TV

The Butcher of Blaviken- Of Men and Monsters and Monstrous Men

“More and more I find monsters wherever I go.” - Renfri

Now that I’ve gotten my overarching love for The Witcher out of my system, let’s take a deep dive into this incredible series, starting with the first (and my favorite), action-packed episode, ‘The End’s Beginning’. The series premiere is a study of monsters, men and the blurred lines between the two while also serving as an intro to our two main characters, Geralt (Henry Cavill) and Ciri (Freya Allan). This episode guide is a minefield of spoilers so, if you haven’t watched the show, don’t say I didn’t warn you. We’ll take it scene-by-scene, examining the plot, characters, what you may have missed, and my personal take on the lot.

Opening on the murky waters of an eerily quiet bog, the first sense we get of this world is one of foreboding. As the glass-still surface begins to bubble, we fully expect something to burst from the depths; what we don’t expect is that a full-on battle is already in motion. Cue the Kikimora: a hideous behemoth that one might describe as a cross between a troll and a giant spider (yeah- it’s not a looker). As the creature erupts from the swampy shallows, we find Geralt already on task, grappling with its many legs. But our Witcher is more than capable of giving this monstrosity the ol’ what-for, bringing the skirmish to a swift end with a slash of his sword.

After slaying the Kikimora, Geralt travels to the town of Blaviken only to find its inhabitants less than welcoming. It is here that he has his first run-in with Renfri (Emma Appleton), a cursed and outcast princess who (along with her band of not-so-merry men) has come to Blaviken to settle a score. Her amiable attentions and relatable banter are just beginning to work their charms on Geralt when he is pulled away on Witcher business by the Alderman’s daughter.

After a brief, but delightfully amusing exchange with Marilka (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Geralt is drawn properly into the fray when she leads him to the doorstep of Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen), a paranoid wizard in hiding. After wading through Stregobor’s pool of bare-breasted illusion, Geralt is promptly commissioned by the wizard to kill the woman who has backed him into this corner of Blaviken. A woman he claims could destroy the world. A woman named Renfri.

Now, I may be quick to jump onboard a ship, but let’s not take away the toys before we get to play with them. That would just be rude.

Fortunately for Renfri, Geralt doesn’t buy into Stregobor’s apocalyptic prophecies. The desperate wizard continues to appeal to the Witcher, offering tales of Renfri’s cruel and dangerous nature. But like most tales, the teller is a hero forged of half-truths. He concludes his pleas by insisting that killing her would be a lesser evil than allowing her to roam freely in the world. To Stregobor’s dismay, Geralt is not much interested in greater or lesser evils or in exacting justice on a wizard’s superstitions. This scene is perhaps one of the most important exchanges in the series. Politically charged, it paints a clear picture of Geralt’s no-nonsense disposition, his principles, and provides an ethical sword upon which to impale himself.

At this point in the episode, we jump to Princess Cirilla (or Ciri) who, dressed as a commoner, is playing a game of Knucklebones in the streets with a group of young lads. But her fun comes to an end when a member of her grandmother’s guard comes to collect her.

With Ciri done up in her royal duds and at her post, we are then introduced to her grandmother, Queen Calanthe, the Lioness of Cintra (Jodhi May) and her grandfather through marriage, King Eist (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). Whilst Calanthe attempts to perform her queenly duties, Eist endures by seizing every opportunity to turn the Queen’s words into suggestive, whispered innuendos that would do Gomez Addams proud. Though Ciri listens to these exchanges through pursed lips, we’re ultimately left with the impression of an impenetrable family unit and a ship that anyone who loves love can get on board with. Calanthe and Eist are the couple who would live and die for one another and yet, Calanthe is not the sort of woman who will ever fully give herself to a man. Eist, for his part, seems more than content to play a never-ending game of seductive pursuit. He loves his woman and respects his Queen. To be frank- Calanthe and Eist are a goddamned delight and anyone who says otherwise is lying.

To Launch A Thousand Ships — Good morning! What a beautiful day to  remember...

Moving back to Geralt, we find him in the forest outside of Blaviken, gathering herbs. Knowing that he has been to see Stregobor, Renfri confronts Geralt to tell her side of the story. She shares how Stregobor drove her from her home, sending a thug to assassinate her- a thug she claims to have killed with her mother’s brooch. After this incident, Renfri found the band of men who saved (and now follow) her.

Now, if you’re thinking this all sounds very familiar, you’d be correct. From what I understand, Andrzej Sapkowski likes to weave well-know fairytales into his own fiction. So if Renfri’s story is giving you some serious Snow White vibes, that would be why.

After sharing her side of things, Renfri then flips Stregobor’s offer on its head. She doesn’t care how it gets done, so long as Stregobor dies.

While we get the impression that Geralt sympathizes with Renfri, he remains steadfast in his refusal to take sides. However, if she cannot lay her past aside, he will have no choice but to intervene. He ends their conversation with an ultimatum- leave Blaviken and start living or die seeking retribution. 

On that note, Renfri leaves our Witcher, but returns to the woods that evening with a different tactic. Dropping some serious eaves, she listens as Geralt rehashes the story of his first monster to his equine companion, Roach. His tale strikes a chord with her own troubled past and she makes her presence known. She finds in Geralt the same knowledge that she herself has come to understand- the real monsters of the world don’t have claws or fangs or walk on all fours; the worst monsters are found in the hearts of men. The question that hangs between them is whether she will join their ranks. After telling him what he wants to hear, Renfri then seduces Geralt. With death hanging in the balance, you really can’t blame the outcast princess for shooting what could very well be her last shot.

