Enough time has passed, and the wild and woolly post-Game of Thrones fantasy drama has been spotted loping across the misty moors of Eastern Europe. Or at least Hungary, which is where principal photography started, according to the new Witcher show’s wikipedia page. From there it moved on to the Canary Islands, of all places, before settling down in a castle in Poland to film the finale.
Yes, Netflix is making a play for all that tits-and-dragons money, and driving pretty strong to the basket too: in the first season of The Witcher, there were two dragons and probably around 20-30 tits (I didn’t keep an exact count). Lest you think it’s not inclusive, there’s also Henry Cavill’s Geralt: throaty, instinctively protective, periodically shirtless, and built like an entire complex of brick shithouses. I’m like 70% sure the guy lifts.
I’m not even really being critical. Servicing the audience’s horniness has always been a reliable commercial winner, and if I were a TV executive, I would certainly be tempted to use it like a safety net here. This show is, if you don’t already know, based off the written works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski – written works that you shouldn’t even try to adapt unless you’re willing to get weird with it. At the writer’s table, I imagine at least once someone had to say a sentence like “so, are we really going to do the thing where the Princess falls in love with the porcupine guy?” or “are we really going to do the thing with the terrifying incest monster?”
I rib because I love. I’m one of the people who has decided to like The Witcher – the books, the games, the show, the card game, all of it. I’m an easy mark for this sort of thing, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I pretty much like the show and am looking forward to future seasons.
At some point I should get down to nuts and bolts, so I’ll list some of the good things about it, following by some of the bad. First, the good:
The monster-of-the-week stuff: A typical episode is arranged roughly thusly: itinerant monster hunter for hire Geralt of Rivia rides into a new town, which is thoroughly stressed out over some kind of supernatural calamity. Geralt investigates, figures out what’s going on, and figures out how to either lure the monster out of its lair to be confronted or resolves the problem some other way.
In the meantime, some kind of B plot – a political develpment, a bit of worldbuilding, what have you – chugs along in the background. By the end of the season, these culminate in the invasion of an expansionist empire called Nilfgaard from the south. It’s a good structure, simple in layout but with the potential for interesting variety in execution, and in my opinion it’s the main thing that holds the show together.
The performances: Much has been made of Henry Cavill’s Geralt, and the result is a nice story about someone really earning a role. Cavill is apparently a fan of the source material and invested real effort over the years into getting the show made. In a way, he nails it. Geralt is a deceptively difficult character to play: not just a grump with a soft heart, but a perceptive and thoughtful grump who’s often put into ethically confounding situations.
For all that, the truth is that no one has ever played Geralt the way I see/hear him in my head. But I blame my head for this, rather than the performances of others. For instance, back when I first offered my unsolicited advice about the show, I recommended that Cavill not try to do the gravelly Doug Cockle voice. Well, he did anyway. But he did it well, so I’m cool with it.
So Cavill is good. However, my personal season one standout is Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer. She’s given a doozy of a role: Yennefer is a deformed hunchback for half the season, then learns how to do magic, and becomes simultaneously selfish, ruthless, and someone that I found myself at least occasionally rooting for. There’s a relationship between Yen and another sorcerer called Istredd that’s particularly well-done, from magical meet cute to consummation to eventual drifting apart: it all works.
Finally, there’s Jaskier (this is the character called “Dandelion” in the games and some English translations of the books). He’s the traveling bard that accompanies other, more formidable characters during their adventures and serves as comic relief. In my opinion, he’s another character that’s deceptively difficult to get right. His actor – another Englishman named Joey Batey – gets him right, I think.
The overall Witcheryness: “Witcheryness” is a slippery term to define. It’s the quality on the screen that reminds me of the quality of the written works, and sometimes throws an interesting new source of light on them. At least part of the magic is the realization that you CAN get away with spotty exposition if you get the story right. So often the Witcher decides that the characters understand how the world works, and the audience’s job is to keep up as best they can. I personally am okay with this decision.
That all covers much of the good stuff. But there are some things I’m obligated to complain about as well.
Complicated timelines: The scripts spend most of their time following three main characters: Geralt (the Witcher), Yennefer (the Sorceress), and Ciri (complicated, but so far she’s a princess trying to escape a war zone). The hiccup is that these storylines are sometimes separated by decades of in-universe time, which is not always made clear to the audience. Now that the first season and its attendant backstory have been covered, my hope is that they can switch to a more comprehensible timeline.
Sometimes rushed: To cite one example, the entire Brokilon sequence from the novels is barreled through in a single episode here. At other times, things get abridged in various ways. It’s one of the same fundamental problems HBO’s Game of Thrones had: there just isn’t enough screen time to do the written work justice. But then again, there never is.
Ours is a fallen world: Of course, this mostly isn’t the show’s fault. But every so often the characters will wander through a set that reminds the audience that this is TV. Some of the costumes are iffy or strange. At one point there’s a dragon, and it speaks, and its mouth doesn’t really move properly, and you can tell it’s CGI.
Of course, if this planet was properly managed, stuff like this would have an unlimited budget and we’d all spend marginally less money on fighter planes and so forth to make up for it. But ours is a fallen world, so The Witcher is just a TV show, and the visuals aren’t always up to being how we wish they were.
So there you have it, good and bad both. I never really feel right recommending or not recommending things to people, so the best I can do is just describe the show and readers can (hopefully) figure out whether or not it’s the sort of thing they like.
I will say, on the way to a conclusion here, that I like to see an unabashed and unselfconscious work of fantasy fiction jam its foot into the cultural doorframe and keep it there. Reviewers of a certain age – the same ones that have learned to take superhero movies in stride – still get antsy whenever there’s a swordfight or a magic spell on the screen, even though they’re really no less ridiculous than super serum, a flying missile suit, or purple glove guy.
I’ve spent much of my life resigned to the fact that the stuff I really like is never gonna get made into a big-time movie or TV show or anything like that. But over the last ten years or so, the world has been very slowly and deliberately proving me wrong. Don’t get me wrong: they still have a lot of work to do. But it’s a start. I think there are people out there whose inner lives will be marginally richer thanks to The Witcher than they would have been otherwise, which is a good thing.
And finally, because you weren’t going to get away without hearing it:
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