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‘The Witcher’ Season 2 Showrunner on That Meta Jaskier Moment, Elves and Season 3 Plans

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich talks to TheWrap about COVID challenges and delivering on promises set up in Season 1 of the Netflix series

“The Witcher” quickly became a franchise-making hit for Netflix when the first season of the fantasy series debuted in December of 2019. With a live-action spinoff on the way and a third season already greenlit, at long last “The Witcher” Season 2 arrived this December with a new batch of episodes that further expand this monster-filled fantasy world.

For “The Witcher” Season 2, executive producer and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich told TheWrap during an interview that she wanted to deliver on the promises of the first season – namely, getting Geralt (Henry Cavill), Ciri (Freya Allan) and Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) together. However, Hissrich knew it wasn’t enough just to unite the trio – she wanted each character coming in with his or her own agenda, making the character conflicts at the heart of the season that much richer.

But Season 2’s production was not without its challenges. Not only did COVID severely impact their original filming plans, but Henry Cavill was injured during production which affected his ability to perform stunts safely. The magic of Season 2, however, is you can’t tell there were any challenges at all. “That is probably the thing that I’m proudest of,” Schmidt told TheWrap. “Our creative teams really knocked it out of the park and went the extra mile to make sure that it doesn’t look like a show that was shot during a global pandemic.” And it truly doesn’t.

Elsewhere in our interview, Schmidt talked about the major goal posts she wanted to hit in Season 2, lessons learned from the first season that she applied to the second season, that meta moment where the writers addressed criticism of the multiple timelines in the first season when Jaskier interacts with a fan of his music, why it was important to explain the prejudice against elves in the world of “The Witcher,” what she and the team have planned for Season 3 and much more.

Check out the full interview below, which does include some spoilers towards the end.

Going back to beginning of the writers room for Season 2, what were the goal posts that you wanted to hit in this season?

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich: So we started Season 2 obviously looking at “Blood of Elves,” which is the book that this season is based on, but knowing that we wanted to end up with our family being in the same place. We had spent all of Season 1 getting to know Geralt, Ciri and Yen in their own spheres, in their own jobs, intersecting them occasionally, but never having it last. I wanted to get them all together. It’s really the promise of family that I’ve talked about since the beginning of the series. I also wanted to make sure that when they got together, they were each coming in with slightly separate agendas. They each had to have a want from that partnership, that of course isn’t going to quite work out the way that they expected. The other thing that I knew that we wanted to do was go to Kaer Morhen, obviously.

It’s a huge part of the books and it’s a huge part of Geralt and Ciri’s story, and how they start to develop a relationship. They’re complete strangers when they meet, and we actually made the choice to back things up a little bit. In the books, for instance, at the top of “Blood of Elves,” they’ve already been together for a couple of months, so that they have an easy rapport and they’ve gotten to know each other. We didn’t want to miss out on that part of the story. So we actually catch up with them a couple of days after they’ve met and we get to see them grow and shift together. And that only develops more once they get to Kaer Morhen, so we knew we wanted to hang onto that.

Were there any practical lessons you learned in the making of Season 1 or even the writing that you applied to constructing Season 2?

Oh, absolutely. I think one of the things that we had the luxury of doing in Season 2 that we didn’t in Season 1 is seeing all eight episodes as one giant story split over eight hours, as opposed to Season 1 felt a lot more like small adventures that we had to then thread together with a narrative through line. It was obviously much, much easier because everyone was on the same timeline. They’re all living and existing at the same time. So that just changed everything in terms of writing. We really delved deeper into characters, I think, which sounds a little cliche, like that’s what we should be doing, but I think it was because the chess board was really set at the end of Season 1. We had made sure that everyone knew who the players were, what a Witcher was, what a mage was, where the kingdoms were, what the politics were, what the different races were. And this season we just got to actually play a little bit more in stories.

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Netflix

I wanted to ask, I know the production was impacted by COVID and Henry’s injury. You can’t tell any of it in watching the show, but how challenging was that for you when you were putting the show together?

