The Witcher season 3 never lets Yennefer be as smart as she should be
Netflix’s The Witcher has always taken liberties with the source material, changing things up as its creators saw fit to make their preferred version of the story for their adaptation. Bits and pieces of the short stories were altered in the first season, and a slightly new timeline was invented; a whole history was created in Blood Origin, and Geralt is a little more heroic than his book counterpart. But for all the positive and negative impacts of those changes, one change has been consistently frustrating the entire series: Yennefer.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for season 3 volume 1 of The Witcher.]
The Yennefer of Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels is a rare talent, even among mages. She is exceedingly powerful, always independent and resolute, standing beside her vision of how to make the world better — or at least a little more to her liking. She is a smart and cunning actor in a world that’s full of them. While she may occasionally be wrong, or misguided, she’s never anyone’s fool or pawn, and she doesn’t put the people she loves in danger (at least, not excessive danger).
Netflix’s Yennefer, on the other hand, has few of these traits. She has a massive chip on her shoulder and is desperate to prove herself to everyone around her, Geralt and Ciri included, at every turn. She is a powerful mage, but one who rarely gets the chance to use her powers for anything more than cursory blows against nameless hordes of random foot soldiers.
Even more frustrating, though, is the fact that Yen is so often turned into the show’s foolish wild card. For two seasons in a row now, Yennefer has been shoehorned into making baffling decisions, to calamitous effect.
First, and worst, is her attempt to kidnap Ciri near the end of season 2. While she does get to recant her betrayal during the course of that season, it’s the kind of move that should, in a better show, shatter the trust Geralt and Ciri have in Yen, forcing them to constantly question her loyalty and motives and making her earn back their trust carefully over the course of years.
While this is a massive change from the book version of Yen, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad one. Yennefer doesn’t have to be immune from mistakes, and adding a new dimension that complicates her relationship in the found family at the center of the Witcher stories could have been an interesting element, if it was played out honestly and thoughtfully — especially considering how often she simply disappears from Sapkowski’s version of the story. But it’s not really treated like a new dimension to her character at all. Instead, the show moves on in season 3 with some magic lessons that mostly happen off screen and a brief foray into ice skating. It’s turned from a massive betrayal into a tiny lapse in judgment and water under the bridge.
While it at first seems like the creators are just choosing to ignore what already felt like an out-of-character mistake for Yen, by season 3 it starts to feel like she’s just their outlet for plot-critical bad decisions when, after a few episodes, she decides to push for the mages to gather for a conclave.
While the political situation in season 3 isn’t quite as clear as it is in Time of Contempt, the novel this season is based on, everyone is well aware that tension is once again mounting between the kingdoms of the north and Nilfgaard. This is a tremendously volatile time politically and a time when kingdoms probably shouldn’t be without their mages, and all those mages certainly shouldn’t be in the same castle together.
Despite how obvious all of this seems from the jump, Yennefer proceeds with her planning unencumbered by the idea that betrayal could be in the air — and her fellow mages at Aretuza concur. Then, she and the rest of the mages seem shocked during the ball that ends season 3’s first volume, when Dijkstra, Vilgefortz, and Stregobor all seem to have competing conspiracies afoot. To put an even finer point on the show’s decision-making, Tissaia, the most senior and impressive of Aretuza’s mages, goes from skeptical of Vilgefortz and immediately wary of his intentions in the books to madly in love with him in the show.
It’s a tremendously disappointing position to see these characters put in when they could have been some of the shrewdest political actors in the series. What’s worse, watching Yen make such a disastrous decision for the second season in a row undermines almost any credibility in her character’s competence. The show’s creators seem to take the audience’s love for and faith in Yennefer for granted. But after two straight seasons of them using her character as the vehicle for all the show’s worst decisions, how can they expect her to remain a character we root for and believe in?
The Witcher’s Yennefer could have improved on the book’s version of the character, giving fantasy television an impressive new watermark for powerful and interesting sorcerers, a role often reserved for wise old men or overly powerful bores. But so far, Netflix’s The Witcher changed up the book version of the character into one that’s a barely competent mess of bad ideas, off-base instincts, and consequence-free betrayals. One of the biggest possible upsides to an adaptation of The Witcher was always the room it would have to expand on Yen; instead, the show’s wasted her even more than the books did.