SCENE 01: INTRODUCTION SEAN This is a little crazy, but I have now watched the first season of The Witcher on Netflix in full three times. Going in, I hadn't read the books or played any of the games, so I didn't know that much about the world. And I'll be honest... Between the non-linear approach to the narrative jumping forward and backward in time without any kind of warning, and the complex backstories that take several episodes to develop, I had no clue what was going on the first time through. But I really liked Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. I really liked the development of Yennefer, Jaskier, and Ciri. And once the timeline started to become clearer to me, I ended up getting sucked into the story. So I watched it again. And... Again. And on each re-watch, I liked the series more and more. Now that I feel like I actually understand everything, I'm pretty excited to see where it's going to go in Season 2. Coming off of 8 seasons of conniving, vicious politics in Game of Thrones that makes it seem like the only people who actually matter are kings, queens, and warlords, one of the most refreshing aspects of The Witcher for me was that Geralt's interests are honest and simple. CLIP: The Witcher S01E01 (~38:00) RENFRI You just kill monsters? GERALT (nods) CLIP: The Witcher S01E03 (~01:01:00) Geralt explains his goals to Triss. TRISS So that's all life is to you? Monsters and money GERALT That's all it needs to be. SEAN Now, for those who haven't seen the show, it would take me a whole video just to explain the plot. And there's tons of that kind of stuff out there already, so I'm not really going to spoil anything major. But I am going to talk about a few character moments that you might have missed, or that maybe you didn't think were even important. And I'm going to show you that sometimes the people who really make a difference in the world aren't politicians or royalty, but people who are just trying to earn a living. Welcome to Out of Frame. SCENE 02: SET-UP SEAN So often, when we think of civilization, we think that the only way for different groups of people to develop peaceful relationships with each other is through grandiose proclamations from political leaders and legal mandates. But that's not true. Sometimes civilizations are built just by hiring a mutant to help you go hunt a dragon. Let me explain. Beyond the warring kingdoms, the magic, and brushes with destiny, The Witcher is about the adventures of an international freelance monster-hunter. Geralt is a man with exceptional skills and a strong moral code, but at the end of the day he's basically a traveling exterminator, trading his services for money. ClIP: The Witcher S01E04 We hear the first line of Jaskier's catchy song. JASKIER Toss a coin to your witcher... SEAN Let's say your town is overrun by ghouls. Or maybe your daughter got cursed and goes on nightly rampages killing townsfolk. Maybe you've got a kikimora eating all your livestock. What you need is a skilled professional to help you deal with those problems. So... You call a witcher. The thing is, witchers are genetically enhanced mutants, and they're pretty much hated or feared by everyone they encounter, so if someone does consider hiring Geralt of Rivia, the situation has to be pretty dire. But the fact that witchers are hated also means that if Geralt wants to continue making a living, he needs to be able to overcome people's biases and build relationships that would never exist without the element of commerce in play. In one iconic part of the show (and in the books and video games) Geralt is contracted by the king of a country called Temeria to break a curse on his daughter that turned her into murderous beast called a shtriga as a baby. For years, this monster has been terrorizing the kingdom, and when Geralt arrives, he's told that another witcher had been hired before him. CLIP: Witcher S01E03 (~07:50) Townsfolk and Triss tell Geralt about the previous attempts to stop the shtriga. (Cut "fucking" out of the line) TRISS Another ****ing Witcher. Your kind already swindled us once. SEAN The unique thing about Geralt is ultimately that he's willing to put his own life in danger to save the cursed princess, even when he could kill her much more easily. But there's something else worth pointing out about that scene. When Geralt is told that the previous witcher took people's money without completing the job, he recognizes that his professional reputation is in jeopardy. But instead of getting defensive or objecting to his prospective clients' skepticism about hiring another witcher, Geralt solves the problem. CLIP: The Witcher S01E03 (~08:00) GERALT I take payment after the job is done, and for a third of the price. An apology from my guild to yours. SEAN It's a small moment in the show that you probably didn't pay much attention to, but this is a much more interesting scene if you stop and think about it. Although in most ways Geralt is physically superior to the humans he's working with, his kind are a generally mistrusted minority who are always starting their interactions with other people at a disadvantage. The humans are already biased against Geralt before he arrives. They believe that the previous witcher ran away with their money, but even that was a story made up by the king to cover up the fact that he was killed by the cursed child. Neither they nor Geralt knew that at the beginning. But, unfair treatment aside, the truth is, both entrepreneurs and their customers have to deal with all kinds of risks and unknowns all the time. And yet in order for everyone to get what they want, both parties have to find a way to trust each other. In this case, Geralt bridges the trust gap by offering a lower price and better guarantees on his work. That reduces the barrier to accept the risk and make the deal. And when he defeats the shtriga without killing her, Geralt gets paid well for his services, proving that the extension of trust was ultimately well-placed on both sides. CLIP: The Witcher S01E03 (~01:01:00) TRISS Anyone else would have killed the princess. You chose not to. GERALT I'll take my coin now, I need to get back to my horse. B-ROLL: More scenes of Geralt and Triss together. SEAN But what's even better is that people brought together by economic necessity often build personal relationships in the process. SCENE 