Like many of you, I was hyped for The Witcher. Fantasy is the in thing at the moment for big budget television, but this felt like that one step further: a true vision of a writer’s wild imagination (no digs at other projects intended, obviously). We expected scintillating swordplay, gruff male hedonists (Henry Cavill’s promiscuous Geralt of Rivia fits that bill perfectly at times) and special effects to blow Netflix’s budget out of the well of riches. However, one aspect was most defined as the show came to its seasonal end: the way it represents the quest for power through a woman’s eyes. Of all the colourful characters, the crooked witch Yennefer of Vengerberg stood tallest.
That origin story is essential to understanding the deeper machinations of her fascinating journey: Yennefer starts the story as a young woman, shunned by society for her physical deformity, an appearance that likens her to a hunchback, that harkens back to Nordic descriptions of Grendel, or so the world around her would tell you. The initial arc for Yennefer charts an inevitable journey towards rejuvenated beauty – a chance to be loved, exhibited through her romance with a fellow mage at the school she is forced off to with the cold approval of her unloving father. This would appear to be something of a dated Disney draft: a woman, born without wealth and luxury, seeks approval through the love of a man and the blessing of a fortuitous transformation into a more appealing form. But this does not portray the truth of Yennefer’s story, a tale that ruminates on an important part of contemporary feminism: the notion of agency.
True, Yennefer’s initial reincarnation is a physical one, built on her changed look: the show presents a defining moment for her, as she strolls into an ostentatious ball, taking the hand of a prospective lord, suddenly possessing the ability to freeze a man’s attention through her features like an antonymic Medusa. However, this is a moment instigated as a result of her own decision, her own pursuit of beauty, which acts as the guise for something else in the show’s context: power.
Following the betrayal of the mage she romances, and the revelation of her elven heritage (a facet that adopts a certain aura of racial discrimination throughout the show), Yennefer seeks out the man who can sculpt her into the image that she believes will procure her the power that she claims she’s ‘owed’ by society, for shutting her out and refusing her a chance to act on her own terms. Now, there are certainly flaws to this narrative tale – it’s the classic Shakespearean betrayal of love that partly inspires it, a la Othello, instead of a self-fulfilling motivation. However, the idea of society owing Yennefer is a concept that translates fluidly into our real world: we, as a society, owe women the opportunities that mankind denied them for so long.
The chance to think independently and seek their own success is one that resonates, particularly following the #MeToo scandal, whereby the perverse influence of men overtook any ability for women to act in their self-interest and, most importantly, in their own defence. To portray a woman whose rebirth originates from the belief that it is her right to have the chance to feel empowered – that is a thoughtful sentiment, and the show should be commended for it.
This is where the debate gets tricky though: the complaint arises that Yennefer’s power should not stem from an emphasis on physical beauty. This archaic view is flawed and the show initially suffers from that sense of visual priority. Yet, these hackneyed points of emphasis are brought to hoof in the show, by relating them to that all-important factor of agency. To tackle the initial subject, Yennefer’s beauty magnetises Geralt, acting as the core for his personal relationship with her. Our protagonist, an emotionless monster hunter, hulks after Yennefer at points in the story like that other hulking giant sulks after the similarly self-fulfilling Black Widow. Now, this plot point holds a dagger to my argument’s throat: Yennefer falls for his charm and fights alongside him, desires the chance to wake up next to him, ready to commit to a union. Very wishy-washy, a story for the laundrette. And yet there’s a revelation: Yennefer discovers that her chance meetings with Geralt, their fortuitous romance, has been manipulated through magic, a wish from Geralt that binds their stories together, pertaining to the show’s central theme of ‘destiny’.
This sets up a particularly important point: Yennefer’s beauty inspired Geralt’s betrayal, and this infidelity strips Yennefer of agency over her destiny. It’s a shocking moment, and one that could easily have been resolved through an attempt to humanise Geralt’s motives, similar to the awkward dilemma that faces Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist in the film Passengers, whereby the beauty of her character catches the eye of the creepy, lonely Chris Pratt, whose decision to free her from cryo-sleep endangers her life: rather than villainise such a decision, the film opts to instil sentiment for his isolation. While The Witcher never condemns his actions – he’s our morally askew hero after all – it does restore Yennefer’s sense of self through a realisation: later on, in a brief conversation with her former lover, she acknowledges that while her beauty gave her “fun; to be the object of desire”, the desire stemmed from a selfish place, not a desire for her own “power”.
This acceptance of needing her own agency, to feel wanted for her own power, is a very current principle, and one that the show carries to a noteworthy, metaphorically significant end: in an inspired narrative move, Yennefer and Geralt don’t see each other for the rest of the season, as we witness her story reach its climax in a grand battle that welcomes an explosive display of her raw power. Enticed to unleash her ‘chaos’ by a mentor and mother figure, Yennefer releases a torrent of flames upon the unsuspecting enemies beneath her, ultimately winning the battle: her power, her chaos. It is no longer her beauty that defines her – it’s only when night falls, when we can no longer see her, that she finally reveals her true strength, her disruptive and destructive abilities. The metaphor, while blunt, is clear: it’s time that women, like Yennefer, disrupted and destroyed the constrictive manner in which they are allowed to present and experience their power, beyond the mere aesthetic.
The Witcher is available to watch on Netflix.