“Toss a coin to your Witcher…”
The Witcher continues it’s hot streak in episode 2, with a slight detour away from Geralt to tell the story of Yennefer of Vengerberg – powerful sorceress and canon love interest (sorry Triss fans). Her backstory has always been a bit mysterious, but this episode gives us a good introduction to the troubled early years, as well as the world of magic. Though don’t expect any concrete explanations.
Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) is unlucky. Her life is already basically ruined before she’s born, due to the prejudice around her. She’s been born a hunchback, and no one wants anything to do with her. People see her as the town freak. She’s beaten and teased, and even sold by her own family for less than half the price of a pig. But she’s also an immensely powerful sorceress, she just doesn’t know it yet. Her powers first manifest when she teleports herself away from some locals who are abusing her. But this sudden reflex of magic marks her, and a scary witch soon comes to collect her, as she presumably does with all magic users. She’s whisked away from her family for just four marks, six less than the price of a pig.
From here, Yennefer begins her studies in Aretuza, a sort-of school for sorceresses. Initially she’s not great, falling behind her peers, not even able to move a rock or perform the extremely simple task of catching deadly lighting in a bottle. But her potential is soon revealed, if only she could control her emotions. The magic of The Witcher is pretty vague, revolving around chaos and elves and all manner of things. But it’s not too tricky to follow. But I’ll be the first to admit that the eels caught me by surprise.
Throughout her training, Yen flirts with Istredd (Royce Pierreson). He is a character who appears in one of the short stories as an ex-lover of Yennefer from her younger years, But, as with a lot of Yen’s backstory, details about their relationship are kept pretty sparse – so the show is filling in a lot of the gaps. He seems a decent guy at first, seeing past the deformities and truly seeming to care for Yennefer. Though we find out that his intentions are not especially admirable, as he’s spying for Stregobor from the previous episode (now younger-looking, another indication of this being a much earlier timeline). But Yennefer is spying too, so I guess they deserve each other.
Elsewhere, Geralt is introduced to everyone’s favourite character (or least favourite, it’s one or the other) Dandelion. Though here he’s going by his original Polish name; Jaskier (played by Joey Batey). I wish they’d kept the original name, but it’s just a nitpick. His relationship with Geralt is so good! It’s the highlight of the books for me, particularly in Sword of Destiny. They’re bickering is great fun to watch, and Batey is perfect for the role, staying on the right side of annoying. And that’s before we get to his song! His ballad about Geralt named “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” is a late entry for song of 2019. It slaps hard. I’ve listened to it on repeat since seeing the episode and I adore it. It’s a real folksy tune, with a rock edge, really giving you the sense of bards as the poet rock stars of the world. The final scene, as the song reaches the crescendo with the choirs, really cements the weirdness of this show. It’s not afraid to have fun.
Geralt and Dandelion’s quest (based on the short story “The Edge of the World”) pits them against a horned devil named a sylvan and a bunch of elves. But it’s not all as simple as it seems – as is always the case with The Witcher. This plot delves into the overarching plot of the episode, the one that joins all three strands; elves. Specifically, the treatment of elves by the humans. Prejudice and racism has always been a theme in this world, and the elves are the best example of it. They were all wiped out in something worringly called “The Great Cleansing” – an event in the far past for Geralt and Ciri, but something far more recent in Yennefer’s timeline. It ties in with Renfri’s experience’s, from the previous episode, of being an outsider and being ostracised from society. If people hate you and say you’re a monster, do you become a monster? Or is that just proving them right?
Finally, we do catch up with Ciri. Though not moving the plot along too much, it’s a nice bit of background and world building. After meeting up with other Cintran refugees, we learn that they don’t much care for the queen and the royal family, putting Ciri in a tricky position. These people are looked down on by the upper classes, but they themselves are capable of unspeakable prejudice toward others, like elves and dwarves. “Don’t worry, he’s one of the clean ones,” says one woman after ordering her dwarven servant to hand Ciri his shoes. A young boy wears a necklace of elven ears around his neck. No one in this world comes out clean, everyone looks down on someone. The fate of the world rests on Ciri’s shoulders. But it’s starting to look like it’s not worth saving.
Overall, not as strong as the first episode – but still a great episode. It establishes the main themes of the series, and drives home the ones touched upon in the first episode. This world is morally grey, more so than most other fantasy worlds. It’s dirty, the vast majority of people are awful and cruel, and it’s not getting any better. Thankfully, as this episode demonstrates, Jaskier/Dandelion is always there to lift the mood.
Reviewed by Jack