There's an art to episodic adventures that at times feels lost in the modern media landscape. These days it seems like anything that's not a candy-colored toy commercial needs a continuity-heavy, serialized narrative to keep people invested or encourage them to binge. Don't get me wrong, I like plenty of shows and stories in that vein, but there's a certain magic to seeing a self-contained story play out and make its point right away. Be it quiet romances, tragic ruminations on the burdens of everyday life, or full-on horror stories, there's a wealth of tales and emotions that can best be explored without the constraints of a consistent cast or setting. So it was with great anticipation that I immediately picked Wandering Witch as my top choice for this season, and as of these three episodes that choice is paying off in spades, though not entirely in the way I expected.
Episode 1 is our introduction to the titular Elaina, and it starts off the series fantastically. We follow her journey from a wide-eyed child fawning over her favorite story books to her training to become a full-fledged witch. The central story is about the rocky start to her apprenticeship with Fran, the Stardust Witch. I mostly covered my feelings on this one in the Preview Guide, but in short: I fell in love very quickly thanks to the gorgeously rendered world Elaina and Fran inhabit, along with the surprisingly nuanced characterization for both of them. Elaina is goodnatured, as is common for travelogue protagonists, but she's got some charming smugness to how she carries herself that humanizes her. She's damn good at this whole magic business and she knows it, but that self-assured attitude can rub people the wrong way – as evidenced by most of the Witches of her town rejecting her apprenticeship. Fran, meanwhile, is a lot more flighty than your typical mystical mentor, and that comes through in her awkward and overdone attempt to teach Elaina failure in the premiere. Teaching is hard, and it's clear that even with (mostly) good intentions Fran messes up and has to both apologize and properly impart the lesson. It's a distinctly human wrinkle to a familiar set-up, and it made me even more excited for what else this show has in store.
Episode 2 is much the same, though this time it sees Elaina starting out on her journey in earnest and running into her own pseudo-apprentice in Saya; a witch-in-training from a far off country who can't seem to pass the magical exam necessary to become an apprentice. Thanks to her missing passport/broach, Elaina's all but stuck at the inn Saya works at, so she takes on the task of training her. Savvy viewers could probably see the twist coming immediately, but the reveal is nonetheless effective when Elaina figures out it was Saya herself who swiped the broach in order to keep Elaina there with her. But instead of pure admonishment, Elaina answers this betrayal with empathy for the younger girl, recognizing a part of herself in Saya's desperate bid for companionship in a distant, unfamiliar world that seems to bring nothing but disappointment. It's a wonderfully touching scene that emphasizes Elaina's kindness while showing the lessons she learned from Fran: she doesn't just tolerate being taken advantage of, but she takes steps to help the other girl rather than just force her way out. Elaina leaves Saya not just a stronger magician, but a girl more equipped to face the world head-on, with the knowledge that she's never totally alone. The show plays a bit coy with just how we're to interpret Saya's declaration that she loves Elaina, but I for one am very happy to stan this disaster lesbian witch.
Episode 3, meanwhile, is anything but lovely or comforting. Oh the show's wonderful art design and backgrounds are still as gorgeous as ever, but the stories here are far from the relatively neat and tidy conclusions that preceded them. The first, “The Girl as Pretty as a Flower” is definitely the weakest we've seen so far, mostly because it's so short and underdeveloped. It's a spooky story certainly, with some creepy imagery and ideas behind it, but none of the characters ever feel like more than props to craft that imagery. In terms of worldbuilding it helps flesh out that yes, magic in this world can be just as dangerous as it is whimsical, but without the grounding human aspect it feels like a rejected Mushi-Shi story rather than anything substantive.
“Bottled Happiness” on the other hand is disturbingly human, as Elaina comes across a young boy collecting moments of magically preserved happiness to offer to the girl he loves. That should be a sweet little romance, except for the wrinkle that said girl, Nino, is the servant at his home. And by “servant” the show means slave: Nino was bought by the boy's father, the Town Chief, and it's heavily implied he bought her in order to eventually use her for sex. That last part isn't stated outright, but between the very creepy looks the man gives Elaina and how he boasts that Nino will “grow up to be a beauty some day” it's obvious what his intentions are, and when Elaina briefly looks like she's about to magically vaporize the guy I was all for it. But – and I think this will be the sticking point for a lot of viewers – Elaina decides it isn't her place to incinerate the bastard, even if I would absolutely have the Ashen Witch's back in court on this one.
The climax of the story comes when the boy gives his gift to Nino, showing her quiet moments of the happy lives people live in the world outside their manor, and she breaks down crying. The boy interprets this as tears of joy, and he promises he'll make her happy when they grow up, but Elaina and the show itself have a decidedly more grim reading of it. The gift, for as kind as it's meant to be, is given from a place of privileged ignorance, and the message Nino may take from it all is that she's been forever cut off from the life of contentment and companionship those visions show her. The implications of that conclusion aren't stated outright, but it's clear where they lead and makes for a viscerally uncomfortable end to the episode as Elaina admits to herself that she's afraid to ever learn more about this particular story she intersected with.
Whether that discomfort is haunting in a good or bad way will likely decide whether you'll want to continue with Wandering Witch or not, and even as I write this I can't firmly decide how I feel about it. In one sense, it's pretty messed up to see our heroine fly off again in the face of injustice and pain, even if she's understandably unable to end slavery or murder a man in the middle of his own village. On the other, Elaina's never claimed to be a savior or hero, just a traveler whose life briefly – almost ephemerally – intersects with the worlds of others. Ginko and Kino both walked/rode away from their fair share of disasters and unhappy endings in their shows, so perhaps it's unfair to hold Elaina to a different standard. If nothing else I appreciate just how effectively this story got under my skin, and it's offered me a lot to think about.
Thankfully even these dark tales are bookended by the wonderful OP and ED sequences. I'm particularly fond of the somber and fantastical opening, “Literature” and its beautiful montage of landscapes and towns. And after episode 3's ending I was certainly happy to hear something pleasant as I let the unease broil in my gut, so “Haiiro no Saga” is pulling its weight too. I don't have much else to say about either, but if Wandering Witch has any more dark tales to tell, it's comforting knowing I'll have them to lean on.