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.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 3

After a drawn-out journey to the border of Xadia over the first two seasons, the third season of The Dragon Prince sprints to its final destination and the culmination of the plot so far. If your concern was that the show was going too slow, I guess this addresses that. But the relatively breakneck pace packs way too much into these nine episodes. And while the fantasy genre is constantly in dialogue with itself, too much of the big story moments are reliant upon fantasy tropes. In one example, and I hope this avoids spoilers too much for anyone who hasn’t watched yet, an important and charismatic character from earlier episodes does not appear at all until a last-minute cavalry charge at the final battle that feels straight out of The Lord of the Rings. That final battle is all too brief, but this show has always been more concerned with adventure and interpersonal relationships than violent spectacle.

The series ends with a moment suggesting that there will be a continuation, either in a future season or the long-discussed video game. I would have ultimately preferred the slower pace of the earlier seasons, with the promise of a more fulfilling final climax in a fourth season.

Still, the animation is the best yet, the show remains hard-hitting with its complicated morality and depiction of dark themes, and the charming cast of characters continues to meet new allies and enemies of all sorts. This show offers some of the most imaginative fantasy out there, even while drawing deep from what has come before. And it remains as committed to exhibiting one of the most diverse fantasy settings ever. Yes, there are fantasy races and creatures, many depicted in new ways or entirely original to the show. Yet more significantly, the show portrays people of different human races and ethnicities, across a spectrum of gender and sexuality, and with a range of abilities. Disability is only an element of a character in this setting, not a hated impediment or a sign of weakness or villainy. And this season has a great homosexual relationship that is important to the plot for reasons other than the nature of the relationship. For the display of diversity in programming aimed primarily at kids and young adults, that’s just delightful.

It may have rushed its big climax, but The Dragon Prince isn’t out of ideas yet and remains a joy to watch. Now, maybe it will be free to go in some really weird directions…

That’s a wrap: The Mandalorian 1.8

Hoo boy, that was a good finale. Plot threads dangling throughout the season were resolved, there’s a clear sense of closure for this season, and there’s a clear and direct focus for next season. The Mandalorian and the Child are bonded like father and son, and they have allies who may come to stand by them again in the future (while unfortunately losing other allies in this explosive climax). And this final episode brought in a lot of elements from The Clone Wars and Rebels, in particular regarding the Mandalorians and one very special weapon.

I dearly hope that The Mandalorian honors its narrative promise to pursue the homeworld of Yoda’s species in this new season. But at the very least, the Mandalorian now believes he must care for a child of a culture (the Jedi) that has historically been an enemy of his adoptive people. That’s meaty enough to warrant another season or more by itself.

I was wrong: The Mandalorian 1.7

Over the past couple of episodes, I admit that I was getting a little frustrated with the pacing of the show. In retrospect, that was imprudent of me. The seventh episode pays off so many developments in earlier episodes. Characters and plot points carefully placed over time, in a way that feels strikingly organic, have now come together in an exciting way. And now we are moving at breakneck pace, the episode ending in a tragic cliffhanger. I was moved and surprised and impressed. And I’d have to say that (almost) every episode was vital for reaching this point.

Full speed ahead to the ending–but first, The Rise of Skywalker!

Hellier 2

I watched the second season of Hellier, of course. It’s even wilder, more aimless and unfocused, than the original season (and it now has almost nothing to do with the town of Hellier). The core team of paranormal investigators is just as credulous as ever. Following up on “synchronicities” they perceive as complex, wandering down investigative paths that always lead to dead ends, and breathlessly following yet another unsolicited email with a fabulous story, the team manages to somehow always keep the faith, confident that at some point they will uncover something remarkable, all the while believing that they themselves are now significant, somehow part of some massive and largely invisible magic initiation. I don’t even mean “magic” in a dismissive way–they literally believe that they are being led on into a real magic initiation spell. They believe that magic is real, including the “hedge witch” magic of one investigator, the “chaos magic” dabbled in by her co-investigator and spouse, and the ritual magic of Thelema. They believe that all these magics coexist, that magic matters to this case, that ultradimensional beings might be goblins and fairies and yetis and aliens, that if you can read meaning into coincidence then it is a profound synchronicity used by a higher power to lead you to truth, that the 37th parallel is a unique zone of paranormal activity of all kind, that a space man named Indrid Cold was involved in the Mothman events of the 1960s and 1970s and recently died in a spaceship-to-spaceship collision, that aliens visit old ladies in nursing homes to celebrate Mother’s Day, that felons with remarkable tales and signs of psychosis are potentially victims of massive child-sacrifice cults…They believe in “weirdness,” and they want to believe, and if someone tells them something fantastical, they will accept it as true and attempt to assimilate it into their worldview.