03: DROPPING KNOWLEDGE SEAN The fact that economic interaction helps disconnected people learn to trust and respect each other is something that most people overlook, but it's one of my favorite things about market economies. And if you know what to look for, you can see this in action literally every day. Way back in 1776, the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote his most famous book, The Wealth of Nations. There's some big stuff in that book that Smith got wrong and which economists no longer believe - like the Labor Theory of Value. But Smith also made some of the most important observations about human interaction in the history of economics. Like this famous quote: MOTION GRAPHIC: Adam Smith Quote SEAN "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest." There's a second part to that quote that is less well-known, but I think equally important: "We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages." B-ROLL. SEAN You can see this play out a bunch of times in The Witcher. Throughout the series, people who need Geralt's specialized skills appeal to him not by demanding that he care about their needs, but by offering him something he values. Usually (but not always) money. The same thing happens all the time in real life. MOTION GRAPHIC: YouTube comments about how money and self-interest are evil. SEAN What's weird to me is how many people I encounter who think that this is somehow a bad thing. As if everyone must work solely for other people's benefit or they're terrible people. But how reasonable is it really to expect someone who has never met you and with whom you have zero meaningful relationship to automatically care that you want them to fix your computer or build you a house? I mean... It's not. It's not reasonable at all. If some random stranger came at you demanding that you give them what you have or perform a skill on their behalf just because they want you to, that probably wouldn't be very persuasive to you either. One of the most fundamental truths of economics is that everyone is self-interested, and that individuals act in accordance with their own values. This isn't a moral judgment. It's just an observation about how people are. But considering that we all have unique sets of knowledge and preferences, we're not psychic, and we don't have some kind of hive-mind, I'm not sure how we could expect anyone to do anything else. Now, to be clear, being "self-interested" is not the same thing as not caring about other people. We all have friends, family, and causes outside of ourselves that are important to us. We value tons of things that aren't just immediate personal desires. Those values factor into our decisions as well. Also, the fact that people are self-interested doesn't mean that everyone is perfectly rational and always makes the best decisions. Nor does it mean people will never regret the actions they've taken once they experience the consequences. It just means that we can generally count on people to act in service of their own goals and respond way more positively to offers of trade than aggressive demands, guilt trips, and threats. Geralt gets it. CLIP: The Witcher S01E05 Geralt whacks a guy with a sack of coins for demanding that he pay to see the governor. GERALT Hmm... Money really does open doors. SEAN There's a bigger issue here, too. SCENE 04: SPONTANEOUS ORDER The modern world is massively, incomprehensibly complex. The phone or laptop you're watching this video on is the result of literally millions of people, all over the world, who have never met each other, working together. No one person has the combined knowledge and skills to create a laptop from scratch. Heck, no one person even has the combined knowledge and skills to make just one of its components from scratch. Something as seemingly simple as the plastic "enter" key on a keyboard takes a ton of highly specialized abilities: Painting and assembly, plastic manufacturing and molding, petroleum refining, oil exploration and drilling, transportation, graphic design, industrial engineering... Even the simplest individual part of a computer takes thousands of people working together to produce. And that's only scratching the surface. B-ROLL: Microsoft Surface pun. SEAN Each of the aspects of production I just mentioned requires unique tools and raw materials that take their own set of specialized skills to create. Truck drivers don't build their own trucks, oil drillers don't make their own drills, and engineers don't make their own paper and pencils. What's more, almost none of the people involved in this process have ever met and their efforts aren't coordinated by any kind of centralized grand plan. In fact, all this economic organization happens spontaneously, simply because everyone involved is (as Adam Smith correctly observed) pursuing their own self-interest. And while we're on the subject of pencils, the Foundation for Economic Education's founder, Leonard Read, wrote an incredible essay in 1958 describing this process through the lens of wood, graphite, metal, and rubber. He wrote: MOTION GRAPHIC: "I, Pencil" Quote SEAN "I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding!" B-ROLL: Spontaneous order. SEAN This is an amazing perspective. But I would take it even a step farther. Not only is the spontaneous coordination of millions of people's productive labor an incredible facet of free market economies, the even more impressive aspect of all of this is that it can often represent the epitome of human cooperation. SCENE 05: MARKETS CREATE A MORE PEACEFUL WORLD SEAN History is filled with all kinds of horrible atrocities, and most have been a consequence of tribalism. The worst, perpetrated by powerful governments. People with different cultures, languages, and physical appearance have gone to war with each other, enslaved each other, and taken what they wanted from each other through violence for tens of thousands of years. Even in The Witcher, a huge part of the overall plot revolves around exactly this kind of warfare. CLIP: S01E04 QUEEN CALANTHE [Visciously mocks the Nilfgaardian envoy] CLIP: S01E01 (~30:00) Nilfgaard attacks, and Queen Calanthe is bloodied in battle, looking up to see her husband slain. B-ROLL: Historical images (illustrations and tapestries) of ancient battles and animosities. SEAN As recently as just a few centuries