After a long wait, The Witcher returned to Netflix with a solid set of season 3 episodes and, thanks to breaking the season into two parts, a legit cliffhanger fans should be talking about for the next month. The remaining episodes debut on July 27.
But that cliffhanger is not the only shock to be experienced in the quintet of season 3 episodes so far. Finally catching up to one of the great twists in author Andrzej Sapkowski’s novel series, the TV show also deployed some departures from the books that may prove controversial — they’ve certainly lit a fire on Reddit and social media platforms — and its most Netflix episode ever with the Conclave Ball in the part one finale, “The Art of the Illusion.”
The Witcher cast members, including Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, and Joey Batey, spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about a few of the latest developments, the ball, and what might be waiting the characters in the near future.
Spoiler alert: The following contains spoilers from the episodes included in Vol. 1 of The Witcher season 3. Stop reading here if you have not watched part 1 of the season and wish to avoid spoilers.
While there is a big departure from Sapkowski’s third full Witcher novel, Time of Contempt, we’ll be talking about in a moment, season 3 is faithful in one key way: the discussion of Geralt’s (Henry Cavill) neutrality. The power players on the Continent are all converging on Ciri’s (Allan) whereabouts and despite the Witcher’s belief that his stated neutrality will keep him alive, it’s clear choices will have to be made as The Witcher enters its political phase.
Well, the politics of the Continent, anyway.
According to Batey, that focus was established in the second season.
“We’re introduced to a number of different characters in season two that expand upon the political world, and not least of which is Sigismund Dijkstra who is a huge fan-favorite character,” he explained.
Dijkstra actor Graham McTavish said the push into a more direct political conflict was “inevitable” and “that’s what [Dijkstra and Philippa] have been plotting.”
As viewers saw during the Conclave Ball, Dijkstra is even the person who puts the question of alliances directly to Geralt. But ever trying to evade committing himself to the affairs of state, the Witcher chooses nothing but to protect Ciri.
Cassie Clare, who plays Redania-aligned mage Philippa, sees even that much as a change in Geralt’s posture and, potentially, a new flaw in the armor neutrality gave him.
“I think he’s going to struggle more and more with that because he has so much now that he wants to live for,” she explained. While he was previously happy just to wander and kill monsters, “now he has this family, this chosen family, if you will, that he’s building. So anything that threatens that I think is going to force him to pick sides, if he wants to take care of his family.”
Batey added, “I’ve been chomping at the bit to explore more of that. It’s a part of Sapkowski’s books that it’s just so intricately designed that I was excited to see it on the screen.”
Before the Conclave, though, Ciri and Yennefer (Chalotra) faced a tough road to reach Aretuza, both in terms of external threats and the still-frayed trust between them. As Chalotra put it, “it was always going to be a tricky journey.”
“We begin to see the emotional part of this relationship come out a little more and they’re sent off on a journey together,” she said. “They really do have to depend on one another.”
Of course, the willingness to trust one another comes with some brutal honesty and a number of moments where the student rightfully challenges the teacher, but also vice-versa.
“I think Ciri learns a lot about Yennefer that she never even knew and that really changes Ciri’s perspective on her,” Chalotra said. See the visit to Yen’s long-dismantled family home. “And, therefore, changes their dynamic because they realize they have even more in common than Ciri ever knew. Ciri just saw her as this perfect being and then getting to know this very relatable kind of backstory to Yennefer is really helpful for their relationship.”
And by the time they reached Aretuza, as Triss (Anna Shaffer) points out, Yen finally became a mother.
In many ways, Aretuza and the Conclave are the fulcrum of the series so far. Case in point: Geralt and Yen manage to determine the true power behind Rience’s (Sam Woolf) hunt for Ciri — Vilgefortz (Mahesh Jadu). None of the actors we spoke to had a moment to discuss the apparent reveal, but it is something worth commenting on as the unmasking still has a certain ambiguity to it. Book readers already know for certain, but at this point, it is still possible the list of missing initiates and the ancient corrupting portal tome found in his chambers could have been placed there by Philippa or another Redanian agent to sow further discord among the mages. Or by the Rience’s real superior.
We expect when the dust settles at Aretuza in part 2 of the season, Vilgefortz culpability and true aim will be determined. But for the moment, let’s throw a little suspicion Tissaia’s (MyAnna Buring) way as she ends up securing the book once it is discovered in Vilgefortz’s possession. Also note her apparent disregard for the initiates whenever Triss brings up their absences.
That said, Therica Wilson Read, who plays mage Sabrina, casts some doubt on our potential suspect: “[Tissaia has] always been such a mother figure, I believe that Sabrina sees her as a mother figure. And I think that she see us, yes, we’re women, and yes, we’re sorceresses, but I also think she see us as your children, really, [and she’ll] fight to the death for the people she loves.”
