“Sometimes you have to compromise in order to survive.”
After more than a decade shirking his obligation towards his child surprise and seeing first-hand the danger Nilfgaard’s invading army poses to the kingdom, Geralt returns to Cintra, ready to accept destiny’s call. His initial effort to broach this intent to Mousesack is met by assassins sent by the queen. Undeterred by the attempt on his life, Geralt confronts Calanthe, a woman who remains as stubborn as she was all those years ago. Yet, her pride is not without cause or reason.
Losing Pavetta nearly broke Calanthe and the idea of losing Ciri, the only thing she has left of her daughter, is unbearable. Her arrogance in believing Cintra is ready for the Nilfgaard invasion is partially bolstered by the expectation that Skellige will arrive with reinforcements (they never come) but also the incredulity that a single witcher can protect her granddaughter better than an entire army. It’s ironic that Calanthe thumbing her nose at destiny rivals Geralt’s own attitude when challenged by the Law of Surprise. In that regard, witcher and queen are not too different, not just in their opinions toward destiny but also in their desire to protect Ciri. Instead, these two have in some respects, allowed their pride to blind them on what needed to be done; if they had worked together from the start, maybe Cintra wouldn’t be a smoking ruin and Calanthe wouldn’t be lying dead in the city streets like so many of her citizens.
Taking place around the same time as Geralt’s journey to Cintra, Yennefer makes her way to Nazair in a bid to reunite with Istredd. Though she hides it well, Yen is still reeling from the news that her connection with Geralt came from his last wish. Whether that’s true or not, the idea that she’s not in control of her destiny causes Yennefer to reject Geralt and retreat into the past. For her, Instredd is the safe choice, the one who, even after decades apart, will surely still carry the same torch for her. It’s a blow to her ego, then, when Istredd rejects her idea to rekindle their romance.
As much as I love Yennefer and empathize with the suffering that molded her to become the person she is, all this underscores her selfish nature. Her obsession has been to chase power, not bothering with the significance of emotional connection. Attempting to find sanctuary with Istredd, while self-involved, is also understandable, considering the one true emotional connection she’s made in her life has been colored by the possibility that it was djinn’s fulfillment of Geralt’s wish made it so. But she has no time to examine this rejection as Vilgefortz (Mahesh Jadu, Marco Polo, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) approaches her within seconds of Istredd’s retreat.
A war mage focused on the growing threat Nilfgaard poses, Vilgefortz convinces Yennefer to return to Aretuza, albeit under the pretense that Tissaia is reaching out to her former apprentice. Yennefer’s return to Aretuza is an exceptional use of framing Yennefer’s past from the perspective of a woman who hasn’t walked the halls in decades. It’s a reminder of how far she’s come and lays the groundwork for what still awaits, as her life is not what she wanted it to be.
But it’s not all about Yennefer as the emergency conclave of Northern Mages argue over Nilfgaard and its march towards Cintra. Led by the ever slimey Stregobor, many of the mages agree to a vote of non-interference, their grudge against Cintra’s decades-long rejection of accepting the Brotherhood’s counsel. Unlike Stregobor and his cronies, Tissaia and Vilgefortz are backed by a smaller contingent that see the bigger picture. Despite Fringilla’s assurances that Nilfgaard has no plans to interfere with the Brotherhood’s way of life, there is nothing to stop Nilfgaard should Cintra fall. These few mages are determined to do what they can to halt Nilfgaard’s advance, setting up a garrison at Sodden Hill, one in which Tissaia begs Yennefer to join. Tissaia’s plea is naked and free of subterfuge but Yennefer’s assent is tinged with a haughtiness of her former rectoress shedding her pride to ask for aid. Whether Yennefer sees the irony in her perceived need for victory or agrees because it is the right thing versus being thrown so far from her ideal path isn’t readily apparent.
Finally, there is Ciri who, after being abandoned by Dara, shuffles into town with a goal to make it to Skellige. Though strong and determined, she’s ill prepared for a journey on her own, a fact a caring Zola (Anna-Louise Plowman, Black Sails) tries to explain. After stealing Zola’s horse, Ciri discovers the wisdom in the woman’s words when she’s assaulted by a gang of lowlifes led by Anton, a Cintran boy she thought was her friend. Prepared to steal her supplies and much worse, the Power inside Ciri explodes, spouting words of prophecy that echo Cahir’s words to Fringilla that “the time of the sword and the axe is nigh”.
By craftily replaying previous events from a differing perspective, “Before a Fall” completes the full spectrum of Cintra’s collapse. Not only does it highlight Calanthe’s folly but also that “just missed” feeling and how Geralt and Ciri were so close without knowing it. The mage resistance set for Sodden is a reminder that not everyone is on board with Nilfgaard’s brazen campaign to unite the kingdoms. While we’ve only been given two of the true-believer acolytes of the new emperor, we’ve yet to see the man who’s garnered such devotion and focus. As it is the penultimate episode for The Witcher’s brilliant first season, “Before a Fall” is an exceptional lead-in to the finale, setting up all the major storylines for a solid and fulfilling conclusion.
On Being a Witcher
- With Jaskier in the wind and the serious nature of its events, “Before a Fall” was understandably devoid of levity. A fraction of the mages standing against an army which has its own mages (who die willfully for the cause) along with the sense of urgency presented by Geralt’s search for Ciri has kicked everything up a notch and has traded the bigger character moments for a narrative more focused on the plot.
- Watching Yennefer traverse the halls of her old stomping grounds, and not that long after seeing Istredd, was a nice touch and necessary for both viewer and character to frame just how much she’s been through. Her animosity towards Tissaia remains but the more they interact the more I see Yen as a woman angry with her mentor/mother figure not giving her the love and respect she craved but never really had. Thankfully, we see the smallest cracks in Yennefer’s death grip on her own hubris and Tissaia’s perceived slights towards her. It suggests that the two will in fact make amends before season’s end but, with Nilfgaard closing in, will they have the time to do so?
The Witcher – “Before a Fall”
9 out of 10