This past weekend, Geralt of Rivia got moody, got on his horse, and “hmmed” his way onto Netflix for the first season of The Witcher. While our review got into a few of the things that worked or didn’t over the first five episodes, with the full season out, we took a spoiler-filled look at a few of our biggest likes and dislikes about the show’s arrival.
So many shows these days, especially ones on Netflix, have their season’s storytelling thrust towards building one specific narrative over the course of its run. Everything’s in service of it, so that if you’re bingewatching, it all plays out like one, butt-numbingly lengthed movie. So there’s something weirdly refreshing to see The Witcher take a different tack, and give us something that really, properly feels episodic. It’s almost alien these days, but there’s a good chunk of Witcher episodes that you could just put on with zero context or set up, and watch at random because of their focus on smaller, specific stories within its world.
Sure, it does have a primary arc—Ciri’s quest to find Geralt—but it’s in the background (to a fault, as we’ll get to) for much of the show as we hop around Geralt’s monster hunting adventures. This not only gives The Witcher some much-needed “Monster of the Week”-style variety, but it means the show also gets to adapt some of the more beloved short stories from Andrzej Sapkowski’s anthologies that kicked off this universe in the first place.
That “Monster of the Week” vibe also means we get to see a few cool creatures from the books get a spotlight over the season. From the Golden Dragon to the Striga, to Yennefer and Geralt’s almost fatal encounter with a Djinn, from the nastiest Kikimora to the lowliest Ghoul, there’s plenty of great monster action across the show that serves to delight both fans of the novels and fans of these encounters from the CD Projekt Red games.
But while these supernatural tussles Geralt engages in also mean we’re treated to some wonderfully brutal action scenes—although admittedly Geralt’s scraps with human foes are often more interestingly choreographed—there’s also something compelling about the almost humdrum attitude The Witcher treats these monstrous beings with.
Every encounter is bloody and scary, especially because, despite his skill, The Witcher never treats Henry Cavill as his other more famous acting alter-ego, Superman. The threat in every fight scene is palpable. But at the same time, no matter how horrific or lethal they are, the people of The Witcher’s world, Geralt included, just sort of treat them as...part of life. There’s an allure to fawning over these creatures that could put them on pedestals, but framing them through Geralt’s lens of monsterhunting as a freelance gig lends a nice, lived-in vibe to The Witcher’s world.
For all its visual grimdark fantasy, The Witcher is a surprisingly (and gleefully) cheesy show at times. While some of this comes from Henry Cavill’s lovable grumpiness as Geralt, much of it falls on Joey Bartey as Jaskier the Bard to act as the cheerful, fish-out-of-monster-polluted-water foil to Geralt’s taciturn and distanced outcast. And not only does Jaskier provide laughs, but his often-one-sided relationship with Geralt becomes one of the most compelling pairings on the show, following an arc of begrudging acceptance to the tragic way Geralt pushes away his one true friend in a moment of heartbreak in episode six.
It also helps that his veritable top hit song, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” is an absolute banger that we can’t get out of our heads. O’ valley of plenty, O’ valley of plenty...
The Witcher ends with a massive battle, as the lingering threads of the war between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms reaches a fever point at Sodden Hill, where Yennefer, Tissaia, Triss, and a group of their fellow mages decide to step into the ongoing conflict and try and stop the Imperial army surging into Northern Territory. By the time the battle ends, the 22 mages that started it defending civilians from Nilfgaard’s siege, just eight remain, with even Yennefer herself seemingly among the causalities after she unleashes the full power of her magic to burn the Nilfgaardian vanguard to a crisp.
But it’s not just the epic scale of the battle that’s fun to watch or even the tragic inevitability of the mages’ numbers being overwhelmed and surely dwindled. It’s not even the visual spectacle of all the spells being flung about. There’s something fascinating in the way The Witcher treats its mages’ place in traditional medieval siege warfare, an interesting example of how it blends its fantastical elements into its grounded world.
Yennefer essentially spends most of the battle as a supernatural comms tower, communicating orders to her allies. Magical explosive potions are flung into the Nilfgaardian ranks, shot with arrows to ignite—and we even got a meticulous montage of said potions being prepared! Triss’ almost druidic nature magic becomes an equivalent to chemical warfare, summoning poisonous mushrooms to decimate the invader’s ranks, or toxic barbed vines to block a breached gate. Even the Nilfgaardian side has some interesting applications of magic too, like creating a massive fog bank to hide their movement towards the hill, or even disgustingly creepy magical worms that infiltrate the fortress and parasitically mind control defenders into double agents. There could’ve very easily been a version of this battle that was all spellslinging, Dragon Ball-esque energy blasts—and while that would’ve been cool, this was a much more interesting application of magic in a grounded fantasy setting.
