It’s been two extremely eventful, exhausting years in the real world since we last saw our grim, grimy pals on the Continent, but it’s been a matter of hours for them. Season two’s premiere “A Grain of Truth” picks up immediately after the events of the season one finale, and folks? It’s a Baroque Angela Carter fever dream banger of an episode.
At the end of season one, Cirilla (Freya Allan) and Geralt (Henry Cavill) finally, finally found each other. Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), however, is MIA following her flaming chaos blowout at the Battle of Sodden Hill, which pretty much single-handedly allowed the northern mages to eke out a victory over Fringilla (Mimî M. Khayisa) and the Nilfgaardian army. As we rejoin the team, Vilgefortz (Mahesh Jadu) is putting surviving Nilfgaardian soldiers out of their misery while Tissaia (MyAnna Buring) desperately searches for Yennefer by way of what I can only describe as, uh, Magical Death Instant Replay, which allows for a couple very striking POV death scenes. Tissaia seems to think Yen’s power explosion caused her to go full niffin, to borrow a phrase from Lev Grossman. Geralt and Ciri arrive, also looking for Yen, and Tissaia, in her grief, tells Geralt Yen is dead.
Yen, of course, is very much not dead–instead she’s been captured by a ragtag band of Nilfgaardian survivors, led by Fringilla. Yen immediately clocks that Nilfgaard lost and that Fringilla intends to offer Yen to Emhyr as a way of apologizing for said loss, and proceeds to absolutely run up one side of Fringilla and down the other. Fringilla may have a deep and profound faith in the White Flame, but Yennefer is clearly a practitioner of the roasting arts. She’s such a bitch, I would absolutely die for her.
The meat of the episode, though, we spend with Geralt and Cirilla, who’re headed to Kaer Morhen, witcher home base. They’re both hurting, Geralt from his recently-incurred necrophage bite and the loss of Yennefer, Ciri from the loss of her home, the death of her grandmother, Queen “Girlboss Gatekeep Genocide” Calanthe, and her subsequent deeply traumatic quest to survive long enough to find Geralt. In need of a place to stay en route, they stop at a manor house belonging to an old friend of Geralt’s (oh, so NOW this guy has friends?).
But things change when you don’t see someone for years—in this case, the nearby village has turned into a ghost town and Nivellen is… how do I put this? He’s literally just the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. He’s fully just the Beast. He’s a hulking, furry boar/bear/man creature, the result of a curse Nivellen incurred after falling in with a bad crowd, taking heroic doses of mushrooms, and trashing the Temple of the Lionhead Spider (I mean, whom among us). He doesn’t have a magically anthropomorphized household staff, but what he DOES have is some kind of telepathic connection to the house that allows him to summon whatever he wants—food, a giant copper bathtub, throwing knives, etc. (Underneath all those CGI-aided prosthetics, by the way, is Kristofer Hivju, who played Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones, and he is clearly having a blast.)
Ciri takes a much-needed bath in wh—OH FUCK CREEPY WOMAN IN THE CEILING THIS IS NOT A DRILL OH MY GOD EJECT—
Ahem. After dinner, Ciri goes to bed, and Geralt and Nivellen play a little drinking game involving throwing knives at a painting of Nivellen’s shithead father and catching each other up on their lives. (Nivellen, after learning of Yen’s death: “How are you not heartbroken?” Geralt: “Who says I’m not?”) Geralt senses Nivellen isn’t exactly being straight with him (and is, in fact, using magic knives to cheat), but he gets no satisfaction out of the conversation. Later, outside, he takes Roach out to do a circuit of the grounds (he’s still not sleeping), and finds corpses and a set of footprints that end mysteriously mid-courtyard. “It flies,” he growls.
Enter Creepy Ceiling Woman, in Ciri’s bedroom (from my notes: “hoo boy we are on some fucked up Bloody Chamber shit now”)—she does a Samira-from-The Ring jitter-crawl across the ceiling and wakes Ciri from a nightmare, introducing herself as Vereena (Agnes Born) but being evasive about pretty much everything else. Ciri, of course, is no slouch, and immediately clocks that Vereena’s probably a monster, and that Nivellen hid her from Geralt because he loves her, but Vereena charms her back to sleep.
Geralt heads back inside in battle mode and finds Vereena, who he’s identified as a bruxa, sucking Nivellen’s blood as he sleeps. The fight begins: Vereena displays some truly gnarly dental work, and once they’ve moved outside, we see her non-humanoid form (a… leggy bat). Geralt tells Ciri to stay with Roach, but she’s headstrong, and naturally Vereena is perfectly willing to kill her to save her own life. Just as Vereena’s getting ready to tear Ciri’s throat out, Nivellen runs her through from behind with a spear. In a wonderfully effective moment of body horror, Vereena turns her head 180º, flips her arms around the wrong way, and pulls herself along the shaft of the spear to kill him—but Geralt beheads her.
