June 1, 2023

As we head into the second episode of Season 2, it’s worth talking briefly about the books. Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher is ostensibly based on the novels rather than the games, but the first season caused a decent amount of consternation among book readers owing to the changes it made to the source material. Season 2 continues that trend in ways large and small, starting with the fate of Eskel, a fellow Witcher and one of Geralt’s best friends.

In so doing, it’s clearer than ever that The Witcher wishes to adapt Andrzej Sapkowski’s works — emphasis on “adapt.” My own position is that if Netflix’s version does enough to stand on its own, I’m willing to roll with it. And if nothing else, The Witcher has managed to remain entertaining on an episode-to-episode basis. But if book readers are frustrated because they feel the Netflix series is contrary to the spirit of the series — which marries Eastern European folklore with some of the richest worldbuilding in fantasy fiction — I can understand why as we delve further into The Witcher’s second season. Still, Episode 2, simply titled “Kaer Morhen,” keeps Season 2 on an upward trajectory, featuring major multiple developments for the main cast amidst another round of rousing monster battles.

It marks a momentous turn for The Witcher. After more than a season of buildup, this is the episode where Ciri finally arrives at Kaer Morhen to begin her training — something that fans of both the books and the games have looked forward to since the very first episode. Kaer Morhen — basically Witcher HQ — is Geralt’s home, and the last refuge for the nearly extinct line of Witchers. It’s portrayed as a starkly beautiful frat house, its all-male inhabitants alternating between telling bawdy jokes and hosting rowdy parties with employees from the local brothel (led by Danica, played by Imogen Daines, the sex worker last seen sleeping with Geralt in Season 1). It makes Ciri, who tried to keep her head down while awkwardly sipping her drink after first arriving, all the more conspicuous.

Geralt’s return to Kaer Morhen introduces us to more Witchers, including Vesemir (Kim Bodnia), a grizzled father figure whose horseshoe mustache makes him look like a trucker who slays monsters on the side. Lambert (Paul Bullion) is portrayed as a good-natured oaf nicknamed “Lambchop” by his brothers. Eskel (Basil Eidenbenz) arrives home after slaying a tree monster called a Leshy and is the first to notice Ciri, displaying open hostility toward Geralt’s ward.

The episode’s sympathies are firmly with Ciri.

“Look, Witchers fight. We run,” Danica says as she prepares to make her exit.

At the same time, the episode’s sympathies are firmly with Ciri, aware of how isolating trying to fit in a male-dominated environment can be. It makes it ever-so-slightly bittersweet when she visibly sheds the trappings of a princess to begin training with Geralt.

In the meantime, we return to Yennefer and Fringilla, last seen being captured by Francesca — an elven sorceress leading a band that includes Filavandrel, the elf who nearly killed Geralt and Jaskier in Season 1 (“The lying bard and his tunes,” Filavandrel grumbles at one point). Francesca is investigating the source of dreams she thinks can help her lead her people to the proverbial promised lands — visions she seemingly shares with Yennefer and Fringilla, which winds up taking the group to a witch living deep in the forest — The Witcher’s own Baba Yaga (indeed, the chant they use to summon her is straight from the fairy tale).

I’ll admit, I rolled my eyes at the opening dream sequence, as it recalled one of my least favorite ongoing storylines from Season 1: Yennefer’s quest to become a mother. I’m not going to unpack the entire debate in this review, but I’ll just say that I have some feelings about the notion of a woman somehow being inherently unfulfilled simply because she can’t have kids, even if it was also part of her character in the books.

The end of last season seemed to resolve those storylines, as Yennefer ultimately went to battle at Sodden Hill and hadoukened Nilfgaard into oblivion with one stupendous fireball. But as this episode shows, there are consequences to her actions, which seem destined to linger for the rest of the season. It’s meant to be a complicated exploration of power and womanhood as Yennefer is broken down and steadily built back up. If Season 1 was one side of the equation, then Season 2 represents the other. Whether it ultimately works will depend a lot on where Yennefer goes from here, but I enjoy the notion of magic (or “Chaos”) as a finite resource and not just one big Win Button, as it tends to be other fantasy fiction.

For now, The Witcher is mostly concerned with setting up some of the show’s central conflicts for the season, introducing Francesca as a potentially powerful foe alongside Fringilla. In search of the meaning behind their individual visions, they delve into ancient elven ruins in search of the so-called Deathless Mother, who lives in a hut set on basilisk legs (it’s a cool moment when the house wakes and spins toward the party, its windows flashing like headlights). The climax cements the alliance between Francesca and Fringilla, and leaves Yennefer screaming into the wind.

As with the first episode, it’s clear that this season of The Witcher has its own vision — one that’s more often than not tangential to the source material. But it’s once again apparent that The Witcher is a more confident show than it was in its first season, and that gives me hope as the story truly begins in earnest.
As this season’s story gets started in earnest, Ciri finally arrives in Kaer Morhen while Yennefer deals with the consequences of her actions in the first season’s finale. Consider this the real premiere after the first episode, which was entertaining but mostly stood on its own. It shows that this season will be very different from the books in some ways, introducing multiple unique plotlines that seem destined to define the rest of the season in one way or another. Like it or not, this adaptation of The Witcher has its own vision for the series, and it lays the foundation for that vision here.

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