Average Overall Grade: 7.5
Since my introduction to the world of the Witcher, I’ve torn through author Andrzrej Sapkowski’s short story collections and novels. I was quickly immersed in this dark fairy tale setting, where people are monsters are the real monsters are hunted to the edge of the world. The witcher Geralt and his merry band are dragged into increasingly perilous adventures, bound to one another by the strings of fate.
Season one of Netflix’s The Witcher is a pale imitation of the world Sapkowski created through his writing. This is less the fault of creative liberties taken with the show’s production, and more a result of a failure of vision. Sapkowski’s Continent is thoroughly alive. Every chance encounter is filled with living, breathing beings, human or not. There is a sense that every person is living their own life, just as complex as those of our main cast, up to the moment they cross paths. Geralt and those he meets are strung along by the invisible strands of destiny, always reeled in, even when they think they might escape it. Even when they actively try. It is a dark hand guiding their future, subtle to us and even more enigmatic to those entangled in its influence. Geralt must ultimately come to grips with forces he doesn’t believe in, and naturally distrusts.
There is no such revelation in Netflix’s adaptation, gradual or otherwise. To say the theme of destiny is heavy-handed is an understatement. It is thwacked into our skulls like a deovel’s iron balls. It is so ingrained in dialogue as to rob the story of any richness or subtlety. This shows a staggering lack of trust in the audience and there is a cascading effect to other elements of the season. The showrunners cater to an imaginary lowest-common denominator, and as a result, dialogue is predictable and expository, jokes are low-hanging fruit. Non-essential characters are left unnamed, many others are cut. The characters we do get stand well enough on their own, lending to the cast’s performances, but their interactions often feel unnatural. The Continent in Netflix’s The Witcher is a husk– a stage play with a wooden cutout background and props. The season seems hyper-focused on diluting the world of the Witcher with a single concept: The ever-present guiding star of “destiny” feels less like the well-oiled machinations of converging plotlines and more like a tedious excuse for poorly orchestrated storytelling.
The fact remains that the show can get away with so many of its faults by performing just well enough. Otherwise genuine criticism might be overlooked because the season was mostly enjoyable. There were even scenes that gave me chills– Geralt’s fight with the striga paralleled with Yennefer’s grisly transformation, or Jaskier’s rendition of “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” over the outro of the second episode. We were treated to some excellent performances, and some decent ones. Unfortunately, a television series needs to be more than the sum of its parts. Simply averaging the lows and the highs doesn’t provide an accurate representation of the whole. We’re allowed to enjoy one aspect of the show and cringe at another. The sticking points of the season are hard to outweigh, but by that logic, they don’t need to be.
The controversy surrounding the show’s casting and the ignorance surrounding the book-to-game-to-show differences even before release, doesn’t help things. It only diverts our attention from the more substantial and questionable decisions of pacing between timelines, and hackneyed attention to the source material.
At the very least I do genuinely admire the showrunners’ daring to make their own choices where they felt they needed to. The first season covers material from Sapkowski’s two collections of short stories, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. Sapkowski developed his world haltingly, as his short stories sprouted from his first fantasy short story contest entry. The overarching narrative of the anthologies and their actual chronology are not a simple one-to-one match. Only with the start of the novels do the timelines flatten out a bit, and even then Sapkowski is known to extensive use of flashbacks. Owing to these tricky time-skips and myriad stories, the showrunners needed to fill in the gaps every so often to create a presentable television experience. I’m willing to give them some leeway for that fact. Unfortunately, my willingness to trust the showrunners to their personal adaptation has evaporated with their first season.
They clearly have the ability to make compelling content on their own, albeit with a few hiccups. As I’ll talk more about later, Yennefer’s initiation to the Brotherhood of Sorcerers and her time in Aretuza were written specifically for the show. Her interactions with Istredd and with Tissaia de Vries are a welcome addition to the show and they lay a foundation for her character that we don’t see nearly as early on in the books. The interactions of the core cast of the Cintra plotline are also compelling. I’m willing to forgive the nonsense with the eels and the ambiguous rules of magic.
