This post contains spoilers for Netflix’s The Witcher.
Halfway through The Witcher’s first season, sorceress Yennefer is on the run from an assassin. She spends half of Episode 4 jumping through portals with Queen Kalis of Lyria and her newborn baby, who Yennefer has been charged with protecting while serving as the advisor to the Aedirnian throne. Early on, the queen establishes herself as extremely unlikeable. Despite Yennefer’s power to physically rend time and space, and her continued efforts to keep the Queen alive, she spits in Yennefer’s face, calls her a stupid bitch, and scolds her for not dodging the assassin more expertly. When the assassin, and its pet monster, finally do show up—again—Yennefer takes the queen’s baby and flees. She fails in the attempt, and the assassin’s blade slices through the newborn child as she jumps through one last portal. He then feeds the queen to his monster, and Yennefer buries the baby in the sand on the shores of a vast, unknown ocean.
There is plenty to like about The Witcher. Henry Cavill looks sexier than ever. Yennefer is also hot, and the outfits she wears for much of the series are both impractical and captivating. There is a fight sequence with a rotting corpse that left me breathless, and a befuddling timeline I was desperate to untangle. Great care was spent on practical effects—something I enjoy immensely. The monsters were ugly, the politics enchanting, and Geralt’s tender relationship with a hapless bard was some of the better physical comedy I’ve seen from Netflix. But underneath all of this was, of course, the countless dead women whose sacrificial demises propelled the plot along.
The Witcher is stuffed with dead things. Monsters hunted by Geralt, men slain by Geralt, elves butchered by Queen Calanthe of Cintra, innocent civilians slaughtered underfoot of the encroaching Nilfaargdian empire, knights and suitors under Yennefer’s spell—both literally, and metaphorically. And then, of course, there’s the dead women. Long have these corpses been used in writing, on the internet, and in the real world, as sacrificial pyres for those seeking enlightenment, wisdom, or even redemption. In The Witcher, they sometimes take the shape of Renfri, whose murder at the hands of Geralt catalyzes a decade (and more) of plot development. As he pulls his sword from her, he learns that sometimes there are no good choices. Renfri still dies, of course, but Geralt gets to learn something meaningful about himself.
Opposite of Renfri is Queen Calanthe of Cintra, who also dies in the show’s first episode. Because of the timeline, she doesn’t stay dead long, and returns to the narrative frequently as the fate of her bloodline becomes entangled with Geralt. Unlike Renfri, who stays dead, the show writes itself around Queen Calanthe’s cruelty, and bloodlust, and quest for power. Renfri dies because of those actions, or so Geralt is told by the clearly malicious wizard Stregebor, who initially tried to hir Geralt to kill Renfri for him. Never mind that Stregebor has spent his time as a sorcerer murdering innocent girls and dissecting their corpses. There is something wrong with Renfri—being born under a full moon, which led her to a life of “crime”—and she must be stopped. When Geralt finally enounters Renfri, she tells him that an assassin, sent by Stregebor, raped her. Geralt pleads with her to leave Stregebor alone, and when she chooses to get her revenge instead, Geralt takes it upon himself to protect the wizard and murder Renfri and her fellow brigands. Stregebor, while collecting her corpse for examination, sneers at Geralt, who leaves the town shamed. Renfri may be dead, her corpse mutilated by a perverted wizard. But at least the man with the sword learned about the consequences of the choices he makes.
Shows like The Witcher do not exist in an alternate dimension. They are works of fiction, designed by actual people, to tell a story. Queen Calanthe is written with plenty of story. She is the war-loving queen, as willing to slay innocent serfs to keep her grip on power as she is to protect her kingdom from invading forces. The show’s most important character, fate-blessed child prodigy Ciri, is her granddaughter, and an entire episode after her death by invading Nilfgaardian forces is devoted to fleshing out the dynamics of Cintra’s royal house, some 15 years prior. Conversely, the story the show attempts to tell through Renfri is that medieval times, especially those populated by wizards and epic destinies, are terrible places to survive. Geralt is informed Renfri’s evilness comes from a malicious spirit and a full moon, but that supposed darkness is never afforded on-screen legitimacy. Instead, the episode’s arc is structured to make the viewer sympathetic to her cause, ultimately ending in the cruel twist of her death. But was the lesson worth it?
