What do beautiful sorceresses, mythical creatures, and a philosophising monster-slayer for hire have in common? They’re all in Netflix’s adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s grand fantasy saga: The Witcher. Henry Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, the titular witcher who has a date with destiny he just can’t avoid.
The End’s Beginning
To say I was excited about Netflix’s decision to adapt The Witcher into a TV show would be an understatement: I cried literal tears of joy. Fans of the series have been crying out for a TV adaption for years, myself included (let’s just pretend that The Hexer never happened, OK?). My love for Geralt – the grouchy, flaxen-haired, monster-slaying protagonist – knows no bound. Yet, mere moments after the tears had dried, the dread began to set in. What if it was bad? What if Netflix didn’t do the source material justice? Game of Thrones had just done the TV-equivalent of shitting oneself and smearing it on the walls of a public library; surely the bad taste left in many people’s mouths after witnessing that travesty was the death knell for fantasy TV shows?
As the months following the announcement slowly trickled by, so too did the questionable casting choices. Whilst I’m not going to entertain the debate of the so-called ‘blackwashing’ of a series that has its roots deep in Eastern-European/Slavic culture, I was disappointed that Netflix’s didn’t use The Witcher as an opportunity to cast actors and actresses from that region. To make matters worse, they bloody go and bloody cast Henry bloody Cavill as the lead. That man has been sculpted by the gods, and whilst Geralt is admittedly supposed to be a decent looking bloke for one that spends his days in swamps and his nights sleeping in hedgerows, he’s not supposed to be a contender on the next season of Nilfgaard’s Next Top Model. My fears worsened still after the release of this screen test, which had Cavill’s wig looking like it was straight out of a low-budget BBC2 drama.
The final trailer could’ve been worse, but it also could’ve been a lot better, and so my expectations were left firmly tempered. I barely got a semi when the news hit that The Witcher had been renewed for a second season, a whole month before being released to the wider public (generally a very positive sign and therefore had potential to get me harder than a rock troll). Don’t get me wrong, I was excited – some may even say aroused – but, like many diehard Geralt-stans, I was also incredibly nervous. All I wanted was for it not to be shit.
And it wasn’t.
*This review contains spoilers*
Don’t Call Me Gerald
First thing’s first, Cavill nails Geralt. It’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Doug Cockle bringing such an emotionally unavailable character to life, but all my doubts were shattered at the very first Cavill ‘hmm’. Which, you’ll be glad to know, happens within the first 10 minutes of episode one. This perhaps come as no surprise, Cavill has also spoken at length about his personal love for the series, and the uber-nerd (who almost missed his casting call for Man of Steel because he was too busy raiding on World of Warcraft) sweated the video game adaptions almost as hard as he sweats the gym. Cavill has fallen into the role of Geralt feet first, and in the process he has won the approval of the famously pessimistic Sapkowski.
The show also nails the witchering (shock). Geralt’s various contracts aren’t just an excuse to kill some big bad beasty for a bit of coin, they also serve as complex plot devices that expose the true monsters that infest his world: humans. Episode three is perhaps the best example of this, where Geralt is hired to rid the Kingdom of Temeria of a mysterious beast. Without going into too much detail, there’s a grumpy king, political intrigue, and incest. Wait, what show is this again?
The Hunchback of Aretuza
Geralt aside, The Witcher is a saga dominated by strong female characters, with Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) chief amongst them. Born as a bastard hunchback with elf blood, needless to say, Yennefer did not have an easy start in a world where being different is akin to being a monster. Yennefer’s transformation from backwater wretch to beautiful sorceress is portrayed brilliantly by Chalotra; and whilst some people have struggled to connect with the character, I personally see that more as a testament to Chalotra’s acting than a critique of the series itself. Yennefer is supposed to be hard to like, she uses the power she gains from becoming a sorceress to ruthlessly mask her complex insecurities, and will stop at nothing to get back what she sacrificed to get where she is now.
