The Witcher’s Nivellen chapter has everything good Witcher — and fantasy — stories need
“The real monsters are the humans” is an idea that has long roots in science fiction and fantasy. Heroes are routinely forced to confront the idea that humans are capable of just as much nasty bloodshed as their alien/beastly counterparts. Supernatural got more than one episode out of it, as did X-Files and Doctor Who, often with better mileage. The trope was the core tenant of some of the most classic Twilight Zone, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Star Trek episodes. It’s so common that it’s hard to say much new about it; brutality knows no bounds, and humans are no exception. And yet The Witcher does the incredible by not only getting something new out of the cliché, but turning it into one of the best episodes the creators have made.
[Ed. note: This episode goes into full details on “A Grain of Truth,” the season 2 premiere of The Witcher.]
While The Witcher season 2 abandons the self-contained, timey-wimeyness of the first season, the monster-of-the-week format gets to ride once more in “A Grain of Truth,” the season opener. The episode provides brief check-ins to other parts of The Continent — Yennefer’s fate after the Battle of Sodden, or the mages torturing a prisoner of war — but largely keeps the focus on Geralt (Henry Cavill), Ciri (Freya Allan), and the home of his friend Nivellen (Kristofer Hivju), who has been cursed to live as half-man, half-boar.
While the two tones of The Witcher universe, the silly bits and the deeply serious parts, are often balanced purely through the gruff voice of Cavill’s Geralt, “A Grain of Truth” forces them out into the open. They exist in symbiosis here: in the gentle and goofy way Hivju shines through Nivellen’s boar face, or Ciri and Geralt feeling out a parental relationship through pointed eye contact. Unlike the lived-in hand flourishing of every other mage, Nivellen’s spell work feels like a stage magician, with items — throwing knives, a feast, a bathtub with bubbles — dropping from above. Something is off, but it’s hard to pull apart what’s harmlessly eccentric from what’s murkily nefarious.
Of course, that’s the sweet spot of The Witcher, whether you’re talking episodes of the show or the best of Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories (on which the episode is based). When The Witcher lets situations get complicated, with no answer that leaves everyone happy, it’s the best of what fantasy has to offer.
“A Grain of Truth” lets such points hang in the air, with the eponymous ethos eking through in every scene while still not playing its cards straight. “Sometimes, I think I am still a man,” Nivellen tells Ciri in one of the many scenes where he talks around his predicament, “But mostly I know what I am.” When she pushes back he tenderly but firmly roots himself in what he is: “Monsters are borne of deeds done. Unforgivable ones.”
And indeed, in a sense, he is a monster. As he ultimately reveals to Ciri and Geralt, he not only got high and wrecked a temple, but also raped the temple’s priestess as well, the latter bit a truth he withheld in his first account. In the aching loneliness that followed his transformation, he happened upon a bruxa named Vereena. After nursing her back to help, he let her feed on him to satiate her cravings — and, later, looked the other way as she devoured the villagers around him, so that he might keep her company, any company in his desperate loneliness.
At its heart, the story is an exercise in perspective, and how the framing of a story might inform our thoughts on monsters, and on the truth. The audience has likely encountered some version of this storyline, and Geralt (with his prickly world weariness) has, too. Every angle fills in a new shade of the story, whether it’s the camera moving so Geralt takes the place of a portrait, or Vereena only unveiling her fearsome bruxua side once she’s turned away from Ciri.
Geralt and Ciri’s respective sympathy for the two hapless creatures they’ve encountered at the estate is each tempered in their own way, with neither feeling particularly good about where they’ve left it. Even they are not immune to the perspective shift; after all, what are a Witcher and a girl with terrifying powers she’s struggling to control if not potentially monstrous? “A Grain of Truth” lets the narrative rest in their uneasiness, and ours, where “moral” choices are no simple matter.
In the greater context of the season’s arc, this episode sets up the comfortable boundaries that the Witcher and his child surprise will draw with each other. But “A Grain of Truth” doesn’t let their bond come with any easy answers. Nivellen’s story shows Ciri her instincts about what’s right and wrong in the world might not be as measured as she thought. And it reminds Geralt (and the audience) that while no one is owed forgiveness, without a path forward such “monsters” might still harm the communities around them. As our own world learns to better hold those who harm others accountable, “A Grain of Truth” is a potent reminder that we remove restorative justice from the equation at our own peril.
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