What I find less easy to forgive is an apparent willingness to disregard the source material for superfluous reasons, and more importantly, without a backup plan. The adamance of the show to blame significant events on destiny has ironically succeeded in producing the exact opposite of its intended effect. Strange coincidences in The Witcher feel unnatural instead of supernatural. It sometimes feels like the writers are tangling themselves in their own narrative web. One divergence leads to a plot hole they need to cover with another, and another, and so on. As Tissaia De Vries lectures her students, “There is no conjuring something from nothing. There is a give and a take.” Maybe if the logic of the show followed the same advice we’d be in better shape. Instead the plot suffers from painful forgetfulness and inconsistency. The aforementioned web isn’t properly stop-gapped sometimes, and we’re left with quite noticeable holes. The depiction of magic is a notable example. Another is bringing characters to prominence simply for their usefulness as a plot device, and subsequently eliminating them, as we see with the doppler and with Eyck of Denesle.
None of this is (at least in any large part) the fault of the cast. As Benjamin Rose discussed in his review of the pilot, even supporting roles like Renfri and Eist Tuirseach are executed in standout fashion. Unexpected chemistry like the playful banter between Eist and his granddaughter threaten to make the world a richer, more character-driven space. And this is by far not the only example. The actors exceed the mark, and as a result we arguably see more depth in many of these characters than we were afforded in the short stories. And this is to say nothing of the main cast. Henry Cavill fits the eponymous Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, like a glove. Book fans, game fans, and new inductees alike are drawn into Cavill’s performance.
The pilot begins with an adaptation of The Last Wish’s “The Lesser Evil”; Geralt’s battle with the kikimora sets the pace for the show, although it is perhaps a bit misleading in terms of the number of monsters we actually get to see.We’re introduced to Ciri through a Cintra plotline that occurs mostly “offscreen” in the books. This includes the Battle of Marnadal, and ends with Nilfgaard at Calanthe’s doorstep, the so-called Fall of Cintra. Princess Cirilla starts as haughty and naive, but we see her slowly transform after the death of her family and the destruction of her home. She begins to recognize the world outside of her cloistered childhood haven as cruel reality, and Freya Allan’s performance mirrors that inner journey. All in all the episode is rich with characterization; the interplay between Calanthe and Eist and between Mousesack and Ciri is thoroughly believable and wholesome to boot. This lends at least a little emotional weight to the city’s sacking. Geralt and Renfri’s romance felt a little forced given their limited interaction, but this is more than made up for by what Emma Appleton brings to the table individually. The witcher’s single-handed slaughter of Renfri’s lackeys in the market is beautiful carnage. The bloodshed remains in our memory as it does in the show’s: Geralt’s renown as “The Butcher of Blaviken” follows him throughout the season. It’s understandably a high point for the episode, and sets the bar for what The Witcher is capable of. What is less understandable is the season only briefly, if ever, reaches that bar again.
Four Marks demonstrates effective show-original content, namely Yennefer’s backstory. Tissaia De Vries, played by MyAnna Buring, proves to play a large role in this episode, and carries it forward throughout the season. Tissaia is both mentor and mistress, and more of a parent to Yennefer than the ones that sold the girl to her. While Yennefer’s physical deformities are mentioned in the books, and the practice of raising deformed peasant girls into beautiful sorceresses is infamous, we’ve never been part of the action like this. We get to know Yennefer as she discovers herself, and likewise with magic. Istredd’s manufactured romance is admittedly awkward, but in a true-to-life, first love sort of way. Netflixs distillation of the series does make it more packageable; we get a few faces we can easily put names to. It’s no surprise that they’d take an opportunity to bring Yennefer more to the forefront of the story, simply to get all of the introductions out of the way early on, especially if she’s sold as a lead of the show. Regardless of their reasoning, following Yennefer through Aretuza gives us more insight into the sorceress’s motivations and suffering than even Geralt has, and might prove to be a really good choice down the line.
I must say, however, that the ends don’t justify the means. The same mentality that governed an early introduction of our four main leads also retconned Jaskier and Geralt’s history before the start of the story. The goal of this change is that we as the audience get our first introduction to Jaskier at the same time Geralt does. The promiscuous and aristocratic musician pounces on the Witcher in a tavern, and in no time at all makes his mark as the second half of our most potent dynamic duo. Sadly we’re not trusted to interpret a pre-existing rapport. Alright, fine. It’s understandable that they’d like to bring in all of our main characters neatly. Halfway into the second episode we’ve been introduced to Yennefer and Ciri, their respective plotlines, and now Geralt and Jaskier are united to go on their merry way as well. All is packaged very neatly. But one cannot have their cake and eat it too: The wide expanse of the Continent and its rich and storied intricacies cannot be packed up into a neat little box. By cutting out Geralt and Jaskier’s history their companionship feels coerced, and Jaskier’s motivation for tagging along with a monster-murderer for hire is tenuous. All the more so when most of their interactions aren’t clever bromantic insults, but genuine frustration and incompatibility, including a literal punch in the gut. Later, when their friendship develops more offscreen in advance of Calanthe’s banquet, it feels cheap. If we can keep up with three timelines and implicit character development later on, why not just trust us up front?
