Synopsis – Geralt of Rivia, a solitary monster hunter, struggles to find his place in a world where people often prove more wicked than beasts.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E08
My Take – By now we all know how Hollywood continues its struggle to translate successful video games into a big screen adaptions. But thankfully this series is originally adapted from a series of bestselling books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which in turn inspired the games developed by CD Projekt Red, and a critically lashed polish film called The Hexer (2001).
Meant to capitalize on the incredible fantasy void left by Game of Thrones, no matter whether you adored or hated the final season, this Netflix produced series which dropped on December 20, at first glance seemed like a deliberate knock-off of the more lurid and readily imitable aspects of the HBO blockbuster.
But let me be honest with you, personally I had a great time watching the series. My interest started with the casting of Henry Cavill in the lead, and I went in without any prior knowledge of the deep mythology of the source material, which is encompassed of multiple installments of the main book series, short stories, spinoffs, prequels, comic books, and several video games and add-on content, which despite all that still surprisingly managed to be accessible for a newcomer like myself.
While I understand the comparisons to Game of Thrones, as both are fantasy properties based on books, I found this one to be much more open in its embrace of its genre elements and much more gleefully pulpy in its approach to storytelling. While it is also clear the show doesn’t have a Game of Thrones sized budget, it’s obvious that a great deal of effort has gone into its making and there’s an attention to detail that puts many other shows to shame.
Yes, the show does have a slow start and has some issues, but they gradually smooth themselves out, and end up rewarding its audience’s patience with a fun and fast-paced fantasy story with top tier fight sequences. The first season sets up the world of The Continent, a realm made up of many medieval kingdoms, where powerful mages guide rulers, where elves, the original inhabitants of the land, have been subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing and seen their history erased, and dark monsters, including dragons, live in the shadows.
The story spans three timelines, moving back and forth among them. One of them follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a witcher, a member of highly trained and reviled mutants, who travels the whole continent on his trusty horse, Roach, and a traveling bard called Jaskier (Joey Batey), with a sole purpose of slaying monsters in exchange of coin.
The second is focused on Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), a former hunchback girl who struggles throughout to understand magic, and goes on from becoming one of the most beautiful and powerful sorceress to a rogue mage, as she has lost faith in almost everything around her.
And the third follows Ciri (Freya Allan), an imperiled princess, who fled her home of Cintra after its destruction at the hands of the armies of Nilfgaard, a kingdom once considered a splintered southern backwater not worthy of the notice of the richer Northern kingdoms, but now has found a fanatical new ruler, who wishes to bring all of the Continent under his control. But most importantly, they want Ciri, because of certain mysterious powers she possesses. With only the last words of her dying grandmother, Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May) to cling on to, Ciri must find Geralt of Rivia and fulfill her destiny.
The three characters’ stories gradually intertwine over the course of the season as they each struggle to find their place in a world where humans are often far more terrifying than any monster. This is an unrelenting fantasy-ass fantasy story, nothing of major import buffed down to make it more palatable to a wider audience.
There’s an impressive amount of history laid out in the series’ first five episodes, spanning multiple generations of events and kingdoms that rise and fall on the continent where the story is set. But the show parses out that history in a way that makes the pieces fall together organically over time. This world is a cynical one, perched on a history of brutal colonization, endless wars, and magic that doesn’t allude to gods and purpose but is literally chaos itself bent into submission.
It’s where monsters are often more sympathetic than humans, products of abuse and random cosmic misfires rather than inherently evil morality figures. Here, fairy tales end with everyone dying before the big lesson hits.
The show embraces the larger than life elements of fantasy storytelling, the fantasy archetypes, the monsters, the different races and creatures, the exotic locales. It pushes the pace in its storytelling, giving us self-contained episodic adventures with Geralt and compelling and rapidly-paced narratives with Ciri and Yennefer. And while the story itself is often serious, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously as it delights in its stories and its characters, and isn’t afraid to go big or embrace the lurid and grotesque parts of its world.
Unlike so many dark fantasy series that have come and gone, the series feels as if it’s aiming higher than the typical sword-and-sorcery fare, demanding more of its audience by telling a complicated story without seeming desperate to keep your attention with gratuitous elements. It’s a bold approach, and it pays off with a nuanced, layered tale that draws you in a bit more with each episode.
