It’s a sign of how things have changed in the realm of The Witcher that the goofy bard Jaskier turns up late in the new season. Jaskier’s doggerel and campy humour, an integral part of the first season, is a sideshow in an expanded storyline with bigger concerns to tackle.
There’s more of everything across eight episodes: new characters and evolving older ones, an enhanced production budget that allows for improved visual effects, and a deepening of relationships between key players. Created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich out of Polish writer Andrezj Sapkowski’s novels and short stories, The Witcher was premiered on Netflix in 2019.
The first season was praised for its multi-racial cast and prominent roles for female characters. A major criticism was the non-linear plotting, in which intersecting stories were set in different time zones and performed by actors who didn’t age a day.
The second season is linear and broadly follows Cirilla, the princess who has undiscovered magical powers and whom the monster hunter Geralt is sworn to protect. After taking charge of Cirilla (Freya Allan), Geralt (Henry Cavill) makes his way to Kaer Morhen, the base of other witchers like himself.
While Cirilla trains to become a witcher, Geralt and his mentor Vesemir (Kim Bodnia) attempt to understand the extent of her powers and the secrets of her lineage. Vesemir’s tendency to punctuate his conversation with a “hmm” tells us from where Geralt picked up the habit.
In one of several parallel strands, Geralt’s great love Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) survives a crucial battle but has lost her sorcery in the process. Yennefer’s attempts to regain her magical powers lead her to her old lover Istredd (Royce Pierreson), Jaskier (Joey Batey) and eventually Geralt and Cirilla.
The drums of war are beating through the kingdoms that comprise the Continent. At Nilfgaard, the mage Fringilla (Mimi M Khayisa) negotiates a delicate alliance with the Elves that doesn’t go down well with the Elven-hating court.
At the rival Redenia, the mage Dijkstra (Graham McTavish), with the help of an all-seeing white owl, makes his own bid for world domination. The rogue wizard Rience (Chris Fulton) adds himself to the long list of Cirila hunters who want to exploit her skills.
The “Chaos” – the force that is harnessed to create magic – is a term that sometimes applies to the show’s overly intricate plotting, which might require viewers to make a physical list of who is doing what, where and when. Yet, the impressive world-building skills, finely etched characters and consummate performances ensure that The Witcher is a bewitching watch the second time round. More isn’t always merrier but certainly intriguing.
The standout performers include Henry Cavill and Freya Allan – the latter is excellent as she evolves from curiosity to confidence. Jaskier’s re-entry reiterates Joey Batey’s comical talent and leavens a narrative that often reflects Geralt’s broodiness. Although Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer has less to do, her character Yennefer remains one of the most interesting elements in a heady potion of witchcraft and statecraft.
Among the most satisfying themes of The Witcher is its sceptical view of origin myths and recorded history and its empathy for people oppressed as outsiders or freaks. Istredd, who has given up magic for the study of archaeology, begins to question the received wisdom of the Continent’s formation.
Istredd sides with the Elves who, led by their queen Francesca (Mecia Simson), are vilified as schemers and stripped of their political capital. The Elves today, the dwarves tomorrow and somebody else the day after, a character observes – a remark that locates The Witcher in an entirely fantastical past as well as a very real present.
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