Filavandrel’s introduction is laughable, and theatrical. Not in a good way. A saving pittance of the episode was Jaskier’s ending song, where Joey Batey serenades us over a corresponding look of introspection from Geralt. But lightning never strikes the same place twice, and “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” is the first and last performance of its kind we get.
“Betrayer Moon” adapts “The Witcher” of The Last Wish and it’s quite refreshing to wash out all the dramatic nonsense with some good ol’ witchering. As Michael Busse covers in his review of the episode, Geralt’s use of potions, keen senses, and investigative talent is strongly reminiscent of witcher contracts from the CD Projekt Red series. Geralt’s brutal combat with the striga is likely what a lot of us were looking for coming into the series. The striga’s practical effects were a little clunky, but there was a weight and ferocity to Cavill’s movements I don’t think we would have seen if he was fighting the green screen rather than a marionette. I found it reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Back in Aretuza Yennefer takes her transformation into her own hands, and the scene flashes back and forth between her and Geralt. The witcher and the striga grapple in bloody embrace while Yennefer’s body tears apart and restitches itself together. Despite the confusing motivation of Aedirn politics the scene is powerful and gruesome, and the struggles of our two protagonists are paralleled more a moment. Yennefer sacrifices her choice to bear children in exchange for beauty, or power, or importance. If they aren’t all the same thing.
“Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials” gives us a real taste of magic by way of a portalling and portal tracking sequence. And of course no chase scene is complete without a cartoonishly rogue villain and his creepy-crawly assassin bug. Yennefer’s dialogue on her years as a mage are laughably expository, and it’s clear we still aren’t trusted enough to know that time has passed without her explicitly telling us so. Yennefer’s monologue to the child she fails to save is incredibly moving. Her frustration with her way of life and with the way of the world sets us up for her priorities later in the season. Unfortunately it’s a little out of place, and it’s a shame that Geralt can’t hold up a conversation as well as a dead baby.
The banquet in Cintra might be the clearest indication of timeline fuckery for non-book readers thus far. We see a young Calanthe, the lioness covered in the fresh blood of someone who “needed to be reminded who’s queen.” There’s a strange inconsistency here, since our hands are held so often in other regards, and yet it’s never said outright that witchers and sorcerers don’t age. Guess we have to figure that one out ourselves, huh? Piecing together this puzzle can be fun for some of us, and there are subtle hints with which to place ourselves in the timeline. But confusing your audience can just as easily be a turn-off. With the exception of the sacking of Cintra the mayhem that ensues at the banquet is a rare event with some sense of scale: the violence ensues all at once, in real time, and is suitably chaotic.
Geralt and Jaskier’s escapade with the djinn in the next episode is… less overwhelming. The contrasting dynamic between the musician and the Witcher should have been enjoyable, but friendly, yet gruff banter between two friends fishing is turned into a petty, genuinely nasty fight between two men at odds. Jaskier is painted as a fool, and I’m honestly surprised when Geralt decides to find him help, let alone call him friend. “The Last Wish” is the cover story for the anthology of the same name, and it’s butchering is one for the books (so to speak). The choices for what to include and what to scrap are willy nilly nonsense. Even with the season’s focus on developing the main characters at the expense of everything else, the interactions between Jaskier, Geralt, and Yennfer this episode were clunky anyways.
Ciri meanwhile continues her jaunt through the woods with a pitstop in Brokilon forest. We don’t get much besides trees, bland acting, lens flares, and more trees. It often feels like the show is rushing through all of the short story material just to get to the good bits. I’d rather have no adaptation than a half-assed one. The choice to include the dryads and Brokilon at all seems like a reluctant chore, and with how useless all of Ciri’s wanderings end up being I’d honestly rather they didn’t.
Cahir meanwhile enlists a doppler to hunt down Ciri for him. That goes nowhere fast, and it’s honestly baffling it got past any sort of prescreening. The best I can imagine, Adam Levy had some secret contract up his sleeve after they killed off the real Mousesack: my money’s on seeing him again next season. This is about the only reason I can come up with for taking Nilfgaard’s agents off the same job. Unfortunately this is one instance in a series of many where Nilfgaard has been stripped of any sense of dread, almost like there’s a fear of pitting our characters against any meaningful villain. This hearkens back to the theme of scaling down the show. Nilfgaard is flattened to an indeterminate number of impotent troops, Cahir Aep Calleach and Fringilla. Where is the personality?
