The Witcher series is about the eponymous Witcher Geralt of Rivia, a half-human mutant with supernatural powers he uses to hunt and kill monsters. Geralt lives in a medieval-seeming land called the Continent (another name is never given). Due to his code of neutrality called "The Path," he can serve polities on many different sides of a great conflict, as he initially provides his services to all sides with enough coin.
This neutrality is challenged when he finds himself the guardian of ward Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon, a runaway princess from the fallen kingdom of Cintra whose blood gives her powers that could potentially turn the tide of a war between the Empire of Nilfegaard and the kingdoms of the North. Geralt and his spouse, Yennefer of Vengerberg, find themselves constantly fleeing from the various factions who wish to possess Ciri, making the Witcher's stated neutrality a critical component of this chase. He could theoretically abandon the chase by choosing a side but instead sticks to his values and continues to walk The Path.
This tension over "picking a side" comes to a head in season 3 of The Witcher when Yennefer tries to use her position and authority within the Brotherhood of Sorcerers to stop a war from coming to a head. Her efforts all come crashing down during an important political summit, and I am glad that they do.
Yennefer of Vengerberg, the savior of Sodden, tries and ultimately fails to save the Continent, and she is wrong for doing so.
Power in the Witcher Series
Before we go into the specifics of why Yennefer was wrong, we have to talk about how this show handles the notion of power in the first place. If I had to sum up the theme of this season in a single word, it would be power — how to yield it, how to take it, and how to handle it ethically.
For example, the elven mage Francesca Findabair spends much of this season struggling to find power for both herself and her people. For context, the elves in this world have been denied their ancestral homeland and are now pushed to the margins of society. Francesca has decided to commit her military force called the Scoia'tael to fight on behalf of Nilfegaard, the upstart Empire to the South that is on the verge of conquering all of the North.
She is doing so under the promise of an elven homeland, an uneasy gamble since it is quite clear that Nilfegaard Emperor Emhyr does not care about elven independence. He uses Francesca's elven militia as meat shields in his conquest of the North. As Francesca's ally says of the tenuousness of this plan: "Francesca, you can't take a deal from a plan that was never real…Emhyr is brutal."
Francesca struggles to gain power that she does not possess, and it provides an interesting tension of what to do when you are under the boot of an oppressor. Do you struggle with neutrality like Geralt, a path that places you indefinitely at the margins, or do you make a longshot play for power? Francesca has little wiggle room, as one wrong move can have genocidal outcomes for her people.
We could also look at Philippa Eilhart and her ally and friend, spymaster Sigismund Dijkstra. She has political power as the magical adviser to the King of Redania, Vizimir II, who rules the largest kingdom in the North. Philippa makes a play against the Brotherhood and loses against Nilfegaard. Vizimir II consequently demands someone's head, which pushes her to secretly assassinate the king to preserve her life. She has power but is also forced to use it to preserve her own existence, showing how power is not only something that someone has but shapes them as well.
Throughout this season, Ciri, Yennefer's ward, struggles to find a position between this dichotomy. She is a powerful magical user, probably the strongest in the world (though her training is lacking), but she has not yet committed to a "side" in the Great conflict on the Continent. She does not have a code like Geralt in how to use that power, debating and receiving counsel from all sides.
For example, a vision from the spirit of the tyrant Falka tells her to, like Philippa Eilhart, give in to her power and let her feelings guide her. "I wanted the freedom to feel my rage," the Spirit Falka says. "To stop shaming myself for what I could not control. You want to change the system, Princess Cirilla? Burn it to the ground?"
On the other hand, her mother, Yennefer, believes (at least this season) that going "ape shit" is a terrible thing to do, advising her daughter to work within the system instead. As she tells Ciri: "You want to be a great leader? You want to change the world? Well, guess what? The day-to-day of leading is dealing with a lot of vapid, power-hungry assholes."
And yet, Yennefer, who has resigned herself to dealing with these assholes, ultimately fails, and it's this worldview that I argue ultimately leads to her undoing.
