Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials
Episode 4: Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials is the midpoint of the season and presents a good opportunity to take a look at the series so far. By this point, all characters have been established with varying degrees of success. Enough lore has been put forth about the world to give it an identity, even though it’s not a particularly unique one. The chronologically scattered plots are increasingly circling each other like dogs in heat. The delivery method for all this convolution, the approach termed the Dunkirk Fuckery© is beginning to come apart at the seams. This setup provided an excellent moment for episode 4 to start making sense of the overall narrative and assert the strengths of the season. Disappointingly this “break or make” moment for the series leans heavily into the worst aspects of the show.
The episode again attempts to cram all 3 timelines into a 60-minute outing. Instead of having a single story frame events, the three arcs are just sort of scattered about arbitrarily. Furthermore, the show is not matching the beats of the different plots together. I cannot emphasize enough how fundamentally broken the pacing of this episode is. We begin and end the episode with a focus on Ciri. But contrary to what this implies we do not get to spend much time with the princess. Instead, the bulk of the episode is spent on Geralt, and it’s his arc that delivers the most robust and complete story of the three. Yennefer’s plot is also thrown into the mix. It’s a self-contained series of events but its insertion into the larger narrative is incredibly awkward. It’s well 20 minutes into the episode by the time we get our first glimpse of Yen. It’s a pretty late point to pick up a new storyline. Even worse, the conflict at the heart of her story effectively concludes at the halfway point of the episode. It’s a disorganized mix of scenes leading to great tonal incongruities. Without a dominant storyline to drive the episode, the plots become disjointed. Instead of wondering what was going on with the other characters, whenever there was a cut to a different arc I couldn’t help but exclaim: “Is this shit still going on?”
Ciri & Brokilon
Since the episode starts with Ciri, let us also visit her story first. The events presented take some very cherry-picked inspiration from the short “The Sword of Destiny” without adapting the story itself. Brokilon is an oddly realized setting. The soundtrack and establishing shots set the stage focusing on the mysterious nature of the forest. Sadly, once the Dryads make an appearance, most of the trepidation and mystery dissipate. It’s a shame the warrior women of Brokilon were not given a more unique look. The show simply portrays them as a vaguely Amazon-like tribe, while in the books they were a whole entire species, with unique characteristics. The word Dryad is just dropped without any explanation of what it represents. As the stakes are never established I kept second-guessing myself as to whether they meant any harm to Ciri. Once the Dryads heal Dara, who they themself just shot previously, it makes their motivations even more unclear. Dara was left bleeding in a field last episode and now suddenly he is in the forest just as Ciri arrives? The show seems to disregard all semblance of continuity and logical progression. All this in an attempt to justify a plot that’s not even particularly engaging.
The setting of the forest lacks the magical qualities I would have expected from Brokilon. Instead, we are treated to a blatant misuse of lens flares that would put even J.J. Abrams to shame. There is an ever-present spot of bright light randomly inserted into scenes. The light has no discernible origin and oscillates places based on our perspective. It sticks out like a sore thumb and upsets the scenery of the otherwise well-shot forest. I understand that this is an attempt to substitute the magical qualities of these woods, but looking at the end result I cannot imagine anyone thought it was a good idea. There is no in-world explanation to the light or any practical use to it. Honestly, it looks like a graphics glitch in a buggy video game.
There is again little life to the setting, the audience is never shown where Dryads live, or how they would go about their day. The latter half of this storyline takes place almost entirely in the same cave, which again lacks any defining features. I did not think it would be possible but the show has managed to make the setting of an entire vast forest feel claustrophobically small and confined in the worst way possible.
The conversation in which Ciri reveals her identity to Dara is a standout moment of the arc. The elf’s reaction is very impactful and again adds great contrast and moral ambiguity to the established lore. Ciri’s red-tinted vision is also a great mood piece. The dream sequence gives us a glimpse inside the princess’ head while presenting some much-needed stylistic variety.
