tv review

The Witcher Spreads Itself Thin in Season Two

The growing bond between Ciri (Freya Allen) and Geralt (Henry Cavill) makes for some of The Witcher’s most resonant storytelling in season two. Photo: Jay Maidment/Netflix

In a world with actual monsters — teeth-baring, blood-sucking, human-guzzling demons — and gods, elves, sorcerers and sorceresses, and all means of magic-wielding creatures, what qualities define humanity? In the ambitious, uneven second season of The Witcher, the fantasy series filters that question through the narrative arcs of each of its primary trio of characters … and through their allies and enemies, onetime friends and future foes, strangers and acquaintances, and random people they meet throughout the Continent. This broad of a perspective makes for some appreciable worldbuilding as The Witcher imagines the disarray and chaos caused partially by the actions of protagonists Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), and Ciri of Cintra (Freya Allen). But this next chapter in these characters’ intertwined story also slots them into more predictable fantasy arcs, and that familiarity saps The Witcher of some of the spontaneous and self-aware energy that so enlivened its first go-round.

(And because you’re probably wondering: No, Cavill does not make his way into a bathtub at any point in the six episodes provided to critics for review. A betrayal as devastating as Yennefer usurping Fringilla’s place in Vengerberg!)

The 2019 first season of The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of the sprawling universe of fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and myriad canonical video games, balanced a monster-of-the-week format, subtle fourth-wall-breaking (thanks to fan-favorite Jaskier the Bard, played with self-important poutiness by Joey Batey), and a trio of unidentified timelines. Andrew Laws’s production design and Tolga Degirmen’s fight choreography made for immersive visuals (Geralt was often drenched in gooey green and black blood from those showdowns; hence, all those baths!), while magical vows, customs, and rites added unpredictability to the narrative. Each episode of eight was sliced into threes and rearranged chronologically, those arcs followed Yennefer as she ascended to power as a formidable sorceress; Geralt as he witchered his way around the Continent, fighting monsters and getting drawn into a war between the kingdoms of Cintra and Nilfgaard; and Princess Ciri, who fled Cintra during its fall and was told by her grandmother, Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May), to find Geralt.

That separation of story lines helped build individual portraits of each character and allowed Chalotra, Cavill, and Allen time to settle into their motivations or resentments: Yennefer’s desire for power, Geralt’s deadpan world-weariness, Ciri’s increasing resourcefulness. These qualities were central, and both the writing of these characters and the performances bringing them to life remain the strongest elements of The Witcher as the series builds out the Continent and its players. Season two’s atmosphere is dour, the plots are dire, and the palace intrigue is overwhelming, but the labyrinthine mess of destiny and love keeping these characters in each other’s orbit remains the series’s most compelling through-line. When does self-will take over for fate’s guiding hand? What “normal life” do Geralt and Yennefer yearn for? How does Ciri’s emulation of Geralt prepare her to take on any foe or doom her to a life of otherness — or both? “Maybe it’s the end of days,” says Geralt’s friend Nivellen (Kristofer Hivju) in season premiere “A Grain of Truth,” and when The Witcher stays intimately focused on the obstacles and sacrifices required for Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri to navigate this new world, its storytelling resonates. But as the series increasingly spreads itself thin with new villains, new prophecies, and new allegiances, The Witcher becomes an unwieldy watch, particularly for viewers with no connection to its source material.

Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is telling a longer, larger story this time around, with only the premiere episode featuring Nivellen, a man cursed into a sort of Pumbaa-Beast hybrid, serving as a true stand-alone. Otherwise, the series jumps all over the continent: the ruins of Cintra, now claimed by the Nilfgaardians; a forest in which the remaining elves, desperate to reclaim the land stolen from them by humans, plot their return; the Redanian kingdom, the rulers of which look upon Cintra with curiosity and greed; and Kaer Morhen, the home of the witchers, where Geralt was raised, and where he finds refuge with Ciri. Thanks to his Law of Surprise-claiming of Ciri, Geralt is now her protector, and his responsibility surprises the people from his past. One-time rabble-rouser Nivellen brings up stories of their old adventures together; how is the hard-drinking Geralt now a dad? Meanwhile, Geralt’s own father figure, the wizened witcher Vesemir (Kim Bodnia), and Geralt’s brother-like witcher Eskel (Basil Eidenbernz) are unsure of how Ciri’s presence will alter the just-dudes aesthetic of Kaer Morhen. “When I find a princess, the last thing I’m going to do is play knight,” Eskel sneers, but the genuine affection that grows between Geralt and Ciri in spite of so much doubt expands both characters.

