Commendable performances, sporadically enchanting design, and the stunning natural beauty of Iceland fail to elevate an otherwise bland first episode of Netflix’s prequel limited series The Witcher: Blood Origin, “Of Ballads, Brawlers, and Bloodied Blades.”
1. A Story Within a Story
We open on Jaskier the bard (played by Joey Batey) who is about to be killed in a muddy battle, but is rescued at the last minute by the shape-shifting time-traveling storytelling Elf Seanchi (Minnie Driver). Seanchi needs Jaskier to spread the story of the conjunction of the spheres, the event that led to creating the first witcher. This unnecessary framing device betrays a lack of confidence, as if the audience needs a familiar character to acquaint us to the new ones. Throughout the episode, one is continually left feeling one is waiting for the show to begin.
2. Backstories in the Story of the Story
We’re introduced to Eile (Sophia Brown) and Fjall (Laurence O’Fuerain) who each have what might’ve been a compelling origin story if given more time. Fjall is exiled after he is caught having sex with Merwyn (Mirren Mack) the princess he was sworn to protect, and Eile’s sister Niamh (Ozioma Whenu) is murdered. There’s a little more detail and nuance to those relationships than I’ve just described, but not much. Their broad nature makes emotional investment a struggle, and these scenes become yet more unnecessary framing for a story yet to be told, even by the end of the episode.
3. “The Black Rose”
A great deal of emphasis is placed on the song “The Black Rose,” a song Eile wrote about a peasant uprising, which has spread inspiration and hope far and wide. The song is fine. The performance is fine. It is impossible to imagine this song having the immense level of influence it is meant to have, especially when contrasted with the unexpectedly outstanding certified bop that is “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” from The Witcher‘s first season. It’s a high bar to overcome, and “The Black Rose” falls victim to its predecessor’s success.
4. A Splash of Personality
A refreshing respite from this tedium comes in costumes and make-up (costume design by Lucinda Wright) particularly on Merwyn and her Jafar-esque advisor/puppeteer Balor (Lenny Henry). Their clothes are royal and beautiful, and more importantly, specific and unique. The story could come from a generic fantasy mad-lib, but Balor’s intricate accessories and Merwyn’s flowing-yet-angular dresses and bright glittering make-up feel like they come from a precise time, place, and personality. Meanwhile, the interior sets look like sets, and the exterior rolling grassy hills of Iceland are blessedly impossible to sully.
5. The Story Was a Backstory All Along
After discovering that Merwyn has murdered their respective clans in a successful attempt to unite and control the three Elven kingdoms, Eile and Fjall resolve to work together to kill her. On their way, they pick up Eile’s estranged mentor Scian, played by the always-magnificent Michelle Yeoh, who expertly sells yet more generic and stilted dialogue, and delivers a vibrant sparring scene that is narratively unmotivated. Of course anyone with eyes wants to watch Michelle Yeoh spar, but the senselessness of it is condescending. The episode ends where it may as well have begun, with the three of them setting off on their quest together.
Production delays and the subsequent re-casting of their lead character Eile (originally cast as Jodie Turner-Smith) surely did not help in making The Witcher: Blood Origin as great as it could be, but the problem at its core is in the script. Its parent series The Witcher succeeded in its originality; unique in its earnestly cynical take on the true meaning of monstrosity. The prequel animated film The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf captured that distinctive tone, but “Of Ballads, Brawlers, and Bloodied Blades” has not.