Burn Butcher Burn: Jaskier Deserved Better in The Witcher Season 2

I guess… what I’m really asking you is… is this what pleases you?

There’s a lot to love in season two of Netflix’s The Witcher, but many admirers of the fan favorite bard Jaskier are left, well, wanting. Our central protagonist, the Witcher himself, Geralt of Rivia, opens up a good amount from the grunty hmm-er we met in season one—with a notable, confusing, and canonically heartbreaking exception.

In season one, their dynamic seems to be built on a mutual “this man is a disaster. I should protect him.” It’s notably one of the longest relationships we see Geralt maintain, and unquestionably the closest, though the show chooses to leave a lot of the basis of it offscreen. Jaskier is wrapped up in Geralt’s destiny, though he’s certainly not to blame for it—Geralt finds his way to both Ciri and Yennefer, through his own choices, but also undeniably because of Jaskier. Yet unlike the women Geralt’s bound to, the bond between Geralt and Jaskier is a choice, one that both of them make over and over for decades. The intricacy of their specific intimacy is founded on suggestions and quieter, smaller moments than most of the rest of the show, and in this way, Jaskier ends up being an emotional core of the show, and certainly for Geralt. 

Jaskier, unlike almost everyone else in Geralt’s life, is interested in Geralt before he even realizes Geralt’s a witcher. While they wind up making each other famous, their relationship begins with Jaskier’s simple, blatant interest in the big man who looks like he could snap Jaskier in half. When he does find out Geralt’s a witcher, he doesn’t spend a single moment afraid of him. 

The idea that they’re simply close friends doesn’t hold up, because they’re notably not—we see Geralt with Nivellen, with Mousesack, with Nenneke, with his brothers. He’s kind, playful, verbose, and understanding. But with Jaskier, there’s layers of emotion, pent-up and frustrated, shifting into a greater distance specifically when Yennefer comes into their lives, which she notably does because of Jaskier. The way he treats Jaskier is different, there’s something specific there. One could argue he just finds Jaskier annoying, but there are too many moments of tenderness, in twenty years of choosing to let Jaskier remain in his life, for that to be at all convincing.

Screenshot: Netflix

Meanwhile, Jaskier’s feelings are frankly an essay of their own. They manifest in every look he gives Geralt. In the flirty head-tilt he gives him at their meet-cute, when he leaves behind his lute to go talk to the big, scary man in the corner before he ever knows he might get some stories out of him. In the way he never once doubts Geralt’s goodness, even after Geralt punches him in the gut. In how quick he is to defend Geralt from anti-witcher sentiment like no one ever has, how he makes a life’s mission out of it. In your lovely bottom and later bloated biceps. In the buttercup-printed doublet he puts Geralt in after the bathing they’ve so clearly shared before. In maybe someone, somewhere will want you, and, most intensely in the first season, we could get away for a while. Head to the coast. And when Geralt gives him the out of composing a new song? Jaskier doesn’t take it, looking at Geralt more seriously than he ever has, with his lip trembling and his jaw working, and says, no. Just trying to work out what pleases me, in a way that can only mean it’s you. 

While season one may leave some room for interpretation, where we meet Jaskier in the second season makes it disingenuous to argue his feelings are ambiguous. He is canonically heartbroken over Geralt blaming him for everything that went wrong in his life and abandoning him in Caingorn. This could have been minimized—Jaskier could have been annoyed but over it—but instead, he takes his heartbreak seriously. Joey Batey delivers a masterful, nuanced performance yet again, and it is clear Jaskier’s heartbreak is his strongest defining characteristic in the second season. Jaskier could not be less over it, especially as it’s clear he’s been trying so hard to be. 

Jaskier’s season two blatant break-up anthem evidences just how thoroughly Geralt’s rejection has wrecked him. Did you ever even care? he asks. After everything we did, we saw, you turned your back on me. It leaves no ambiguity as to whether this is solely about Geralt pushing him away the following morning. The crux of the song lies in Geralt’s rebuff of Jaskier’s mountaintop proposal, even Jaskier’s question in the bath many years ago. What for do you yearn? he wails and snarls, his voice breaking. It’s openly demonstrative, not least because he can’t even get through it without doing exactly what his song indicates he’s trying so hard not to do—getting lost in the very memories he shared with Geralt that he’s trying to “burn.” And ouch, the irony! It’s only a short while later that he endures hours of torture, of getting burned himself, to try and protect Geralt. For all his bluster, for all his I hear you’re alive—how disappointing, his burn, butcher, burn! and watch me burn all the memories of you, Jaskier suffered and would have died to protect Geralt and Ciri. When Yennefer rescues him, it’s one of the first things he says—you’ve got to warn him. 

