If Geralt’s last adventure was a fantasy-flavored whodunit, this one is a fantasy-flavored comedy of manners. At the request of Jaskier — who has slept with the wives of many noblemen and fears the husbands are ready to kill him — Geralt agrees to attend a royal ball at Cintra, which is being held to settle on a husband for Princess Pavetta, the daughter of Queen Calanthe.
The Witcher’s chronology has been needlessly convoluted so far, but the events of this episode bring some clarity. Calanthe, who died by suicide in the premiere episode, is younger, cockier, and at the height of her power here. Her daughter, Pavetta, is in line for the throne, and Pavetta’s daughter — Princess Ciri, the star of her very own story in her very own timeline — hasn’t even been born yet.
But as interesting as it is to cobble together The Witcher’s chronology, the real joy in “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials” comes from the wackiness of this mostly self-contained story itself. As a grumpy, antisocial outcast whose best friend seems to be his horse, Geralt could hardly be less suited to the elaborate social graces of a stuffy banquet, and The Witcher deserves credit for taking what could easily be another grim-and-gritty fantasy drama and having some fun with it.
I think The Witcher tends to work better when Geralt is a supporting character in someone else’s story, and this episode really belongs to Jodhi May’s Calanthe. The Queen of Cintra comes into the ballroom in armor and covered in blood, having left the battlefield and walked directly into the party she’s throwing for her daughter. Though there’s theoretically a competition among a whole host of suitors for Princess Pavetta’s hand in marriage, it’s all a sham: Calanthe has already decided her daughter will marry Crach an Crait, a drunken idiot who will benefit the kingdom by providing a useful political alliance.
Pavetta is understandably less than pleased about her boorish husband-to-be. But as Calanthe shoves her unhappy daughter toward an unhappy marriage, an unlikely suitor emerges: Duny, a dashing young knight with the head of a hedgehog.
In case that last sentence didn’t sink in, a dashing young knight with the head of a hedgehog. It is deeply weird, and it absolutely rules. And to Calanthe’s great displeasure, Duny has a legitimate claim to marry Pavetta: a social contract called the Law of Surprise. It’s a fairy-tale-esque wrinkle of the Witcher universe, in which one person who receives a great service from another grants them a boon. The trick is that neither the giver nor the receiver knows what the boon will be until it’s given. In this case, Duny saved the life of Pavetta’s father and was promised something unexpected — which, in this case, turns out to be his daughter.
You might assume that Pavetta would rather not marry a man with the head of a hedgehog, but it turns out she’s in love with Duny, who has a hedgehog head only because of a curse. The real obstacle is Calanthe, who is so incensed by this deviation from her plan that she orders the soldiers in the room to kill Duny where he stands and then — after Geralt intervenes to protect Duny — tries to kill him herself instead. The near murder is only stopped by Pavetta, who reveals a supernatural power very much like Ciri’s, which knocks everyone back in a single glass-shattering scream. When the dust settles, Calanthe agrees to honor the Law of Surprise, and the curse on Duny is lifted. (I preferred the hedgehog head, but whatever.)
Meanwhile, it’s been 30 years since Yennefer endured her enchantment and graduated from magic school, and life at court hasn’t exactly turned out the way she dreamed. When we revisit Yennefer, she’s stuck at the side of a spoiled queen named Kalis, who has a newborn baby girl. Unfortunately, her husband wanted a boy, so he sends an assassin to get rid of them both.
And so The Witcher gets the chance to show off its location budget with Yennefer frantically teleporting the queen from place to place and the assassin using his own magic to follow close behind. The chase ends on a beach with the queen dead and Yennefer cradling the body of the infant girl. Yennefer gave up her ability to bear children in exchange for her enchantment, and it briefly looks as if this might be the child she can’t bear herself — but the baby turns out to be dead as well, and after a bitter monologue about how it’s probably better to die than live as a woman anyway, Yennefer buries it on the shore.
The death of the baby feels like a cruel kind of cosmic joke — a reminder from the universe to the sorceress that she chose a different kind of life. As with the implicit question of what separates a human from a monster, which has been threaded through the entire series, The Witcher is teasing at an interesting question throughout “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials”: Is fate inevitable? Or is “fate” just an excuse people use because they hate the idea that their lives are dictated by a mix of blind chance and the unforeseen consequences of their actions?
Back at the banquet, Duny thanks Geralt for saving his life by invoking the Law of Surprise. And in yet another twist of fate, the boon turns out to be the unborn child in Pavetta’s womb — who we already know will turn out to be Ciri, the girl with whom Geralt’s present-day story seems deeply intertwined.
Was this fate all along? This is a fantasy series, so destiny and prophecy play a disproportionate role — but there’s plenty of room for good old-fashioned human hubris to muck things up too. From our perspective, we can appreciate the direct consequences that will come from actions that no one, including Calanthe, can yet recognize. In the midst of the ball, Calanthe’s needlessly antagonistic (and very public) shot at Pavetta’s suitor from Nilfgaard quickly becomes an afterthought once Duny storms in. But we already know where this is going, and this story might have turned out very different if Calanthe had the wisdom to realize Nilfgaard was an enemy she didn’t want to make.
• In general, Ciri’s story is moving much more slowly than Geralt’s or Yennefer’s, and this is another episode where we don’t get much. In a magical forest called Brokilon, Ciri and Dara meet a group of dryads (female forest dwellers with vaguely defined magical powers). The dryads offer Ciri some water that will make her forget her troubles; it doesn’t work, so they invite her to drink the sap directly from the tree instead, which sends her on a mental trip to a desert with a magic talking tree in the middle of a dune. Meanwhile, the Nilfgaardians use their own magic to track Ciri to Brokilon, so that battle probably looms on the horizon.
• We finally get a little more backstory on why the witchers are dying out: Per Geralt, a devastating attack on Kaer Morhen — a place where witchers, including Geralt himself, were created and trained — has made it impossible to bring new witchers into the world.
• Jaskier’s “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” seems to have caught on — a whole tavern full of people enthusiastically join in for a sing-along.
• Bathtub scenes are a big deal in the Witcher franchise, and this is a pretty good one. Even Geralt can’t resist the allure of a wooden tub filled with chamomile.
• A helpful toast from Geralt that you can memorize and use whenever you raise a glass and find yourself tongue-tied: “At your final breath, a shitless death.”
• Jaskier on Geralt’s reluctance to interfere in the banquet: “You never get involved. Except you actually do. All of the time.”
• I’m warming up to Henry Cavill’s Geralt, and he absolutely nails the simple, deadpan line reading when he realizes the Law of Surprise will grant him Pavetta’s unborn child: “Fuck.”
• How many points does a manticore have, anyway?