However, one of my main gripes with the series is the relationship between Geralt and Yen. For non-book readers, the tension between them in episode five is probably quite confusing. They met an episode ago, why are they acting like a divorced couple at a parent’s evening?
The events that happened between episodes are presented to us in two short flashbacks, supposedly just enough for us to infer that they banged a bit, fell in love, and parted ways as a lot less than friends. They still have feelings for each other – which obviously means they bang again – and begin to rekindle a semblance of a relationship. Yet, when Yen finds out that Geralt wished for their destiny’s to be intertwined in the previous episode (therefore being the only reason for them to be drawn to each other), their otherwise totally-organic-relationship-that-wasn’t-just-banging is once again on the rocks. Books readers, and even people who have just played the games, know that their relationship is messy, but that messiness is understandable in the wider context of the individual characters. Something was inevitably going to get lost in translation with the adaptation to the small screen, it’s just a shame that it was the nuances of the relationship between two of the most important characters.
‘Daenarys Stor- Oh No Wait, It’s Just Another White-Haired Lady’
Speaking of important characters, Freya Allen plays Princess Cirilla, The Lion Cub of Cintra. Ciri has a pretty poor time of it; her home is sacked by fanatical Nilfgaardians (the southern aggressor that seeks to conquer the Northern Realms), her only remaining family member dies, and she runs into the woods with no instruction other than to find Geralt of Rivia. If I am to be completely honest, I enjoyed Ciri’s bits the least. The whole Brokilon Forest sequence was boring and her journey throughout the series seems as if it was designed solely for exposition. We got to see how The Continent is gripped by extreme racial prejudice, how quickly desperation changes the people you know, and just how far those dastardly Nilfgaardians are willing to go, but, all in all, we learned very little about Princess Cirilla herself.
However, there is a moment – so quick that you may miss it – where another side of Ciri is revealed. After finally getting the upper-hand on their relentless assailant, Ciri’s elven companion is hesitantly holding a knife to the doppler’s neck, and, without a second thought, the previously innocent and naive princess demands that he kill it. His shock at her sudden, uncharacteristic outburst is what allows the doppler to regain control of the situation and escape. This one scene is the writer’s way of teasing that Ciri will be a far more interesting character in the future, and, whilst she delivered a good performance this season, I’m interested to see how Allen handles the coming transformation.
Back and Forth to The Future
One of the main criticisms of the entire series is the timeline. Part of Geralt’s, Yennefer’s, and Ciri’s stories occur at separate times, and whilst there are plenty of subtle breadcrumbs dotted around the series to help you figure this out for yourself, apparently some people are far too busy scrolling through their phones to do so. The issue is so prolific that Netflix have released the above graphic in order to help those who have an attention span of a geriatric goldfish. Don’t get me wrong, even as a book-reader I was confused at first, so there’s definitely merit in the complaint. Thankfully, with all three timelines having converged at the end of the last episode, the following seasons should be far easier to follow.
This Isn’t Just Sword Fighting, This Is M&S Sword Fighting
A lot of good things have been said about the action sequences in The Witcher, and rightly so. Fight coordinators Vladimir Furdik and Wolfgang Stegemann managed to produce the best sword fighting ever to be put on screen in the very first episode. The dance-like choreography makes any previous attempt by other fantasy shows seem lazy in comparison, and sets the bar high for any future clashing of swords. It’s so good that you can almost suspend your disbelief that the slender Renfri (Emma Appleton) could possibly hold her own against the hulking mass of muscle that is Cavill’s Geralt.
However, this brings me to another criticism. Renfri is an important character, and the dialog between her and Geralt is supposed to set the tone and provide important clues as to the key themes of the entire series. Whilst the whole “what makes a monster?” scene is incredibly well-written, the writers unfortunately struggle to develop her character beyond a skulking, mysterious, runaway princess with a penchant for murder and not-so-subtlety hiding behind trees whilst Geralt talks to his horse. The fact that Geralt chooses to adorn his sword with Renfri’s broach for the rest of the series feels unearned, especially for a character that only appears in the first episode.
