This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 2, titled "Four Marks". For a refresher, check out our review of episode 1, "The End's Beginning".
The first episode of The Witcher eased us gently into Geralt’s world, much as the White Wolf himself would slowly slip into his famous bathtub. But that smooth and steady introduction halts here, as episode 2 – “Four Marks” – opens the floodgates on The Witcher’s lore, creating an at-times breathless rush of information, exposition, and history. If the first episode was a side-quest, then “Four Marks” is evening-long session of reading background information on the official Witcher wiki.A great deal of “Four Marks” is spent revealing how important elves are to the history of the Continent, with numerous scenes highlighting the intense conflict between humans and their pointy-eared counterparts. The delivery of this information is uneven; in its best moments the episode shows you the racism harboured by humans through trinkets like necklaces threaded with severed elf ears, but often characters are forced into expository monologues to bring the viewer up to speed. This is most notable during Istredd’s explanation of how elves taught humans how to wield magic, which comes across as more of a lore dump than storytelling.Better handling of exposition comes in Geralt’s story, where we actually get to meet Filavandrel, the elven king in exile. His tatty, starved appearance tells us everything we need to know about his people, and since elves are a direct part of this story, the expositional dialogue feels less ham-fisted. Seeing the story from Filavandrel’s perspective in addition to that of Cintra’s people also helps further establish the murky waters of The Witcher’s politics: it’s rightfully hard to know who to root for at this point.Speaking of characters to root for, “Four Marks” introduces us to the underdog of the show’s core trio: Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer. This episode acts primarily as her origin story, using familiar threads from superhero origin stories and magical academy tales. There’s dangerous spell trials, rival students, and a hero that’s notably out of their depth. It’s in danger of being cliche, but it works in no small part thanks to Chalotra’s impressive physical performance, which manages to make Yennefer’s deformities clear without them being the defining element of the character.Yennefer’s adversary comes in the form of MyAnna Buring’s Tissaia de Vries, who plays the firm and frequently cruel sorcery tutor with pursed lips and cold stares. Her persistent bullying tactics call to mind Snape’s role in Harry Potter, with each barbed comment being used to coax out Yennefer’s abilities. It’s a tutor-student relationship seen in more than just Rowling’s works, but the familiarity could pay off with the consequences; by the end of the episode, they appear to have come to an understanding and are working together. This revelation could be more clearly laid out – it’s hard to locate a genuine tipping point – but nonetheless it does create exciting intrigue for further episodes. What are Tissaia’s plans for Yennefer? Is the Tower of the Gulls’ magic provided by hundreds of transfigured students? What will happen between Yenn and Istredd?Handled better is the revelation that Istredd is working for Stregobor, thanks to the scene being presented as a surprise rather than a gradual change in circumstances. Clearly both Istredd and Stregobor have a more sinister role to play in Yennefer’s future.“Four Marks” certainly deals with weightier topics, then, but it also finds plenty of time to spend in the lighter areas of The Witcher’s world. Geralt’s story introduces us to Joey Batey’s cheeky bard Jaskier, better known to many fans as Dandelion. Chalk and cheese-style juxtapositions are commonplace in storytelling to the point of being a little rote, but there’s something undeniably joyful about seeing Jaskier sing and quip his way beside the stoic and straight-talking Geralt. The friction between them generates a couple of great laugh-out-loud moments – I took particular joy from Geralt suggesting their objective is “blessed silence” – and this sets up the potential for an almost medieval buddy cop dynamic.Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich does need to be careful with how elements like Jaskier are deployed, though. While his role alongside Geralt is fun in this episode, the humour he provides does make the situation feel akin to a Dungeons & Dragons scenario played among friends fueled by pizza and a few beers.That ties into a wider issue raised by this episode being the first of the season to juggle all three of the main cast. Ciri, Geralt, and Yennefer all offer significantly different approaches to The Witcher universe, which provides an interesting texture to the episode. Scene to scene it bounces from a dour war drama, to witchcraft school exploits, to almost Buffy-style monster hunting. One moment it's dealing with the rather depressing issues of Yenn’s deformities, and the next Jaskier is singing humorous rhymes while prancing through the mud. This creates deep splits in the tone that could be divisive among viewers, seen either as refreshing variety or tonal inconsistency. I’ve found enjoyment in these contrasting elements – they demonstrate the varying experiences across the continent’s numerous societies – but this approach does sacrifice a the kind of iron-forged cohesive identity that shows such as Game of Thrones possess.While I find the structure works for now, it may cause issues further down the line. Currently the characters are separated, but inevitably they will be united. Combining elements like Ciri’s war trauma directly with Geralt’s tabletop RPG antics could lead to a deeply strange tone. Hopefully the show’s approach will adapt and change as its structure combines its disparate plot threads.Following in the template established in episode 1, Torque the Sylvan provides Geralt’s “monster of the week” here. He’s significantly better realized than the previous episode’s kikimora thanks to more human proportions and an actual physical presence on-set. The freaky goat-face, provided through distorted make-up effects, is perhaps even more unsettling than the flailing crab legs of Geralt’s previous contract, too. While it’s easy to hope to see battles against creatures as large as wyverns, so far it seems that The Witcher’s best monster scrapes will be against smaller horrors wearing disgusting prosthetics.Left to the sidelines this episode is Ciri, whose story is pushed barely an inch forward. The princess’ limited screen time does expand on her character – we see Ciri coat her distinctive silver hair in mud and lie about her identity, which helps build our impression of her natural instincts – but it’s not enough to raise her above the status of the show’s MacGuffin. If her scenes are not going to provide plot development then they need to offer character enhancement. While it’s still early days, the show does need to provide a more compelling reason for Ciri’s involvement beyond her secret power.Ciri’s scenes do shatter the noble impression of the Kingdom of Cintra set out in episode 1, which at least adds colour to the setting. The refugee camp of fleeing Cintran citizens is rife with heated talk of the monarchy and how they failed their people, making it clear that Ciri’s grandparents were not quite the benevolent rulers they first appeared to be. There’s clearly much more to this world than the surface implies.
“Four Marks” is a heavier, lore-packed second episode that introduces the complexities of The Witcher’s world, and the spilled blood that it is built upon. It’s lacking in plot development – there’s no advancement on the season arc established in episode 1 – but it doubles down on characters, helping shape them ahead of the greater journey. Geralt and Ciri have their moments, but it is Yennefer who gets the lion’s share of the episode, establishing her as a force more cunning than her disabilities would suggest.
For more, check out our review of The Witcher Season 1, episode 3.