While Geralt and Renfri are having a romp in the underbrush, we find Cintra in a state of peril. The powerful kingdom of Nilfgard has promised war and is now at the doorstep. While the Lioness of Cintra and her faithful King Eist don their armor and head for the battlefield, Ciri is left to fret under the watchful eye of the druid, Mousesack (Adam Levy). While they wait for news of the battle, Mousesack imparts a tale of caution to the restless princess but (when prompted for reassurance) has little to offer her.

Mousesack is right to withhold these assurances as the battlefield runs red with the blood of Cintra. Calanthe and Eist find themselves quickly overwhelmed by Nilfgard’s forces and, just as they agree they must carry on despite the odds, Eist is fell with an arrow through the eye.

I found this scene particularly devastating as the writers and actors did such an amazing job of making their audience love these two together. The Lioness without her lover just doesn’t sit right. And this sentiment is reflected in the tragic image of Calanthe as she collapses, screaming over Eist’s body while, in the distance, a foreboding figure looks on.

The battle lost, Calanthe is brought back to the castle, gravely wounded. While Mousesack attempts to delay the siege of Cintra with his magic, the fading Queen offers a brutal, but honest life lesson to her granddaughter. She then shares the secret of Ciri’s destiny, telling the young princess that she must leave Cintra and find Geralt of Rivia. This information, coupled with her losses, overwhelms the girl and we get our first glimpse of Ciri’s powers in an expression of anguish and frustration.

As the citizens of Cintra are tortured and murdered in the streets, Calanthe’s court is delivered from such violent ends, taking their own lives via poison. And while thousands perish around her, Ciri is hurried along a hidden passageway and swept from the castle with the aid of Mousesack and a young knight.

A chase ensues- the same dark figure who watched over the battlefield, now pursues Ciri and quickly overtakes the knight tasked with taking her to safety. But Ciri will not be taken so easily. Letting out an inhuman screech, Ciri topples the Black Knight and his steed and makes her escape on foot.

Meanwhile, back in Blaviken, Geralt is waking, as if from a dream. In this dream he recounts his night with Renfri and a premonition she shared with him. Realizing that Renfri had no intention of leaving Blaviken without collecting her blood-debt, Geralt rushes to the market to find her men waiting to intercept him.

They say first impressions are the most important and, while many swords are crossed over the course of the first season, none of them are (in my opinion) quite equal to this first sample of Geralt’s talents with silver and steel. This small, but intense battle is beautiful in its violence- Geralt moving and twisting with a deadly sort of grace. The entire scene is very Skyrim-esque, playing with time to accentuate the precision and brutality of each kill.

After Geralt slashes and cleaves his way through Renfri’s band of cutthroats, she steps from the shadows, the Alderman’s daughter in one hand, her sword in the other. Geralt attempts to use his magic to subdue her, but she informs him that magic has no power over her. Silver, however, is another matter. This revelation is significant because, of Geralt two swords, the silver is used exclusively for monsters.

Tossing the Alderman’s daughter aside, Renfri launches herself at Geralt, giving him far more of a fight than all her men combined. But in the end, our hero must prevail, and his regret is as plain as the grime on his face when the killing blow is delivered. This Snow White does not get her happily ever after, but dies on a different kind of poison- revenge.

I couldn’t help but share in Geralt’s regret, having jumped almost immediately on board with Renalt? … Gerfri? Alright, scrap those- they both sound terrible. But the sentiment remains in that I found Geralt and Renfri to have FAR more on-screen chemistry than he ever does in following episodes with Yennefer. Unpopular opinion, I know. You’ll find that I’m full of them. But back to Blaviken…

It’s at this point that Stregobor stumbles out of his tower. His life no longer in peril, the wizard prepares to claim Renfri’s body for dissection, only to find Geralt’s sword pointed at his throat. Not wishing to see Renfri defiled by someone who had taken everything from her, Geralt warns Stregobor not to touch a hair on her head. Unfortunately for Geralt, Stregobor plays to the ignorance of the growing crowd. The people of Blaviken were never fond of Witchers, and now he’s spilled blood in their streets.

Geralt crouches by Renfri’s body as stones are hurled by the onlookers. Marilka, the Alderman’s daughter comes forward, telling him to leave Blaviken and never come back. And while he takes the girl’s advice, Blaviken will always follow him by way of a new moniker: The Butcher of Blaviken.

Something you may have missed in this scene is that Geralt does not leave the market empty-handed. As he crouches by Renfri’s body, he takes her mother’s brooch from her breast. In later episodes we see this brooch affixed to his sword as a reminder (in Cavill’s words) that Geralt “shouldn’t get involved in the affairs of men, because they always lead to his own personal pain.” It’s a sweet, if melancholy tribute to Renfri, a princess turned monster by the sins of monstrous men.

For me, the season premiere of The Witcher ticked all the right boxes. It was dark, tragic, and driven by incredible characters- everything I love in a good Fantasy. And with Season 2 still filming, it looks like we’ve got a while so, if you enjoyed this article, join me next time when I explore Episode 2: ‘Four Marks’.

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