The very first episode of The Witcher concluded with a major shift in the Continent’s political structure, as the vaunted Kingdom of Cintra fell at the hands of an invading army from Nilfgaard. At the time, we didn’t really have full context for what was happening, and what it would mean for both the characters and the world. But the nonlinear structure of the show meant that we were inevitably bound to return to Cintra eventually, and “Before a Fall” is an episode designed to give us the real story from the perspectives of characters we didn’t even previously know were involved, like Geralt and Yennefer.
Honestly: With the fantasy wackiness of the past few episodes dialed way down in favor of political twistiness and large-scale medieval military stuff, this is not my ideal version of The Witcher. But it is proof-of-concept for another pretty good show The Witcher could be, and the show Netflix probably wanted when they ordered it: an impressive-looking fantasy series doing a reasonably convincing cover-band version of Game of Thrones.
The Witcher has spent the whole season unfolding its story over three different timelines, and while I’m not fully convinced such a convoluted structure was necessary, it is interesting to watch as the timelines finally come together. The big reveal at the top of the episode is that Geralt was actually in Cintra during the fall of the city, which we saw from Ciri’s perspective in the series premiere. Geralt has returned to Cintra to fulfill his obligation to the Law of Surprise, which made him responsible for the princess’s life after saving the life of her father. With the Nilfgaardian army ready to sack the city, Geralt wants to make sure Ciri is safe and secure.
But especially after the death of her daughter, Queen Calanthe is reluctant to part ways with the granddaughter, who represents both her sole surviving family and the future of Cintra. So she pulls the old switcheroo (or witcheroo?) and gets a young female commoner to pose as Ciri, hoping that Geralt will just take the girl and leave.
The plan doesn’t work, because the girl immediately runs off and says goodbye to the actual Princess Ciri. (I would rather have seen Detective Geralt figure this out in a more clever way, but I guess this episode has a lot to do as it is.) When Geralt returns to Calanthe and demands custodianship of the real Ciri, as per the Law of Surprise, the queen responds with vitriol: “You and destiny can both fuck right off.”
We already know, of course, that Cintra will fall and that the queen will die. But this episode presents an intriguing new wrinkle. By refusing to honor the Law of Surprise, Calanthe is breaking a sacred covenant, and there are cosmic consequences for that. If she had just given up Ciri, would fate have flipped the tide and allowed the kingdom to repel Nilfgaard’s attack? Or — as Geralt himself argued back at the banquet — is “destiny” the word people use so they can comfort themselves in the belief that “there’s an order to this horseshit”?
Maybe the answer is somewhere in between; as another character argued a few episodes back, the sword of destiny has two edges. Either way, the fall of Cintra has a tragic inevitability to it; we know it has to happen because we’ve already seen it happen.
But “Before a Fall” offers one other storyline that complicates the questions of how, and why, the once-mighty kingdom of Cintra was beaten down. Yennefer returns to Aretuza, where she received her magical training, and stumbles into a meeting of the Council of Mages. There, Tissaia de Vries and Stregobor are leading rival factions arguing over whether they should intervene to stop Nilfgaard and protect Cintra, which has previously shunned the Council and its political influence.
Here, too, we have to wind back the clock of destiny and think about how The Witcher reached this point. Nilfgaard grew in power and aggression under the sorceress Fringilla, who was one of Yennefer’s classmates. And Fringilla was only sent to Nilfgaard because Yennefer bucked her orders, got her enchantment, and blazed her own trail that bucked against the one Tissaia had set for her. Here, all the logical consequences of those decisions come home to roost, as the Council votes against intervention in Cintra, leading to the kingdom’s doom.
But there are logical consequences for that, too. Back in the present, Ciri is relieved to come across her old friends from the kingdom. But when she reveals herself, she finds that the politics of the times have changed everything. Times have grown tougher, her friends are now her enemies, and they grab her her with the intention of delivering her to Nilfgaard and receiving a reward.
And in that moment, the strange power Ciri has occasionally displayed — and, maybe, the reason Cahir wants her so badly in the first place — finally explodes. In an apparent trance, Ciri delivers a bizarre speech that sounds like it heralds the end of the world, as her powers knock her attackers back in a series of magical blasts. And with just one episode left in The Witcher’s first season, it’s going to be very interesting to see just how powerful Ciri will actually turn out to be — and what everybody else is going to do about it.
• Ciri’s final, trancelike speech begins with a promise that the “era of the sword and the axe is nigh,” which is the same thing Cahir said at the end of the last episode.
• Per Queen Calanthe, Pavetta and Duny died at sea sometime after the banquet. That certainly sounds like the kind of vague, somewhat inexplicable off-screen death for two major characters that we’ll get more context for later. (If, of course, they’re dead at all.)
• Before she heads back to Aretuza, Yennefer checks back in with her old flame Istredd, who has grown a beard. She proposes the life he once proposed, with her working as a mage while he screws around with old monoliths and rocks as the magical equivalent of an archeologist. This time, he turns her down.
• As The Witcher continues to complicate both its characters and the politics of its world, it’s interesting to hear Istredd mount a defense of Nilfgaard. Sure, they’re weird ruthless religious zealots — but they’re also making sure all their subjects have food, which is more than you can say for most of the rulers on the Continent.
• Attendees at the Council of Mages includes Triss Merigold, who briefly crossed paths when Geralt when he squared off against the striga in the third episode.
• The episode’s title, “Before a Fall,” references both the fall of Cintra and the literal circumstances of Queen Calanthe’s death.
• Ciri: If you’re really trying to blend in, it might be time to lose that robin’s-egg blue cloak.
• Ciri walks by a street puppet show mocking the Cintran royal family. Queen Calanthe does not seem to have been very popular at the end of her reign.
• “What kind of crazy person talks to a horse?” Ciri, you’re going to get along with Geralt just fine.
• Geralt was once offered 3,000 orens to kill a vukodlak. I wonder if that’s more or less than the “barrel” of orens Nilfgaard is promising for anyone who captures Ciri.
• No Jaskier in this one! We missed you, buddy.