The plot attempts to create some tension around the waters of Brokilon, but the properties of the substance are never explained, nor is it revealed why it won’t affect Ciri. In the books drinking the waters had great established significance and I recall dreading the moment Ciri was made to drink it. No such emotions are stirred this time around.
After getting the magic water from the source, Ciri receives another vision to cap off the episode. The dessert setting is a nice touch for book readers but will likely leave the casual audience even more confused. We know it’s supposed to be something substantial but are left wondering as to why. It’s a cheap way to create tension right as the episode concludes.
The showrunners clearly did Brokilon dirty with this mess. The story could easily have been salvaged if it took a bit more time to explain its mechanics. There are some canon explanations the show could have used to justify its strangest decisions. Why did the Dryads choose to keep Dara alive? For… well…. genetic diversity. Why do the Dryads look human? Because the dying species is now kidnapping children. Why is the water not affecting Ciri? Due to her elder blood. These arguments could have been made, but instead we are left with an unexplained series of choices with not even a hint about their in-world significance.
The story is a disappointment on its own, but a straight criminal offense when compared to the short that inspired it. The Sword of Destiny story from the book The Sword of Destiny chronicles one of the most important events in the witcher universe: the first meeting of Ciri and Geralt. It’s a slow burn of mounting tension and well-paced twists as Geralt must contend with his conflicting motivations. Not only has the show failed to take the right inspiration from its source material, in the process it squandered one of the defining moments of the Witcher universe.
Geralt in Cintra:
Speaking of Geralt, the titular monster hunter also has his fair share of troubles this episode.
His story again starts off in a dimly lit remote tavern beating the last bit of life right out of this already tired trope. Surprisingly the tavern sequence is very well executed. The bloodied patron’s narration is a good contribution to the white wolf’s growing legend. Jaskier as well as the entire scene deliver some great comedy. It makes me wish we got an actual glimpse of the Selkimore fight, but its omission is excusable. The dynamic of Jaskier and Geralt’s antagonistic but endearing friendship is still impeccable. The pair are expert drivers of the banter bus which charges full speed ahead this episode. The bathtub scene is a nice nod to video game fans and the exposition delivered by Jaskier acts as a stable setup for the rest of the plot.
From here on the episode adapts (butchers) the short “A Question of Price” from The Last Wish.
The banquet starts out finally putting an adequate amount of pomp and circumstance on display. It’s a great change of pace to see some people just having a good time. The entire first half of the adventure is presented in a broadly lighter tone and with some great comedic elements peppered throughout. Mousesack makes a much more memorable impression this time around while matching the levity of the atmosphere. The druid delivers a great re-introduction to the Cintran setting with just the right amount of exposition. The additional character details we get on Eist and Skellige as a whole add good color to the story. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity to not give the Skelligen warriors a more distinct viking influenced vibe. Regardless, the assembly of noble revelers is an entertaining if homogenous crowd.
It’s a great positive to see a more jovial side of the witcher as he sparkles with dry humor and wit. The few occasions when he regresses into his brooding self are much too exaggerated in light of his recent more open demeanor.
Calanthe’s entrance greatly upsets the tone of the banquet. While in episode 1 the queen was portrayed with honorable qualities alongside some degree of crassness, this version doubles down on this negative trait to the detriment of all others. Her battered appearance and exaggerated vulgar nature are cartoonish to the point of alienating the audience. For the second time now the series rushes to the “hard-boiled chick who drinks beer” trope, and it strikes even more cliché in this context. Calanthe’s stubbornness and spoiled superiority come through in full force during her conversation with the Nilfgaardian suitors. I can see how the show intends to create contrast between the queen’s younger and older selves, but the version at hand could really have retained some of the poignancy or virtue of her later iteration.
The witcher and the queen share some smart dialogue resulting in a fine attempt at world-building. It’s such a nice change to see Cavil flex some actual dialogue skills, that his acting carries most of the sequence.