Another bugbear I have with episode one is that the town of Blaviken is obviously a set, and a cheap-looking one too. There are other instances of this dotted around the series, but I won’t dwell on it as doesn’t detract much from the series itself (even for pedants like me) and will likely be solved next season when the show gets a bigger budget.
‘Toss Off Your Witcher!’, Wait, That’s Not Right…
With episode two comes Jaskier (Joey Batey), the comic-relief bard that perfectly walks the line between funny and annoying. This travelling troubadour is struggling to impress audiences and forces himself upon Geralt in order to gain some real-life adventuring experience in the hope that it improves his work. This invariable ends up with Jaskier dragging Geralt along somewhere, only to get into some sort of trouble and Geralt having to save the day (nowhere does this dynamic have greater consequences than in episode four). Desperate to also improve Geralt’s public image after the Blaviken fiasco, Jaskier uses the witcher and his exploits as opportunity to pen the most unexpected banger of 2019: ‘Toss a Coin to Your Witcher’.
This brings me on to another aspect of the series that I have mixed feelings about: the soundtrack. Fantasy is a genre where the music really shines; think Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. Their soundtracks have managed to transcend being mere musical accompaniments, elevating each series to further dizzying heights (from which some may fall). With The Witcher, Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli managed to create something special, producing a perfect blend of Slavic and fantasy elements; yet the soundtrack still feels too modern to be able to compete with the other giants of the fantasy genre. It’s unique, it’s special, but I just can’t see myself humming along to it anytime soon, can you?
Book-readers and game-players alike weep for what they have done to our girl Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni), though I understand why the showrunners chose to butcher her character in favour of creating a cruel and fanatical sorceress. It’s important for audiences to have more than one face to put to the tyrannical Nilfgaardians, particularly when the future of Ciri’s feather-helmeted pursuer (Eamon Farren) is uncertain and the ominous ‘White Flame’ remains unseen.
Niflgaard are supposed to be the main baddies of the series, yet I can’t help but wonder why they’re all dressed up like a chimney sweep’s ballsack. Seriously, I don’t know about you, but I’m hardly intimidated by scrotums, and, quite frankly, if I’m being charged by someone who looks like one then I’m more likely to die of laughter than at the end of their sword. The showrunner, Lauren Hissrich, has done her best to try and defend the interesting stylistic choice, saying that “the Nilfgaardian army is one of conscription. As they march northward, the army pillages towns and forces villagers into military servitude. They are not an elite fighting force — yet. There are powerful leaders in the forefront, yes, but the army itself is more rag-tag, borne of necessity, without glamour or means. Their armor reflects that.” She goes on to all but admit that the Nilfgaardians will have a new and improved look in future seasons, however, I, for one, welcome our new testicle overlords.
I have a few more minor gripes with the series, such as the weird fever dream with Geralt’s mum and the direction the series seems to be taking with Triss (Anna Shaffer), but overall I was pretty impressed with it. The special effects are great, the cast do a fantastic job, and the show handles the complexities of Sapkowski’s dark and twisted world without shoving them down your throat. I think that the comparisons with Game of Thrones are unfair, but also unsurprising. It dominated our screens for almost decade and has become the yardstick to which all future fantasy shows will be compared against (even with its disastrous final season). Those unfamiliar with The Witcher’s rich source material will undoubtedly point to the similarities between the two series and cry foul, even going so far as to accuse the show of being a cheap copycat of HBO’s former cash cow.
After finishing the first season the very same day it came out, I gave it a tenuous 8.8/10; however, I soon realised that I was being far too generous. My unadulterated love for the saga blinded me to some of the glaring issues that the show has (most are outlined above), and, upon reflection and further viewing, I’ve settled on giving the show a solid 8/10. The Witcher is far from perfect, but it hits all the right notes and will scratch that fantasy itch for both new and existing fans. It has all the promise of a show with legs, especially as Sapkowski neatly wrapped up the story over 20 years ago, meaning that the showrunners have all the material they need to not fuck it up (please don’t fuck it up).