The Witcher, season 2, episode 5, Turn Your Back

Screenshot: Netflix

Even the reception of the song itself feels like a minimization of Jaskier’s feelings. Both within the story and how it was treated by the show, “Burn Butcher Burn” was never positioned to be a viral hit like “Toss a Coin,” a song that only celebrates Geralt instead of challenging him. Jaskier’s use of “butcher” is so specific and so vulnerable—it feels like the word that might hurt Geralt the most, like it’s Jaskier’s only line of defense against what happened on the mountain, and it emphasizes the depths to which Geralt hurt him. The entire song marks such a clear shift in Jaskier’s character. It’s a devastating evocation of Jaskier’s pain, and it hardly feels like the show takes it seriously. Geralt never even has to hear it. 

The parallel of Jaskier’s season one introduction versus his season two is clear and jarring. Gone is the light-hearted, carefree flirt; he still goes through the motions but he’s distracted. Crucially, he has everything it seems like he wanted in the first season: He’s functionally the Continent’s hottest bard. He’s got fame, fans, probably fortune, and even a greater purpose, as The Sandpiper. And yet he can’t even get through the song without losing himself in the memories he can’t burn. He says it himself, to Yennefer: it did come from the heart. Perhaps even a broken one. 

His dynamic with Yennefer is one of the strongest this season. Part of it is the actors’ easy chemistry and charisma, and the rich character dynamic that actually develops based on where both of them are on their emotional arcs. While this season demonstrates they have more in common than Geralt—their sense of survival, their inherent compassion—their entire rivalry is founded on him. Their banter, the way they compete for his attention and his affection. Indeed, the moment Yennefer meets Geralt and Jaskier, she clocks Jaskier as a romantic threat: just friends, I hope? The tension between them builds until Geralt shoves both of them away, in parallel, and then diffuses in their season two reunion, as they bond over their shared ex. We’re better off without him, Jaskier tells her, as he’s clearly been trying to tell himself, and neither of them believe it

The Witcher, season 2, episode 4, Redanian Intelligence

Screenshot: Netflix

So his eventual reunion with Geralt, seven episodes into an eight episode season, stings. We know Jaskier’s been nursing a broken heart, and we know that for some reason Geralt doesn’t seem to spare him a thought until Yennefer brings up that he’d “gotten into some trouble,” which doesn’t really tell us if Geralt even knows Jaskier’s been tortured for him. It’s odd, because the entire time, it’s not clear if Geralt’s meant to be wrapped up in what’s happening with Ciri or if the show simply thinks it’s not worth dwelling on Geralt’s thoughts on Jaskier—yet Jaskier’s storyline, even though he spends most of it apart from Geralt, is centered on Geralt, because his heartbreak defines his character this season. 

It’s so painful that that hug comes before the apology, even before Geralt says we need your help or I need you, even before I missed you! Jaskier clearly has his lecture ready to go! “You abandoned me on a mountain!” he says, “Don’t fucking Jaskier me, I’m talking to you, this is how it works.” He’s clearly not stopped thinking about that moment since it happened, he’s told himself and Yennefer they’re better off without him, he’s spent months and months singing did you ever even care? and watch me burn all the memories of you and burn, butcher, burn! and yet! And yet! It takes nothing on Geralt’s behalf for Jaskier to step into his arms! All he does is appear and Jaskier doesn’t even care, the lecture can wait, he keeps his eyes open in that hug because he knows Geralt’s about to disappoint him again and he does but “fuck it!” Fuck it, he says, because he can’t help it. I welcome my sentence / give to you my penance / garrotter, jury, and judge. He knows he deserves better at this point. Yet when the moment arrives, he finds he’ll take that hurt and that disappointment over and over if it means he gets to be part of Geralt’s story again, and all Geralt has to do, seemingly, is let it happen. If I had to do it over, I’d do it all again…

Also, the entire season we see him notably drinking. When he meets Yennefer, I’m not having this conversation unless we’re drinking, and then he’s clutching a wineskin and hungover for the last episode. Jaskier never drank this heavily in season one—indeed, the only time we saw him drink like this is when he’s been left by the Countess de Stael, and goes to find Geralt on a riverbank. When, in his words, he fears he will die a broken-hearted man. It feels like such a deliberate parallel—why would he be drinking so much again now? He’s heartbroken again. 

I’m not particularly interested in participating in the argument as to whether or not this reads as deliberately, intentionally queer within the first two seasons. I’m very aware how I’m intended to take it. It’s the default. And I also know what I’m seeing. How I’m to take “and sooner or later they will come for everyone. Anyone that they deem ‘the other,’ so… sooner or later no artist is safe,” when we’ve never once seen artists as a marginalized identity in The Witcher, Jaskier’s a very popular bard and a viscount, and all we have seen of Jaskier at that point in the season are his feelings for Geralt. Or lines like “left quite the sour taste in your mouth.” Or the moment Jaskier sees Geralt for the first time since the mountain and speaks his name like it’s the most precious, ruinous thing he’s ever experienced. Jaskier’s storyline is queer to many queer viewers. For me, the point is, no matter how you see the shape of these feelings, the fact is that Jaskier has unrequited feelings for Geralt. He’s remade by them, wrecked by Geralt’s actions at the beginning of the season, and when we leave him he’s only more so, with the show allowing a newly communicative Geralt to demonstrate absolutely zero interest in acknowledging Jaskier’s feelings specifically.

