Change is a valuable and necessary commodity in the entertainment industry, and The Witcher season 3 knows it. Like any good TV show, the popular Netflix fantasy series has to evolve – through its story, cast, themes, or a combination of all three – to remain relevant in the ruthless streaming world.
The Witcher season 3’s transitory period, though, is more disruptive than most. Lead actor Henry Cavill won’t be back as Geralt of Rivia for The Witcher season 4 and subsequent entries. The TV show has pivoted towards following the book series’ plot more closely – a welcome albeit puzzling adjustment when its predecessors eschewed that opportunity. If The Witcher were a person, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s suffering a bout of existentialism.
It’s fitting, then, that season 3’s main and supporting cast are grappling with their own identity crises. And, for some of The Witcher’s most beloved characters, those journeys embody the series’ growing pains down to a tee.
“This is the biggest shift we’re going to see for some of these characters,” Freya Allen, who plays Ciri, tells TechRadar. “We see them go to some very dark places throughout, and especially near the end of, this season. And those are going to be very interesting places to go to and explore.”
Race across the Continent
With the Continent’s various kingdoms vying for control of Ciri and her potent Elven Blood abilities, the heir to Cintra’s throne goes into hiding with protectors-cum-surrogate-parents Geralt (Cavill) and Yennefer (Anya Chalotra). Pursued for months and forced to relocate whenver they’re discovered, the trio agrees to seek refuge at Aretuza, the magic-bound fortress where Yennefer trained to be a mage.
Instead of finding safety, though, they soon realize Aretuza has become a politically-charged battlefield where corruption and treachery reign supreme. If they’re to survive their most dangerous ordeal yet, Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and everyone’s favorite bard Jaskier (Joey Batey) are forced to stand and fight, even if it means they might lose everything they’ve worked so hard to build and protect.
For Yennefer, the potential loss of true happiness and her surrogate family is what drives her to battle against the odds. It’s a deeply personal crusade that showcases Yennefer’s emotional maturation since season 1, which positioned her as a selfish sorceress who craved power above all else.
“For the first time, there’s something bigger than her to care about,” Chalotra says. “She’s more politically aware, and that helps her fight for Ciri and a better world. Yennefer knows how powerful and important Ciri is, so Yennefer has to teach her how to not only survive in this world but to make changes that serve the next generation. That makes Yennefer incredibly selfless, in my view.”
It’s Yennefer’s nurturing, motherly instinct, coupled with Geralt’s fatherly intuition, that will guide Ciri down a path toward being the Continent’s savior rather than its destroyer. However, given the level of expectation thrust upon her, and the threat of those wishing to use her powers for evil, Ciri’s journey is far from straightforward. As Allen alludes to, the pressure Ciri carries on her young shoulders – and the perpetual perils around every corner – comes with its own inter- and intrapersonal conflicts.
“There’s a running theme throughout this season of Ciri confronting her past and the different options for her powers,” Allen explains. “It’s always there, whether it’s physical or mental, and the character-defining moments and environments based around that theme are going to pivot her as a person. They take a physical and psychological toll on her, and that takes her to some dark places.”
Brewing a bewitching civil war
Ironically – and unbeknownst to the trio until their arrival – Aretuza turns out to be one of those shadowy locations, albeit from a physical viewpoint, Allen refers to.
The magical academy has become a more expansive battleground of political posturing and infighting between members of the Brotherhood of Sorcerers since viewers last visited. For Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring), rectoress of Aretuza, maintaining a fragile peace via diplomatic means is crucial to the fate of the Continent and those who inhabit it. As the powerful sorceress soon learns, though, putting your faith in the wrong people – and the emotionally crippling events born out of that misplaced trust – can damage a person’s idea of who they are.
“When you hold a position of power and have to walk a political tightrope, you’re in a constant state of worry,” Buring reveals. “You have to be ready for anything. But you can let your guard down with those few individuals in your inner circle, and you have to be very careful about who you let into that. Unfortunately for Tissaia, she makes an incredibly fatal choice to include someone she shouldn’t, which has a huge impact on her.”