While the conclave, Yen and Ciri’s journey to Aretuza, and many other elements follow along from Time of the Contempt, the largest and most contentious departure is the attraction between Jaskier (Batey) and Redanian Prince Radovid (Hugh Skinner), which episode 5 also leaves on a cliffhanger of sorts. Is it all a ruse on Radovid’s part to isolate Ciri? Is Jaskier thinking with his brain for once? Is it more than just a lustful connection between them?
None of these questions can be answered by a reading of Time of Contempt, though, as the relationship (whatever form it takes) is an invention of the series’ executive producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. In the books, Jaskier — or Dandelion — is never presented as bisexual, and Radovid, at the time of these events, is a child.
The changes led to a lot of arguments online as the storyline leaked via an audition script for the prince character. Some even suggested it was the reason Cavill decided to leave the series. The true reason for the star’s departure will not be known for a long time, but Batey was willing to discuss the way the story altered Jaskier.
“The first time Lauren presented the direction in which she wanted to take him, all I wanted to do was ensure that it was done in a very sensitive way,” he said. “I got pretty involved with some of the rewrites to ensure that there was an integrity to the character of Jaskier that was kept safe and that this was a very sort of fledgling sapiosexual and romantic relationship.”
And, as it happens, a cursory look at some of the discourse around the storyline prior to the season 3’s debut reveals Jaskier’s bisexuality is the most believable change even if Sapkowksi never depicted him as such. The bigger issue, for some book readers at least, is that Jaskier would ever be attracted to someone like Radovid as depicted in the novels.
But for Skinner, playing the aged-up prince — said to be 19 in the leaked casting documents — the job was less to worry about the character’s fate than who he is in the context of the series’ depiction of events. As we meet him here, he’s more of an irresponsible scion of affluence than the man he will become in the books.
“It’s such a dangerous world, Redania, and I think he’s found his way of going under the radar,” Skinner explained. “He has just been drinking quite a lot, I think. Sort of self-medicating.”
His partying is disrupted when he joins Philippa and Dijkstra in their Redanian Intelligence operation, something Skinner was “excited to play.” And while it is still unclear if he’s scamming the schemers, the actor said Radovid is genuinely “captivated” by Jaskier “for obvious reasons.”
Nevertheless, there is still a risk in being involved with Radovid.
“I’m almost certain Jaskier is fully aware of the dangers of being intimate or romantically involved with someone of such great political power in the Continent,” Batey said. “But you have to put yourself out there and try and connect with people like that and try and be a loving human being. Otherwise, what’s the point of existing?”
For all the whispered conversations, revelations, and schemes at the ball, viewers may notice episode 5 has a different energy than other installments of The Witcher. According to Buring and Read, that comes down to it being one of the few times most of cast filmed scenes together.
Read added it was something the ensemble was anticipating because “you got to share this huge, huge scene with absolutely everyone.”
“It was really spectacular,” Buring said. “And I think filming it as well, we talked about this, it was an episode that all departments came together.”
Of course, for McTavish, the ball was a chance to reveal Dijkstra’s discomfort with being in big, public events. “It’s his idea of a nightmare, really. There’s too many uncontrollable elements for him in a situation like that,” he explained. The actor also noted that, rather conspicuously, Dijkstra does not dance.
Clare noted that Philippa, by contrast, even states in the episode that she “lives for nights like this.”
“She loves all the moving parts coming together,” she continued. “I think she wants the tea and this is where you find it.”
Much of the political machinations in season 3 revolve around Geralt’s refusal to choose a side and Yen’s decision to force an accord among the Brotherhood, but the choices presented to Ciri also weigh heavily on the story. Even Geralt acknowledges that when he admits she would probably rather be royalty over a Witcher or a mage.
According to Allan, just 12 hours near Aretuza has expanded her thoughts in regard to the future she wants.
“She sees a future for herself where she can do some good with the power she has, and the only way she’s going to be able to do that is if she really controls it, and Aretuza seems to be the only option,” the actor explained. “I think she just can’t stand the fakeness of [Aretuza] and instantly wants to run back to what she kind of knows, which is Geralt and fighting monsters together.”
Ciri’s path is about to take a major turn — as book readers know — and meet a new group of people. Of course, the exact nature of what lies ahead is mysterious as it will also be altered from Time of Contempt. Readers are both dreading and praising some of the reported changes to come.
But first, the coup at Aretuza must be repelled. As Buring told us, “Tissaia will do everything she can to protect Aretuza, always has and always will. Ultimately that is her huge destiny in life she feels. So the idea that there could be any threat to it is something she will fight tooth and nail to avoid.”
But will the other mages still stand with her when the fight arrives next month? We’ll see July 27 when The Witcher returns for volume 2 of season 3.