What We’ve Been Watching: The Witcher

My fellow fanatics, Netflix’s latest big budget production has been a long time coming. An adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher. A series beloved by gamers around the world for fantastically realized video games developed by Polish studio CD Projekt RED, known for rich, in-depth storytelling and beloved characters. Games so popular and recognized most people are shocked to discover they’re actually adapted from fantasy novels written in the 1990s by Andrzej Sapkowski. Fantasy novels which were the primary source of adaptation for the Netflix version according to showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich.

So how exactly does the show land? Pretty darn well all told. Although if you are more familiar with the games than the novels, that may come with some changing of expectations.

The first thing that sticks out during the season’s eight-episode run is its unusual form of structure and how it is made to fit a more traditional prestige television format. Adapting the first two novels of The Witcher series, The Sword of Destiny and The Last Wish respectively, is tricky since both of those books are effectively a collection of short stories. Miniature tales about Geralt of Rivia, monster slayer for hire going about his job in the fantasy world of The Continent. While there is greater world-building sprinkled throughout, the novels didn’t exactly embrace longform fantasy storytelling until the next book, The Blood of Elves.

But Netflix’s The Witcher doesn’t just want to be a simple picturesque trek through Geralt’s life, something that would get repetitive very easily, it also wants to tell a sweeping epic narrative through the material’s grounded human perspective. To achieve this, the story’s timeline is broken up between two different timelines, one where Geralt is still going about taking jobs and getting into adventures as the world’s most put upon pest control expert, and the other showing the ramifications of the adventures he has gone on and how it has shaped the lives of those around him.

There are also dedicated B and C stories revolving around Yennefer of Vengerberg, a sorceress rising through the ranks of the Council of Mages while learning to navigate the various kingdom’s overlapping politics, and Ciri, a young girl displaced by war, and heir to the faltering kingdom of Cintra, trying to find safety in the chaos of the rising militarism of Nilfgaard. The result is a show that manages to stay interesting by mixing the three leads’ stories in the first half: Geralt fighting monsters, Ciri’s understandable fear and confusion, and Yennefer’s firebrand approach to current events, but does lead to some awkward double-takes once everything comes together in the second half. It’s the temporal equivalent of one of those magic-eye paintings, it all seems like nonsense that’s barely connected, until you put together the foundation yourself and it all just makes sense. Ironically, this means that despite the show bearing his title, you don’t see a lot of Geralt just being a witcher in The Witcher; fans of the games get ready for a lot more talking and a lot less monster action.

And if you were completely confused as to the names and terms I just used above and want a more concrete explanation, that is also a slight shortcoming in this adaptation. The entire first episode of the series is wrought with exposition about what Geralt does, the various kingdoms on The Continent, and that monsters exist, but then the rest of the show continues on assuming you know of such events and locations like Kaer Mohren or The Conjunction of Spheres, which can lead to a potentially alienating first watch. On the other hand it does make the entire world feel authentic and lived in, so it’s a matter of how much you can accept the show just not holding your hand.

It’s that form of authenticity that also helps hide some occasionally uneven production design. For example, every single lead actor in this series is giving their all. Anya Chaolatra brings a fantastic energy to Yennefer, going through an understandably compelling character arc regarding her agency in a world where women are valued more as commodities than human beings, and bringing out a fiery righteousness that just makes her magnetic to watch. Alternatively, Henry Cavill gives a fantastic performance as Geralt of Rivia, mixing together sardonic world weariness and good-natured utilitarianism while also delivering some of the best deadpan jokes I’ve observed in fantasy television. But there are some episodes where his wig can look fake and there are several sets and locations that wander back and forth between looking like something on HBO to looking like an early 1990s TV special. Also while there are monsters that pop up in the show, depicted with a healthy mix of practical effects and CGI, their quality is on the fence as well. A practical looking hirikka can look quite convincing for the brief five seconds it is on screen, meanwhile an entire hoard of ghouls that Geralt has to fight in an extended ambush sequence are accomplished with patchy-looking early 2000s CGI.

Those issues aside, there’s only a few small personal gripes I have with the show overall. There were stories in the books I would have loved to see on screen, the haunted manor where Geralt faces a dark inversion of the classic Beauty and the Beast story springs to mind, and a bit more time to fully explain or explore the more fundamental elements of the setting would be great for accessibility. But at the end of the day, the spirit of the characters and the world they inhabit shines through perfectly. Keeping the focus to key characters reacting to the larger world events helps give it a sense of urgency and humanity that got lost in the large-scale military machinations of Game of Thrones. Which is the show’s greatest strength in terms of maintaining a distinct identity; going big by staying small.

Now try to get that bard’s song out of your head before Season 2 starts.

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