I increasingly believe that a feeling of societal isolation is in large part what informs the views of these investigators and their allies. They can all trade strange “secrets” and talk paranormal events as though they are experts in a highly specialized field. They view themselves as special, called to a sacred task, because they “ask questions” that most people ignore. One of the lead investigators acknowledges that he has always been a paranoid personality. And they talk a lot about how paranormal phenomena seem to especially congregate around marginalized people living on the fringes of society, or living in between spaces (e.g., after a move). This, like so much else, seems to be looking at a correlation and reading causation into it–or something similar. Central to this season, they accept the narrative of a woman in rural Kentucky with a history of criminal charges because it ties in enough with what they want to believe (to their credit, they are initially skeptical of her). That woman’s narrative, which throws together the occult and military conspiracies and aliens and goblins and pedophile rings and a whole bunch of other nonsense, sounds like the delusions of someone suffering from some form of psychosis. They actually manage to speak with her later (from prison), and she insists that there is still some form of occult conspiracy, but she backs off on many of the claims she initially laid out, saying that she had just looked stuff up online to explain what was happening. She’s cobbled together a bizarre worldview out of delusions and the weird corners of the Internet, and these investigators never even seriously raise the possibility of mental illness, instead enabling her worldview. To the extent that they doubt her claims at first, it is because they think she might be under the influence of a government disinformation agent.

I think the people in this show, the investigators themselves, feel marginalized. And they’ve found a community within paranormal circles and fringe thinkers. They’ve found purpose in this particular investigation. It feels a little like if Behind the Curve was produced from inside the fringe community, without the irony and self-awareness.

When you find support for your ideas in the discovery of dissimilar deflated balloons at different locations, I think it’s safe to say you might be straining a little too hard for meaning.

Still, the documentary’s second season is long and rambling in a way that can be dull and repetitive but is also a fascinating look into how these people are thinking. There are moments in the show that are weird, precisely because I genuinely believe the authenticity of the investigators. I think they really believe in everything they’re doing. And even when the weirdest moments of the show still rely on you being willing to connect dots that don’t require a single one-to-one connection, or any connection at all, I still respect that they manage to have their weird moments without ever feeling like they’re trying to pull my leg. They’re concerned about being hoaxed (not enough at times, I think), but I think they would never even consider trying to hoax their viewers. They believe in what they’re doing too much. They believe in their research, their investigations, their 3 AM debates. They’re not great at what they’re doing, but they’re doing the best they can.

Nothing’s changed my perspective, but it’s a good show to have on in the background while working out. I’m invested in these goofballs, and I’d like to see another season, even though it feels like they’ve totally exhausted the narrative at this point.

Side note for those who watched the show…When Greg and Tyler go into that cave for the first time, that might have been the most frustrating moment of the whole show for me! They go into the cave without proper PPE or anyone outside of the cave who knows where they are. What if they have a cave-in or a fall or some other disabling injury? What if they’re right about the murder-cult and they get attacked? What if there’s a dangerous animal inside? Then they go in the cave and claim to hear whispers, though I heard nothing remotely like a whisper on the audio, and they refuse to investigate that further! Dudes! If there’s really a murder-cult operating right there, you could be so close to the truth–OR, more likely, you’ll quickly find a more reasonable explanation for what you’re hearing. Then they find those animal bones, which they make a big deal about, even though it could just be where a bear or something similar drags its prey, and THEY DON’T EVEN GRAB A BONE TO BRING BACK WITH THEM. Guys! You could have that sucker analyzed! You could provide some hard evidence to support some of your theories–or, more likely, you could actually disprove some of the ideas you’re bouncing around. As is so often the case, they miss obvious approaches in the moment and almost seem hell-bent on approaching investigations ass-backwards. Ah!!! Hellier in a nutshell.

Big-shot gangster putting together a crew: The Mandalorian 1.6

In the immediate aftermath of the sixth episode of The Mandalorian, I’m excited. It was great fun watching the second half, with plenty of tense action and twists. We have some of the greatest fight scenes of the season, with the Mandalorian really showing off all his abilities. There’s a tense game of deadly hide-and-seek involving the child. We get glimpses of the state of the larger galaxy, both in the criminal underworld and in the Republic. We also get a few more hints about the Mandalorian’s past. And I was delighted by the presence of so many enjoyable actors: Richard Ayoade, whom I remember fondly as Moss from The IT Crowd, voices an arrogant mercenary droid; Clancy Brown, who voiced Savage Oppress (among other Star Wars characters), plays the hulking Devaronian muscle on the team; Mark Boone Junior, memorable as Bobby in Sons of Anarchy, plays the outlaw crew leader who throws together the operation; and the directors of other Mandalorian episodes cameo as X-Wing pilots. Then there are the actors I didn’t recognize, who you might, like Natalia Tena (whose roles include Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter films) and Matt Lanter (whom I did not recognize in his small though crucial part as a scared security guard in this episode, and who voiced Anakin Skywalker in The Clone Wars).

