(The Witcher premieres on Netflix on December 17th)
Two years ago, when The Witcher Season One debuted on Netflix, I fell in love instantly. As a smart and mature adaptation of the books, with nods to the hugely successful game franchise thrown in, the Henry Cavill-led TV adaptation wowed me on every level.
Then COVID hit, and the show went into hibernation. For a TV series, especially on a streaming service known for canceling things at the drop of a hat, that’s a worryingly long time.
So it makes me impossibly happy that the wait was not in vain. The Witcher Season Two improves the beloved series on every level, sprawling out in a spellbinding epic that feels grander with every episode.
While the first season remains a brilliant introduction to The Continent, the second runs wild in expanding the vast mythology surrounding it. And though the episodic nature from two years ago is toned down some, apart from a brilliant Beauty and the Beast-riffing opening chapter, The Witcher has lost none of its charm during the long hiatus.
Picking up in the immediate aftermath of The Battle of Sodden Hill, Geralt and Ciri search for Yennefer among the ruins and corpses. Believing her dead, a heartbroken Geralt heads north towards Kaer Moren, home of Witchers. There, he will keep Ciri safe, training her for the harsh world that awaits.
Meanwhile, Yennefer, who is very much alive, travels south as a prisoner for the Nilfgardian army while coming to terms with the aftermath of her display of power last season. But it’s a chance encounter with refugee elves that leads her to discover a threat more ancient and terrifying than anyone could have expected.
The story sprawls into unexpected territory from here, combining elements from multiple books with surprising efficiency. But The Witcher is so packed with surprises and turns that going in blind is the best possible way to experience it. Especially for newcomers.
Those who found the first season’s time-hopping narrative difficult to follow will be much happier this time around. Season 2 is far more streamlined, despite splitting the party to all corners of the world. By the time Geralt and Ciri arrive in Kaer Moren, it feels like a much-needed reprieve from adventuring.
It helps, too, that Kim Bodnia, playing Vesemir, is one of the big wins for the series. Endlessly charismatic, Bodnia embodies Vesemir with a sturdy warmth tempered by a snarky world-weariness. His fatherly relationship with Geralt is one of the great joys of the season, providing a much-needed stability to the craziness surrounding them. It’s also great to see Geralt loosen up now that he’s on his home turf again, especially when he gets to pal around with fellow Witchers.
Then there’s Freya Allan, who got very little to do last season apart from getting tossed around. She’s in exceptional form this time around. Ciri is an active participant in everything that happens around her, and Allen steps up her game considerably, delivering a nuanced, delicate performance of a person growing up in a world that sees her more an object than a person.
And yes, Jaskier is back with a new song. Yes, it’s grand showstopper. No, I won’t spoil any of it.
If there are downsides, they are once again squarely on the shoulders of the antagonists. The sprawling cast is impeccable for the most part, but complex villains like Stregobor and Fringilla Vigo remain elusive for most of the season once again. That might be because the series is still very much setting up the pieces, but it’s still a little disappointing. Especially as the show introduces a host of new characters as well.
But that’s usually the trade-off with series like this. Expansive lore and a cast of dozens needs time to breathe. It’s not until the third or fourth season that we get to reap the benefits of all the deck building. All we can do now is go along for the ride, hoping it’ll pay off. Which is asking a lot, but I firmly believe it’s worth it.
The grander scale also means a bigger budget, and it’s here that the second season delivers in spades. The Witcher looks and sounds incredible – though with one notable caveat. The fight choreography has taken a hit at some point, and while some scenes impress with their scale and inventiveness, too many look like they’re from a far lesser series. A climactic fight in close quarters is particularly jarring thanks to Sam Raimi-esque editing, which feels far closer to Xena than Witcher.
These are minor quibbles though, and for the most part I was too busy having fun to care. Where The Witcher succeeds is far more important than where it falters. As a replacement for Game of Thrones, it still stands alone as a singular success, bringing the novels to life with unfaltering grace.
A third season is already underway. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another two years for it.