The Witcher has always been two shows: a deeply serious fantasy drama and a deeply silly fantasy drama. The key to the show’s success is that it’s figured out how to be both at the same time.
On the one hand, this show could hardly be more overstuffed with by-the-book fantasy trappings: magic, elves, dragons, warring kingdoms, endless chatter about fate and prophecies and chosen ones. It treats all this stuff — even the casual revelation that underwhelming young sorceresses are turned into electric eels to power a magic tower — with unwavering sincerity.
Fortunately, the show is also smart enough to filter most of this through the perspective of Geralt of Rivia: a cranky vagabond who, like the show’s target audience, has already seen this shit many, many times before. In the season-two premiere, when somebody suggests that recent ominous events might be a sign of the world ending, Geralt rolls his eyes. He’s already lived through three “world-ending” events, and his life is the same as it ever was.
I’m not sure how much longer The Witcher will maintain this balancing act. By the end of season one, you could feel the weight of politics imposing itself on the story. The season finale was largely centered on a big battle that sets the stage for an even bigger war between Nilfgaard and everybody else, with Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer at its center. With such urgent concerns, how much longer will the show have time for its weirder, rangier side?
Now that season two is finally here, the answer is “at least one more episode.” This is an extremely confident reintroduction to the Continent, checking in on all the major players before climaxing with The Witcher’s all-time best monster fight.
All of The Witcher season one was building up to the moment when Geralt and Ciri would finally cross paths, as the bonds of fate dictated. But now that they’re together, they face a trickier question: What next? Geralt settles on taking Ciri to Kaer Morhen, his childhood home and where he trained as a witcher. But the road is long, which is probably why he settles for spending the night at a spooky country manor, complete with banging shutters that wouldn’t be out of place at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. As they arrive, Geralt is attacked — and then recognized and greeted warmly — by Nivellen, a half-man/half-boar living what appears to be a solitary life in this weird old house.
Much of “A Grain of Truth” centers on this monster-of-the-week subplot, as Geralt and Ciri end up as the unwitting protagonists in a story that is The Witcher’s riff on Beauty and the Beast. Instead of a singing candelabra, Nivellen has sconces that become ablaze with a wave of his hand. And while there’s no “Be Our Guest”–style musical number to accompany dinner, Nivellen does conjure up an impressive feast — venison, sweet truffles, mountain pheasant — with a flick of his wrist.
Geralt, being Geralt, is immediately suspicious and incredibly right to be. (To be fair, the signs aren’t that hard to read; when someone tells you to ignore the weird sounds coming from their attic, there’s probably something weird in the attic.) An attentive viewer might also have theories about where this is going; as soon as I figured out the story “A Grain of Truth” is riffing on — and as soon as a pretty new dress mysteriously appears in Ciri’s room — I assumed Nivellen was grooming Ciri to be the Beauty to his Beast.
But the real twist comes when Ciri is woken up in the middle of the night by Vereena, who creeps down from the ceiling and perches on her bed. Vereena has huge pupils and an unusual manner of moving and speaking but otherwise resembles a young woman. Depending on whom you ask, she’s either Nivellen’s secret lover or a predatory bruxa who must be extinguished.
This is the real crux of “A Grain of Truth,” and maybe The Witcher as a whole: What makes a monster and what makes a person? Nivellen looks like a monster but acts like a gracious host. Geralt kills monsters but is frequently deemed a monster by the people who loathe him but require his services. Ciri has powers so incredible and terrifying she’s still struggling to wrap her head around who or what she is. And is being a human so great anyway? “Monsters do bad things to people,” says Ciri. “Humans do bad things to everybody,” counters Vereena.
But Geralt doesn’t have any patience for these kinds of philosophical debates. His job is killing monsters, and Vereena has been ravaging the countryside, sucking the blood out of his buddy’s neck, and given worrying indications that Ciri might be next. The resulting battle in the courtyard is bloody and brutal, but it ends with Geralt beheading Vereena and ending Nivellen’s curse, returning him to a human man again.
But Nivellen responds to being saved not with gratitude but with despair. The curse, he confesses, was cast by a priestess whom he raped. She doomed him to be alone, and he was — until he found love with Vereena, whom he found starving in the woods. Nivellen tearfully denies she was a monster, which is somewhat unconvincing when she literally just sprouted wings and tried to rip Geralt’s throat out. But Nivellen does regard himself as a monster, even when he looks like a human, and it’s hard to argue with that.
So it’s back to the road for Geralt and Ciri, who walks away from this harrowing encounter worrying about her own nature. “Sometimes I feel like I could burn the whole world,” she frets to Geralt. “I wouldn’t mean to. It just makes me so afraid all the time.” There are plenty of people who would judge Ciri a monster, and as her power inevitably grows, it’ll be up to Geralt — who knows a thing or two about holding onto your humanity no matter what — to ensure that she can do the same.
• Meanwhile, Yennefer wakes up and discovers she’s being held captive by Fringilla, who intends to take her to the Nilfgaardian emperor as an apology for her failure during the Battle of Sodden Hill. As the episode ends, Fringilla’s band of soldiers is massacred by a volley of incredibly accurate arrows, leaving only Fringilla and Yennefer alive. Who fired them? We’ll find out next time (but come on, it’s gotta be elves).
• At the same time, Yennefer’s allies all presume she’s dead. This has a particularly grim impact on her mentor, Tissaia de Vries, who tortures Cahir the Black Knight as only a very angry sorceress can.
• The Geralt and Ciri monster-of-the-week plot was adapted from Andrzej Sapkowski’s short story “A Grain of Truth,” which you can find in the short-story collection The Last Wish.
• Geralt briefly tells Ciri about an attack on the Witcher stronghold Kaer Morhen, which you can see dramatized in much more detail in the animated prequel movie The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, streaming on Netflix.
• Under all the fur and tusks, you might have missed that it’s Kristofer Hivju, best known as Game of Thrones’ Tormund Giantsbane, playing Nivellen.
• Who would have guessed that someone would take a bath in the Witcher premiere and it wouldn’t be Geralt?
• Nivellen mentions that he once saw the Wild Hunt riding their skeletal horses, and boy, do I hope that’s a teaser for the episodes to come.
• To calm Roach, Geralt casts Axii, one of the five basic spells (or “signs”) you’ll use about a million times in any of the Witcher video games.
• If you, like Ciri, want to take to the streets in disguise to play some Knucklebones, here’s a fairly exhaustive breakdown of the rules. (Personally, I’m waiting for Geralt to break out his Gwent deck.)
• “Horses, whores, and mages. All useful ’til we’re not.”