Review of The Witcher, season 2
The Witcher (Season 2). Created for television by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Sean Daniel Company, 2021.
The Netflix television series The Witcher is primarily based on the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski (published in Poland from 1994 to 1999, and translated to English from 2007 to 2017), though the second season abruptly introduces elements from the popular video games created by CD Projekt Red from 2007 to 2015. The books are a political parable of Eastern European history; they utilize the language of eastern European genocide and the Holocaust—pogroms, concentration camps, political putsches, etc.—to discuss genocide, totalitarian and fascist governments, and political resistance bluntly and unsparingly. The games keep certain plot elements but scale back the political context significantly while greatly expanding character stories and arcs, thus making the television series its own unique hybrid creation. (Incidentally, and with Sapkowski’s participation, Netflix has also created a prequel anime film, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf (2021), and a forthcoming prequel miniseries, The Witcher: Blood Origin (2022) to expand further on the world of the franchise.)
The second season of The Witcher picks up shortly after the first season concluded, with the dual protagonists Geralt of Rivia and Ciri finally meeting. Geralt is a Witcher, a genetically modified and mutated (and sterile) human trained to hunt and slay monsters, with an extended lifespan and enhanced healing, strength, and agility. Ciri is a refugee princess in hiding after the violent invasion of her kingdom by the Nilfgaardians, an expanding imperial force, and the murder of her family, as well as a cursed figure of prophecy. The first season of the television show revolved around the question of monstrosity: what indeed, is a monster, and when must it be killed? The eight episodes return to this question repeatedly, and often with the answer that humans are worse monsters to one another than creatures of magic ever can be. Season two returns to this question by digging into the political parables of the novels, with plots touching on revisionist histories, genocides historical and contemporary, and modes of political resistance. The character of Jaskier, for instance, Geralt’s troubadour friend and a figure of comic relief in both books and games, becomes a tortured political prisoner after running an underground operation to spirit people to safety from the violent rule of the Nilfgaardians. His role of the poet speaking truth with popular songs that put him in prison speaks to a long tradition of Polish poetry specifically as well as to the ways that art makes its own records of war and abuses. Geralt rescues him from prison, putting Geralt himself—who, as a Witcher, is ostensibly nonpolitical—into the fray as well. This is an interesting shift from the books, where Jaskier’s popular prestige usually lands him in safe space; both texts emphasize that it is the bard’s own choice to put himself in danger for his friends and their cause.
A frequent criticism of the first season was the confusing narrative structure: its eight episodes were narrated using nonlinear storytelling (effectively foreshadowing much later events in the books, should Netflix choose to renew the series for enough seasons), a trait which is alluded to in a joke about Jaskier’s singing storytelling in episode four. This second season is much less episodic as it adapts much of the material of Blood of Elves, the first novel in the series pentology (the first season being primarily drawn from the short stories collected in The Last Wish), which details Geralt’s training of Ciri and their eventual reunion with the sorceress Yennefer, sometime lover of Geralt and eventual mentor to Ciri. It also introduces the characters of the Voleth Meir, a Baba Yaga-esque demon original to the show, and the Wild Hunt, spectral figures from the games. The “Conjunction of the Spheres” that is often referenced in all franchise texts is not elaborated on in the novels, but explicated here as the specific traveling of beings across multiple worlds via interdimensional portals. Humans, then, are not just invaders of a new continent as a metaphor for real world colonization and conflicts, but they are invaders of a whole new world.
Geralt is always presented as other, as is Ciri, despite their able white bodies. In the second episode of the season, Ciri and Geralt discuss the history of the Witchers; she asks, anxiously, if he was attacked because he was “different.” Difference lies at multiple intersections here: the genetics that set them apart—Geralt being genetically-engineered while Ciri carries “the blood of Elves” that makes her both magically powerful and socially persecuted—and the social structures that endorse hierarchies of social and cultural value with nonhumans (whether Elves or Dwarves) at the bottom. Elves are coded both as indigenous peoples native to lands that are being encroached upon by human invaders and as Jewish, with scenes that invoke Passover, including a city filled with the anguished cries of families finding their magically murdered babies. Ciri is also structured as sexually different with her imitations of the sorceress Triss, foreshadowing the queer relationships that appear in the novels. The sorceress Yennefer, too, is coded as monstrous through her own sterility and the often selfish choices that she makes. All three characters are socially punished for their differences, but consistently prove themselves to better people than the humans who choose to torment them.
It is worth noting that Andrzej Sapkowski is the second most-translated SFF author after Stanisław Lem. If Lem’s work is preoccupied with failures of communication, memory, and trauma, then Sapkowski’s work finds itself in found families amid immense geopolitical unrest. Geralt, Ciri, Yennefer, and Jaskier are a chosen family trying to survive a world that is evocative of the worst parts of the Holocaust, World War II, and the Cold War. Airing only weeks before the uproar over the censorship and book banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in Tennessee as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, The Witcher presents its viewers with stories that grapple with these newly hot-button issues, showing that history not only repeats itself but is only as fantastical as the next retelling.
Cait Coker is Associate Professor and Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work is located at the intersections of gender, genre, and publishing, and her essays have appeared in journals such as Foundation, Transformative Works and Cultures, and The Seventeenth Century, among others.