Pavetta, being Ciri’s mother, should be a highly significant part of the plot, yet she is given almost zero character here. There is a single facial expression she can muster and looks to be right on the verge of crying for about 90 percent of her screen time. Since the whole banquet and thus the whole plot is attached to her, I expected much more of an emphasis to be placed on the princess. She also most definitely does not look 15, which upsets the already flimsy timeline of events.
The banquet is great fun, but the trio of Geralt, Pavetta, and Calanthe being so miserable misalign them from the audience. Finally, some life to the series, and the main characters just keep complaining about it.
The plot thickens momentarily with the arrival of the Urcheon of Erlenwald. Some intrigue is built by his initial appearance, but it’s all lost once the creature is unmasked. On a positive note, the makeup and CG that brought the knight’s cursed visage to life were exceptionally well done. The monster’s face always seemed emotive and life-like, even amongst the chaos soon to ensue.
It is at this very moment Eist and the writers simultaneously decided “Bollocks to that”. The plot quickly devolves into a well-choreographed but meaningless brawl. It’s an energetic and competently shot action sequence but everyone’s sudden urge to start killing each other is never justified. Everything from Geralt’s intervention to the Skelligans joining the fray feels empty and unfounded. Contrary to the books, Geralt is not there by Calanthe’s order, so there is no intrigue or build-up foreshadowing the Urcheon’s arrival. Once Dunny arrives the actual story itself is skipped and we jump straight into the fight. There is no satisfactory explanation of the law of surprise or the intimate ties it holds to Geralt. Dunny’s circumstances are simply glossed over. Much more regrettably there is no debate about the validity of his claims. The Urcheon presents a multi-faceted conundrum and instead of exploring its implications the story just skips right over them. The early reveal of the knight’s cursed appearance strips the conflict of its overall practical significance.
Pavetta embracing Dunny is not a reveal it is a ‘what the fuck?’ moment. The relationship of the pair is not sufficiently illustrated and not even destiny being lobbed around can explain their attraction.
The plot halts to a standstill as it tries to salvage the last bit of sense it can make. Calanthe’s ambush of Dunny is an ill-founded story beat and only serves to make the queen even more unlikeable.
Once Pavetta’s powers are unleashed, the already uninspired brawl is replaced by a needlessly drawn-out CG fuckfest. There is zero (0) setup to Pavetta having magical abilities and now all of the sudden she is levitating and mumbling elvish in the middle of a tornado? The whirlwind and the floating effects are visibly cheap and again take away any sense of audience immersion. The scene of this magical clusterfuck is waaaaaaay too drawn out. By the fifth time the show cuts back and forth between the struggling guests and the floating duo, all tension has been replaced by overwhelming tiredness. Even Geralt and Moussack’s dramatic intervention loses all cool-factor by the time it happens.
Once the magic typhoon is resolved the story switches into 6th gear and carelessly rushes towards its conclusion. The throwaway line of “Grandmother’s Gift” is an insultingly vague explanation of why Pavetta just turned into Storm from X-Men.
Calanthe coming around is completely unbelievable since we have lost all respect for the character by this point. Even her union with Eist seems rushed and unsupported despite having seen the great pair they make. The plot charges ahead with such a breakneck speed that neither Dunny’s transformation nor Pavetta’s pregnancy conjures any effect. Geralt just rushes off before the implications of his own law of surprise request can be unpacked.
There is some additional destiny mumbo-jumbo with Mousesack at the end of the segment. This conversation is also utterly aimless. Even though the show has clearly abandoned any effort at nuance or subtlety, it somehow has also not found the courage to make its point obvious. The connection to Ciri does not come through with enough significance as the child surprise is not explained as the means of getting new witchers. All this serves to conclude the already butchered plot on a very hollow note.
I must compare the show’s rendition to the source material it fails to adapt. This will be the harshest critique I lay on the writers of the show, but in this case, it is sadly justified.