Her corpse, the show posits, affords Geralt the opportunity to see the error in believing that evil is evil, no matter the shape it takes. Her death was a deliberate plot device, concocted by a team of writers, to achieve this. But after finishing the first season, I couldn’t help but be haunted myself by the lack of purpose for that brutal slaughter. A more cohesive fate for Renfri would have ended in the murder of Stregebor, the more obvious monster, and the ultimate reveal that she is exactly what he said she was—a demonic spirit sent to destroy humanity. For a show about monsters, it both instructs the audience that not everything is what it seems, while providing a practical application for the ethos Geralt takes with him through the rest of his adventures. Instead, Renfri’s fate ends with her empty, bloody face staring at a gray sky, her body caked in mud. She was never anything more than a corpse.
Elsewhere, Yennefer is told that to gain world-shattering magical powers and otherworldly beauty, she must sacrifice her womb. It’s a construction of magic common in fantasy adventures—everything comes with a price—but nothing, until this point, has revealed to the audience that Yennefer either wants a child, or desires motherhood. She insists, to everyone around her, that she lusts for power and control, after a life spent brutalized by her father and townspeople for her twisted spine and Elven blood. Again and again she says it: “I want power.” So when she later buries the queen’s baby, it isn’t so much of a twist as a reversal on her character arc—that she suddenly desires a child of her own. (The queen, meanwhile, was characterized only as “a bitch” to overshadow her demise and Yennefer’s epiphany.)
This quest occupies much of the later episodes, and her early encounters with Geralt. She attempts to consume the spirit of a Djinn so she can use its powers to regrow her womb. Years later, she plots the murder of a dragon, so she can eat the parts of its body that might allow her to conceive. Characters around her like the sorceress that trained her, or Geralt, question Yennefer’s motives for desiring motherhood. Doesn’t she only desire power? Doesn’t she understand how unfit the life of a sorceress is for a child? She scoffs at them, further throwing away her quest for domination in her attempt to conceive. This ultimately ends in that aforementioned dragon informing her that she will never bear a child of her own.
While she’s not necessarily a corpse, Yennefer repeatedly insists that her infertility makes her incomplete. Its a common experience—I too have grappled with my own infertility—and a characterization ripe for storytelling in a medieval setting. But like Renfri, her infertility does not exist for the benefit of character development. It exists at the expense of the plot, constructed in a way to drive her relationship with Geralt along until Siri, heir to Cintra and his child by the Law of Surprise, drop into their lives.
I was not angry when Yennefer sacrificed her quest for power to hopefully have a child of her own. While it was a mostly ham-fisted metaphor for the age-old dilemma of the “working mother,” its effect on her characterization ultimately weakened the show’s first season. Like Renfri, Yennefer spends much of the eight episodes as an avatar of the writer, instructing the audience through expository dialogue about the Suffering of Women and her Endless Quest for Power. Yennefer’s frequent monologues and Renfri’s death are not instructive to their development as dynamic characters. Still, Yennefer is engaging, even if she is less of a human than any of the monsters Geralt spends his time fighting. Many of the women in this show suffer the same fate: Renfri, Queen Calanthe. Especially the flimsily constructed “bitch queen” murdered by an assassin, whose death propels Yennefer forward, so that her infertility can teach Geralt about fatherhood. All, however, share one characteristic: they are billboards meant to communicate a theme, often about the titular Witcher’s journey.
Geralt, conversely, is afforded plenty of growth, despite spending much of his time onscreen stone faced and silent. While trying to rid a woman of her curse at the hands of a vengeful sorcerer, he must lie in her literal coffin to complete her transformation back into a human. When she does transform, lying naked on the ground caked in mud like Renfri, she attempts to kill him, her mind still addled by the spell. Still he chooses to let her live. After being captured by elves with Jaskier, he insists that he will not fight their kind, who are already under siege by the forces of men. He risks his life to save the few dragons left in existence, intervenes to save a knight punished to death by Queen Calanthe for appearing like a monster, and often acts as the voice for the monsters of the world, who he has come to understand—and even respect—since cruelly murdering Renfri some 20 years prior.
The Witcher could have been a better show—a great show, even, if it didn’t spend so much of its time stepping around dead women, strewn along the plot like obstacles in the road.