Games

'The Witcher' Might Be a Fantasy, But It's a Good Show About History

The Witcher's convoluted timeline is about what living through history really feels like
February 3, 2020, 1:00pm
the witcher
Image: Netflix

The way The Witcher Netflix series tells its story is divisive. It traces several plot arcs simultaneously, and there are some early indications that these different threads are unraveling at very different points in time, but it takes a long while before The Witcher reveals how all these stories have been building toward a single moment that merges the timelines and creates “the present.”

Initially, I hated this approach. It seemed needlessly obscure, and the only reason I was able to follow the action was because I knew a lot of the broad strokes from the Witcher video games. It struck me as a way to add a degree of undeserved intrigue to a season of television that was mostly intent on treading water through an overlong introduction.

Then there was a sequence that recontextualized everything, and made the case for this disjointed, blurry narrative format. The Witcher may depict great and important events in a fictional history, but what this first season is about is how we experience history, and how illusory is any sense of control or foreknowledge that we possess.

The event that brings it into sharp focus is, of course, a moment that I think is meant to be pointedly resonant at this moment in political history. Geralt is attending the wedding of Queen Calanthe’s daughter, at a moment when the warrior-queen is at her political apogee. She is in full drunk-asshole mode, like Henry II in The Lion in Winter: swaggering and self-satisfied. There is a point where a young prince from Nilfgaard presents himself to her assembly and she decides to sport with him in front of all her assembled vassals and allies. It’s vicious and out-of-the-blue attack, a public humiliation stemming from a sense of impunity and contempt.

And of course it’s doubly shocking because we’ve seen her, years later, utterly defeated and powerless to stop Nilfgaard from laying waste to her capital in the wake of a very swift invasion. Suddenly the entire sequence is recast: we not only have a vague idea of when this long-ago banquet took place, but we also realize that this might be a pivotal incident, and nobody in the room knows it. In the moment, it’s a meaningless interaction for Calanthe and her court, and likely a searing one for the Nilgaardian official, but it’s just not important to anyone. And then a few other wild events occur at the banquet that make us get distracted from the portents of a few moments before.

I suspect the moment is intentionally evoking some of the mythmaking around Trump’s humiliation at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, when Obama and comedian Seth Meyers took turns mocking his work as a reality TV star, and his embrace of birtherism. The moment was imbued with a lot of retroactive significance among liberals who probably overstate the impact of political comedy, and who tend to create narratives where moments of confrontation or rudeness to political opponents accounts for major political shifts. Calanthe is an erudite woman who uses her violent temper and acerbic humor to bully and cow the men around her. She is also someone whose power makes her complacent: She makes an enemy needlessly because she views them as weak and harmless, but her lack of actual malice and intent means that she doesn’t seem to take precautions against the possibilities that Nilfgaard might one day become a threat.

For the most part, the tragic irony of these moments is lost on the audience as well, only becoming clear much later when we see what characters and plot points come back into play, and which are largely forgotten about. There might not be a clearer example of this than at a pivotal, apparently triumphant moment for Yennefer of Vengerberg.

After being blocked from a good posting as court advisor to a prestigious and cultured kingdom, and denied the final rites that would both establish her as an “official” mage and give her the idealized physical form she’s craved, Yennefer crosses into outright insubordination and imposes her will on the magical academy of Aretuza. She undergoes the ritual by herself, enduring an excruciating magical surgery without anything for the pain, then she strides into the great hall where royals are meeting their chosen sorceresses and takes her place with the court she desired.

It’s a victory for Yennefer. The will of her callous teachers has been thwarted, she has the job she wants despite the nepotistic machinations of her former friend, Fringilla. At this moment she is powerful, outwardly flawless, and completely in command of her fate for the first time in her life.

It’s a disaster. Yen travels to the court of Aedirn and finds that the ruling dynasty are incompetent, scheming fops who view her as a tool, not an advisor. Aedirn itself is sliding into political irrelevance to match its decadence. Fringilla, who was forced into the Nilfgaardian post that Yennefer rejected, has become an enormously powerful mage and a major power behind the throne. Things go so spectacularly wrong for Yen that she’s nearly collateral damage where her boss, the king of Aedirn, decides to assassinate his own queen. In the wake of her escape, Yen finds herself disgraced and jobless. Her heroic gesture of independence and willpower ends with her struggling to survive in various backwater towns, using the tricks of her trade to bamboozle local officials and squat in a mayoral mansion.

In all of this, Geralt himself is framed as fate’s plaything by the rules of his world. Amid all their plans and designs, characters in this world treat the Law of Surprise as a sacrosanct, and the Law of Surprise is what binds Geralt to Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri. But the paradox of this first season of the Witcher is that Geralt doesn’t actually do anything because it’s fated. From the first episode he makes the best decisions he can, and as bitter experience hardens him, he starts trying to avoid firm decisions and commitments altogether. This infuriates or scares many of the characters around him particularly Calanthe, because they know he is bound by laws of fate. The joke is on all of them: events are firmly out of their hands and most of their plans and goals will come to nothing or come to ruin. Geralt, meanwhile, is never compelled to do anything until his conscience summons him to it.

As the timelines converge across this first season of The Witcher, this ironic and misdirecting storytelling finally begins to cohere into a more recognizable format for a fantasy adventure. In fact, the asynchronous timelines running throughout this first season were apparently so unpopular that series creator Lauren S. Hissrich admtted that the creative team was surprised by the reaction, and indicated the chronology would be more straightforward in subsequent seasons.

But I think I’m going to miss this other version of the show, with its mismatching narratives and confusing cuts to times and places we won’t really learn until far later. As a medium, TV shows are bound to a certain narrative logic and causal connection, and The Witcher is no different. But with its oddly edited first season, it denies the reality of the stories that its characters would tell about themselves. Only the audience gets to see the actual narrative.