The Witcher doesn’t sleep much. “Makes for fewer nightmares,” he explains in the opener of Season 2, available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, December 17.
Poor Geralt of Rivia just can’t catch a break. If he’s not staying up late to slaughter monsters, then he’s swept up in intracontinental warfare, or Sam-and-Dianning with Yennefer of Vengerberg, or wondering why he seems to attract so many lost souls.
These days we’re spoiled for fantasy series, each one jostling to prove that they can do Game of Thrones better than Game of Thrones did, and The Witcher has hit upon an enchanting alchemy: Start with a bit of political chess, blanket with a monster of the week, throw in a haunted himbo and some light bondage, and simmer in a hot witch’s flask.
I’ll try to review the new season based on its own merits, rather than on how it gets right what Game of Thrones fumbled; but it’s hard not to compare the two — especially since it’s such a goddamn RELIEF to enjoy a fantasy show this much again.
Having trouble remembering season one? Well, you’ll want to get caught up with a recap or several. (Netflix has helpfully cut together two for you: One is a five-minute “wacky attitude” video for casual viewers, the other is a wonkier fifteen-minute version for “I am the sort of person who buys polyhedral dice at least four times a year” viewers.) Relying on your memory from last year — or worse, skipping season one altogether — will only leave you pausing to consult wikis throughout.
Season two opens on multiple aftermaths. An invading army has been repelled — just barely — by Yennefer’s forbidden fire magic, and she’s thought dead. Geralt and Cirilla have found each other, though neither is quite sure what they’re going to do about that. The mages are all a-bustle, their grasp on the continent’s rulers slipping away; and spooky monsters would very much like to drink as much warm human blood as possible, please.
But first, we need a cold open. In the opening moments, we see a group of doomed travelers wander into an abandoned village, where I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that the eerie silence does not bode well for their survival. With slightly more colorful clothing, the scene would not be out of place at the start of a mid-season episode of Buffy; the horror is finely-crafted, with a creative twist on familiar scares. In fact, the episode manages multiple novel spins on what seem like old horror tropes, from a horrifyingly visceral method of interrogation to the uniquely unsettling movements of a critter who seems to regard gravity as a mere unhelpful suggestion.
The meatiest plot of the first episode finds Geralt and Ciri heading to what they hope is safety. They make an overnight pitstop at the creepy mansion of an old friend, played by GoT’s Kristofer Hivju (the red-haired guy, whose doleful performance manages to shine from beneath layers of imaginative creature-design).
Sitting by the fire, words are exchanged about monsters — not just a hypothetical line of thought, given the state of the world. Are monsters made? Do they make themselves? Do choices make a monster, and what if those choices are beyond their control? The thoughtful dialogue has now shifted the episode from GoT to Buffy and now to Star Trek, which is not at all an unpleasant blend.
My one complaint: Yennefer, one of television’s most joyfully steely characters in recent years, has fairly few moments in episode one. But actress Anya Chalotra extracts genuine magic from what few scenes she gets, with a performance that’s both frightened and frightening — a wonderful contrast to the brow-furrowed purring of Henry Cavill’s Geralt, who’s rolled high on WIS and left INT as a dump stat. These two leads seem to have been crafted in a lab to be the ultimate shippable couple, and keeping them separated feels like we’re being edged. Their distance from each other is excruciating for now, but certain to be pleasurable once allowed to resolve.
Speaking of resolutions, episode one ties the bulk of its plot into a tidily complete bow — but not entirely. Like the best X-Files (oh God, how many other series am I going to compare this show to?) the weekly creature is dispatched, but the philosophical questions that it raises remain ambiguous and allowed to unspool over the remaining season.
Alas, that “the remaining season” amounts to only eight episodes. I know, I know, that’s how we’re doing prestige television seasons these days, like it’s Fawlty Towers or something. I suppose we should be glad for what we get. I just wish there was more like this to look forward to.
Oh, and about the wigs: Look, sometimes with a fantasy show you just have to suspend your disbelief.