The curse is broken, and Nivellen becomes a man again. It’s clear Nivellen loved Vereena—she loved him in his cursed Beast mode, and so he let her feed on him and slurp her way through the nearby village. Geralt is pretty cut and dry about Vereena being a monster but Ciri is more circumspect, telling Nivellen, “whether she was or not, she loved you.” Distraught, Nivellen confesses that his crime wasn’t sacking the temple, but rather raping the priestess, and begs Geralt to kill him. Geralt, disgusted, tells him to do it himself.
The immediate ease of the relationship between Geralt and Ciri hits SO well—they’re each other’s destinies, after all, and slide right into a father/daughter dynamic. Geralt talks to Ciri like an adult, too, which is so refreshing. He’s gentle with her, but honest: when she suggests he could take her to “her people” in Skellige (presumably Eist’s relatives?), he replies, “If you want. But you’d be married off to the nearest Lord of Bad Breath. He’d be seeking to claim your throne too.”
It’s not a totally seamless transition—perhaps understandably, Ciri is alarmed when Geralt takes his cat potion and goes into battle mode. And Ciri is carrying around a dozen or so therapists’ worth of trauma, unprocessed grief, and self-doubt. She’s frightened by her own power, scared she might be a monster herself, which makes her inclined to give Vereena the benefit of the doubt (though, as Nivellen told her earlier, “Monsters are born of deeds done.”) Later, by the fire, Geralt gently but in no uncertain terms underscores that when he tells her to do something in the midst of battle, she needs to do it.
“A Grain of Truth” really underscores just how much season one was an extended prologue—which makes sense, given that it was largely based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s story collections rather than the novels, but it’s clear we’ve reached the meat of the story, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
- We get quick check-ins with Artorius (Fringilla’s father), who is still alive and worried about PR. Triss Merigold, meanwhile, is alive but severely wounded. The mages have captured Cahir, who refuses to talk, but Tissaia, in her grief, subjects him to a deeply effective monologue about what she’s going to do to him and then does it, rather horribly.
- Speaking of, Tissaia is really fucked up over Yennefer’s death, and I just don’t know if that tracks for me? MyAnna Buring is very good, but I don’t think season one did quite enough legwork to establish that she cares deeply about Yen, rather than just respecting Yen as her most talented protégée.
- The episode ends with the remaining Nilfgaardian soldiers being rather savagely picked off from the trees, leaving Fringilla and Yennefer alone in the woods, surrounded.
- Geralt grime check: looking a little fried, my man. I know you’ve had a rough week but let’s get a deep condition going ASAP. But I have to say, Henry Cavill absolutely works that stringy fantasy wig in a way no man has managed since Viggo Mortensen whipped his hood off in Fellowship and sparked a seismic wave of sexual awakenings around the world. (Sorry 2 all my Legolas girls/gays/theys but I will never understand salivating over the prepackaged PB&J when the meatball sub is right there.)
- “[light skittering sounds]” is never an auspicious thing to see in the captions.
- Nivellen mentions sightings of the Wild Hunt, which Ciri identifies as being the same as the Wraiths of Mörhogg—an evil omen, warriors on skeletal horses. Geralt, being Geralt, is dismissive.
- From a storytelling perspective, the obvious benefit of pairing Ciri and Geralt is that she can ask him all the questions a viewer might have and he’s inclined to actually answer. It’s a great opportunity for the show to deliver some exposition on witcher lore, Kaer Morhen, and so on.
- A friend of mine has a theory that certain actors are always playing the same character on a very long timeline (Jared Harris, most notably), and I’d like to submit Kristofer Hivju as another potential entry on that list. Nivellen and Tormund have a lot in common, spiritually.
- My husband, who doesn’t watch the show, walked through the living room while I was watching and muttered “Devon Banks-ass voice” re: Henry Cavill, and you know what, he’s not wrong.
- Cavill just has such a good face! There’s a moment where Geralt is explaining the Law of Surprise Pavetta/Duny situation to Ciri and tells her he saved Duny’s life from Calanthe. “She didn’t want your mother marrying a… an outsider,” and during the pause, you can SEE him thinking “don’t say hedgehog don’t say hedgehog don’t say hedgehog don’t say hedgehog.”
Next review for episodes 2-3 is coming up soon! Watch this space.
Emily Hughes wants to talk to you about scary books. As the site editor for TorNightfire.com, she’s dedicated to bringing the good word about horror to the masses. You can find her writing at Tor.com, Electric Lit, Thrillist, and Brooklyn Magazine. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds, she now writes an occasional newsletter about horror fiction and tweets bad puns @emilyhughes.