The Witcher, season 2, episode 8, Family

Screenshot: Netflix

Ultimately, season two fails to deliver on the season one promise and premise that Geralt cares about Jaskier, which complicates our understanding of Geralt’s growth. In both seasons, most people see Geralt as an arbiter of destiny, a means to an end, or a monster. Jaskier, meanwhile, notably keeps asking Geralt what he wants. He’s preoccupied by it. You must want something for yourself, when all this witchering is over, he says, before Destiny even comes into their story. What’s going on, Geralt? Talk to me, he says before the djinn attack. We could get away for a while, he offers, before Geralt breaks his heart on a mountaintop. It’s at the heart of his most iconic song this season: what for do you yearn? And each time, Geralt deflects. When it comes up this season, in such a perfect, verbatim callback to the last thing he asked Geralt, I guess what I’m asking is… is this what pleases you? Geralt still deflects. He says that he thought ignoring Ciri would make everything better, but it hasn’t. He once again addresses what he has to do, what he believes he’s destined for—which is not, in fact, what Jaskier asked. 

It would make sense if, at last, after everything that’s happened since they parted ways, after all the growth Geralt’s meant to have gone through, Geralt answered him. At the very least, if Geralt and the show acknowledged what, exactly, Jaskier is asking. Yet Geralt seems to have no idea anything is wrong with Jaskier. He brushes Jaskier off when Jaskier tries to talk to him about it in the prison cell, and seems to take Jaskier’s deflection of his apology as sufficient. If life could give me one blessing it would be to take you off my hands was brutal, and such a specific cruelty to the one person who’s been trying for years to ask Geralt what he actually wants out of life. The witcher who’s meant to be more thoughtful, more communicative now, should know better than to imagine a simple apology that doesn’t get anywhere close to accountability is, well, putting salve on a tumor. 

And for his part, when Jaskier realizes he’s still not going to get Geralt to speak openly about what happened on the mountain, he deflects with humor to protect himself. He’s even told the audience he deflects his heartbreak with humor: “watch me laugh as I burn all the memories of you,” he says, while visibly falling apart. Oh Jaskier, I’m so sad and complicated, he teases, and you can see it in the set of his jaw, how close he comes to confronting how Geralt’s never acknowledged what Jaskier confessed pleases him. How he can tell Geralt just wants to go back to normal, how he’ll give him that because after being without him, fuck it, he’ll take shut up, Jaskier over losing him again in a heartbeat, even if it means settling for the dynamic he’s so clearly promised himself he wouldn’t go back to.

There is a queer reading here—there is a queer reading in every Jaskier scene of the series, but it’s painfully potent and blatant in this moment. He can’t answer that question, the one only Jaskier asks, because it doesn’t matter what Geralt wants, perhaps. He’s never been able to confront to himself why his relationship with Jaskier is different, why he still can’t call Jaskier a friend. What matters is his duty to the woman and the child for whom he’s always been destined. 

No matter how you read their dynamic, though, where is the Geralt who snarled “Leave off! He’s just a bard. And you can let him go,” when he himself had just hit Jaskier in the gut? Where is the Geralt who told an incredibly powerful sorceress “Fix him and I’ll pay you, whatever the cost”? Where is the Geralt who lets Jaskier dress him up in a buttercup doublet and bring him to a party, who stopped correcting some insufferable nobles about manticores because Jaskier pouted at him? Where is the Geralt who’s immediately ready to protect Jaskier against a hirikka—because this season’s Geralt doesn’t appear to spare a glance for him in a final battle up against monsters who easily slaughter far more equipped men. Jaskier gets tortured this season because of Geralt, and Geralt doesn’t even so much as ask him about it. It’s emotionally incongruent.

The thing is, his season two relationship with Jaskier is inherently such a missed opportunity to demonstrate Geralt’s character growth. Geralt’s dynamic with Jaskier is such an interesting, unique part of his character, and it feels oddly truncated here. We could’ve seen regret, accountability, atonement. We could’ve seen him earning back Jaskier’s trust. When he’s being tortured, Jaskier screams “Geralt does not have friends, and he does not have weaknesses!” This could have set up Geralt refuting exactly that—because clearly, as we saw this season, he’s capable of having both.

