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Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer stand in a rocky field in season 3 of The Witcher Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

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The Witcher season 3’s big twist was part Met Gala, part Red Wedding, and all details

The Thanedd battle has been a long time coming and was ‘every designer’s dream’

Geralt of Rivia, revered monster slayer and banquet-booer, is annoyed. He remains convinced the sorcerers and sorceresses at the ball are hellbent on not-so-shyly making fun of him, a mutant and a freak. Still, he is able to recognize the tension he senses comes from something more — something far more sinister.

The music changes and Yennefer of Vengerberg fixes her violet eyes on his. Apparently, it’s time to dance the melange.

“What’s the melange?” Geralt grunts.

“It’s a dance,” answers Yennefer. “It’s not optional.”

“Even for me?”

“Especially for you.”

After a brief bout of dancing, the director yells “Cut!” as Henry Cavill and Anya Chalotra break character, laughing among themselves even after sharing the same joke several times in quick succession. They are currently in what has to be one of the largest and most expensive sets The Witcher has used to date, three stories high and with enough support on the second floor to hold a crane for certain camera angles. Parts of it will be irreparably destroyed in the action to come.

Season 3 of Netflix’s The Witcher is faced with the Herculean task of adapting the events that occur at the Isle of Thanedd in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Time of Contempt, the second novel in the Witcher saga. It is no exaggeration to suggest that this is the closest The Witcher will come to Game of Thrones now-iconic Red Wedding.

By the same token, it is no exaggeration to suggest that this is the most crucial and pivotal moment Netflix has adapted yet.

Prior to our tour in July of the series’ now-permanent home in Longcross, a studio roughly 25 miles outside of London, we are treated to a brief sizzle reel that disproportionately focuses on the season’s big battle. It is at all times clear that everyone working on this show can see both the opportunity provided by Thanedd and the pressure exuding from it. True, The Witcher has already enthralled millions of viewers from all over the world — but this single event has the potential to define or defile its legacy.

[Ed. note: Interviews in this story were conducted before the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes against the AMPTP went into effect.]

A wide shot of the mage’s ball floor in a still from The Witcher season 3 Image: Netflix
An aerial shot of Aretuza’s battle in The Witcher season 3 episode 6 Image: Netflix

What’s so important about Thanedd? Well, everything, really.

The Thanedd Coup is the catalyst that sets the world of The Witcher on fire — in some cases, quite literally. After the reigning northern monarchs host a summit to which a grand total of zero court mages are invited, those same mages organize their own spectacular shindig. It’s soon revealed to be a facade veiling something of much larger importance, but before we get to that, we’re given a good look at how sorcerers and sorceresses tend to celebrate — namely, in outrageous fashion.

Ostensibly, Thanedd is supposed to be a meeting place for the Chapter and the Council, powerful institutions among the Brotherhood of Sorcerers’ upper echelon, as well as an assortment of other mages bearing less but still significant influence. In reality, it is an arena playing host to some of the most nefarious political machinations the Continent has ever seen.

But the look and feel of Thanedd are crucial to get right. It is supposed to be ostentatious and extravagant, the very picture of power and excess. Part of the reason why Geralt feels uncomfortable is because he is able to recognize that everyone here wears a mask, even when they’re just plain-faced, a mix between Percy Shelley’s Janus and T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. Beauty and glamour abound in direct proportion to treachery and deceit. Everyone here has an agenda, and everyone here thinks they’ve outsmarted the rest. And so, as we see in episode 5 of season 3, Geralt and Yen have to work hard and adapt to set (and avoid) traps around the ball. So hard that the same night plays out three times for the audience across the course of one episode as Geralt and Yen work through the night’s events — and they still realize a bit too late that they’ve missed some important details.

Several of the crew on The Witcher refer to the ball at Thanedd as the series’ very own Met Gala, with costume designer Lucinda Wright calling the opportunity to work on it “every designer’s dream.” Deb Watson, head of the hair and makeup department, explains that it regularly took multiple hours to prepare various beauty looks for the episode, which doesn’t sound too wild until you consider that there were dozens of principal actors for it, all with their own unique outfits and makeup. Estimations of the extra count varied throughout the day, but it was clearly in the hundreds. That’s not to mention Philippa Eilhart’s (Cassie Clare) sensational dress, which could rival entire costume departments of competing shows on its own. This makes sense: Thanedd is where Philippa — one of the most powerful sorceresses on the Continent — becomes a truly major player on the world stage. Obviously she looks great. Even Joey Batey’s Jaskier (who, as he points out a couple times, wasn’t invited to the ball) has the same level of detail to his costuming, with little hearts on his shirt to reflect his budding romance with Prince Radovid (Hugh Skinner).