While Tissaia reckons with her own sense of self, another Aretuza-based mage – Sabrina Glevissig (Therica Wilson-Read) – is unapologetic about who she is. A flirtatious sorceress whose rivalry with Yennefer is well documented, Sabrina is equally loyal with a high degree of integrity. Amid the growing discontent within the Brotherhood’s ranks and the Continent’s race to find Ciri, Sabrina is an honorable ally of Yennefer and Geralt who does whatever it takes to help conceal Ciri from her pursuers.
“I think you see her strong morals in this season when Marty suggests she romantically goes after Geralt,” Reid explains. “She replies that would be going too far. So yes, she’s provocative. She emotionally roughs people up. She’s power hungry and wants to be the best. But, in the end, she puts her life on the line to fight for those she loves. She does what she thinks is right, and she’ll fight tooth and nail for that.”
Spying an opportunity
Indeed, one of the kingdom’s Sabrina battles (when she’s not subversively joining forces with them) to keep Ciri safe from is Redania. The wealthy Northern realm might be ruled by King Vizimir, but the bumbling monarch’s principality is actually kept afloat by spymaster Sigismund Dijkstra (Graham McTavish) and Aretuza alumnus Philippa Eilhart (Cassie Clare).
Together, the machiavellian duo uses their extensive spy network and manipulative personalities to try to persuade Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri to join their side of the fight. It’s this devilish dynamic that makes Dijkstra and Philippa’s partnership, which was initially teased in The Witcher season 2, so formidable.
“Dijkstra and Philippa’s ambitions may differ slightly, but they look out for each other,” McTavish says. “Cassie and I do likewise on the set, too. I think that feeds into the performances and what audiences see play out in front of them on the screen. It’s a dynamic that’s key to Redania’s survival. They’ll do whatever it takes to maintain what they’ve built and continue building on that, whether it’s with Ciri’s abilities or not.”
“I always felt I could go to Graham for guidance,” Clare adds. “And he would help lead me through certain scenes, which made me feel safe. And I think that translates into what Dijkstra and Philippa have. They won’t admit it, but they care for each other’s welfare and know where the other stands.”
As Redania’s puppet masters, Philippa and Dijkstra are comfortable using other people for their own gain. Step forward Prince Radovid (Hugh Skinner), the younger brother of Vizimir who becomes entangled in Dijkstra and Philippa’s Redanian Intelligence network, and is used to romantically curry favor with Jaskier and lay the foundations for Ciri to join Redania’s cause. A playboy at heart, Radovid’s sense of self is upended when he finds himself falling for Jaskier, setting events in motion that have him questioning his role in the Continent’s fate.
“He gets embroiled with Philippa and Dijkstra against his will,” Skinner says. “That’s very much the situation socially as well. He doesn’t really want to be involved in the political side of things, but he’s quite excited to meet Jaskier and becomes captivated by him. That leads Radovid to get more and more out of his depth, which throws his sense of identity off.”
The complexity of the situation is equally felt by Jaskier, whose allegiance to Geralt and company is somewhat muddied by a deal he made with Phillipa in season 2. And, while Jaskier’s strong moral compass wins out in the end, exploring this newfound sense of ambiguity, in Batey’s mind, typifies season 3’s overarching theme of who you are and what you fight for.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to examine since day one,” Batey reveals. “It takes time to fall in love with these characters and discover them through the years. I’m just thankful [showrunner] Lauren [Hissrich] and the writers allowed me to bring Jaskier down a bit, and explore the vulnerability and curiosity within him. Moving forward, I don’t know where he’s going to go, but I want to find different corners of his heart and reveal them as best as I can.”
Aside from Cavill’s departure and confirmation that a fourth season is in development, it’s unclear what the future holds for The Witcher on Netflix. In our Witcher season 3 volume 1 review, we suggested the series was starting to lose its magical touch. Like the characters inhabiting its world, then, The Witcher is in the midst of an identity crisis. If it can emerge on the other side knowing what kind of show it truly wants to be, it’ll be fine. Unless season 3 volume 2 and/or season 4 hit the ground running, though, one of the best Netflix shows might be on borrowed time.
The Witcher season 3 volume 1 is available now on Netflix. Season 3 volume 2 arrives on Thursday, July 27.
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