Yes, the rich story-line requires some patience from the audience, as certain plot points or moments that seem unnecessary or even confusing, early on can take an episode or two (or four) to truly settle into their place in the series’ narrative tapestry, but as each of the three main characters provide a window into the show’s brutal world, the smoldering pace produces a saga that feels increasingly more epic as each of their paths inch closer to crossing.
The series is horrifying at times, cute and often funny, with a restrained comic timing. And of course has its share of nudity as well. While the showdown with Nilfgaard sets up the big battle pieces and showdown of season 1, but it is in its smaller skirmishes that the series does best. It’s framed by a disorienting and complex political conflict swirling around in a massive cauldron of noun soup, but it’s all grounded by Geralt’s monster hunting day job. Almost an anthology, we follow Geralt between villages and castles as he takes on dirty jobs for dirty people from every class and background.
Personally, I enjoyed the quest-level look at Geralt piecing together crime scenes and hunting down the monsters behind them, all of which are genuinely unnerving. The folk based horror is alive and well here, with the Striga being the highlight of the series, a nasty beast with a truly awful origin, which braided in with another equally intense scene happening simultaneously, one of the early climaxes in Yennefer’s story which is no doubt one of the most disturbing TV I’ve seen this year.
Visually, this one is a very pretty show, with a number of wide open vista shots that show off the fantasy land Geralt treks across. These moments rival anything you’d see in Game of Thrones or even Lord of the Rings, and it does a lot to help viewers feel like they’re experiencing a real world.
However, by no means perfect; even ignoring the earlier structural flaws, its efforts at comedy often come off sounding a bit too modern for the rest of its setting, and the characters’ tendency to monologue to any unspeaking object or person they can find verges on comedic. Even Ciri’s story and the mystery behind her powers at time may tend to verge on boring lines.
Yet, in terms of its story, the series sets up an intriguing world full of interesting characters, as well as setting the stage for a number of plot points that certainly have the potential to keep viewers compelled for many seasons to come. It enjoyable to watch our main cast meet one another and it ends on a moment that has me eager to see where the story goes next.
Being a massive fan of the books and the game himself, here, Henry Cavill immediately sheds his persona and melts into the role of a jaded, sardonic, almost imperceptibly sweet bounty hunter. While Cavill’s stoic, eternally brooding Geralt isn’t all that much different from his angst filled spin on Superman, but it works well, given that an absence of emotion is a defining characteristic of the role. His comfort level in action sequences, particularly those involving heavy visual effects, is also on full display here, and he makes Geralt’s battles with monstrous beasts feel like entertaining palate-cleansers amid all the political drama and intrigue.
Anya Chalotra too depicts her simmering pain and fury perfectly. Her portrayal of Yennefer provides one of the show’s most dramatic character arcs, both thematically and physically, and she pivots between heartbreaking and empowering, hero and villain and everything in between, as the story demands. The breadth of her performance is impressive, making it easy to look forward to where the next season will take her.
Freya Allan also does well with what she’s given, even if most of it is confused panic. Her character could easily fall into an outdated damsel in distress role, but she keeps Ciri walking the line between youthful naivety and reluctant nobility through the twists and turns of her story.
Joey Batey is also a delight to watch in the role of Jaskier, a charming young bard whose ambition outweighs his talent. Not only does he add a great deal of humor and wit to the series, but his scenes with the stoic Geralt or not only hugely entertaining, but also allow viewers to glimpse Geralt’s gentler side. He also provides us with one of the catchiest songs on the small screen, one which is already becoming an anthem among fans.
Meanwhile, Jodhi May, MyAnna Buring, Adam Levy, Eamon Farren, Royce Pierreson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Mimi Ndiweni, Wilson Radjou-Pujalte, Lars Mikkelsen, Anna Shaffer, Emma Appleton, Shaun Dooley, Josette Simon, Maciej Musiał, Therica Wilson-Read and Mahesh Jadu provide excellent support. On the whole, ‘The Witcher’ is an excellent exuberant fantasy series which sets a solid foundation in its first season thanks to its strong cast and interesting source material.
Creator – Lauren Schmidt
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Netflix