Philippa (Cassie Clare) standing in a flashy feather dress and looking at Geralt (Henry Cavill) Image: Netflix

While Philippa’s fashion sense is more muted in the books, Netflix’s version of the character peacocks around as she pays homage to her owl form. Meanwhile, Geralt wears a pattern — and a flashy one at that. “It had to almost have that feeling of slightly uncomfortable,” Wright says of Cavill’s ball costume. “But also, he wanted to look good. I mean, he’s with Yennefer, his love, and it’s that kind of crossover: He did look good, but it was just a little bit tight, just to give him that feeling of like, not too comfortable.”

(While Geralt might’ve hated the look, Wright says Cavill was a fan: “I just sat down and showed him the drawing of it. And he just went, ‘Yep. Yeah, let’s do it.’”)

And so Thanedd exists as part Met Gala, part Red Wedding. It is designed to be a lavish and extraordinary visual feast that precedes wretched political plotting the likes of which the Continent has rarely seen. It is The Witcher’s best opportunity yet to establish itself as a titan of contemporary fantasy television. It is also by far its riskiest.

The amount of thought and work that has gone into Thanedd is frankly immense. Showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich explains that Loni Peristere, the director for the third block of season 3 and a huge fan of the books, approached the coup with an astounding level of “encyclopedic information in his brain.”

“Every extra on the set was given their own story printed on index cards containing their name, their reason for attending, their skillset, their taste in wine,” she says “They are not just in the background of the shot — they are all here for a reason.”

The coup here is singular, in The Witcher and beyond; no visual references were taken from other contemporary fantasy media. Wright considers being asked about Game of Thrones to be “the kiss of death,” arguing that there is no point in copying ideas that other shows have already attempted. She hasn’t looked at the Witcher games, either, out of fear of seeing something and accidentally absorbing it. Instead, she thought about The Witcher’s characters when designing the costumes.

Meanwhile, Watson, who worked on The Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson two decades ago, was initially told The Witcher wanted a different kind of elves to the ones associated with Tolkien, to which she responded: “Yep, already done that.”

Still, being in a league of one’s own can often feel like a precarious pedestal; there is risk to pivoting the whole world around midseason events. But despite being one of the most shocking and impactful moments of Sapkowski’s entire saga, the coup at Thanedd is engineered to be an explosive midseason marvel rather than a grande finale. This comes from a conviction to follow the precise cadence set by Sapkowski in Time of Contempt, where Thanedd acts as a roaring crescendo — but it’s not the last note of the composition.

“Season 3, especially on the heels of season 2, is a much more direct adaptation,” Hissrich says from the head table of a Redanian banquet hall. “Just from a basic writing perspective, [Time of Contempt] is so easily adaptable and it can be broken down into big events. One of the big choices we made this season was not to play the Thanedd Coup as the finale. Any writers room anywhere would say, Oh, it’s The Big Event, it needs to be the end. But to me, the Thanedd Coup is this final explosion that begins to reset the world. And you need to get into that reset, which is exactly how the book is structured as well.”

As Hissrich notes, that frees season 3 up to get more bang for its buck — Ciri’s journey through the Korath desert and Geralt’s rehabilitation in Brokilon forest. This also creates room for the show to focus on how the world has drastically changed since the majority of its most prominent mages have aligned themselves with either the Nilfgaardian Empire or the northern kingdoms that stand against it.

The balance that needs to be struck here is a delicate one, and hinges on ensuring that The Witcher maintains a sort of dual presentation that appeals to two very different kinds of viewers. This balance is omnipresent during production, from the writers room right down to the design of individual sets like Gors Velen — a famous city in the Continent, known for being in close proximity to the sorceresses’ school at Aretuza and the subject of the first full-fledged backlot for The Witcher.

“There’ll be some people that will have a deeper understanding of the storylines already, and they might have a better sense of what it really is,” says production designer Andrew Laws. “But then you also have to deal with the non-indoctrinated viewer, and you just have to have an instant read.

