TV: The Witcher (Season 1)

I came to Netflix’s new epic fantasy series The Witcher with no skin in the game. I hadn’t read the original novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. I hadn’t played the popular video game series, which looks impressive and has a devoted following. Lately, I seem to have developed an allergy to onscreen epic fantasy in general, thanks to the soul-crushing worldview of Game of Thrones and the brain-melting unwatchability of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. And my only previous exposure to the chiseled jaw and exploding biceps of Henry Cavill was Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the latest travesty to stomp on the legacy of my favorite TV show. Seriously, one might say I had an incentive to dislike this show.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself utterly swept away by The Witcher, which breezed past my baggage to deliver an immersive, visually rich, politically complex, and thematically robust viewing experience. The big-picture backdrop is built out in familiar ways: it’s a secondary-world fantasy rife with elves and dwarves, quests and adventurers, magic and monsters. Striding grimly through this dangerous world is Geralt of Rivia (Cavill), a sword-wielding, magic-infused monster hunter whose lone-wolf facade conceals an often-conflicted conscience. Geralt’s prickly exterior seems calculated to repel connection, and his mercenary attitude paints him as cold and unfeeling. But Geralt’s attempts to keep the world at arm’s length are frequently betrayed by his reactions to the ethical dilemmas of his work, which expose a better inner nature. They also thrust him ever closer to companionship: clients and rivals and reluctant partners who gradually come to see him as a friend.

Indeed, despite his best efforts, Geralt has a date with destiny: he is bound by fate to become the protector of Ciri (Freya Allan), a young princess of the nation of Cintra. Ciri doesn’t know it at first, but she possesses untold magical power, and when the treacherous kingdom of Nilfgaard invades her home, the truth about her soon begins to emerge. Ciri’s improbable escape from certain death at the hands of the Nilfgaardians sets her on a desperate quest to find Geralt.

Geralt’s fate is also intertwined with another: Yennefer (Anya Chalotra, in a star-making performance). Yennefer’s humble beginnings see her as a crippled, abused young woman, plucked from her home by ruthless mage Tissaia (MyAnna Buring), who senses Yennefer’s potential for magic. Yennefer is spirited away to an academy for sorcery, where her magical skills are honed and ultimately unleashed, leading her to become one of the world’s most powerful mages—and potentially a key figure in saving the world from the Nilfgaardian hordes.

It’s challenging to decide where to begin reviewing The Witcher, since its eight-episode run is so jam-packed with interesting things to discuss. But it may be easiest to segue from summary to structure, because it illustrates one of the show’s more unique elements. The three story tracks above—Geralt’s, Ciri’s, Yennefer’s—run in parallel throughout the season, but actually take place in different timelines, progressing at different rates before ultimately converging. There’s a moment in the fourth episode where this fact snaps into focus, piecing together a nonlinear jigsaw puzzle midstream in a way that’s jarring, but also wickedly cool. Somehow, this unusual temporal approach propels a cumulative story with plenty of momentum, even as there’s a charmingly retro “monster-of-the-week” frame to each outing. Geralt ricochets from job to job in each episode; indeed, gamers would be forgiven for searching for glowing exclamation points over the heads of his employers. But even as he’s resolving the (often gorey) problem at hand, the show is peeling back layers of his personality. And as the parallel tracks unfold, they start to depict the arc of fate toward which Geralt is bending. This is some unusual but impressive structural craft.

It will be tempting to compare The Witcher to Game of Thrones, a similarly violent and politically charged high-fantasy series with a penchant for nudity. But aside from these surface comparisons, I don’t see the shows as all that similar. If anything, The Witcher is more unforgiving in its worldbuilding than GoT, dropping the viewer squarely into the complexities of its setting and trusting them to keep up. The time-shifting narrative structure adds a challenge to this task, as does the show’s focus on ethical choice—something that GoT, characterized by relentless cut-throat nihilism, could have used more of. Geralt and Yennefer in particular are nuanced, conflicted characters, one step removed from the world even as they find themselves keeping a hand in it, trying to make a difference. This gives them a perfect mix of dark cynicism and admirable spirit, as their disgust pushes them away from the world, even as they can’t help but to try to fix it. This makes them easy to relate to, and rallying.

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is the showrunner, and she does an extraordinary job shaping what might have been a problematic fantasy property full of potential for exploitative gore and “sexposition” into something mindful, intelligent, and feminist. Oh, there is plenty of nudity and graphic violence and other transgressive earmarks of the source material (at least based on what I’ve seen from the game), but there’s a deliberate ethos behind it. These filmic “ingredients” are carefully shot, deployed with specific, thoughtful intent, in service to the character, the narrative, or both. Other genre shows would have leaned more into gratuitous elements, adding sleazy male gaze, or lingered on the blood and guts for sheer shock value. Refreshingly, The Witcher keeps everything in context.

On top of all that, it all comes in a gorgeous package, from its attractive, capable cast to its breathtaking vistas, its thrilling fight scenes to its magical sense of wonder. Cavill, it turns out, is perfect casting as Geralt, bringing a perfect touch to his gruff monotone deliveries, and letting the terse mask slip perfectly when necessary to reveal the character’s softer side. Chalotra is riveting in a tour de force role that sees her character traverse hundreds of years and multiple significant transformations. The support is generally terrific; special mention must be made of Buring’s nuanced turn as Yennefer’s mentor Tissaia, and Joey Batey’s hilarious appearances as Jaskier, an amusing bard who takes a shine to Geralt. But there’s no shortage of well done acting here, including the work of Allan, Emma Appleton, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Adam Levy, Jodhi May, Mimi Ndiweni, and Anna Shaffer, among many others.

Ultimately, The Witcher delivers the exact kind of sword-and-sorcery fare I was led to expect, but executes its requisite elements perfectly while also injecting the material with much more thought-provoking depth than anticipated. I’m so glad Netflix proactively gave it a second season, because I’m anxious to continue.

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