The original story is very smartly built upon a series of questions and reveals. First, we know Clanathe is dreading something but we have no clue what. The Urcheon’s arrival brings clarity but makes us wonder about his intentions. Once the Law of Surprise is explored and thoroughly debated only then does the focus move to the Urcheon’s appearance and the curse. Tension is built by Pavetta having to agree to the proposal and an additional reveal bomb is dropped once she exposes her preexisting relation with Dunny. Only after all this, once the tension has been raised well above the ceiling does the fight break out. Finally, Paveta’s power emerges not out of the blue, but after Geralt and Mousesack continually noting its build-up the entire way through. And the most glaring oversight concerns Geralt’s role in these events. In the books Geralt does not debate the power of destiny, in fact, he wholeheartedly embraces it, knowingly asking for Pavetta and Dunny’s child. It is only over the course of the books and in hindsight that Geralt comes to fear the forces of destiny he set in motion.
The Netflix show mercilessly skips all the main elements of the story. I cannot imagine how the writers could have assumed they could forgo all the substantial elements of the plot and still deliver the same conclusion. The lack of care or even understanding towards the source material is astounding. I understand it is not possible to adapt all the nuances of such a complex story but to adapt absolutely none of it takes a special kind of incompetence.
Cutting plot for the sake of time is understandable, but the show takes this practice to its most extreme degree. You can take out a racecar’s engine to make it lighter, but then, much like this episode, there is nothing left to fuel its momentum.
I could berate the writing of this episode for days, but The Closer Look youtube channel has an excellent video that thoroughly outlines the faults of the story much better than I could. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6I4d09o4Ao Where I disagree with the video is the stance that the plot is inherently “un-adaptable”. In my opinion, there was a clearly wrong way to approach the adaptation and that’s exactly what the writers carried out. The majority of pitfalls the show encounters are not inevitable at all, yet the storytelling jumps right into each and every one of them.
It’s as if my 6 years old nephew attempted to summarise 50 Shades of Grey. He could deliver an approximate retelling of where the story begins and where it ends. But the central theme of the work would clearly escape him.
Finally, it is time to look at Yennefer’s plot. Despite its previously mentioned odd pacing, the story is a satisfying and compact sequence. When we left the sorceress she has just achieved her goal of becoming Aedirn’s new court mage and was desperately eager to jump into her new role. It is again after a great unseen leap in character that we return to Yennefer. She has been jaded by the life she fought to attain. The show keeps presenting different stages of Yen’s development without giving us the fundamentally necessary in-between time where the development actually happens. At this point, it’s frankly difficult to be invested in Yennefer’s arc for mainly two reasons. First, since most of her evolution takes place off-screen, it feels like we only get to spend interstitial moments with her. It never provides a chance to root for her. Second, we have committed quite some time to her story already and yet it is still completely unclear how she will tie into the greater narrative.
The Yennefer of this episode only emits hollow dissatisfaction devoid of emotional stakes. Her jaded disposition is now in direct contrast to how young she appears.
The only other speaking part in this story is reserved for poor queen Kalis. The girl does a great job of giving us an alternate glimpse into the lives of royalty in this world. A victim of her circumstances but not a particularly likable presence, she perfectly embodies the grey morality of the setting. The queen produces some genuine moments all the while her spoiled and condescending nature shines through.
The attack on the carriage is some very well-made fast-paced violence. It’s great gory fun delivered with abundant style. The assassin himself and his insectoid companies are both unique and threatening original presences. I do wish we could have had a book or game character fill the role of the knife for hire, but it’s a menial gripe. Sticking to the theme of good CG this episode, the bughound? is expertly crafted and is a great hint at the types of monsters this world contains. There are a few awkwardly floaty moments, but overall the creature is very well put-together. Both the insectoid and its owner project the necessary amount of cold unstoppable threat.
The portals Yen summons are also solid visual effects blending nicely into each environment. Speaking of the environment, this short sequence provides the best and most verified use of scenery so far this season. Teleporting from place to place is a very smart way both to provide visual variety and give a sense of the scale of the world. The desert dunes, muddy village, flowery hillside, and rocky cliff are all expertly shot and provide some much welcome visual flare.
