Review: The Witcher, Season One

I liked Netflix’s version of The Witcher. It’s not perfect. I hope there’s more of it.

I’m not a “fan” of The Witcher, exactly. I liked the first game, but it was a weird game lacking in polish, with a difficult-to-adjust-to combat system that was completely overhauled in later games, and it was bogged down with a misogynistic depiction of women and sex. I was hooked by the complicated morality, the bizarre assortment of characters, and the unique lore. That led me to reading The Last Wish, and I truly loved Sapkowski’s character and setting (even if I didn’t love the writing/translation style). I’ve tried to get into the second Witcher game a couple times, and I really do intend to invest myself in it enough to complete it some day so that I can feel free to move onto the third game. I have Blood of Elves somewhere in the house, waiting to be read. It’s an interesting setting with a unique moral perspective that (unfortunately) all too often fails to treat women with respect; it’s fairly unique in its use of Polish myths and fairy tales and classic fantasy to do something darker and more complex, and yet because of its source material, a lot of it feels familiar. It inhabits a unique ethnic identity instead of a generic European-style setting, but it is still a European-style setting, and I could understand readers or viewers or gamers preferring to look for voices and settings that haven’t been promoted as much. I like the idea of what the Witcher is but I see its flaws and can understand why someone wouldn’t like it. And I come to the series as someone familiar with the source material but not overly so; I won’t get all the references, and I won’t know how every adapted storyline originally appeared, but I’m not taking this all fresh either.

It turns out that I knew more of the story than I was expecting. This first season largely adapts plots from the short story collections of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny; most of what I hadn’t read had been referenced in what I’d played. When we get to the titular Witcher facing the striga, cursed heir to the throne of Temeria, I realized I was seeing the third depiction of a particular story, a story that had first appeared in The Last Wish and had then been depicted in the opening cinematic for the first game (while becoming a major plot point of that game). Still, every story, whether I knew it or not, was engaging and moody and prone to sudden bursts of graphic violence, so I never lost some degree of suspense.

I’ve said a lot about what I do and don’t know about The Witcher. If you don’t know anything at all about it, all you really need to know is that the protagonist is Geralt, a “Witcher” who has been mutated through magic and trained to fight monsters; he wanders the land, taking on odd monster-hunting jobs for gold, but his mission is complicated by his reluctance to kill anything intelligent and by the villainy of many of the humans seeking to hire him. As much as he cuts through monsters, he also cuts through a great deal of men and bullshit. While he opts to project the image of an aloof killer, he is typically thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly kind. He especially tends to take the side of outsiders like him, though the bigoted human majority doesn’t approve of this. He hates royalty and wizards, but he frequently becomes ensnared in their schemes, finding himself the ally or rival of many of the powerful.

The show captures a great deal of this. Without access to his unique headspace, however, Geralt often comes off as more of a cold-blooded assassin than a warrior-poet. We see glimpses of it, but he is depicted more in the grumpy, near-silent mold of the video-game version of the character, mostly left to say “fuck” or “hm.” That said, Henry Cavill does everything he can with what he is given, and every “fuck” or “hm” has a slightly different meaning and intent, conveyed through tone and body language. It’s really not that bad, either; Geralt has plenty of moral debates with the characters he runs into, often has to make difficult choices between the lesser of two evils, and occasionally encounters or develops a friend.

Geralt’s closest companion is Jaskier, played by Joey Batey. Even if you haven’t watched any of the show by the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard some of his catchy tunes by now, or seen someone encourage you to toss a coin to your Witcher. Batey plays Jaskier pitch-perfect (pun intended): smarmy, self-assured, arrogant, charming, promiscuous, and worldly yet somehow naive. He’s the emotional soft-boy counterpart to Geralt’s almost parodic depiction of traditional masculinity. And they become best buds! How sweet is that? Jaskier feels like the most accurate translation from book to game to television (fun fact: he was known to me and many other English speakers as “Dandelion” prior to this because his name is Polish for “Buttercup” and the translator apparently wanted to avoid some of the American associations with that word).

Geralt’s eventual on-again, off-again lover is Yennefer, portrayed by Anya Chalotra. I don’t know Yennefer as much as Geralt, Jaskier, some of the other sorcerers and sorceresses, or even some of the royalty, but I had a general idea of her somewhat toxic relationship with Geralt. I had no idea of what she went through to become a sorceress, however. It took me a while to pick up on, but the story is actually told in three separate timelines, and much of Yennefer’s story takes place farthest in the past, as we see the trials and travails she underwent prior to meeting Geralt. I was most invested in Yennefer’s story by the end. Yet as much time as was spent, it still feels rushed. I never felt that I fully understood her, yet understanding her and her development over the series is critical to a few key moments (including the climax of the season). I would have liked to have even more time with her as a sorceress in training, to see her adapt and improve and struggle and scheme, to see what sort of power she wanted to have and how her decisions brought her closer or further away from that power. We only get glimpses in the end. Most troublesome, the show spends altogether too much time on her transformation from a humpbacked girl to a beautiful woman via a painful magical procedure that starts with a hysterectomy without anesthesia and then a truly horrifying set of enchanted physical changes that put her through agonizing, gruesome pain. The fixation on this woman’s horrific pain to achieve her goals was questionable to me. And while the show has some messaging that the transformation is to appease the royalty sorceresses work with, rather than to correct some “fault,” the show does not escape reinforcement of traditional beauty standards at all costs. (Fascinatingly, it’s paired with moments from the striga fight, and we are left with the impression that her transformation from humpback to beauty is comparable to the striga’s transformation from monster to innocent-yet-feral girl.) Again, more time with Yennefer before that, and more understanding of what she wanted and why, might have made me more accepting of that scene.

As I mentioned, there are three timelines at work. The series jumps between these points. Yennefer’s story is the farthest back in time; Geralt’s story is near the narrative’s present; current events follow the young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) as she flees from the destruction of her kingdom in search of Geralt for protection. I won’t get into the “current” timeline because the whole of the show builds toward it and the significance of Ciri’s story.

All in all, this show pushed my tolerances for graphic depictions of violence, gore, and pain. The fight scenes were often quite brutal. There was weight to these moments, even when the fights themselves were quick. Often, the camera would pan over fallen bodies and severed limbs. Yet the most grotesque gore was typically only shown in flashes; sometimes, a moment of violence would be alluded to but not graphically depicted. I’m not sure that the decisions made ever felt fully consistent, but I appreciated the occasional reprieve.

If you’re looking for a replacement to Game of Thrones, this isn’t it. It’s smaller in scope, focused mostly on four characters (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and Jaskier). There is magic, and there is a feudal society, and there are dragons, and a great war is coming. But it’s typically focused on the smaller moments, as Geralt just tries to make his way through the world. The show is about his beliefs and principles, how they evolve and how they stay the same, how they compete or coincide with the beliefs and principles of others. I’m glad for that. I’m glad for the personal, narrowed focus. I never really got into A Song of Ice and Fire or its television adaptation for a number of reasons, but I think the most useful distinction here is that it was a sprawling alternate historical fiction epic disguised as a fantasy series, and The Witcher is about this one character operating in a strange, alien world. You might disagree with my depiction of Game of Thrones; I only read the first couple of books. But I hope you can at least see the distinction I’m trying to draw here.

I liked the show. I didn’t think it was perfect. I don’t think the source material is perfect. I’ll keep watching if they keep making this show. I might get around to reading the Witcher saga. I might finally get into the rest of the games. But if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s not for everyone.

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