Geralt might be the face of The Witcher, and Ciri might be the focal point of its overarching narrative. But Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer of Vengerberg is very arguably the main character of this season, getting to go on a morally complex and interesting arc as she grows from a horrifically abused young girl with power she doesn’t understand to one of the most adept and skillful mages on the Continent.
Geralt’s arc of running away from—before ultimately accepting—the fact that destiny has chosen that his fate lies with Ciri, plays out relatively flatly over the eight episodes. In contrast, Yennefer’s path to self-realization about her own value and legacy as she attempts to balance the moral and physical cost of her literal transformation the Brotherhood of Sorcerers makes her pay—specifically her womb, robbing her of the choice to pass on her power or simply just create the family she never had—creates for a much more satisfying sense of growth. In the end, as she makes one seemingly final effort to take a stand and go out defending Sodden from the Nilfgaardian invaders, she does so having made peace with her legacy...although it’s left clear that there’s still more of story to tell.
A completely baffling thing The Witcher does is separate its three focal characters and their arcs across three different stretches of time (although Yennefer and Geralt’s intersect, they are both separate parts of the past compared to the “present” of Ciri fleeing Cintra) and then just...never actually explains that to its audience, at all?
Even when it comes apparent several episodes into the season—which is only when Geralt and Jaskier end up going to a banquet held by Queen Calanthe, Ciri’s grandmother, who we’d seen leap to her death at the climax of the first episode—the show still doesn’t acknowledge it. It just...leaves you to wonder when the hell anything is actually happening in relation to the rest of the show and moves on, and will do similar things multiple times over the course of the season. It’s only really in the climax of the final episode that our heroes are actually in the same time as each other!
It’s a baffling decision. Although there are some minor benefits—especially for Geralt’s plotline, as he goes about contract to contract, letting him be a bit more freewheeling—it primarily creates a hugely confusing barrier of entry for audiences (especially ones unfamiliar with how the books also jump around in time a lot) while also underserving its characters. Certain emotional impacts, like Geralt, Yennefer, and Jaskier’s relationships with each other splintering in episode six, don’t hit anywhere near as hard because while these characters are meant to have known each other for an extended period at this point, their jumbled timeframes make it feel like they’ve barely interacted.
There’s something to be said about the casual nature of the way The Witcher doles out details of its world, but at times it can be an almost frustratingly high barrier of entry even if you are dedicated to sticking through it. Concepts and terminology are thrown into sentences and only loosely detailed, and an uneven approach to what gets explained to the audience and what doesn’t can lead to a lot of confusion (like, say, not knowing the difference between the magic Geralt casts, the magic mages like Yennefer cast, and then the strange power Ciri has). There’s only so many times you can hear someone casually refer to “The Conjunction” and then remember it got half-explained back in episode two.
And yet somehow at the same time, for all its attempts of the war between Cintra and Niflgaard as a primary element of the season, it’s so barely explained just what the state of the Continent actually is that making sense of where anything is placed in this world feels wildly off-kilter. So little time is dedicated to the macro-scope of where characters and locations are in relation to each other that, even when characters are thrust together, they feel oddly isolated.
Between the equally ill-explained timeline shenanigans and the stop-and-start pacing, some of The Witcher’s narrative looseness comes at the cost of effectively introducing its world to audiences that aren’t already inherently familiar with the books or the games, and for a world as interesting as this one can be at times, that’s a damn shame.
Several of The Witcher’s biggest flaws and its biggest strengths come together to hamstring what should be its actual most important character. Ciri is vital to the show’s momentum, and yet we barely spend time with her. And what little time we do spend all feels the same, so it blends together into a contextless mulch of wandering around waiting for her to eventually find Geralt. Or at least, show up in the same period of time as him. Unlike either Geralt or Yennefer, who Ciri is as a person (aside from her destiny-mandated importance) is barely touched upon; we’re just simply told to care about her without being given a particularly compelling reason to do so. Which is bad, given, once again, she’s meant to be the forward momentum of the show!
With Geralt and Ciri finally united in the closing moments of the season, and Yennefer’s disappearance taking her temporarily out of the picture, there’s a chance for Ciri to get the same level of scrutiny Geralt and Yenn have already had. But that it’s taken a season of Freya Allan running around aimlessly and occasionally magic-screaming some people to death to get to that potential exploration feels like such a waste.
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