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Female antiheroes are incredibly rare. Morally ambiguous women tend to be labeled simply unlikable or as outright villains. Men like Walter White and Jaime Lannister are allowed to do bad things and we still root for them. For women? Toe the line or you're a demoness to be crushed.
The Witcher wants you to challenge that kind of thinking. In the second episode of the season, "Four Marks," viewers are introduced to Yennefer, a mage in training. Yennefer has been handed a particularly rough hand by life, and she channels the bitterness inside herself into unquenchable ambition. She's going to be a fascinating character to watch, possibly even a groundbreaking one.
We're Alyssa Fikse and Jessica Toomer and we're here to guide you through every monster fight, magic trick, a beefcake shot in this episode of The Witcher.
Warning: The discussion below contains spoilers for Season 1, Episode 2 of The Witcher.
A Conduit of Chaos
Alyssa: At the beginning of this episode, The Witcher seeks to remind us that even in fantasy realms, horny teen couples are the worst. Some bratty teens are making out when they find poor Yennefer, a peasant girl with a wicked case of scoliosis. Instead of leaving her alone to find a different dark corner for necking, they decide to beat her up instead. See? Awful teens. However, Yennefer somehow manages to portal herself away to a mysterious cavern decorated with skulls. There's also a handsome dude named Istredd doing magic in there, which makes the skulls seem a bit more palatable. Yennefer seems unaware of the power that she's tapped into, but apparently "she" is going to come for her now. It's all very mysterious, and I was hooked right away. Hell yeah, magic girls.
Jessica: We love to see it. Yennefer is a powerful figure in the books but we don't meet her until much later on, and we never get a glimpse of her origin story from her point of view, so shout out to creator Lauren Schmidt Hissrich for giving us more of Cirilla and Yennefer straight from the get-go. Our violet-eyed sorceress goes through a lot this episode, being sold off for less than a pig by her stepfather after the mysterious "she" turns out to be the headmistress of a witch school at Aretuza, which is basically the place on the Continent where magic is the strongest. Tissaia de Vries is a powerful witch in her own right and she recognizes Yennefer's potential, but she treats her no better than those village peasants and locks her in a room, which prompts our poor little piglet to attempt suicide. It's all very dark.
Alyssa: VERY dark. Hogwarts Aretuza is not. Tissaia is a cruel mistress, collecting magical girls and teaching them to be more than just conduits of chaos. She preaches the importance of balance and control when you're attempting magic, because as always, magic has a cost. When given the first task of lifting a stone without touching it, some of the girls succeed, some lose their hands to escalated death and decay, and then there is poor Yennefer. While she has the raw talent that can summon portals, she struggles with focusing her power to intentional tasks. Tissaia sees this about her, and informs her that sometimes the best thing a flower can do is die. YIKES. McGonnagal would never.
Jessica: Tissaia is what I imagine Bellatrix Lestrange would be as a Hogwarts teacher. She's got some tough life lessons to impart on Yennefer and she's not above sacrificing the other girls to do it. The rock and the flower are just the first of many tests which include reading minds and catching lightning in a literal bottle, another thing Yennefer mucks up. She ends up absorbing the lightning into her body and transferring it, weaponizing it against Tissaia in a fit of rage. That'd be ground for expulsion at Hogwarts but in Aretuza, it earns you a small smirk and a deadly warning from your mistress. We learn that the witches here are trained and spread across the multiple kingdoms on the Continent, serving kings and queens, whispering in their ears, basically ensuring The Chapter — the group of magicians running this whole operation — maintains influence. To do this, Tissaia needs to teach the girls to control their emotions, to steel themselves, to become harder and colder and less likely to give into their chaos. Yennefer, with her built-up rage and resentment, is having a really tough time with that.
Alyssa: Between her anger about her former life and her growing feelings for Istredd, Yennefer is feeling the most. The training is brutal and keeps bringing Yennefer back to her worst fear: even if she were beautiful, she still wouldn't be enough. That is a lot of anxiety for one young and untested woman to keep inside. I would probably be throwing lightning and people too. During one of her clandestined visits to visit Istredd, we learn about the Conjunction of the Spheres, and how the elves taught the humans magic … and then the humans turned it against the elves and slaughtered them. Well, it wouldn't be a fantasy realm without some horrific genocide, would it?
Jessica: Again, humans are the worst. And what is it with naming genocides "cleansings"? I guess it makes evil dudes feel better about murdering thousands of innocent people? Anyway, we learn that Yennefer's real father was half-elf, which is why her spine is twisted. I guess human and elf blood isn't supposed to mix? He was killed in the Great Cleansing, and Yennefer turns on the waterworks when telling this tale. Of course, we learn later that it was just an assignment from Tissaia to see if she could control her emotions and manipulate Istredd, who was doing the same thing for his master. Look who it is, Alyssa! Stregobor. The dusty old twat. I know both Istredd and Yennefer are facing pressures from the outside, but I still felt like this scene was genuine. There's something there between them, no?
Alyssa: I feel like there is something there! Sure, they're both manipulating each other, but neither seemed particularly thrilled about it. Plus, he showed her things that he thought SHE would love! But, I think that even if the feels are involved, these two want magic more than anything else. I'm loving the way that The Witcher is giving us unashamedly ambitious women. Gone are the days when women were just sighing maidens or cackling crones in fantasy realms, and I welcome this new age with open arms. Plus, I love a complicated female villain, and that is definitely Tissaia. When Yennefer doesn't get the knock, she follows Tissaia and the girls who do and find out that some of the most powerful ones do not "ascend" as she thought they would. They get turned into eels to be "conduits" for the magic of Aretuza. YIKES.
