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In the framing device of Netflix’s The Witcher: Blood Origin, Jaskier (Joey Batey) scorns what will turn out to be the plot of The Witcher: Blood Origin. “Let me guess: A bunch of warriors join forces to fight against all odds?” he scoffs. “It’s been done to death.”
Of course, Jaskier quickly changes his mind once Seanchaí (Minnie Driver), the mysterious elf regaling him with this story, clarifies that this version of it leads up to the Conjunction of the Spheres (i.e., the metaphysical event that explains why the Witcher universe is the way it is). But I think he had it right the first time. This premise has been done to death. And while there’s still some satisfaction to be found in that tried-and-tested formula, Blood Origin‘s jerky pacing and thin character work keep it from evolving into anything truly special.
The Witcher: Blood Origin
Cast: Sophia Brown, Laurence O'Fuarain, Michelle Yeoh, Mirren Mack, Lenny Henry, Francesca Mills, Zach Wyatt, Lizzie Annis, Huw Novelli, Minnie Driver
Creators: Declan de Barra, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich
Set 1,200 years before the events of The Witcher, Blood Origin finds us in a version of the Continent untouched by monsters and humans, and about to be united for the first time as a single kingdom ruled over by elves. But the elites, including naïve princess Merwyn (Mirren Mack) and ambitious chief sage Balor (Lenny Henry), soon discover that citizens don’t actually take all that well to regime changes that result in only more bloodshed, famine and subjugation.
It’s amid this turmoil that the Seven, as Seanchaí calls this unlikely band of heroes, come together. It starts with Éile (Sophia Brown) and Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain), strangers from rival clans who meet by chance, then decide to stick together once the new powers that be sets their sights on them both. En route to save their people from the Xin’trean empire, they attract a motley bunch of allies seeking revenge, atonement or simply a cause worth fighting for.
As a side quest from original-flavor Witcher, Blood Origins (created by Witcher producers Declan de Barra and Lauren Schmidt Hissrich) is serviceable. There are a couple of neat monsters, including one that looks like a whole school of anglerfish jammed together, and a bit of entertaining swordplay. The characters look pretty cool too — Scían, played by Michelle Yeoh, sports an elegant array of face tattoos, while Merwyn favors gowns that could have been ripped from Iris van Herpen’s runways. (Lucinda Wright serves as costume designer, and Deb Watson as makeup and hair designer.)
Most of all, the group chemistry is promising. Brown makes for a solidly likable lead as Éile, a bard realizing her music, not her gift for violence, might be her true legacy. Yeoh is unsurprisingly fun to watch as she waves around a sword and spits lines like “Every time I think I’ve suffered the last fool, another lands in front of me,” even if Scían doesn’t actually have that much else to do. And Francesca Mills emerges as a total scene-stealer in the role of Meldof, a slightly unhinged, hammer-wielding dwarf who also happens to be Blood Origin‘s only non-elf character. When the Seven finally get a moment to relax together in a cave, the jokes and glances exchanged between them suggest a full season’s worth of budding rivalries, potential romances and shared histories.
Alas, what they (and we) get instead are four hourlong episodes paced as if its writers only realized halfway through just how much narrative ground they still have to cover. In its rush to get where Seanchaí has already told us we’re headed, Blood Origin skimps on character development so badly that half the Seven seem to exist solely because “the Four” wouldn’t sound as cool as a team name. And the characters who do get arcs are made to sprint through them. It makes sense that Éile and Fjall’s friendship might gradually blossom into something more, for example, but not that they’d become star-crossed soulmates seemingly overnight.
The series draws pointed parallels to real-life history with its Xin’trean politics, as seen in the country’s arrogant ideas about “civilizing” foreign lands, the elves’ longstanding habit of treating dwarves as second-class citizens and the brutal violence enacted by “protectors” in the name of order. Many of these uncomfortable ideas are embodied in Merwyn, a sort of medieval-fantasy girlboss whose reaction to her own oppression is to turn around and oppress others even harder. But Blood Origin has no patience for unpacking what any of this means for these people or for those of us watching; the show mainly seems interested in these issues as a way to give itself the gloss of profundity as it gallops off to the next battle, the next creature, the next Easter egg for devoted Witcher fans.
Over and over, Blood Origin emphasizes the importance of tales like the one it’s spinning: their ability to inspire a people or offer hope to the hopeless, to alter the course of history or to help us understand our own hearts a little bit better. So important is the idea of a story that when one villain is confronted with her misdeeds, she protests, “I was going to be a footnote in someone else’s story” — as if that could possibly excuse the cruelty of her actions. Perhaps our heroes would be glad, in a way, to hear that her gamble does not pay off. Blood Origin itself turns out to be little more than a curious appendix to The Witcher, rather than an epic standing tall on its own merits.
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