“So these kinds of sets are more microcosmic. But you really have to work on them to be distinctly different, to have their own character, to have detail. It’s economies of scale — you have the same amount of layering but in a much more compressed package. And I think this was very much the beginning of our storytelling. It had to immediately open the world up for everybody and kind of throw them off a little bit.”

An overhead view of the model for the Aretuza ballroom, with miniatures representing key figures Image: Netflix
A behind-the-scenes shot of extras dancing at the Mage conclave, while cameras film them
The Witcher season 3 production crew created models so they could show the actors where the flow of action was moving through the Aretuza ballroom.
Photo: Susan Allnutt/Netflix

Walking through the Gors Velen backlot or the Aretuza set for the Thanedd Coup, you can clearly see the “economies of scale” Laws is talking about. Gors Velen is about the size of a rugby pitch and is fitted with frontages for blacksmith’s forges, fruitsellers, and even a mysterious information broker that is technically located in Dorian, but for the sake of filming and construction efficiency was built as part of this backlot. Meanwhile the Aretuza ballroom, referred to as a “superset,” has been designed with twists and turns, folds and corners that allow for such elegant smoke-and-mirrors illusions so as to emulate true sorcery.

“It’s completely interactive,” Laws says. “You’re able to move in and out of these spaces, in through rooms, back through corridors, the idea being that the architecture of Aretuza is continuous throughout the entirety of the complex. This [miniature model of the set] represents part of it, but you can use the elements that are within this to represent all the other pieces. This actually goes up another three stories and expands beyond that way. And this one composite set allows us to tell the story of what happens in all the pieces of that.

“That kind of thing is one of our greatest challenges. We’re almost creating an internal backlot where you’re able to repurpose and reutilize spaces to keep the audience feeling like they’re moving outside of the boundaries of the pieces that are physically built, which is something we also did with Kaer Morhen. You create infinite loops, where you can keep going through things and turning corners and never stop.”

It’s a level of detail the actors on set certainly appreciated.

“There was a point where I thought, Oh, we’re just going to be surrounded by green screen and have to do some serious kind of green screen acting. But no — the production really delivered for us,” MyAnna Buring, who plays Tissaia, said in a junket at the end of June. According to Buring, they had access to everyone you could think of — stunt teams, costumes, makeup, and so on. But most important was the fact they could tap into the feel of the location. “The atmosphere was thick with battle. You’d walk on set, and it was there.”

That attention to detail was vital, given the demands of the shoot. “Every beat was choreographed. We would have to repeat these journeys that different characters were taking,” says Cassie Clare, who plays Philippa. At times, she mentions episode director Peristere would use a model to show the cast and crew how everybody was moving around. “It was like a huge dance piece that we would keep redoing, for about two weeks.”

Geralt (Henry Cavill) and Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) walk into the conclave of mages arm in arm wearing their best evening wear in The Witcher. Photo: Susan Allnutt/Netflix
Ciri (Freya Allan) holding a sword up to Cahir (Eamon Farren) and holding him by the throat, while Geralt (Henry Cavill) looks on in the background Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix
A close-up of someone’s eyes in a still from The Witcher season 3 looking up at a flaming ring with blood on their face Image: Netflix

Laws is quick and eager to ground these processes in the books. While he and his team have succeeded in realizing these magical places, bringing them to life through enormous, sprawling, detailed sets, he also credits the writers for helping him to interpret what the individual components of The Witcher are.

Some viewers have complained that Netflix has transmuted core parts of Sapkowski’s work, but Laws — like Hissrich — believes the opposite. True, certain details have been changed or omitted. True, certain characters have died, certain story beats have been missing, and certain scenes from the books have been retooled for the small screen. But that does not necessarily mean that the Netflix production is seeking to undermine or subvert Sapkowski’s work — on the contrary, it is trying to meaningfully and carefully reappropriate it into a new form.

“It can be something as big as Redania, or it can be something as simple as a lizard,” explains Laws. “Sometimes you have to remind the people involved that even the smallest of things can actually have a really big importance. It might seem like it’s something that’s not such a big deal, but in the brand of The Witcher, in the lore of The Witcher, that’s very much [rooted] in the books.”