Meeting the Devil
Jessica: Yennefer, girl, be glad you didn't get the knock! While she's saying goodbye to her friends and sending them off to live out their days in a damn pond, Geralt is busy trekking across the Continent, looking for monsters to kill and people willing to pay for the slaying of them. He makes a pit stop in a tavern where a dude's holding his own open-mic night. Jaskier (or Dandelion as he's sometimes called) is a smooth-talking bard who hopes to one day be the Harry Styles of this world but for now, he's testing out his raw material on the locals and getting some negative feedback. He joins up with Geralt because he smells of death and destiny (and maybe onion) which is exactly the kind of path a bard should take on the way to platinum-record selling glory. I immediately loved this duo — I'm a schmuck for the strong-and-silent hero and his chatty Cathy sidekick — but they get into quite a bit of trouble early on in their friendship which makes me worry for Jaskier and his boy-band haircut.
Alyssa: Yes, the adventures of Muscles and Dandelion are off to a rough start. While seeking out a "devil," the duo comes across a Sylvan who is particularly adept with tiny cannonballs. We never got to see his method of flinging these tiny balls, but I like to think that he is particularly adept with a slingshot. Torque the Sylvan and Geralt duke it out, and Torque informs him that he isn't terrorizing the people, the people are terrorizing him. He and Geralt exchange a few savage "yo mamma" jokes as they scuffle before backup comes and helps Torque get the upper hand. He and Harry Styles are taken, but not to more Sylvans. Nope, to the Elves. Filvandrel, king of the elves, to be exact.
Jessica: It's a twist for sure, especially once we hear Yennefer talk about cleansings and genocide and how the elves are treated in this new age. And it's honestly as bad as we thought it would be. The humans spun these pretty tales of elves willingly leaving their golden palaces to live amongst them or some bullsh*t but the reality is the elves were forced out by greedy humans who wanted their magic and wealth. Now, Filvandrel and the rest must steal and scavenge to survive and if the townsfolk find out, there will be a war between the two clans and the elves aren't as strong as they used to be. Hence, the need to dispose of Muscles and Dandelion.
Alyssa: Things look pretty dire, but Geralt makes his case for their release. Yes, he acknowledges that things are pretty terrible for elves along the fringes of society, both literally and metaphorically, but they can rebuild. It sucks that they have to leave their homeland, but there are less sh***y places on the Continent that they can go to shore up their strength and remind the humans what they lost. Geralt also takes offense at being lumped in with the humans, because he is clearly something beyond that. They haven't clearly defined what a witcher is yet, but his eyes and thighs are not those of a mere human man. Filavandrel takes his words to heart and sends them on their way (after Geralt gave them all of the payment he was given to kill them) and even gifts Dandelion with an elven lute to compose his tales of Geralt's bravery upon. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship to me.
On the Run
Jessica: And Geralt's not the only one making friends. Sweet Ciri is trying to evade a band of Nilfgaard hunters by hiding deep in the woods and painting her blonde locks with mud, but she hasn't taken enough survival courses to know which berries are poisonous. Thankfully, another woodland orphan stops her from poisoning herself and the two become quick friends. Alyssa, she gives him a glove! He's apparently mute, so Ciri does most of the talking as he guides her through the forest where they stumble upon a Cintran encampment. Ciri is quickly taken in, her new friend basically disappears, and we learn not all of Cintra loved Queen Calanthe. Ciri's smart to hide her true identity, claiming to just be another child who escaped before the city was sacked, but the new family that takes her in is truly problematic.
Alyssa: Yeah, you think that things will take a turn for the better when she finds her fellow Cintrans, but alas, that is not the case. These people clearly have money, and one of the ways that that manifests is the enslavement of a dwarf named Abbott. It's apparent that they think of him as less than human, because she demands that he gives his boots to Ciri and orders him around like he's dirt. It's all very bad. This episode is determined to show that humans on The Continent are pretty determined to treat anyone who is other pretty terribly. So, you know, just like real life. Ciri also has to face up to the harsh reality that her grandmother Calanthe may not be quite as beloved as she had thought. Sure, fighting battles ensures that songs will be sung about you, but the common folk who send their family members off to those wars to die might be less than adoring.
Jessica: Poor Ciri. She's definitely missing that palace life right now, but things only get worse for our girl when the Cintran camp is raided and her new friends are once again slaughtered right before her eyes — by Nilfgaard and their own servants which, another yikes. Luckily, her old pal from the woods shows up to help her escape and, surprise again, he's an elf! Ciri is momentarily stunned before she remembers her manners, thanks him for saving her and follows him back into the woods.
Alyssa: These first two episodes threw a lot at you, and if you aren't up on the lore, it can be a little tricky keeping all of the threads straight. That being said, I like where this is going. The constant return to "the lesser evil" really seems to be setting up a world full of moral greys, and I'm into that. They've established some super interesting characters that I am ready to see fleshed out. However, I am ready for another monster fight on the scale of that first kikimora. I understand that CGI of that scale costs a pretty penny, but Geralt is a monster hunter. I want to see him hunt monsters. Not just misunderstood humanoids.
Jessica: Oh, same. Geralt gets up to some wild quests in the books and the games, so let's inject a bit of that action into the next episode. It's a delicate balance to strike because there is so much storytelling to get through but I love the way they're doing it so far. Also, is it just me, or is Yennefer the most interesting character here so far?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.