But I remember how I felt during the first part, when Mando fills in the last spot of a five-person job to bust a target out of a New Republic prison ship. During those opening moments, our hero (or antihero) felt more like a silent video game protagonist than usual. As we were introduced to characters along with Mando, we learned that some knew him and some didn’t, some hated him and some liked him; the other characters traded verbal jabs, made jokes, and eluded to shady pasts. Meanwhile, Mando did a whole lot of staring silently through his helmet. We’ve seen this plot many times before too, in television episodes (not to mention series) and films and video games and books: a group of undesirables gets together for a job that should be simple, and then things go wrong. The episode doesn’t set the characters up much–they’re archetypes. The boss putting the job together has seen it all and is too old to go out on jobs himself anymore; the point guy is agitated and arrogant; the pilot is an aloof and brilliant droid that no one else fully trusts; the muscle is exactly that, big and mean; and then there’s the acrobat archetype, who is also the only female in the episode, written as a “sexy psychopath” like Harley Quinn. At first, they felt like unlikable versions of characters in The Fast and the FuriousGuardians of the Galaxy, or Suicide Squad–though one of the things I liked about the episode is that the second half shows that they are supposed to be unlikable, that they’re not good people.

More than anything else, the biggest flaw of this episode is that it doesn’t really progress the show in any way. The show in general is slow-paced in addressing its overarching narrative concerns, more focused on episodic adventures. This episode attempts to demonstrate that the Mandalorian is a changed man now (while also showing how much he hasn’t changed), but we’ve really already seen this in all of the previous episodes. Perhaps he hasn’t had to directly confront his past since turning his back on the guild, but it still felt superfluous, thematically covering content similar to that of the immediately preceding episode. Other than that, we know that others will still betray Mando to get the kid, that Mando has no safe harbor, and that the kid won’t be safe until the bounty hunters’ guild is dealt with. These are things we already knew. I had fun watching the episode, and I was stoked by the end of it, but I’m a little disappointed that it feels like the full eight episodes of the first season are going to be spent simply tying up loose ends with the bounty hunters guild. I’m happy to see Mando taking on odd jobs and dealing with political and interpersonal spaces directly altered by his decisions at the start of this season, but I’d like to get through some of the central conflicts left unresolved from the beginning. At the same time, with only 8 episodes averaging just over a half-hour in length, compared to a traditional action-drama with perhaps 13 (or even 22) episodes running 45 minutes to an hour, I recognize that I must seem impatient with what has in fact been fairly economical storytelling. At some point, though, the show has to do something else other than telling us the same thing over and over again.

Old Western Classic: The Mandalorian 1.5

In this episode, the Mandalorian finds his ship once more in disrepair after the opening scene, requiring a pit stop on one of the most familiar worlds of the Star Wars galaxy. He needs funds to cover the repairs, so he takes on a job acting as a mentor of sorts for a hotshot young guy eager to join the bounty hunters’ guild. This youngster (played by Toro Calican) is more hustler than professional, though, and their target is a hardened mercenary with a dreaded reputation (played by Ming-Na Wen). To round out the new characters, the backwater mechanic (played by Amy Sedaris) hired by the Mandalorian also picks up baby duty while he’s out trying to bring in the credits.

Much of the episode was a classic western bounty hunter story, culminating in a clash between young gun and old, and the setting of the episode encourages a Wild West vibe.

[Spoilers follow]

That said, not everything has to end up on Tatooine. I do get the impression that the Mandalorian has some background with the planet, between his familiarity with Jawas in an earlier episode and his easy ability to communicate and negotiate with the Tusken Raiders in this episode (nice to see the Tuskens treated as rational sentients instead of mindless, violent savages). It makes sense; a lot of seedy types with underworld connections would have had reason to spend time on the planet at some point. And I can hardly begrudge the use of the planet, and so many familiar vistas, when it really allows the episode to feel like a gritty episode of some forgotten Western.

I do hope that we get some story momentum soon, though. At this point, nothing’s happening too quickly, even though each episode remains individually entertaining.

A final question about the ending: who do you think the figure is who comes across Fennec Shand’s body? The usual suspects seem convinced that this is a hint at a Boba Fett reveal. I’d rather Fett not show up; there are already enough real Mandalorians in the show, thank you very much. Plus, dropping him in would almost necessitate considerable explanation, re-focusing at least one episode around the figure previously presumed dead. And to have him suddenly reappear, years after the rescue of Han Solo and defeat of Jabba the Hutt, would feel bizarre if without some sort of explanation. Anyway, if it is an existing Star Wars character, and I suspect it’s not, I would hope that it’s Cad Bane. The jingle of the spurs fits in with his cowboy aesthetic. And while Bane may have been intended to be killed off in a canceled arc from The Clone Wars, for now I think his fate is ambiguous. Either way, it seems easier for a Duros to bounce back from a blaster wound than anyone recovering from being eaten.