The Witcher’s first season was rich with violence, spells, monsters, and intricate political intrigue, yet what truly energized its fantasy-land mayhem and mystery were its more colorful touches: a plethora of skin, sex, swearing, and an occasionally shirtless Henry Cavill responding to just about every dire situation with a curt grunt and/or a fed-up F-bomb. Thus, it’s somewhat puzzling that the Netflix series’ highly anticipated return (Dec. 17) features plenty of the former qualities but almost none of the latter, delivering even more twisty-turny storytelling minus the humorous bawdiness, titillation, and profanity that lent it its distinctive personality. Cavill once again strikes a commanding pose as a slayer of all things supernatural, but his sophomore outing turns out to be robust when it comes to mythological machinations and limp in the departments that really count.
That transition toward modesty is partly due to Cavill’s white-maned Geralt of Rivia now assuming surrogate father duties in the wake of last season’s finale, which saw him finally locate Ciri (Freya Allan), the princess of conquered Cintra and a young girl with formidable magical powers that manifest via monolith-shattering screams. Geralt believes it’s his destiny to protect Ciri and thus The Witcher picks up with the duo as they head to Kaer Morhen, the snowbound mountain castle home of Geralt and the rest of his dwindling witcher clan. On their journey to that destination, they take refuge at the manor of Geralt’s old buddy Nivellen (Kristofer Hivju), who has the face of a wild boar thanks to a curse given to him by a priestess who didn’t care for his predatory and destructive juvenile-delinquent behavior. Something fishy is going on at this abode, however, and Geralt quickly surmises that it has to do with the abandoned village nearby, as well as the scratching that he and Ciri hear coming from upstairs rooms.
Once again based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels (which have also spawned the popular video game series), The Witcher’s second season begins in episodic form, with the show’s serialized plot propelled forward by pit-stops at different locales where Geralt invariably has to fight an inhuman monster that poses a dire threat to Ciri. At the same time, it focuses on the turmoil engulfing the northern kingdoms in the aftermath of rival Nilfgaard’s siege, which concluded with mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) incinerating the invading army with forbidden fire magic. In victory, the council of mages wants answers from its Nilfgaard prisoner Cahir (Eamon Farren), all as its members—and, in particular, Tissaia (MyAnna Buring)—mourn the battlefield deaths of their comrades. Yennefer is thought to be among those who perished, but as it turns out, she and Nilfgaard mage Fringilla (Mimî M. Khayisa) have wound up prisoners of elves, whose leader Francesca (Mecia Simson) seeks sanctuary and vengeance for her persecuted people.
A trip by Yennefer, Fringilla and Francesca to a subterranean chamber ends with an encounter with a shapeshifting witch of some sort who sets them on their ensuing paths, convincing Fringilla and Francesca to team up in order to battle the north and plunging Yennefer into an existential crisis. Does any of this sound lucid? If so, that’s a minor miracle, since The Witcher is once again often difficult to follow courtesy of a preponderance of sub-Tolkien names for its characters, factions, items, and locations. Even by typical fantasy-genre standards, the show indulges in so much make-believe terminology, and at such an incessant clip, that it quickly proves easier to give up trying to make heads or tails of every detail and instead just go with the wonky narrative flow.
The Witcher mainly focuses on Geralt training Ciri to take care of herself as various evil forces conspire to acquire her because they think she has untold power—which, of course, might be used to either heal or destroy the world. What it lacks, however, is anything approaching a lively pulse. When it comes to Geralt, that’s by design; Cavill once again embodies him as a semi-comically stoic He-Man burdened by his eternal duty to rid the land of monsters. Yet everyone else involved in this saga is similarly stern and tortured, contributing to a dour atmosphere that’s exacerbated by the fact that everything is shot in murky darkness. While that aesthetic design is intended to lend these proceedings a quasi-horror malevolence, the actual result is an air of oppressive humorlessness—not to mention visual incoherence, especially during Geralt’s skirmishes with winged and tentacled baddies, whom you can barely see in the consuming gloom.
Worse, though, is the sheer lack of heat emanating from this self-serious second season. The Witcher’s maiden eight-episode run spiced up its swords-and-sorcery action with a welcome helping of carnal eroticism that was tailor-made for both its male and female viewers (Cavill’s bathtub dips, for example, became instant meme fodder). Those hoping for more of the same will be sorely disappointed this time around, as any hint of sexiness has been crushed beneath a surplus of gobbledygook dialogue and tame suspense about ancient legends, prophesies and treachery. At least in its first six episodes (which were all that were provided to press), the show sidesteps most of its adult-oriented elements in favor of fleshing out Geralt’s backstory with his witcher brethren, as well as Ciri’s enigmatic lineage, neither of which are nearly as interesting as showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich believes them to be.
Drained of its bawdier and more comical ingredients (even Joey Batey’s bard Jaskier is relegated to a brief, and underwhelming, appearance), The Witcher plods along on its wayward course, piling on complications that, by and large, fail to consistently create the type of urgent stakes—or sense of import—that a large-scale endeavor such as this demands. Navigating a time of great and terrible evolutionary change, multiple characters fear the loss of their purpose and value, which drives them on quests for new ones. That also typifies the second season of the show itself, which has somewhat lost its own way, and would be wise to rediscover its original grimdark-with-a-dash-of-Skinemax spirit.