ago, if something you possessed came from another country, there's a good chance that it was taken by brutal conquest. If you encountered a "foreigner", they were as likely to be pirates, raiders, and invading armies as they were to be merchants, offering opportunities to trade for mutual gain. And for all the emphasis most history books put on "important" political figures, there's a strong argument to be made that it was actually the mostly-spontaneous development of trade routes that brought civilization and peace to fractured groups of people. In his 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman proposed an idea that has come to be called "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention". The claim was that no two countries with a McDonald's had ever gone to war with each other. That was true at the time, and while there have been a couple brief skirmishes between countries in the last 20 years, it's still mostly true today. People who trade with each other consistently have a strong incentive not to fight. And this isn't just true on an international scale. SCENE 06: MARKETS ARE THE ANSWER TO SOCIAL PROBLEMS B-ROLL: The Witcher S01E06 Dragon hunting party. SEAN Throughout the first season of The Witcher, Geralt is constantly meeting and forming meaningful relationships with people who start out with prejudices against him. And The Witcher is also not the only new series with great examples of markets and commerce bringing people together. B-ROLL: Carnival Row Opening sequence, trailer shots. SEAN Amazon's Carnival Row makes the same point. It's set in a world that's sort of a magical alternate reality to London in the Industrial Revolution. There are all manner of fairies and satyrs who have come to England as refugees and who, like most immigrants, are seen as lower class citizens. But the abilities they bring to human society and their willingness to work lower-paid jobs gives them advantages in various industries. B-ROLL: Carnival Row S01E05, E06, E07 Agreus and Imogen's relationship develops from business to intensely personal. SEAN Like Geralt and the other witchers, the fae face prejudice and hatred. But throughout the series, purely commercial relationships turn personal, radically changing characters' views of each others' cultures in the process. B-ROLL: Green Book, shots from the movie depicting the relationships between Dr. Donald Shirley and Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga. SEAN Another great example is Green Book, the academy award-winning film about Dr. Donald Shirley, a successful black pianist from New York City, who tours the American South in the 1960s with a white driver and bodyguard named Tony Lip. The film is about both men overcoming their own prejudices to become friends, but the core of their relationship is business. Tony doesn't want to chauffeur a black man, but he needs the money. Dr. Shirley finds Tony to be an uncultured slob, but he needs a driver. In spite of having different racial and ethnic backgrounds, different cultures, and different levels of socioeconomic status, trade brings them together. Best of all, that film was based on a true story. SCENE 07: CONCLUSION SEAN Real life is like this way more often than most people realize. But look around you and pay attention to the people you meet as you go about your day. At school. At restaurants and grocery stores, movie theaters and clubs. At the gym. Wherever you go, you're interacting with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Probably without even giving it a second thought. But any one of those people could become a new friend or partner. Any one of them could break down barriers of mistrust and disrespect, changing your view of the world in a way that nothing else can. Laws can't make people like and respect each other, and politics has always divided people and fostered animosity far more often than it has been the bridge between different communities. CLIP: The Witcher S01E04 GERALT "I find it best to take Royalty in small doses." B-ROLL: Divisive political rallies, politicians and talking heads arguing with each other on TV, UK parliament brawls, etc. SEAN If we want to live in a society with less war, violence, and division and more cooperation and respect between people of all backgrounds, politicians will never create that world for us. B-ROLL: Shots of people engaging in commerce. Maybe a multi-ethnic restaurant kitchen or blue collar setting. SEAN But... By simply working and trading with each other voluntarily and learning to see each other first as colleagues, then equals and friends, we just might do it by ourselves. B-ROLL: Final shot of The Witcher with Geralt and Ciri hugging in the forest. OUTRO SEAN Hey everybody, thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you want some more real-life examples of free markets bringing people together, check out some of the links in the description. If you've got any questions about anything I talked about, leave a comment and I might get back to you. As always, if you love this series, please let us know how you feel by hitting that bell icon and sharing this video with your friends. And don't forget to subscribe to all of our social channels on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time.

Out of Frame

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About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

February 6, 2020

Season 1 of The Witcher on Netflix is one of the most popular streaming shows EVER. It's bleak and sinister and full of flawed characters who are not always easy to like. It also demonstrates what's probably the most achievable way to world peace.


CREDITS:
Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone
Asst. Editors Jason Reinhart & Pavel Rrusakov
Thanks to Jen Maffessanti

LINKS:
https://www.adamsmith.org/the-wealth-of-nations/
https://www.thomaslfriedman.com/the-lexus-and-the-olive-tree/
https://fee.org/resources/i-pencil/ https://fee.org/articles/what-the-witcher-gets-right-about-reputation-and-business/
https://fee.org/articles/montesquieu-on-why-trade-and-commerce-create-peace-prosperity-and-good-will/
https://fee.org/articles/commerce-points-the-way-to-a-more-peaceful-world/
https://fee.org/articles/cavemen-money-and-spontaneous-orders/
https://fee.org/articles/adam-ferguson-and-the-spontaneous-order-of-society/