Yen’s sudden departure and return from the chase hints at a good moment of inner conflict, but it’s not suitably unpacked to attain meaning. On the flip side, Queen Kalis willingly sacrificing her baby to plead for her own life is a great character piece. It finally archives portraying the girls as a scummy but 3-dimensional character. All this of course happens right as she is killed off. It’s a shame a similarly concise yet complex portrayal is never granted to any of the more longer-lasting members of the supporting cast. Yen’s return is an impactful story beat but the ease with which she eliminates the insectoid murder-pet is very anticlimactic. If she had the old “make the bug decapitate itself” spell up her sleeve why not use it earlier? Did she have to fill her special meter like a street fighter character?
This brings into the spotlight another glaring issue with the series at large. While episode 2 established rigid foundations and rules for the magic system, Yen’s exploits this episode seemingly disregard all these constraints. She casts portals with ease without anything being exchanged as the cost of the spell, she struggles to slow down the bughound but then kills it without much effort. It does not help Yen’s case that even within this episode Fringilla and her cultish cohort literally merc a dude just to ask for directions. All this while Yen can shoot shadows out of her hand with minimal effort. It detracts from the well-established rules of the universe while also confusing attentive viewers.
Yennefer’s failure to save the baby and subsequent mourning is a superb dark turn to already bleak events. The monologue she delivers seated on the beach is the first time I felt something for Yen’s character. Both the setting and the verbiage are suitably poetic. The speech really drives home the character’s completely disillusioned state. Ending on emphasizing the hardships of being a girl derails the tone a bit, but does not lessen the emotional impact. I understand that one of the central themes the writer chose to add to the series is the hardships of being a woman in a man’s world. Renfri talks about it, Ciri talks about it, Calanthe practically can’t stop talking about it. The repetition of the theme becomes tired by the time Yen echoes it here. Nevertheless, after skipping over most of Yen’s evolution, it’s nice to finally get some humanity to her character. Anya Charlotta still outdoes all expectations and skillfully conveys the sorceress’ frazzled state of mind. Her aside about being “just vessels’ undermines her future driving motivation of wanting to bear children, but at this point in the story, it’s not too distracting.
Her final words still ring with some off-putting cynicism but the shot of her burrowing the child is a poignant image that will stick in my mind for some time to come.
Overall Yen’s story is an exceptional outing when taken on its own terms. If the entire sequence was delivered without cuts to the other plots, it could have made for a legitimately engaging standalone short. The threat of the assassin and his pet are great drivers of excitement and urgency. The young queen is a layered character emblematic of her circumstances. There is some character depth missing from Yen’s sudden escape and return, but the story more than makes up for it with her ending monologue.
This sequence also delivers glimpses of some unique and intriguing settings. The cinematography is a standout element of Yen’s arc. The camera work is honestly exemplary in delivering multiple perfectly framed shots.
Although Yen’s story is a short standout, it’s not overly difficult considering how dreadfully botched the other two plots were. On initial viewing, the episode seemed almost fine, a generic fantasy romp with some good comedy elements, agreeable action, and foreboding conclusions. It’s only once I started giving it some thought that its shortcomings became blatantly obvious. After a minimal amount of scrutiny, the plot quickly reveals itself to be a mostly unskilled mess. This episode gives just enough peeks of quality to hint at what the show could have been, before dashing all our hopes with its clear disrespect towards the very text that inspired it.
I don’t want the show to be a word-for-word retelling of the source material. I wholeheartedly embrace Yen’s original story for example. Where my problems begin is the aforementioned lack of understanding and respect the series displays regarding Sapkowski’s work. Trying to squeeze the three stories into a single episode is mostly to blame for the rushed and borderline unintelligible plating of events. But it’s a constraint the writers impose on themselves. If a story gets worse the more you think about it, it wasn’t a very good story, to begin with.
In conclusion episode 4 had the potential to be the best the series had to offer. Unfortunately, it turned out as a case study example of everything that has gone wrong with the series.
I rate this episode 3 stings of a rare manticore subspecies.