Netflix’s The Witcher Review

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Henry Cavill hunts the monsters that go bump in the night.

Most people know The Witcher and Geralt from the incredibly successful and well received Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red. I know him from the novels the games and show are based on, specifically the first two short story collections (that’s all I was able to read before the show came out). Those are great fantasy reimagining of classic fair tales. The story takes a normally action heavy premise and turns them into wonderful, dialogue driven conversations and character narratives for everyone but Geralt.

This new TV series by Netflix, and helmed by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich with Henry Cavill as they titular Witcher is uneven.

The story follows three plot lines. The first follows The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia as he hunts monsters. The second is of Ciri, a young princess on the run from those who want to kill her. The final one centers on the mage Yennefer as she goes from crippled farm girl to beautiful mage.

This show shines when it focuses on the characters and their journey. The intimate moments, thoughtful conversations, and hard choices is the heart of the show. The weakest parts of the journey is Ciri’s. It feels plotting and just filling time in ways the others don’t because we know where hers is all going. It does not feel like we are waiting for a great moment, but just throwing plot in the way to give the villains in her plot line something to do; instead of interact with real people on a journey like those we meet with Geralt and Yennefer.

The most surprising, and successful part of the show is how episodic it is. It adapts and focuses a lot more on Geralt’s adventures in the short stories I recognize than would have thought. The stories are good and have a mix of levity, drama, heartache, and action. I am surprised a Netflix show would go this way. It also makes a lot of sense in retrospect.

Netflix had its name on serialized shows, and making a show that can have serialization when it wants, and just fun adventures is the best of both worlds. In this case it provides a fun twist by having some adventures and plot lines not be concurrent with the other plot of the episode. It also is not sign posted that is happening. This is similar to the structure of the short story collections. The short stories introduce you to characters in one story, then show how they meet later. In both cases you need to look at the context clues and make inferences based on what happened. It’s a great trick and surprise (surprise it works, and how they use it).

The acting is strong across the cast. Henry Cavill honed his craft of being detached by playing Superman (cause that is who Superman is). He gets to direct it more into being a straight man and quick wit to the situations he finds himself in. Similarly, Anya Chaoltra, and Freya Allen who play Yennefer and Ciri respectively are doing great with the material given. Yennefer in particular has to juggle pain, seduction, planning, ploying, and a deep hurt all at once.

The stand out in the cast is Joey Batey as the bard, Jaskier (we don’t get his name until episodes after he’s introduced). He is an adaption of a similar bard character, Dandelion from the books. The name is different but the character is the same. He is a joyful, playing, bantering musician. He gets to be the one to really have strong verbal words of the hard and playful variety with Geralt. He provides good relief and fun to this very scary world. We also see their bond grow with each successive encounter. I will also not get the song he made for Geralt, “Give coin to your Witcher,” out of my head.

The production values are solid throughout. The sets, lighting, and staging really brings the world to life. It cuts between woods, camps, dingy towns, and giant castles with cohesive ease that they all exist in the same world. The practical creatures are absolutely stunning. They bring out a strong sense of fear, presence, and weight to them that the CG moments lack. The CG monsters do not feel as physical and look out often out of place, especially when they cut between practical and CG.

The action scenes are all good. The sword fights, monster battles, and magical sieges are something all but Into the Badlands would be scared of. The final magical siege, and sword fights are nothing you’ve seen at this scale in a tv show or movie before (again except Into the Badlands). The siege in particular makes Harry Potter look mundane (can you imagine making a full on fantasy story where they just shoot lasers?).

The unevenness comes from Ciri’s plot, and what the plot chooses to focus on. In a fantasy series that puts lots of focus on the world and politics exposition needs to be given to catch people up on the world and backstory. Geralt and Yennefer’s plots have it too, but they were often incidental to the story. Only important to explain why a single character is present. Ciri is a princess and being pursued by an invading army. Lots of exposition, made up names, and famous battles had to be breezes through and just assumed you got it. It also does not help that she is the only one with a goal that feels like it goes nowhere till the end. The audience can predict what will happen, and it’s just a series of unfortunate events till then. It drags the show, and sucks because the acting is good, the pathos is good. It’s just hard to care when you feel like the show just wants to have a plot for unclear reasons.

Now for those wondering, I never found the books to be openly sexual (from what I read). There were cleavers turns of phrase, and implied “they did a naughty (that’s not even how the books are written),” but no open sex. The games made the implicit become explicit with nudity and full sex scenes. This show carry’s that on in fine enough ways. I question the explicit need for them in media generally, but if they have to need it, this makes it part of the character and story in good, tolerable.

Now this is another adaption of a long and dense series of fantasy novels set in a more gritty universe, so I feel the comparisons to Game of Thrones will come up.

Will it fill your Game of Thrones hole? Don’t know, never watched it. I think this has more magic than Game of Thrones had, and is overall less political (as in the narrative is about politics, not that the narrative is pushing a political agenda). But, if you’re in the mood for a nice fantasy story with good production values, characters, and a fine enough overall plot you should watch it. You’ll probably enjoy yourself.

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