I love that you say that you can’t notice it. That is probably the thing that I’m proudest of our creative teams really knocked it out of the park and went the extra mile to make sure that it doesn’t look like a show that was shot during a global pandemic. It was a show shot during a global pandemic. It changed everything. I think we could talk forever about the number of people in scenes, because you could only have a certain number of people in rooms for instance. Or shooting only in London versus, shooting all over the world, which we had done in Season 1.

I think the biggest thing that people aren’t talking about is that we all came back to work really scared. We had been told basically that you couldn’t really trust that any human was safe, that we were all perhaps carrying a virus and you couldn’t tell. And we really had to lean into taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other, making sure that this environment felt like one that people could trust being in. And that’s the thing that I think I am proudest of because we really had to bond together as a production. I mean it’s 400 people on a daily basis. I hadn’t seen that many people obviously in six months. So, I do think that it really brought us closer together in a lot of ways.

There’s an explicit reference in Season 2 to the complicated timeline of Season 1, which some people complained about. Was that fun for you to kind of use Jaskier as a sounding board for your frustrations on your side?

What’s hilarious about that particular sequence is that the writers and I had a million things that we were like, which are the most important to put in this song? How do we choose from fans’ biggest critiques? The truth is that that’s part of the fun of “The Witcher” is that we can poke at ourselves, that we have a self-awareness of what’s working on the show and what’s not working on the show. And I think that is what makes “The Witcher” stand out in general from a lot of fantasy, is that it’s not always so serious and earnest, not everything is life and death stakes. It was so much fun to have Jaskier write this song sort of in the way that we, the writers, write a season, thinking this is amazing, and then have this stock guard start to poke holes in it. It was incredibly cathartic for us, but also, we think the audience is going to love that they show up in Season 2 as well.

A major theme of Season 2 is the prejudice against the Elves. And there’s this really fascinating, I think, sociopolitical commentary running underneath which I know was in the books. But was it important for you to kind of bring that to the surface and have that not just be an episode, but something that’s happening and explored throughout the whole season?

Yes, absolutely. The Elves, obviously their plight is a huge one in the books. We establish it in Season 1 and we made a conscious choice to bring it to the surface in Season 2 for one main reason, which is that in Season 3 in the book “Time of Contempt,” the Scoia’tael becomes a much larger force. They are an army of Elves, a militia of Elves that are being hired by Nilfgaard to kill and soften the north on Nilfgaard’s behalf. We wanted to make sure that before we saw them as an army that we understood and could humanize their issues, and make sure that we understood what they were fighting for. When we bring a story to the surface like that, it’s because we know what’s coming up, and we want to make sure that we have properly prepared the audience to care when we’re leading into that story in Season 3.

Well, another thing I really like about the season is that it doesn’t set up in the first episode that here are your heroes, here’s the villain, and the heroes will battle the villain all throughout the season. A lot of the antagonistic forces are internal, and are people fighting their own battles, and that’s where the drama comes from. Was that fun for you guys to make that kind of the meat of the season?

Oh, absolutely because that starts from a goal, of course, as you’re saying to not make it so clear who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are. I think that for all of our characters, with very few exceptions, they are doing things because they believe it’s the right thing to do. They actually believe in the purity of their cause, which is what we see in the real world all the time. No one actually says I want to be an evil mastermind and take over just to be evil.

That being said, we also wanted to make sure that we had all of that conflict on a much more personal, intimate level. I think Ciri has an incredible story this season, and hers is a very internal one, which is, from the very beginning of this season, she’s talking about revenge. She’s talking about basically how to cause harm to the people who terrorized her in Season 1.

Her journey this season is really about, I won’t say fully letting go of that, but not using that as her main thrust forward, and instead relying on her own sense of what a future could be letting go of that past. Is she ready to look into the future instead? And that’s something that she has to decide on her own, in her gut. I think not just for us as storytellers, but also for the actors, that’s an incredible way to view a character.

