The Witcher review

REVIEW: Netflix’s “The Witcher” is a Fine Show that Mostly Delivers

I’d intended to make this review just a tweet thread, but it turns out I had more thoughts than could be contained in a series of tweets.

Netflix’s series The Witcher is a decent show which tries to accomplish a lot in only 8 episodes, suffering a little in pacing and probably a confusing timeline to viewers who haven’t read the books. Is it worth watching? I say yes. It will not blow your mind, but it is a good show. Not an all caps bold and underlined GREAT show, but a fine show you’ll likely allow Netflix to autoplay without feeling bad about yourself.

No show is perfect, but to establish some viewing credit, the two shows that come close to television perfection, in my opinion, are Breaking Bad and season one of Westworld.

I have not seen Game of Thrones so I cannot comment one way or another as to how this new show compares to the one which just ended. In general, comparing a show to another because it happens to fit in the same genre isn’t fair. Yet even before the first trailer dropped, media pegged The Witcher as some new drug for Game of Thrones fans in need of a fantasy fix. Just as I wouldn’t compare Star Trek to The Mandalorian despite both being SciFi, so I do not think The Witcher should be compared to Game of Thrones just because they’re both fantasies.

The Witcher is based on a series of books, which come with the usual fantasy devices: dwarves, elves, witches, wizards, magical creatures and some kind of war, usually with plenty of quests taking the form of tedious traveling across worlds. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fantasy series that skipped some if not all of the aforementioned devices. Like many fantasy stories before it, The Witcher takes pages from Fantasy 101 and borrows a few more myths for good measure. 

I state all of this at the outset for critics or viewers hating on the series just because fantasy may not be their genre of choice. Shows should be reviewed and critiqued for what they are, not what you want them to be. Fair? Let’s move on.

On the sliding scale of terrible to Breaking Bad, I’d give The Witcher a 6.5 to a 7. Let’s start with the good.

The rest of this review contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Season one followed the collection of short stories The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny pretty faithfully, making a few notable changes for better translation to television. As I recall in the books, Ciri and Geralt meet in Brokilon Forrest, only to be separated again then reunited after a second law of surprise is issued (as happens in the show). But for the show, I can see how uniting the two at the end of the series made for a more compelling narrative.

What also works in the TV series are the action sequences, specifically Geralt’s. I’m not much of a fist or sword fighting buff, but I do think the sword fighting scene at the end of episode one, “The End’s Beginning” was well-choreographed, as was the fight with the Striga in episode three “Betrayer Moon.”

I predict the best of the books will also be the best of the show, the relationship between the three main characters, Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri.

Despite the series being called “The Witcher” the story has three main characters, who are just as important apart as they are together. Season one makes that clear, developing each of the three characters separately before ultimately uniting them (kind of).

Geralt. Much of the caterwauling about the casting choice for Geralt seemed to come from video game fans, not book-readers. Geralt is stoic, sarcastic, curt, and brooding. Casting there was down center plate. Heck, they even got Henry Cavill to deliver a convincing British accent. I’d also note I don’t remember any mention of Geralt having a beard in the books. That said, many of the male characters in the books were woefully underdescribed, while the ladies were a tit bit overly described. But I digress, there was only one scene with Geralt and Ciri, so it’s difficult to predict how well the two actors can pull off the relationship between their characters, which frames much of the story’s arc. That said, the chemistry between Geralt and Yennefer was spot on, crystalized in their meeting, where Yennefer holds all the power and knows it.

Yennefer. Showrunner Lauren Hissrich did Yennefer, played by Anya Chalotra, a little more justice than author Andrzej Sapkowski, by actually expanding on Yennefer’s backstory and not waxing eloquent about her fashion and breasts, showing her rise from a hunchback fugly (which is merely hinted in the books) to a sorceress willing to give up her fertility in trade for power. A choice she regrets and tries to amend, motivating much of her actions. We’ll revisit this point later when discussing the theme of the show.

Ciri. Here’s where I’m going to issue my first fault. Ciri played by Freya Allen, though lost and disconnected, isn’t exactly a damsel. Yet the show treated her as naive and helpless, and I can’t understand why. If anything, Ciri (who first appears in the book Sword of Destiny) is spoiled, willful, and irritating, but hardly wondering what to do. Her character is the one which goes through the greatest transformation, as the world she’s thrown into forges her from an entitled princess into a grounded, capable she-warrior. So I was a little disappointed to see her portrayed a little too clueless and vacant-eyed in the show.

