By Tori Preston | TV | December 31, 2021 |
By Tori Preston | TV | December 31, 2021 |
Is there any phrase in popular culture more exhausting, more daunting, than “extended universe”? Movies and television and books and comics and video games are woven together into a tapestry, threads knotting to other threads until you have no choice but to consume them all or be left with only a part of the picture. At its best, an extended universe provides a whole storytelling world for audiences to get lost in — but if you’re prone to FOMO it just feels like homework. Marvel assured us that watching its Disney+ series wouldn’t be necessary to enjoy the films, but then Wanda got super-juiced and Loki met Kang and even the freaking cartoon one set up an evil Doctor Strange that appears to be making a comeback in the next movie. THE CARTOON WAS NECESSARY-ISH! The Book Of Boba Fett is the umpteenth Star Wars spin-off to join the fray, despite the fact that there’s no point in even trying — The Mandalorian will always remain Podjiba’s Official Best Show On Television. Meanwhile, HBO is hellbent on delivering a Game of Thrones prequel series as if the spectacle of Matt Smith in a bad platinum wig will somehow distract us from the fact that nobody wants to go back to Westeros anymore. All of which brings me to Netflix — the McDonald’s of streaming services, known for its deep pockets and empty calorie content — and its own budding franchise, The Witcher. Based on a popular series of books that were already adapted into a groundbreaking series of video games, Netflix has been quietly winding the gears on its own extended Witcherverse full of bad wigs and prequels. Yet somehow, against all odds, The Witcher isn’t daunting at all. Complex, surely, but not tiresome. Did Netflix crack the code on how to build an extended universe that doesn’t feel like homework?
Before I get to that, let’s talk a bit about the second season of The Witcher and all the things you need to know. SPOILERS AHEAD!
The new season picks up right where season one left off, with Geralt and Ciri finally united and Yennefer missing after her explosive display at the Battle of Sodden. The series has thankfully left behind its confusing timeline jumps and decided to stick to some linear storytelling this time around, which is just as well because this season is all about widening the political landscape of The Continent — and throwing our favorite characters together across the land. Geralt takes Ciri back to Kaer Morhen, the stronghold of the Witchers, for protection and training, and for most of the season Geralt is a little bit heartbroken because he thinks Yennefer is dead. But she isn’t! She’s just lost her
magic chaos! Yen finds herself paired up with Fringilla, the mage of Nilfgaard, and Francesca, the pregnant leader of a band of Elven refugees, as they all wind up in front of an ancient pain-eating demon hag called the Deathless Mother. She offers them what they desire most — power — but their individual bargains seem harmless at first. Fringilla and Francesca are told to join forces, as the Elves can find protection and a new home under Nilfgaard’s banner, while Fringilla can solidify her place as a leader by bringing in a new Elven army willing to fight for the White Flame’s cause. They settle in Cintra, Ciri’s homeland and Nilfgaard’s foothold in the South, and things seem to be going well… for a time. Until someone kills Francesca’s baby to incite the Elves.
Yen’s deal is more straightforward: Her powers back, in exchange for finding Ciri. She refuses, naturally distrusting Baba Yaga rip-offs residing in doorless huts in the woods, but if there’s one thing we know about Yennefer it’s that she just wants everything all of the time. It’s her best quality! So eventually, after a few adventures where having magic would have been VERY HELPFUL, she decides to take the deal — not realizing that the girl the Mother is looking for is Geralt’s child of surprise.
If season one was about Nilfgaard pursuing Ciri for unknown reasons, then season two is about everyone pursuing the girl — and why. Sure, there’s still the fact that she’s a Princess and the rightful heir to Cintra, and as news of her survival leaks out the Northern lords assume that’s all Nilfgaard wants with her, to solidify their claim to the kingdom. But there’s more to it than that. Turns out, Ciri isn’t just weirdly powerful with a scream like a banshee. She’s got Elder blood in her veins, a descendent of an ancient tryst between an elf and a human that dates back to the Conjunction of the Spheres (when the worlds of Elf, Human, and Monster came crashing together), and her powers are able to bring the spheres into conjunction once again. In fact, her screams have already brought new monsters across the threshold and into The Continent for Geralt to contend with, and caught the eye of the Deathless Mother — as well as an otherworldly force of spectral riders called the Wild Hunt. But let’s put in a pin in that for now. The point is that she’s a generational weapon, hiding in plain sight, with powers that could help the Elves take the land back from the humans, or help the humans stay in power, or raze everything to the ground and conquer other worlds. Her destiny is bigger than anyone realized — and still up to her to decide.
And if you were wondering why Nilfgaard was looking for Ciri before anyone else knew she was special, well, the season answers that too: Emhyr, the White Flame himself and ruler of Nilfgaard, is actually Ciri’s father. Who apparently did not die at sea!
