cracks open and a writhing mass of disgusting black worms emerges, slithering into the keep. Seems these slippery things are capable of mind control: they possess some refugee kids, who cause a massive, devastating explosion by sabotaging the mages' stockpile of bottle grenades. Yennefer limps away from the destroyed tower, when Fringilla tries to get her to switch sides. She says there are no limits in Nilfgaard, only power and potential; that she might be able to find a cure for her infertility. "That could be your legacy."
Geralt wakes up and his wounds are being treated by a druid named Vissena: his mother. She says he was saved by his pulse being four times slower than a normal man—a result of his witcher mutations. When Geralt realises who she is, he's furious. He demands to know if, when she gave him away as a child, she was aware that only three out of ten boys survive the witcher trials. She says he should stop asking questions, because the answers will only hurt them both. He has to move on and find what he let go of—he has to find Ciri.
Back on the battlefield, Yennefer finds a severely weakened Tissaia. She tells her old student that it's her turn to save these people; save the Continent. "Forget the bottle," she says. "Let your chaos explode." And Yennefer does just that, unleashing a massive blast of fire magic. The flames sweep over the forest, obliterating the Nilfgaardian army. Cahir watches from afar, then we see King Foltest arrive with the Temerian army behind him. The tables have turned, it seems.
Ciri is with the woman from earlier, sleeping in her house. The sounds of battle rage in the distance, but she reassures her that the Nilfgaardians have no reason to come here. The next morning, Ciri escapes into the nearby forest—because she just can't keep away from those damn forests—just as a cart pulls up to the house. It's Geralt and Yurga, who we discover is the woman's husband. Bad timing! But it's fine; the woman tells Yurga that Ciri ran into the forest. Then Geralt hears Renfri's voice, a flashback to episode one: "The girl in the woods will be with you always," the voice echoes. "She is your destiny."
Geralt walks into the forest and, at long last, finds Ciri. They embrace and I must admit, I felt a little emotional here. "People linked with destiny will always find each other." And so the season ends, with Ciri and the witcher finally meeting, and the Nilfgaardians getting a taste of Yennefer's true power. The quality dipped a little towards the end, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Witcher's Netflix debut. Cavill is consistently excellent, the monsters (when they show up) are enjoyably grotesque, and I liked spending time in that world. I just hope we see more of Geralt's monster-hunting day job in season two, and more horror like we saw in episode three—which remains the highlight of the series. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next season.
• Geralt mentions Vesemir, who fans of The Witcher games will know well. Some fans are already speculating about who should play him, with Mark Hamill at the top of many lists. I can definitely see it.
• When Yennefer magics up feathers for the refugee lady's arrows, she says "It's magic. It's not real." Later, when he's in a daze, Geralt hears Borch say the same thing. What's the connection?
• Geralt's mother, Vissena, is a sorceress. But aren't sorceresses supposed to be infertile? I'm sure there's some explanation for this buried deep in the books, but it struck me as something of a mystery.
• In episode two, we saw a plant shrivel as a feather floated: the balance of chaos. The Nilfgaardian mages dying horribly as they conjured up those fireballs is an extreme reflection of this lesson.