The older male warrior training a young female novice is a tried-and-true trope integral to everything from the Japanese manga Lone Wolf and Cub to the Western True Grit, and Cavill and Allen’s performances elevate it. Cavill, whose line deliveries are initially as bemused as his chest is broad, grows more mindful and resolute in his interactions with Allen, and his performance captures a character realizing that his disconnect from the world can no longer stand. And Allen, in shaking off the wide-eyed fear of her younger version of Ciri and leaping into a physicality that appropriately matches Cavill’s, best personifies the impact of this more dangerous world. A conversation they share in episode five, “Turn Your Back,” lays bare how each character has grown toward each other, and a moment of partnership against a monster in episode six, “Dear Friend …,” is sold by the tenacity Allen exhibits in standing her ground.

While Geralt and Ciri bond, Yennefer is on her own. Chalotra’s performance is still driven by her direct gaze and unimpressed line deliveries — smirking looks and challenging body language toward figures of male authority in particular — and by the emotion she imbues into physical moments that reflect Yennefer’s regrets (the earnest hug she bestows on Jaskier, her panic at the interruption of an idyllic dream about a domestic life with Geralt). After harnessing forbidden fire magic at the Battle of Sodden, Yennefer is presumed dead by Geralt and her fellow sorceresses Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring) and Triss Merigold (Anna Shaffer). In reality, she’s found by frenemy Fringilla Vigo (Mimî M. Khayisa), who was on the opposite side at Sodden and who insists the war isn’t over. Their dueling beliefs about who should hold power over the Continent and how to use the magic they call Chaos brings in other characters from season one — sorcerer Istredd (Royce Pierreson), Nilfgaardian military leader and Black Knight Cahir (Eamon Farren), and refugee elf Dara (Wilson Radjou-Pujalte) — and serves as the top-down plot to which Geralt and Ciri are reacting.

This is all fairly dark life-and-death stuff, and to emphasize the gravity of all this, The Witcher eases back on undercutting it with humor — a misstep, since both Cavill and Chalotra do so well with quippy asides. Yennefer’s exasperated “Fuck!” — often her first line of dialogue each episode — reinforces the character’s confusion about where she fits in now, while Geralt’s sarcastic “You want to help the elves by joining a kingdom that regularly massacres whole villages? Quite a conflict there,” speaks to his long memory and awareness that no one’s hands are clean during war. Instead, unintended laughs might be sparked by some of the monster design, the weightless-seeming CGI of which works against the scenes’ intended tension. On the one hand, a wooden tendril growing out of a man’s back as the front of his body cavorts with a tavern wench is an amusing visual double entendre; some of the other CGI creatures, goofy mishmashes of various animals and insects, don’t inspire much fear.

That gap echoes a certain disconnect that reverberates throughout this second season and ties back to the tension between The Witcher as an invention of genre and a disruptor of it. For viewers unaware of the outside Witcher world, the series’s introduction of faces and places with little preamble, and the recurring use of certain terms and phrases without much explanation, is a disconcerting stumbling block. (“Is ‘the White Flame’ literal or figurative?” is a question you might ask more than once.) The shift toward Nilfgaard fits in a backstory for Fringilla that the first season didn’t provide, but the development of that empire is so veiled in obfuscation and mystery that it’s difficult to grasp what their endgame really is. And attempting to figure out the Continent’s geography, now a requirement with the introduction of other factions and kingdoms? Impossible. In its second season, The Witcher is most engaging when exploring the alliances and allegiances between Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri and when using those three to consider Nivellen’s insistence that “Monsters are born of deeds alone. Unforgivable ones.” But in its attempt to build a bigger world, the series falls prey to more fantasy tropes than it masters.

The Witcher Spreads Itself Thin in Season Two