Frankly, it feels like the only reason it’s not explored more is for passable deniability of Jaskier’s feelings.

Especially in season two, when we find out how Jaskier’s been helping the elves as the Sandpiper, which is a storyline I adore, though I’m afraid of where it might be going. I don’t love The Witcher’s overall fantasy racism plots, but I do love Jaskier’s role in this season. While everyone else is embroiled in magic and politics, Jaskier is on the ground, helping the people who need it. He does this single-handedly and the moment he recognizes it’s necessary. Not for fame, not for power, notably not because of destiny. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. This is real growth, because the first time we met Jaskier, he believed the propaganda he’d learned about the elves. One of the first moments we get real depth to his character is when he finds out through Filavandrel that he’s been lied to. It’s a packed scene, but Joey Batey’s acting in that single moment is so special—you can see something in Jaskier shift. And now, we find where that shift has led him. He’s a humble bard, he’s not going to influence politics or fight in the war. He sees those who are suffering the most in the machinations of larger forces, and he risks his life over and over, to help however he can. Jaskier has become, in fact, the exact sort of protector of the common people that a young Geralt himself once fantasized about becoming.

What would I have given for Geralt to ask Jaskier what he’s been doing since Geralt abandoned him, for Geralt to react to Jaskier’s role as the Sandpiper. It would have made sense—he’s talking to everyone else now, right? Even Nivellen, even Istredd. Geralt would have to see Jaskier differently, gain a deeper understanding of the bard he dismissed and continues to take for granted. To see who Jaskier’s become without him, perhaps to admire that Jaskier defaults to helping people, even though nothing binds him to it but his own sense of justice. It makes Geralt seem selfish. It seems like he doesn’t care, and when we see him capable of care for everyone else this season, even a girl he spent roughly twelve years ignoring, it stands out as strangely cruel. Is it guilt, or is it just new ambivalence?

In a season that’s concerned with Big World Destroying Destiny, Jaskier is so crucially focused on caring for those who need it most, those in immediate risk. That used to be not far off from Geralt’s role—protecting small towns and individual farmers from the monsters that plagued them. There’s so much rich potential for their dynamic to develop this season! It simply fell by the wayside, and Jaskier suffered for it, alone. He entered the season with deep scars, to not only have those same scars ripped open to bleed anew, but gain fresh ones as well. Jaskier is such a selfless protector this season, not only with the elves, but instinctively, with Yennefer. Even while she’s saving his life, he’s trying to protect her. Not because he’s “destined for it.” It comes naturally, and it has since he saw a witcher in a tavern with a blood-soaked story and decided to single-handedly and successfully change it forever.

There’s room for Jaskier to bring thoughtfulness, humor, and brightness within the rest of the central cast too. The show keeps suggesting Geralt teaches Ciri to be a witcher, Yennefer teaches her magic, and they’ll both teach her to be human… yet neither of them have been human for a very long time? He’s so notably that energy in their lives. It would have been wonderful to watch the two of them interact. 

The Witcher, season 2, episode 8, Family

Screenshot: Netflix

In a show ostensibly about found family, why is Jaskier the one who so openly wants it only to end the season alone again? It feels like he’s being narratively punished for his feelings, because they’re his guiding force this season. He’s as vulnerable as an open wound and it never gets tending—his storyline is hurt without the comfort, heartbreak with no catharsis, and it’s so primed for comfort, it’s jarring. If anything, we had a central villain who preyed on pain this season and she didn’t even seem to consider Jaskier’s, though it’s as blatant as anyone else’s. 

I have hope that some of this gets addressed, that they’re setting it up for confrontation and catharsis in season three, but it’s still unfair or at least unpleasant to end this season where it does emotionally for Jaskier, to make him and his fans wait so long yet again.

Yet I worry that the audience, like Jaskier, is meant to be contented by Geralt’s “I am sorry, Jaskier”—even though Jaskier clearly isn’t, so I’m not either. (Sidenote: without even looking him in the eye? Honestly, couldn’t Geralt have bartered two horses? Also Jaskier would have definitely asked about Roach.) Anyway, I also worry that there’s the possibility of Dijkstra enticing Jaskier to turn on the very people he loves, and the bright, compassionate, selfless light of Jaskier’s character would turn dark and cruel. Hard to blame him, after the way Geralt’s treated him—but it wouldn’t behoove the show to darken one of its few elements of heart and humor, at least not without confronting exactly why Jaskier feels so betrayed and abandoned yet again. 

I’m hoping part of Geralt’s arc will be reckoning with the way he’s treated the very first person who saw him as the hero he could be. At the very, very least I hope Geralt has to hear “Burn, Butcher, Burn” and take some genuine accountability.

Because I can’t stand the thought that for the second season in a row, Geralt is still oblivious while that beloved bard makes his way down a mountain, broken-hearted and alone.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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