The second season of The Witcher begins with death, misery, and hidden truths. Three travellers reach a small village seeking shelter from the winter's night, only to find it abandoned. The stench of rot and war is luring monsters out of hibernation, and our travellers meet a fate worse than death as an invisible beast ambushes them. The tone is set: Don't believe your eyes, and keep your wits about.
Finally united at the end of the first season, the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, now escorts Ciri, the princess of Cintra he swore to protect. Still wounded from the previous season, Geralt is now faced with the loss of his Djinn-tied lover, purple-eyed sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg. The North was successful, barely, in the Battle of Sodden against the Nilfgaardians, but losses have been catastrophic on both sides, with Yennefer seemingly lost. Triss, a fellow sorceress and friend of Geralt, survives, but she barely features in the opening episode, which is fine with me. #TeamYen.
"A grain of truth"
Written by: Declan de Barra
Directed by: Stephen Surjik
Much of the episode takes place inside the keep of a lonely acquaintance of Geralt, Nivellen, who has been cursed with a boar-like form. Two themes run throughout the episode: loneliness and fear. "Fear is an illness which, left untreated, will consume you," Geralt sagely tells Ciri as she begins to contemplate her power and instability in wielding it. Fear drove humans to seek out the Witchers, despite their current hatred for them, and fear will accompany most of the characters through this episode. Elder sorceress Tissaia de Vries fears that Yen is gone. Nivellen fears the loneliness cursed upon him. And Geralt? Well, it seems that our emotionless Witcher fears harm will come to Ciri. Seems he's changed his tune and is taking this destiny lark pretty seriously, huh?
This episode doesn't have a lot of sword-swinging going on. It's more of a grief-filled recap with some excellent zingers from Yen—not dead after all—as she tears Nilfgaard sorceress Fringilla Vigo a new one. She utters a Geralt-esque "Fuck!" as she realises she's in Dimeritium restraints, captured behind enemy lines, but Nilfgaard is the least of her worries. As she and Fringilla's lackluster bunch of soldiers traverse the forest, an unknown enemy ambushes the group. Given that they're in a forest, we can safely assume this is the Elves at work. Who else would have spears on bungee ropes? And Fringilla has the audacity to call them "archers."
Meanwhile, in magic school Aretuza, Tissaia begins torturing captured Nilfgaardian Cahir to extract plans from his memory. She's torn by grief over the idea that Yennefer has been lost in the battle, and she takes it out on Cahir in a truly terrifying way. Using her magic, she taps into the deepest recesses of his mind and doesn't pay much mind to the idea that he'll be left with permanent injuries afterwards. The mages are pissed, and it won't be long before they aren't in the good graces of the courts.
The star performance of the episode goes to Kristofer Hivju, who plays Nivellen. His story is based on A Grain of Truth, which features in the book The Last Wish. It also happens to be the episode's title, again lending itself to the narrative that not everything is as it seems for each character.
Nivellen, as he tells Ciri and Geralt, was cursed by a priestess many years prior after ransacking a temple while high on some mushrooms. In retaliation, the priestess cursed him to live alone as a magical beast, with love and blood being the only route to lifting it. Nivellen is charming and welcoming to Ciri and Geralt as they seek lodgings for the night, conveniently giving the aforementioned abandoned town a miss en route. He entertains them, provides a sumptuous dinner, and has a good banter with his old pal Gerry of Rivia.
Scuttling in the ceiling is Vereena, which Nivellen says is a cat. But cats don't like Witchers, and he's destined to be always alone, so how come he has a feline pal? Nivellen plays it off and shows Cirilla a light show that foreshadows her own lineage while Geralt monologues at Roach. It isn't until Ciri retires to bed, stating that Nivellen is no more a monster than the Nilfgaardians who destroyed her home, that Vereena's true nature is revealed.
Vereena is a Bruxa, the same one that ambushed our travellers from the opening minutes. A Bruxa is a higher vampire who usually appears as a beautiful woman but can also transform into a terrifying winged beast. The sun doesn't affect them, and they have dozens of razor-sharp teeth and a banshee-like scream that can knock you off your feet, Aard-style. If a town suddenly starts experiencing terrifying nightmares—alongside a few unexplained deaths—you can bet you've got a Bruxa on your hands.
Vereena immediately recognises the Elder Blood within Ciri (the reason for her magic, yet to be revealed) and warms up to her, urging her to keep her identity a secret from Geralt. He is a monster slayer, after all, and Bruxa are monsters. Nivellen attempts to hide Vereena's presence from Geralt, but of course, it comes down to a nail-biting fight between the Witcher and the vampire.
Vereena can contort her body in all manner of ways, and the clicking sound she makes reminds me of the Clickers from The Last of Us—not a fan, it's pretty scary stuff. She attempts to use Ciri as a meat shield, but Nivellen stops her. Vereena confesses her love for Nivellen—maybe real, maybe just an effort to extend her life—but Geralt chops off her head, which then combusts, lifting Nivellen's curse. "All's well that ends well," you'd think, but it's here where Nivellen makes his final confession: He didn't just ransack the temple, he raped the priestess and then, once cursed, looked the other way when Vereena killed the nearby villagers. He begs for Geralt to end his life, who retorts, "You're mortal now—do it yourself." Brutal.
Nivellen's story is like a perverse version of Beauty and the Beast: He finds the injured beauty and nurses her back to health—in reverse of Belle caring for the beast after the wolf attack—before they fall in love with one another. As she's a monster, she can stick around because she doesn't count as making him less lonely, and because he can't die due to the curse, he's an easy meal. I mean, she was losing control and drinking his blood more and more, but what's true love without a little sacrifice, right?
And with that, we are grimly reminded that humans are, in fact, just as shitty as monsters, if not deliberately so. It's in a monster's nature to hunt, but humans can choose to be complete bastards to one another.
Geralt of Trivia
- The Bruxa dies naked, just as she does in the games.
- There's good food in Skellige.
- The Wild Hunt are traversing the skies to the South.
- Geralt doesn't say "fuck" in this episode.
- Best one-liner: "I'm being a bore" (a pun on Nivellen's boar form)