When looking out at the television landscape in 2019, it’s difficult to avoid a streamer or network without a flagship fantasy series currently being aired, or deep in development.
Amazon is preparing series adaptations of Lord of the Rings, The Dark Tower and The Wheel of Time, the BBC recently launched His Dark Materials, while this year Netflix released the stellar, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
This year’s disappointing finale to HBO’s Game of Thrones, has left a hole in the hearts of fantasy fans, with many eager to find a new fantasy show to latch onto and obsess over.
While this ambition to find the next Game of Thrones is encouraging for fantasy fans, it also acts as a severe disservice to any upcoming fantasy shows, who are immediately judged under the impossible shadow left by Game of Thrones.
This brings us to Netflix’s series adaptation of The Witcher, based on the series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, a series which has already faced a tidal wave of inequitable comparisons to Game of Thrones, so for the sake of my sanity and yours, I will not be making those comparisons.
Before I continue, I would like to be clear that I viewed all eight episodes of the first season, before writing this review.
Also, some light spoilers ahead for season one.
The Witcher takes place on the Continent, following the adventures of Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a mutated monster hunter known in universe as a Witcher.
Witchers are trained, altered and enhanced at an early age to slay legendary beasts (based primarily on creatures from Slavic mythology).
However, this training comes with side effects such as sterility and reduced emotions.
Witchers are also expected to be apolitical, maintaining a solitary lifestyle without the influence of different states and ideology, (inspired by the neo-liberal anti-politics present in Poland when the books were first published).
Throughout his decades-spanning travels, Geralt encounters a vast selection of humans and beings including the powerful sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a merry bard Jaskier (Joey Batey), and the young Princess Cirilla, better known as Ciri (Freya Allan).
Now, The Witcher books were previously adapted into a series of critically acclaimed and best-selling video games by CD Projekt Red, with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) still widely considered one of the greatest video games ever made, with Geralt of Rivia firmly established as a video game icon.
The video games are how most people were introduced to the world of The Witcher, and was how I personally became acquainted with the series, eventually diving into the books.
With the live-action Netflix series, showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has wisely scaled back to focus purely on adapting Sapkowski’s books for the screen, going back to character traits and designs that were present in the books, that may have been altered in other media.
Additionally, Hissrich’s colour-blind approach to casting, refreshingly makes The Witcher the most diverse fantasy series in recent memory, without assaulting the senses with overt social commentary.
Hissrich aims for a more simplified and accessible approach to the source material, with the intention of easing newcomers into the vast world of creatures and politics in The Witcher.
However, to avoid potentially alienating viewers coming from the video games, numerous references and Easter eggs have been thoughtfully included, such as a certain bath-tub scene.
The Witcher is a series that rewards viewers immensely for maintaining a commitment to its narrative.
The series introduces warring political powers, a Brotherhood of Sorcerers, terms like the Law of Surprise, and dozens of creatures – however this is all done gradually over episodes.
The series takes its time (to a fault) in introducing these elements to audiences, without dumping it all at once, refreshingly maintaining a devotion to its characters.
The first episode admittedly gets bogged down with setting up the brunt of the world and characters.
This will likely be the test for many viewers unfamiliar with The Witcher, who are questioning whether to continue a show that is constantly reminding the audience of destiny and fate.
However, while the events of the first episode may seem a little slow initially, they do become deeply vital and are expanded upon in later episodes.
Fun drinking game: take a shot every time destiny is muttered throughout the show.
The series also makes for an intriguing narrative approach, offering three unique storylines that converge over time. Taking inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, these storylines are told at different points in time, sometimes taking place years apart from each other.
While this can get a little confusing, the writers do a welcome job of reminding viewers and providing hints of where we are in the lives of these characters, and what key moments from these points in time, foreshadow events later in their life. This approach to structure, which refreshingly forgoes any overt narrative hand-holding, is what makes The Witcher a fascinating watch.
The first season is based on the first two books in the series, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, which are both a collection of short stories, set before the main Witcher saga.
