The first episode of The Witcher, appropriately titled “The End’s Beginning,” is quick and effective glimpse into the life and times of two protagonists. Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) faces an impossible choice while Princess Cirilla of Cintra (Freya Allen) faces an indescribable tragedy. The third member of the show’s triumvirate does not appear yet, but there’s enough meat in the hour already to understand why Yennefer of Vengerberg’s (Anya Chalotra) grand entrance was delayed.
The Butcher of Blaviken
Geralt’s storyline in The Witcher premiere is derived primarily from “The Lesser Evil,” a short story in The Last Wish collection. Readers and players automatically know that refers to the tale of Renfri (Emma Appleton), but plebeians like myself can think of her as a twisted version of Snow White. It’s an excellent introduction to the world for a variety of reasons – mostly because it establishes how magic is viewed depending on who wields it, but also because it reveals who Geralt is in the eyes of society based not only on his job description but also on the actions he takes in “The End’s Beginning.”
The Witcher’s tone is set by the opening scene, in which Geralt defeats a kikimora. His smile after killing the monster is probably the widest one seen throughout the course of the episode, for he is clearly more at home among them than among fellow humans. That contrast is immediately made clear when he strolls into a bar in Blaviken and is met with all manner of verbal abuse simply for being a Witcher. The only person who is kind to him is Renfri, but that camaraderie ends when a young girl named Marilka (Mia McKenna-Bruce) arrives to take him to the town’s sorcerer, Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen).
This encounter with Stregobor, perfectly played with dripping insincerity by Mikkelsen, is where the central fallacy of the series is uttered. “Witcher’s don’t feel anything,” the sorcerer claims, though he’s already been refuted by Geralt’s scenes up until then. It is a lie that defines how other characters react to Geralt, both in this episode and in the future. And it could easily make for its own sociological thesis on empathy, since Witchers are forced into their positions and apparently make very little money doing it. They’re low on the totem pole in this world, which invites further mockery and scorn rather than sympathy and help.
Despite his reputation, Geralt immediately comes across as the most moral character of the lot. He is the voice of the audience, as evidenced by his reaction Stregobor asking him to kill Renfri because she was supposedly sent by the demon Lilit to destroy humanity. His horror at the idea of locking young women in towers and autopsying them when they die makes him more human than Stregobor, certainly, as the sorcerer considers that to be the “lesser evil.”
At the same time, he doesn’t think Renfri is in the right either. She explains her side of the story in a way that garners far more sympathy: when a soldier was sent into the woods to kill her, she took him out with her mother’s brooch. But she had no dwarves to protect her, and instead she had to fend for herself – robbing and killing when she must – until she gathered her own army through Lilit’s powers. Now she wishes to employ Geralt to kill the man who made her this way; the very man trying to employ Geralt to kill her.
It’s a tragic tale, but it still doesn’t do the trick. Geralt remains steadfast, even convincing enough for Renfri to stay the night with him. That part is a bit gratuitous, though it is also from the novel series, but it makes sense in terms of lost souls, considered “mutants,” reaching out for comfort from someone who is like them. Come morning, however, that companionship is irrelevant. She forces his hand by abducting young Marilka and sending her goons after him. And so Geralt, who prefers to kill only monsters, winds up killing more than his fair share of humans – Renfri included.
Geralt may have killed her, but he remains protective and refuses to let Stregobor autopsy her. Instead of receiving his payment and thanks, Stregobor turns the city against him and brands him with the Butcher of Blaviken moniker that clings to him for the rest of his days. Even Marilka, the girl he saved, sees him as nothing but a monster now. His consideration of all evils as equal and his resistance to choosing between a rock and a hard place is exactly what him ineffectual here, something The Witcher explores very thoroughly with this one story.
And though it’s a bit of a joke how stoic he is, it’s a tougher role to play than one would think. Already world-weary and full of regret from the heavy burdens of his as-yet unexplained past, Cavill plays him with a mysterious restraint and a hardened edge that inspires curiosity to learn more.
For Ciri’s story, check the next page.