Netflix series The Witcher was a rather massive hit for the streaming platform in 2019, introducing mainstream audiences everywhere to the dangerous world of Geralt of Rivia, a magically enhanced professional monster hunter known as a Witcher. Based on Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s interconnected series of novels and short stories, The Witcher had a little bit of everything: Plenty of medieval sword fighting action, complex questions of morality, fascinating female characters and a frequently shirtless Henry Cavill. What more could you want?
A second season for The Witcher was basically the definition of a no-brainer. Equally unsurprising is Netflix’s decision to expand the Witcher franchise, greenlighting both a live-action prequel called The Witcher: Blood Origin and an anime-style film titled The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf. The latter, which arrives on the streamer this August, offers fans an intriguing look at the origins of one of the major characters we’ll be meeting in Season 2 of The Witcher proper: Geralt’s mentor Vesemir, one of the oldest remaining members of their kind.
Like a lot of prequels, Nightmare of the Wolf can often feel more interested in table setting for the next season of the live-action series than in telling a standalone story of its own. Your mileage will likely vary on whether you think that’s a good idea or not—hardcore fans will be delighted by the frequent namedropping and amped-up violence in the lead-up to the series’ return, while casual viewers may wonder what the big deal about any of this is.
But Nightmare of the Wolf works because it unabashedly doubles down on much of what makes the original series so appealing, namely the rich lore that surrounds the existence of Witchers in general. And in doing so, it makes the original series feel like something much larger than one man’s story, expanding its world in a way that makes almost every aspect of it seem more complex and interesting than it did before.
The film is technically a Vesemir origin story, but it’s also a crash course in how Witchers came to be, from the harsh conditions in which they are created to the uncomfortable position they occupy in the politics and cultural consciousness of the Continent. But most of all, Nightmare of the Wolf continues to muddy the moral waters of the Witcher universe, crafting complex characters in every shade of grey imaginable.
Through flashbacks, we see Vesemir growing up in poverty as a servant on a nobleman’s estate and dreaming of more: More coin, a more influential place in the world and a more substantial future than the hand-to-mouth dreams his childhood love Illyana clings to. Vesemir’s decision to follow after the Witcher Deglan after he saves his mistress from a demon has much less to do with wanting to protect the world from monsters than with simple greed (of multiple varieties). And his story—at least as presented in this film—is less about his hunt for a magical beast that can speak an ancient Elvish tongue than it is about the place of Witchers in the world. Are they the heroes they claim to be or something much more corrupt?
In The Witcher proper there’s no doubt that Geralt is a hero, if a rather reluctant one who doesn’t really like his job very much on a good day and openly resents it on a bad one. But Nightmare of the Wolf does its best to justify both his generally calloused view of the world and the distrust with which it views him in return. Because, as the film repeats ad nauseam, man is capable of being more monstrous than any creature ever could—even those that are supposed to fight the monsters.
Vesemir is often reckless, arrogant and mercenary, a hedonist who loves the physical pleasures that are afforded him thanks to his Witcher title but doesn’t seem to care much about the people he’s supposed to be using his mutant powers to protect. (See also: Leaving a kid he just rescued on the side of the road to fend for himself afterward.) His profession is busy secretly creating the same monsters they swore to defeat to force struggling people to give them coin. And the only way they can make more Witchers is essentially to torture children who have little choice in the matter.
Nightmare of the Wolf gives us the franchise’s most complete picture yet of the infamous (and disturbing) Trial of the Grasses, which either forges boys into Witchers or sees them die in the process. The live-action Witcher series has hinted at some of these horrors, but the animated film is allowed to indulge in an order of magnitude more violent and gory than its real-life television counterpart would ever be able to achieve. Somehow, the idea that these trials are simply “a numbers game,” as the elder Deglan calls them—a test meant to craft a mere handful of Witchers out of a dozen poor and marginalized candidates—lands differently after seeing a pack of innocent boys ripped in half by swamp monsters.
Those of us that watched the live-action series probably find all this more than a bit uncomfortable, and that’s not an accident. We’re meant to feel vaguely repulsed by the overt greed on display here and betrayed by the revelation that some of the Continent’s supposedly most heroic figures are, in fact, literally breeding monsters for fun and profit. The sorceress Tetra, who insists that Witchers are immoral and dangerous to the public they purport to serve, isn’t supposed to be right, after all.
And, to be fair, she isn’t—not entirely. But she’s also not completely wrong, which is what gives her ongoing debate with commoner-turned-married-noblewoman Lady Zerbst such emotional weight. Much like the Witcher series is at its best when it’s allowing its female characters to complicate our ideas of what good and evil can mean, the same is true for this animated prequel, and these are two women whose personal experiences have shaped their worldviews as thoroughly as any man—or Witcher—before them.
All of this leads up to the most important piece of lore in the film, the infamous siege at the School of the Wolf, where mankind and mages joined forces and nearly wiped Witchers out of existence. Though fans have long known that this event occurred and that it’s the reason Geralt is one of the last of his kind, man’s decision to turn on the Witchers has never been fully explained or explored.
Context clues throughout The Witcher Season 1 hinted that most humans now view the Witchers as something of a distasteful but necessary evil, monsters whose necessity lies only in the fact that far worse creatures than they walk the everyday world. A monster to fight a monster, and all that. But Nightmare of the Wolf makes explicit that this attitude represents a net positive shift in public sentiment for the group, because the Battle at the School of the Wolf is the direct result of mankind deciding that Witchers and their home-bred monsters threatened more lives than the hunters themselves saved. And they’re not wrong—the lechen that kills half a dozen children in the film’s opening sequence is a hybrid that was created using the same mutagen alchemy that makes Witchers, solely so that a Witcher could get paid for killing it. (Sorry to those kids, I guess.) It’s greedy, opportunistic and makes a mockery of everything we’ve been told—by The Witcher itself—that these men and the calling they serve are supposed to be.
That it turns out Tetra’s mother was killed by a Witcher is a tragedy, but what turns the event into a life-shaping vendetta is the fact that her mother’s death is nothing short of murder, an innocent life sacrificed on the altar of greed. Her mother died because a Witcher bribed a cook to poison a superstitious priest so he might claim the bounty for breaking a curse that never even existed. That he callously sacrificed an innocent woman in the name of backing up a lie doesn’t seem to matter, not even to Vesemir, who initially says that it’s a con he himself wishes that he’d thought of. Is this your hero? Of course not.
More than anything else, The Nightmare of the Wolf confirms that it took the near destruction of Witcherkind for their order to rise from its own ashes, to be at least partially forged into the heroes they once all pretended to be. And, yes, a large part of that is due to Vesemir, who responds to the near genocide of his people by finally deciding to become the man Illyana always thought he was and teaching his few remaining foundlings how to do the same.
Nightmare of the Wolf’s broader message about how we often create the monsters we fear the most certainly isn’t new. But those familiar beats ultimately help us see the world of the live-action series—and Geralt’s place in it—in a different way than we did before, one which both justifies the Continent’s distrust of Witchers and deepens our understanding of why these remaining men have chosen to keep on fighting anyway.
Geralt is who he is because of the man Vesemir had to become in the wake of the battle at the School of the Wolf. And who he is will likely one day help save the entire Continent, thanks to his wardenship of Princess Cirilla, who will arrive at what’s left of Kaer Morhen in The Witcher Season 2 and is poised to become an unstoppable force at his side. But when she does, she will be a force of light rather than a weapon of darkness, and it’s because Vesemir—and the boys he helped raise—will be there to help her make better choices than he did.
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.