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Netflix

There’s also something really fascinating this season in how it views misogyny through the prism of women in power, and how women in power sometimes have to defer the perception of that power to men in order to keep their role, or even something as simple as Ciri being razzed for being feminine, when she’s training to be a Witcher. Was that also something that you guys were excited and compelled to explore throughout the season?

Yes. I mean, honestly, that’s the real world, right? And misogyny has a huge place in the books as well, along the lines of the xenophobia, and racism, and all of those other things that we see. So yeah, I don’t want to hide that. Part of that is a storytelling choice. I’m sure viewers and fans of the books, especially, will notice that Yennifer has a completely sort of new storyline this season that is not in the books. And it’s because in the books she is kind of waiting around. We don’t really know what she’s doing and Geralt summons her to come help train Ciri. And it leads to beautiful scenes where Yennifer is an incredible teacher, and a fully formed character. I never loved the idea that she was just sitting around, waiting for that phone call to arrive basically.

So to me, it’s a storytelling choice to make sure that all of our characters, women and men, have an agenda of their own, have a motivation of their own, and aren’t just seen through a male lens. But I do think it’s important to reflect what we see in the real world, which is even when Yennifer has an agenda of her own, oftentimes she is catering to the men in her world who have been in power for longer, and fighting against that. I think her sort of trajectory with Stregobor this season really plays into that. And I think shows how you could start to break out of that cycle.

Well, I know you said that the Season 3 writers room is closed. Was there anything in the production of Season 2 that informed your approach to Season 3? Will it be different in structure or anything like that, compared to what we’ve seen before?

You know, basically our seasons as a whole are really guided by the stories that we want to tell. So structure is a great example. In Season 2, there wasn’t a reason to do non-linear storylines. So we took a very linear approach, which allowed us to play with some different aspects of visions or flashbacks, for instance, that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were doing timelines. Season 3 I think is really great. It’s based on “The Time of Contempt,” and that actually to me is a very easily adaptable book. There’s tons of action, there’s tons of things that are just jaw dropping when you get to them. So we’re really letting that lead our storytelling. Season 3, for instance, takes place on a very, very small time line. Not a lot of time passes, because it doesn’t need to.

Obviously you have the books as kind of a roadmap. Are you thinking in your mind of an endgame of how many seasons are practical to kind of tell the story you want to tell?

I have always said that I want to end our stories at the same place that Andrzej Sapkowski ended his. I just don’t feel the need for us to keep creating stories after his intentional end. The funny thing is, of course, since we have been working on the series, he’s actually released two new books. We’re trying to be a little flexible with it. I’ve always said that I will write the show as long as there is an interest in the show. Right now, that interest seems to be great. But some of that also is through some of the additional universe that we’re expanding. So through the anime films, or through the spinoff that just finished production, those are ways for us to continue telling Sapkowski’s stories without taking the attention away from the main storytelling of the mothership.

I have to ask: why’d you kill Roach? That was so devastating.

I know, I know. It’s horrid. A couple of things, one, horses don’t live as long as Witchers. We knew that basically how we told the story in Season 1, how we progressed time, that this [horse], which we call Roach One… Roach One had to have been ending his natural life. So, we realized that we didn’t want him just to disappear off screen between stories. That if we were going to let go of Roach, we wanted to make him have a hero moment. I’m saying him. So, the reason I do that by the way, is that our horses that we shoot with are all stallions. They’re all males because we tried Henry Cavill on mares for a while, and he is too big to be on a female horse. I have to go back and forth between remembering that Zayas is a male, and Roach is a female.

So we wanted to make sure that Roach had a hero moment, but also it was important to us to get to that aspect of the books where Geralt has a lot of Roaches. He’s alive a long time, and the new Roach is also called Roach. That is just his cycle of life. I think that one of the things I love that is so indicative to me of Geralt’s character is just how pure and true his relationship is with these horses, and yet also how he understands that they go on and he needs to choose a new one. That horse then becomes a beacon of true friendship for him. I just think it’s the way that Geralt lives his life.