Since we’re here, what else about the show didn’t work? Pacing. There were a few scenes that lasted too long, trying to make a point made in seconds. The best, but not the only example of this is from episode four “In Banquets, Bastards and Burials” where Pavetta screams before Calanthe can strike Duny down. Pavetta unleashes a powerful spell, speaks in Elder, then she and Duny rise in the center of their own little love hurricane and stay there for a few minutes as a fan blows about Geralt’s and Mouseack’s hair. The scene dragged when it should’ve been suspenseful. Its unnecessary length was trying to convince us “This chick is, like, super powerful” as if we didn’t see that in the first two seconds. Let’s roll to the next scene? But even the next scene felt long and tedious. Too much staring into eyes without much chemistry.

The same pacing problems of a camera lingering too long on people doing too little also occurred in the episode “Rare Species,” the search for the green dragon, where the band of merry men and ruckus dwarves were eating a needlessly slain creature, and doing little else. Why did we need to spend so much time there? I don’t know.

Similarly, the flashbacks in later episodes hit us over the head too hard, considering the actions referenced only happened a few episodes ago, on a show with all 8 episodes released at once. For example, as Yennefer unleashes her “chaos” on the top of Sodden Hill in the final episode, she flashes back to torment we all saw in her backstory a few episodes earlier, just hours to those of us binge-watching. As if we wouldn’t remember. I got it, Yennefer has a rough history. We saw the mage cutting her uterus out of her naked body in Aretuza. Message received.

That brings me to the timelines weaving in and out of each other. I understood what was happening because I’ve read the book series and knew which story fell in what order in the narrative. I wasn’t confused but wondered if others might be. Geralt and Yennefer do not change their appearances, so it’s hard to know based on visuals what piece fit where. Viewers are given clues based on references to King Foltest (in one scene an adult man, the next a child teasing his sister), and references to Calanthe’s age, discussed as a queen, a young princess, then dead in a different timeline. On this point, I’d like some feedback from people who watched the series without reading the books or playing the games. Were you ever confused, in a bad way, about the timeline, or was it clear to you there were jumps? Tweet me.

A few scenes also felt visually jarring, with some sets feeling cheap especially when juxtaposed with stunning cinematography; Geralt and Jaskier searching for the sylvan, the landscapes where Yennefer portals with the young queen and baby, hiking through the mountains in search of a dragon. These scenes of natural beauty were followed by settings that felt more appropriate for made-for-tv-movies. The dancehall at Aretuza, the side of the hill where the dragon-hunting party has a cookout, the castle of Cintra, to name a few. This cheap-feeling also carries into a few characters. Where Geralt looks like a mutant in a magical world, and a few monsters feel menacing, the elves are just everyday humans with pointy ears, the dwarves just smaller men with a penchant for drinking, and we know kings are kings because they wear crowns.

The war. I have to be honest, the war in the books bored the absolute crap out of me, and I admit to skipping a few pages here and there to get back to the good stuff. Nilfgaard goes to war against everyone else, serving as a backdrop and reason Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer are separated. And to facilitate quests. It’s hinted in the show what Nilfgaard’s really after is Princess Cirilla because of her latent powers. But there’s only so much warring we need to see to get this point across. This may be a matter of personal bias, as again, the most compelling part of this story is the relationship between the three main characters. That said, the show did offer some entertaining fight scenes with the battle at Sodden Hill which was more than just decapitation and severed arteries.

Which brings me to my final point, the theme of the show. I admit to reading a few negative reviews of this series, one of which alleged there wasn’t an overall theme to get behind. That seems terribly thick to me, or just an avoidance of what the theme actually is: the importance of family. Specifically, a nuclear family. Mom. Dad. Daughter. Of the three characters, Yennefer knows what she wants. Despite being a supernatural sort of being, she craves a child, a legacy to leave behind that her magical career just cannot fulfill. Geralt spends most of the first season avoiding the same instinct Yennefer so badly embodies, only to realize, the moment it runs to him, that he wants it too.

That’s where season one of The Witcher works best, telling the stories of three lost outsiders in search of each other, though not exactly knowing who or what it is they’re searching for. In this way, I believe The Witcher will succeed if it can fix some of its shortcomings while staying focused on what this story is all about. Under layers of fantasy devices and hot people is a story of the human condition — the love of a family and what a mother and father do to protect their child, even if that child wasn’t born to them but destined to be theirs.

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Copyright 2018. Courtney Kirchoff.