The other faction that gets greater attention this season is the Witchers themselves — or what’s left of them. There’s only like 20 of them at Kaer Morhen to start with, but then one of them turns into a tree and Geralt kills him, and then Ciri gets possessed by the demon hag and kills a bunch more, and I don’t really have a final tally but if you thought Geralt was the only Witcher in this show you’re still basically right. The good news is that Ciri’s Elder blood is the missing ingredient in making more, uh, Witcher mutation juice? So theoretically Geralt’s teacher Vesemir could whip himself up a new batch of monster-killing kids, except the one time he tried to make the potion it attracted the so-called “fire f*cker” mage who was hunting for Ciri, and then he stole the potion and it burned some lady’s face half off. So maybe making Witchers is more trouble than it’s worth!
Besides, you do not need more Witchers when you have Geralt. I understand that, objectively speaking, Henry Cavill is attractive in a chiseled sort of way, and has been attractive in a number of things. Sometimes in capes. And yet. AND YET. Stick the man in a stringy white wig and gold contacts and have every other character tell him he reeks, and suddenly I’m sitting up and paying attention! The man can’t even put his arms down at his sides when he isn’t fighting because they’re literally too big to Netflix and chill, but all anyone cares about is that he smells like a horse. HELLO YES I’M SURE HE DOES AND THAT’S FINE, HAVE YOU MET HIS HORSE?
(Right, about that: Roach dies. It’s very sad. I’m still not over it.)
As you may have realized by my scattershot, barely-scratching-the-surface recap, the world-building in this show is dense. Countries and kings are added out of nowhere, new species of ghoulies are accepted without batting an eye, and there are thousands of years of magical and political history that have all led up to our fun little Henry Cavill sword-and-sorcery show. It’s exactly the sort of story that would be ripe for EXTENDING into a UNIVERSE, and oh hey — Netflix is already doing that! In August Netflix released an animated one-off movie called The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, which told the story of the long-ago attack on Kaer Morhen that decimated the Witcher ranks, destroyed their ability to create new mutants, and led to the order keeping so secretive. Mostly, though, it tells the story of Vesemir and how he came to oversee the last class of new mutants (sorry, couldn’t resist) — though it doesn’t explain why Vesemir goes from sounding like Theo James to looking like Kim Bodnia. Is this where I lobby for Theo James to get his own bad wig and golden contacts? Anyway, the events from the cartoon are referenced off-handedly a few times this season, but the show doesn’t bother to perform an info-dump to fill you in on all that backstory — and it’s fine! If you’re interested in learning more about how the Witchers used to secretly create mutant monsters so they could continue charging people for their services, then I recommend it — but it isn’t necessary to enjoying The Witcher.
I imagine that will also be true of The Witcher: Blood Origin, the live-action prequel series slated to launch in 2022 starring Michelle Yeoh as a warrior elf (Michelf Yeoh). The show is set 1200 years before main series, and will explore the original world of the elves, the “Conjunction of the Spheres”, and the creation of the first prototype Witcher. Given what we learned about the struggles of the elves and the nature of Ciri’s powers this season, there’s plenty of reason to revisit that chapter in the franchise’s history — but then again, the show has already told us what we need to know, hasn’t it? At least, it’s given us just enough to understand the events of the show’s present. I’ll probably check out Blood Origin, but not because I’m afraid I’ll miss something crucial, or to look for clues about the next season of The Witcher. I just genuinely enjoy the Witcherverse, and I’d like more of this world.
It’s too early to tell, but I think Netflix may be laying the groundwork for a complex extended universe that isn’t complicated for us, the audience. There is no homework here, there’s just history for you to take or leave. And the reason it works is because, as interesting as the history is… it’s not what makes The Witcher itself interesting. All that plot I tried to unpack earlier? That’s not what made this season of The Witcher fun. Seeing Yennefer meet up with Jaskier and their verbal barbs, or seeing Geralt awkwardly investigating new monsters with Yen’s old boyfriend Istredd, or seeing Geralt finally reunite with both Jaskier AND Yennefer? Those were the moments that mattered this season. So what if the White Flame is Ciri’s dad, or the Wild Hunt is on deck as Season Three’s big bad? None of that beat the emotional finale of the season, which was Yennefer regaining her powers after sacrificing herself to save Ciri from the hag, and Geralt realizing that even though he can’t forgive Yen for her betrayal, Ciri needs Yen’s tutelage to help her control her magic, and so an uneasy family is formed between the three. We’ve waited for two whole seasons to see our three main characters all together, all at the same time, so in that sense maybe The Witcher itself has just been a prequel to the show it’s meant to be all along.
So yes: If you like the world of The Witcher and want to know more, Netflix has you covered. But if you just like the people of The Witcher, or the well defined arm muscles of The Witcher, well — Netflix is still gonna make classic formula The Witcher to satisfy you as well. All the benefits of an extended universe, all on your terms — no fear of missing out, and none of this “but how will I know what Boba Fett’s been up to the next time he shows up in The Mandalorian if I haven’t been watching his Book show?” nonsense. Finally, Netflix’s binge-and-forget model pays off! They don’t expect you to remember things anyway!
Tori Preston is the managing editor of Pajiba. She tweets here. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.