This review contains spoilers for The Witcher, episode 2, “Four Marks.”
I have not read the books of The Witcher. I have only played The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. I bring this up because the Netflix series leans heavily on the original written material in order to tell its story. Every episode of the first season is loosely based on a short story from one of the two short story collections published by Andrzej Sapkowski, while integrating story beats from the Witcher Saga novels. To my knowledge, Geralt’s exploits come from the short stories, while Ciri’s escapades are from the Saga books. I’m entering this series as a newcomer to the novels, and I want to see what the Netflix original vision of Sapkowski’s stories is, the same as watching the Lord of the Rings movies without reading the novels. Therefore, I’ll be reacting to events of the episode as they work within the series — this is first and foremost a review of how well Netflix is making a Witcher TV show.
With all of that prefacing out of the way, after having a grim first episode, I’m not surprised that “Four Marks” took things at a much slower pace. There’s far less action this episode with more of a focus on world-building, as well as introducing our third lead character Yennefer (Anya Chalotra of Wanderlust). World-building is always necessary in a show with as complicated a history as The Witcher, so instead of trying to dump as much exposition on the viewers as possible, the series wisely decides to limit its scope to its treatment of various sub-creatures and races. That said, using mythical creatures as allegories for racial and societal injustice is hardly anything new, and The Witcher doesn’t exactly make it the most interesting situation.
All three of our plotlines revolve around the oppression or stigma held against elves and exploring those ideas within different contexts. In Geralt’s (Henry Cavill) plot, he’s tasked with hunting down a thieving “devil” at the request of a villager, only to discover that it’s a Sylvan that has been giving the stolen food to a group of elves who were forced out of their land by the humans. It’s good that the series is establishing early on that not all monsters are brainless beasts, complicating the morality of a world that is already seething with grays. It’s just a shame that most of this segment has Geralt plagued by a traveling bard named Jaskier (Joey Batey from Knightfall) who goes from being goofy and charming to annoying very quickly. He does redeem himself with a nice little ditty at the end, but Geralt declaring that they are going their separate ways is probably for the best.
Ciri’s (Freya Allan) was probably the simplest of the three stories, with her still on the run from the Nilfgaardian army. She enters a camp full of refugees who offer to help her, though she casually turns a blind eye to the mistreatment of a halfling. When the Nilfgaardians attack and the halfling is berated during the assault and snaps at his mistress, it just comes across like an inevitable conclusion. It doesn’t appear that Ciri learned anything from the events of the episode. It feels less like her experiencing the real world now that her royal grandparents are dead and more like padding to fill out the episode’s already long runtime.
Thankfully, both ho-hum plotlines are redeemed thanks to Yennefer’s introduction. Yennefer’s storyline is the most curious of the three due to how the series makes it a point to stress that Yennefer’s training to become a sorceress is taking months while the events of the other stories last a day at most. Yennefer, at this point in the story, is our elf stand-in, showing her experiences as a second-class citizen. She’s a quarter elf due to her mother’s genes — which gives her physical deformities like a hunchback and abnormal growths — and it leads to her being abused by everyone in her village, even seen as less valuable than a pig in the eyes of her father. If there’s one aspect of The Witcher that is strikingly obvious, it’s that it isn’t subtle with its metaphors. If a person is to be shunned by society, they’ll have slop thrown on them, be mocked, get beaten mercilessly, and get belittled in the span of four minutes.
Yennefer does have magical abilities and is sold to powerful sorceress Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring from Twilight) by her father for four marks, to train and hone her abilities so that she may be of some value to the world. It’s here where we learn about magic in the world of The Witcher. Magic comes from Chaos, and while anyone can use magic in some capacity, only those specially adept are able to fully utilize it. It’s a lot to comprehend, with some scenes getting across the concepts much better than others. Hearing Tissaia explain that utilizing Chaos requires an equal exchange while one of her students has their energy siphoned from their body as they attempt to use a basic spell is one of the more effective examples of how the series explains how magic works, while a later scene where Tissaia tells her students to catch lightning in a bottle isn’t quite as helpful.
I’ll admit, while Yennefer’s introduction is informative and establishes her character well as someone who wants to be of use and to better understand her magical abilities, “Four Marks” undermines it slightly by frequently cutting away to the other vignettes. It would be one thing if all three storylines were happening concurrently, but when we leave Yennefer in one scene only for her to explain in her next appearance that weeks have passed, it makes her experiences seem less important in comparison to Ciri’s and Geralt’s stories. Their stories pose immediate dangers, with Ciri’s story in particular the most urgent, while Yennefer’s plot casually saunters and skips beats at a whim.
While “Four Marks” isn’t quite as strong as the last episode, it still delivers some great moments and takes time to introduce us to new elements of the world, rather than dump all of the lore on us at once. Hearing and seeing the plight of the elves and those with elf blood made me instantly sympathetic towards them, with Geralt’s speech towards the elf king at the climax of his arc effectively showing Geralt’s world-weariness, as well as his attitude towards humans — of which he does not consider himself. It looks like the season will take a similar approach to the past two episodes, each adapting a short story while slowly advancing the plot, so as long as those short stories continue to be entertaining, I don’t see any reason why the rest of the show shouldn’t be.