That immersion helped actors like Buring, who had to access so much emotion over and over again. She watched Poppy Almond, who plays a sorceress named Bianca, nail a bit of fight choreography that was “very, very specific and very short” — the sort you still had to hit “on point and brilliantly” — a few times, a success she credits in part to the massive production around them. “It was because the atmosphere was there,” she says. “She was living every moment, beat by beat.”

The Thanedd Coup occurs in a very specific way in the books, which is to say that Geralt realizes it is happening while sleepily relieving himself in a flowerpot. By this point, avoiding getting involved with this conflict has already become impossible — despite the Witcher’s continued insistence that he is strictly neutral in all matters related to politics. Ciri is also on Thanedd with Geralt and Yennefer, and in spite of being a fully armed “Witcher-girl” this season, she is able to take down an aeschna on her own (mostly) and even goes mano a mano with Cahir in episode 6. (Like Cavill, Freya Allan also does all of her own combat stunts now.)

In the show, the Thanedd Coup happens a little more openly — after Geralt and Yen put together the conspiracy in episode 5, Geralt hears battle noises when he goes to clear a path for their retreat. But the show does stay true to maybe the most important revelation of the battle: Vilgefortz’s true nature as one of the series’ primary antagonists.

Toward the end of our stay on set, we saw stuntmen practicing a different fight: Geralt versus Vilgefortz. This is one of the most memorable fights in the books for many reasons, although there is one specific element of it that is even more impactful than the rest. In this fight, Geralt actually loses — badly.

Geralt (Henry Cavill) with cuts on his face standing on a beach holding a sword Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Though show fans might be surprised, Vilgefortz is a much better fighter than Geralt, on top of being a powerful sorcerer and one of the most devious political schemers on the Continent. The fight marks a major turning point in the saga. Geralt gets treated for severe, potentially life-threatening wounds sustained by Vilgefortz’s staff, which, true to form, armorer Nick Jeffries says is also full of details, with the iron left unfused at either end. Vilgefortz, in his hurry to produce the weapon, didn’t care much for aesthetics and instead focused on its quality, which he can teleport from hand to hand at will, allowing him to parry seemingly unparryable blows and respond with truly unparryable blows of his own.

In a reveal the show has been building to all along — and which still strikes a brutal chord despite its inevitability — the formation of Geralt’s family in season 2 is immediately followed by the fracturing of one in season 3. Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri traveled to Thanedd in order to cement their shared future, to finally ensure that they would remain together forever. But through no fault of their own (except, perhaps, a gravitation toward misfortune) they are now further apart than ever before.

At the end of Thanedd, Geralt has suffered one of the most brutal defeats of his life and must be treated for severe injuries; Ciri has portaled herself to somewhere, anywhere, to barely escape with her life. And while Yen fares better than either of them, she’s irreparably changed by what happened during the coup.

“I think she’s working on a different level than she’s ever worked on before, because there’s so much to put right in the world; she realized how much it matters because of Ciri,” Anya Chalotra says of her character. “Nothing is about her for once in her life.”

If season 2 sought to demonstrate the indissoluble links fostered by a found family, season 3 examines what happens when those links are not broken, but forced apart. And (depending on how closely the show follows the books) that final scene between Geralt, Ciri, and Yen outside Aretuza might be the last time they’re all together for a while. They, like everyone else, are being torn apart, as season 3’s finale lays bare across the Continent. Pieces that previously came together have been scattered across a board that is much larger and more dense than any of the players realized.

Geralt and Yennefer do not just have to find Ciri so they can be together again, but because of the immense risk that someone else might find her first. She has become the quarry of monarchs, mages, and all manner of malefactors — and because she is alone, she must forge new alliances simply to survive. And so the once-bright future ahead of our heroes appears not only to have darkened but been expunged completely, burned up along with Aretuza.

But as wise old Vesemir always said: They are alive, and where there is life, there is hope. By losing each other, The Witcher’s found family has been given a new perspective on what matters most, and it is only now that they have experienced the unbridled joy of being together that they are equipped to achieve that once more, irrespective of the cost it will demand of them. After all — they are destined for each other, and destiny will always be fulfilled... one way or another.

[Disclosure: The author visited the set of The Witcher for this story prior to joining CD Projekt Red, the primary developer of Witcher video games, as a lore designer for the game franchise. He does not have any involvement with the Netflix TV series.]