This gives the first season the opportunity to explore formative moments for the characters, while expanding upon the origins of other characters like Yennefer.
Additionally, this structure encourages episodic storytelling, with some episodes feeling more standalone than others. Great quests to reach a dragon on a mountaintop or to cure a King’s daughter from a curse, give the show a great sense of fantastical adventure, combining welcome uses of well-timed, often subversive comedy (usually relegated to the bard Jaskier) and even some horror.
Being an adult-skewing fantasy show, you can expect your fair share of blood, gore, sex and nudity with The Witcher. These elements are all used reasonably and never overstay their welcome. Considerable effort has been made with the stunt-work, choreography and swordplay on the show, making for some thrilling encounters which often end with a healthy amount of decapitations and lost limbs.
The show’s dedication and astounding attention to detail with shooting on-location and practical creature effects do wonders for the show’s production value, on occasion making it feel like you’ve stumbled into a time capsule to the Middle Ages.
Sure, there are uses of CG sprinkled throughout the series, but the digital elements are always used appropriately and within the expectations of the budget.
Additionally, the Nordic and Eastern European inspired soundtrack gives the show a spirit and energy that I found to be wonderfully immersive.
The bard’s energetic and catchy song Toss a Coin to Your Witcher is bound to become a fan-favourite tune.
Anya Chalotra gets left with the lion’s share of nudity and sex scenes throughout the first season as sorceress Yennefer. However, with showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich guiding these scenes, which are often tinged with a sense of irony, The Witcher avoids ever feeling sleazy.
Much of what makes The Witcher work so well, comes down to the chiselled jaw and Herculean biceps of Henry Cavill as Geralt.
Cavill brings a headstrong commitment to realising Geralt, showcasing someone struggling with realising his emotions and the events that forged him.
Cavill, a gamer, is a massive fan of The Witcher video games, having actively pursued the Geralt role. The body movements, the gravelly voice and white-haired look are all crafted with a reverence and care for the source material.
Fans will also be glad to know Geralt’s dry sense of humour comes through wonderfully as well.
I’ve been a big believer in Henry Cavill for years now, (he’s a great Superman) and with another few seasons, Geralt could be the role that defines Cavill’s career, not the Man of Steel.
It’s Yennefer’s journey throughout the first season however, that winds up being the most meaningful. Significant care has been allocated to Yennefer’s development, illustrating both a physical and emotional growth from deformity, to a woman desperate to regain her ability to create life.
It’s sincerely heartbreaking, with Anya Chalotra wonderfully capturing Yennefer in her quieter moments, while revelling in the authoritative exterior that makes Yennefer so compelling. Chalotra never fails to exude the character’s confidence and stature, making Yennefer an absolute joy to watch.
With the events of Geralt and Yennefer’s storylines primarily taking place over a number of years, it’s Ciri’s story that can occasionally get forgotten about, as the show works towards converging the journeys of all three main characters.
Throughout the first season, Ciri is on the search for Geralt, although the reasoning is not initially clear as to why, leaving viewers guessing as to what Ciri’s connection to Geralt is. However, as the season progresses, the show gradually unravels the mysteries that connect the two characters, making their eventual meeting all the more satisfying.
The Witcher is a fantasy series crafted with considerable love and devotion for the source material. It isn’t without its flaws, and it won’t be for everyone. If fantasy isn’t your thing, there certainly won’t be much here to persuade you otherwise.
However, I can’t help but recommend The Witcher as essential viewing for fantasy and genre fans. The series offers considerable re-watchability as the narrative shifts and reveals its secrets, all the while enticing viewers for what’s to come.
Luckily for viewers, a second season was announced in advance of the first season debuting, so there will be more to come.
Season one sets vital and important groundwork for future seasons, teasing a considerably more streamlined approach to the narrative moving forward. The show rewards you for committing to its narrative and its characters, and I grew to love the show with every morsel of information it dropped about the characters and world.
Give the series an honest and fair attempt, and you may find a show that sticks with you, long after you’ve finished watching.
All I can say is I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of season two.
The Witcher is available to stream now on Netflix.