Yennefer's vision of unity was doomed from the start
What Yennefer tried to do, what many leaders try to do when a political situation worsens, is host a summit. In this case, a unifying conference among mages to get everyone on the same page. As she told the governing body of the Brotherhood:
“We must set our differences aside to create a stronghold between Verden, Kaedwen, Temeria, Aesirn, Lyria, and Redania…If we are to unite the continent, and let me be clear, we have to, we must first agree. No more division. No more secrets. We can all be our best selves. For the Brotherhood.”
Her intentions for peace are not inherently wrong here — admirable even. We should want a world that is not constantly teetering on the brink of war. But while Yennefer believes that she has "evolved," she has naively flipped to the other end of the spectrum. As we know from previous seasons, Yennefer tried going against the grain by setting a prisoner free, and it had disastrous consequences by setting the entire North against the Brotherhood. It's this trauma that she is now overcorrecting for by trying to sweep all divisions under the rug so the Brotherhood can retain its former position.
While I can empathize with this impulse, it's naive to assume that the differences that divide the mages can be smoothed over with a talk. Mages like Philippa and even Francesca (although being elven means she was not invited) have different ideas on how the world should be, and words of “unity and peace” will not change that unless they are seriously addressed.
Division is actually healthy because it's an inevitable part of people having different opinions, and you have to reconcile those differences openly to form a stable consensus. At the extreme end of the spectrum, it actually can be pretty fascistic to squash all opinions for the sake of political unity, as the citizens living under Nilfegaard can undoubtedly attest to. I doubt Emhyr tolerates disunity.
Indeed, her refusal to tackle those problems meant that the conclave was never more than talk anyway. Before the conclave even started, it devolved into fighting, as political factions on both sides of the war seized the concentration of mages as an opportunity to get an edge over their opponents. Redania attacked Aretuza to round up the mages, and then through the Scoia'tael, so did Nilfegaard.
Yennefer assumed that the peace of the Brotherhood, the peace she partially blames herself for disrupting, was itself good and needed to be returned to when many people were already moving beyond it. Her solution of unity closed off critiques of that old status quo rather than listening to them. I wouldn't say I like the Kingdom of Redania or the Empire of Nilfegaard — they are both fascistic empires clinging to control — but the stale hegemony under the Brotherhood was also quite nasty.
Yennefer's foundational assumption was that the Brotherhood was a force of good when we know that it is itself a monument to colonialism. Humans took over the Continent, kicked the elves out of Aretuza, and founded the Brotherhood. Its existence is unethical, and as a battle emerged following the summit ball, it was hard to take seriously mage Tissaia's statements of "defending her home" against the elven forces fighting against her.
Francesca, the Scoia'tael, and the elves in general also have a claim to Aretuza, arguably a stronger one, and it is one the Brotherhood needed to acknowledge if it wanted a more stable consensus. There is an alternate world where Francesca and other elven mages were brought into the Brotherhood rather than segregated from it, and Nilfegaard could never bring the Scoia’tael into its fold.
However, this world can not happen as long as people like Yennefer are content with reigniting this institution's past power, trying to preserve the imagined glory of a decaying organization.
Yennefer was wrong to try to snap the world back to the old status quo simply because challenging it caused people to get hurt. She chooses to fight for a negative peace rather than a positive one where people are free, and that impulse deserves to be pushed back against.
A Magical Conclusion
All in all, I liked this season; there were a lot of touching moments. For all the crosses and double-crosses, the heart of this season was probably Yennefer, Geralt, Ciri, and Dandelion (who acts more like a brother figure) growing closer together as a family (small note: I almost called this review the Witcher Family Power Hour).
For example, there was one touching scene where Yennefer and Geralt reconnect after being separated. Ciri and Dandelion mime what they think their parental figures are saying from afar as a brother and sister might. It's a small scene that adds levity to their reunion, highlighting how close this chosen family unit has grown.
It was heartbreaking to see this family constantly torn apart as various figures in the Continent sought to use them, particularly Ciri, for their own ends. I can't say I agreed with Yennefer's choices this season, but I empathize with her trying to create a more stable world for her daughter. Even as we critique people's choices, we must recognize the heart behind them.
Yennefer was wrong. She fought for the negative peace of the Brotherhood and was in the wrong for doing so, but her intentions were in the right place, and I can't wait to see what the Savior of Sodden does next.
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