The first two episodes of The Witcher had plenty of stuff I liked and plenty of stuff I didn’t. But if I’m really being honest, this is what I was hoping to see all along. “Betrayer Moon” is a nutty, genre-bending blend of fantasy and mystery: Geralt of Rivia’s latest gig takes him to the icy kingdom of Temeria to hunt a monster that has been slaughtering the commoners, who have consequently planned a rebellion against their seemingly indifferent king.
So far, The Witcher has mostly been content to tell extremely simple stories in an extremely complicated world. There has been a lot of talk about different kingdoms and rulers, but it has felt more like background detail than anything we’re actually supposed to understand or care about. But as Geralt attempts to figure out what exactly has been killing the people of Temeria, the kingdom turns out to be a pretty intriguing place.
The miners suspect the creature is a vukodlak, which is basically a werewolf that gestates in the womb of a woman who dies when she’s pregnant. When Geralt shows up to investigate, the miners are skeptical; another witcher has already come through, collected a bag of money, and left without even attempting to solve the problem.
All that turns out to be a lie, of course. Triss Merigold — a sorceress who works for King Foltest — reveals that the previous witcher was slaughtered by the creature and that his death was covered up to prevent the commoners from panicking and revolting. Geralt examines the wounds on the witcher’s corpse and identifies the creature as a striga: A woman cursed to turn into an extremely powerful and violent creature during a full moon.
We’ve already seen Geralt’s prowess at fighting monsters, but this is the first time we’ve really seen him use his unique expertise as a witcher to figure out an approach. And the revelation that the “creature” is actually just a cursed woman turns “Betrayer Moon” into the Witcher equivalent of a whodunit, as Geralt interrogates the various suspects who might have wanted to curse the girl in the first place.
The ultimate solution turns out to be pretty knotty. In brief: The unmarried King Foltest had an incestuous sexual relationship with his late sister, Adda. This outraged Ostrit, one of Temeria’s higher-ranking knights, who had fallen in love with Adda. So Ostrit cursed Foltest — only for the curse to pass down to his unborn daughter with Adda, who had died pregnant with his child. And when the girl emerged as a striga, Foltest resolved to cure her and raise her as his heir to the throne.
With the mystery solved, Geralt is tasked with heading to an abandoned castle to disarm the striga without killing her; unfortunately, the nature of the curse means he’ll need to fight her until the dawn breaks. After using Ostrit as bait for the monster to disembowel, there’s a long, impressive battle that ends with Geralt on top, though he winds up in Triss Merigold’s infirmary for his trouble. And as usual, he doesn’t really get any credit for his heroism: King Foltest placates the angry miners by claiming Ostrit killed the creature and died a hero, and the miners resolve to erect a statue in his honor as Geralt quietly slinks away. (Print the legend, etc., etc.)
If The Witcher can consistently pull off monster-of-the-week adventures with this much panache, I’d honestly be content with a version of the show that was nothing but episodes like this with no connective tissue but Geralt himself. But we haven’t even gotten to the B plot in “Betrayer Moon,” which is totally different but similarly accomplished: The graduation and transformation of Yennefer.
We got Yennefer’s origin story back in “Four Marks,” but with those building blocks laid down, “Betrayer Moon” is the episode where her story really comes alive. In a tale that pays off much faster than I might have expected, Yennefer learns that Istredd told Stregobar that she’s one-quarter elf. It’s exactly the ammunition Stregobar needs to block Yennefer from a high-ranking position as a sorceress in a kingdom with a particular distaste for elves. It’s also the end of her relationship with Istredd, who makes a ridiculous proposal that she forgive his betrayal and travel around the continent with him instead of becoming a power player in a royal court. (His dream would be “a slow suicide” for her, she protests.)
Wounded, Istredd twists the knife by playing on Yennefer’s greatest fear, telling her she’ll never be powerful or beautiful. But he’s wrong: Yennefer is savvy enough to know that in the vain, self-indulgent world of the royal courts, women can use their beauty to gather power. Against the wishes of the chapter of sorcerers who decide the fates of girls like her, Yennefer goes to a magical enchanter and gets him to correct her hunched back, but she elects to keep the scars from her suicide attempt. The price for all this magic is that she’ll never be able to have children, but that doesn’t stop her from moving forward.
It’s not for nothing that The Witcher intercuts the horrifying sequence of Yennefer’s physical transformation with Geralt’s confrontation with the striga. Both women’s lives have been irreparably altered by the cruelty and selfishness of the men around them, and both have reclaimed power by transforming into something that can strike back. When Yennefer debuts her new body at a ball — and instantly draws the attention of a king she’s been targeting, as well as every other eye in the room — it’s clear that, council of sorcerers be damned, she’s going to use every trick she can to grab the power she wants on her own terms.
• No Ciri this time until the very end of the episode, when mysterious whispers from the woods draw her into a kind of trance. Dara tries to stop her from following and gets shot (non-fatally) with an arrow. After an episode that stretches beyond an hour, it’s a solid cliffhanger that could (and probably will) easily kick off a whole binge-watch session for a bunch of people. Well played, Netflix.
• All right, we’ve gotten enough context clues that I’m pretty sure we can put the whole timeline together. Each of the three main stories is taking place in a different time. The Yennefer story is first chronologically (which we know because, in her time, Cintra is ruled by a king, the future Queen Calanthe’s father). Second is the Geralt story, because of a stray reference to Calanthe’s being the queen — but because Geralt ages so slowly and the stories are pretty disconnected in plot and location, I guess it’s theoretically possible for any of the Geralt episodes to take place anytime. And last is clearly Ciri, since all of her stuff takes place after Calanthe’s death.
• I guess witchers really do have incredible senses of smell — but I was hoping Geralt’s swearing that he could smell Ostrit on Adda’s sheets would turn out to be a clever bluff designed to make Ostrit confess to Geralt’s otherwise unprovable theory.
• The Witcher is doing plenty to distinguish itself from Game of Thrones, but if you’re going to have a character say “You know nothing” and take a long pause before continuing, my brain is automatically going to fill in “Jon Snow.”
• And while we’re on the subject of Game of Thrones: The Witcher is doing its part to keep the storied tradition of fantasy sexposition alive with Geralt delivering a whole chunk of his backstory while in bed with a topless prostitute.
• There’s a lot to like about Yennefer’s big Marriage Story–style blowout with Istredd, but I particularly liked her cold response when he expressed surprise at something she said: “Would it frighten you to know you’re not privy to every one of my thoughts?”
• Per the prostitute, one of Geralt’s previous adventures found him battling a vampiress. Show us that one!
• Okay, I just complained about the baffling Witcher economy in the last recap, but 3,000 orens to kill a vukodlak? What’s the conversion rate between that and 150 ducats to stop a demon?
• I know Geralt is building a brand, but it’s pretty funny that each individual finger of his brass knuckles has a little wolf carved into it.