The next episode takes this doppler plotline in circles. “Rare Species” adaptation of “The Bound of Reason” takes us on another time skip, and there is some between-episodes trouble in paradise between Yennefer and Geralt. The whole dragon-hunting adventure is a large-scale rendition of the same weary reluctance we see in Ciri’s Brokilon Forest detour. The characters go through the motions, there’s a fancy sword fight where no one important gets hurt, and some sort of lesson is learned. There is some honestly insightful dialogue from Geralt on the subject of motherhood, and Yennefer’s refusal to face reality is damning. But this is at the expense of any other potency of character or plot in the episode.
Episode seven is mostly bookkeeping to set up the finale, which is to be expected. Ciri gets some justification for her wanderings in the way of personal growth, and its finally hammered home that things weren’t always the way her family painted them to be. Everyone she loves has either been killed or has since abandoned her. Unfortunately, just like Dara I don’t have any sympathy for her, since there wasn’t any real reason to leave Brokilon instead of safely waiting for Geralt there. Instead, she’s left to fend for herself, stealing bread and horses, and getting jumped by her old knucklebones buddies. For the second time in the series, Ciri saves herself with a magic temper tantrum. We’re not used to seeing Ciri use the Power so overtly, especially before any formal training, and I’m excited to see if anything comes of it. My only worry is that the constant deus ex machina means show fans will know Ciri is never in any actual danger.
Back in time, Geralt bargains with Calanthe for Ciri, his destiny-fated child surprise. Geralt’s willingness to take the child and his exchange with Calanthe are a bit watered down and divergent from the books, but it’s still executed very well. Calanthe is cunning and steadfast in keeping her family under her wing. Geralt locks eyes with a younger Ciri playing knucklebones, and we’re called back to the pilot when we saw the same scene from her perspective.
Meanwhile (if we can say that with all these timelines) Yennefer unsuccessfully tries to reconnect with Istredd. Vilgefortz introduces himself and invites her back to Aretuza in what we know is a subtle way to get her more involved in the action of the finale. Yennefer’s following herb-fueled acid trip with some Aretuza recruits is strangely reminiscent of my experience throughout the show.
The finale brings our main cast’s converging paths to fruition. Yennefer takes charge of the episode at the Battle of Sodden where the brutish military might of Nilfgaard faces off against the mages of the northern kingdoms. This is our first demonstration of magic in warfare, and the desperation of both sides is apparent. So many mages make the ultimate sacrifice to stay Nilfgaard’s hand, even at the cost of consuming themselves with their magic, but Nilfgaard is no stranger to sacrifice. Waves of soldiers and suicidal fire spells hammer down the northerner’s defenses. Yennefer’s fellow mages are slaughtered. She asks herself what she has accomplished in the span of three normal lifetimes– what she is willing to sacrifice. When all seems lost, she lets loose against Nilfgaard’s army with a wave of hellfire.
When Geralt faces his mother who abandoned him to the life of a Witcher, we find he was presented a similar fate as Yennefer during “Four Marks.” Geralt gets himself entangled in yet another law of surprise snafu, and he and Ciri are finally united in the woods. Renfri’s prediction has culminated in this meeting: the girl in the woods, Geralt’s destiny, has found him. This finale feels less like an ending than a beginning. Geralt and Ciri’s reunion is just the first page of their story. The Brotherhood of Sorcerers will forever be changed. Nilfgaard will not give up so easily.
All in all, this season was a painful recreation of the stories so many of us have come to love. But in its own right, The Witcher’s first season offers presentable fantasy television. The show sometimes appeals to odd humors and whims, but ultimately its characters and its world are engaging. From a layman’s perspective, the action is in turns beautiful, savage, and satisfying, but unfortunately all too often also predictable and theatrical. This is all so much more painful because of the missed potential, because every so often the cadence does strike true. The show lands solid hits, between Jaskier’s ballad, The Blaviken slaughter, and myriad other smaller moments that helped immerse us and engage us. The performances of even minor parts are emphatic. The filmography, the soundtrack, the set and costume design are works of art. But what The Witcher fails to do is take any of its successes and run with them. We have a show that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Neither a faithful recreation nor a derivative original, we instead get an imperfect recreation.
Either way, season two will begin with the novels proper, and now that we’ve gotten the introductions out of the way so to speak, I’m excited to see where The Witcher takes us.