Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Netflix
The Witcher season 2 — streaming Friday 1:30pm IST on Netflix — is surer of itself. Unlike the lacklustre first season that exhibited growing pains, the second season of the Henry Cavill-led Netflix fantasy series has a stronger handle on what it wants to be. With its disjointed episodic tales, the first season essentially lost you as an audience member. The Witcher season 2 is better at getting your attention, and then retaining it — at least for the first six hours. Netflix provided critics access to six out of eight episodes from the second season. There are a couple of episodic stories on The Witcher season 2, but the Netflix series gets more and more serialised as it goes on. And the episodic stuff feels like a part of the big picture, as it has resonating lessons for our protagonists.
The convoluted non-linear structure is gone too — it never really benefited the first season and merely got in its way over and over. The Witcher bordered on boring in its debut outing, and that's criminal in the age of streaming wars. The linear Witcher season 2 is more exciting from the get-go. And despite lacking the advantages of non-linear storytelling, it still manages to be a mix of intriguing and mysterious where the first season failed. The Witcher season 2 primarily follows two threads for the most part — one follows the titular monster-hunter Geralt (Cavill) and his crown princess ward Ciri (Freya Allan), and the other with the sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) — and though it branches off now and then, they all feed back into those two.
That said, there are still elements that need a finer look. For instance, nearly every episode of The Witcher season 2 pits Geralt up against a monster that's coming for Ciri. I never really got on board with this one monster an episode plan. To me, it feels a bit like forcing action into the storytelling, when we could be spending that time on character building. Also, what repeated joy comes from seeing Geralt show off his skills against monsters that cannot talk? I don't care for them, the action isn't rooted in emotional or moral conflict, it feels empty. Yes, this element is fun when you're playing as Geralt in The Witcher games, but here it's… not. Is Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the creator and showrunner on the Netflix series, doing this to please video game fans?
For what it's worth, the other major storyline that follows Yennefer cannot succumb to that pattern. It's also more internal, with nightmare sequences that try to dig into her problems (her desire for a child and the associated troubles). The Witcher continues to be a self-sincere show in season 2 for the most part, though admittedly, the conversations are better this time around. The Witcher season 2 is funny at times — most of which involves Geralt grunting after people try to ask him personal questions — but the Netflix series is not going to rival the reason it exists, the HBO epic fantasy Game of Thrones, anytime soon in that department.
The Witcher season 2 opens in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Sodden Hill, the season 1 finale do-or-die that pitted Yennefer and her fellow mages against the might of the invading Nilfgaardian armed forces. The start tries to sell you on Yennefer being gone, even though The Witcher season 2 trailers have shown that she will be back. And it gives in 11 minutes into the first episodes, as Yennefer is shown to be alive though not well. She's being taken in by fellow sorceress Fringilla (Mimî M. Khayisa), who plans to offer her up as a mea culpa for failing Nilfgaard's push north. Following the fire magic she deployed at the end of season 1 to stop the Nilfgaardians, Yennefer ends up with an existential crisis of sorts on The Witcher season 2. There's an even deeper hole in her now.
But Geralt, who arrives with Ciri at Sodden Hill after the battle has ended, isn't aware of Yennefer being alive. Considering her to be lost, Geralt decides to take Ciri to the place where witchers go when winter comes: their home and erstwhile fortress Kaer Morhen. There, The Witcher season 2 gets to introduce Geralt's extended witcher “family”: his mentor and father figure Vesemir (Kim Bodnia, from The Bridge) who was the star of the anime spin-off The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, and fellow witchers Lambert (Paul Bullion), Coën (Yasen Atour), and Eskel (Basil Eidenbernz). A lot of The Witcher season 2's first few hours is dedicated to Ciri's training — and the witcher crew become her carrot-and-sticks of sorts, pushing and prodding her, or trying to trace her history.
There's also a larger mystery surrounding Ciri that comes into focus as The Witcher season 2 pushes deeper into its eight-episode run.
The Witcher season 2 does some interesting things. It repeatedly brings together returning characters from season 1 in combinations that you wouldn't expect. Their opposing ideologies make for good contrasts, and some rich conversation as they undertake adventures. This is something that Game of Thrones was great at, be it rich dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and his champion-turned-friend Bronn (Jerome Flynn), the reviled knight Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who ends up as a captive under Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), or the headstrong Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) also captive with the fierce warrior The Hound (Rory McCann).
Unlikely companions taking a journey is always source for rich material. The Witcher season 2 understands this, but it also seems to get distracted by the big picture. It feels like it's in a hurry to show you more, take you places and build itself for the finale, when it could be doing more for its characters if it just slowed down and took a moment to breathe. (Some of its events are also a tad unbelievable.) That said, The Witcher Continent expands in some very welcoming manners on season 2 — we visit a bunch of new places, some ghastly and others really pleasant.
Two seasons in, The Witcher is starting to discover what it takes to run a show like Game of Thrones. Its cast is still severely limited in scope though. Sure, there might be a dozen main cast members on paper, but it's really the four of the top five billed that The Witcher has made us truly care about. The Nilfgaardian commander Cahir (Eamon Farren) felt like a useless nobody in season 1, but The Witcher season 2 does somewhat improve his standing. Truth be told, it's only really the top three — Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer — who get continuous attention on the second season.
Beyond that, The Witcher falls off too soon. It's hard to get invested in any of Yennefer's mentor and Aretuza-usurper Tissaia (MyAnna Buring), Yennefer's former friend and historian Istredd (Royce Pierreson), the aforementioned Fringilla, Ciri's former elf friend Dara (Wilson Radjou-Pujalte) who is barely involved this time, or Lars Mikkelsen as he continues his hammy performance as Aretuza leader Stregobor. None of them get to do anything beyond what The Witcher season 2 plot demands of them.
The sorceress Triss (Anna Shaffer), who advised Temeria's King Foltest on season 1, does get a little more than that despite having the same amount of time as other so-called main cast members. And she's just generally a delight to have for the time she's around. The sorcerer Vilgefortz (Mahesh Jadu), who was revealed to be a turncoat in season 1, is virtually non-existent on The Witcher season 2.
In fact, the renegade mage Rience (Chris Fulton), hired by Vilgefortz to find Ciri, has more screen time on The Witcher season 2, though his role sticks to a showboating-villain script. Among the new entrants, it's Vesemir who gets the most focus. There's a lot of time devoted to the elven leader Francesca (Mecia Simson) and her pursuit of rebuilding their glory, but I never really connected to her cause. And Geralt's extended Witcher “family” Lambert, Coën, and Eskel have bit parts and side lines.
The beauty of Game of Thrones wasn't just the size of the ensemble, but how it made full use of it. How you came to feel for or feel the wrath of its characters who were spread across the moral spectrum. The Witcher is lacking that. The second season shows its filmmakers — while the writing team largely stays, the directing team has been entirely revamped — are more confident at executing their vision. But The Witcher still has a ways to go. Cavill might be committed to The Witcher creator's seven-season plan (and Netflix has ordered another season already), but it needs to give the rest of us more, if it wants us to stick around.
The Witcher season 2 is out Friday, December 17 at 1:30pm IST / 12am PT on Netflix worldwide. In India, The Witcher season 2 is available in English and Hindi.