By Olivia Snyder, Co-Editor
At long last, after writing for The Second Stylus blog for almost a year, I finally watched the notable Witcher Netflix series that fuels much of the content of our partner blog, The Path. I’ll be honest: I had absolutely zero knowledge about anything Witcher-related before starting the show. So little knowledge, in fact, that for the longest time I thought the titular witcher’s name was “Gerald.” As someone who hasn’t read the Witcher books nor played the video games, I’ll be writing this review for the TV series from a more objective audience perspective. I’ll be exploring if the show is still worth recommending to those who, like myself, aren’t a part of the niche (but still very large) Witcher fandom.
The first season of The Witcher is essentially a lot of backstory and worldbuilding, leading up to a pretty cliffhanger-y finale that is sure to make any viewer excited for what is to come in Season 2. The eight episodes start out with three separate timelines, which eventually converge into one at the very end of the season. First, there is our titular protagonist, a witcher named
Gerald of Riverdale Geralt of Rivia. He spends most of his time killing monsters and collecting bounties, but he is also racing to fulfill an incomplete destiny. Yennefer of Vengerberg is a beautiful and powerful sorceress who sometimes crosses paths with Geralt; she has endured a tragic upbringing and several traumatic events, causing her to question what she really wants out of her life.
And finally, there is Cirilla (aka Ciri), the crown princess and “Lion Cub” of a powerful region known as Cintra. Still a sheltered young girl who doesn’t know much about the ways of the world, she is left alone and helpless after Cintra is attacked by the evil empire of Nilfgaard. Ciri’s destiny is linked to Geralt through an occurrence that took place before her birth, so after losing everything, she finally sets out to find him. On top of all of this, she also unlocks a mysterious power that she has yet to learn how to control.
Each episode follows these three central characters, but shows them on different timelines until everything finally comes together in the last episode. This setup was, admittedly, pretty confusing at first, but it started to make more sense about halfway through the show. The series does a good job of showing the origins of Yennefer and Ciri’s characters and how they developed into their “present” selves, although it leaves out quite a bit of Geralt’s backstory. I presume the showrunners did this because they want to reveal more about Geralt in upcoming seasons, although we did get a very brief glimpse of Geralt’s childhood in Episode 8.
As for the plot itself, there were certainly good parts and bad parts. Unfortunately, in my personal opinion, many of Geralt’s short side quests that are shown throughout were more confusing and unnecessary than anything. The introductory episode with the Renfri plot was particularly puzzling; I didn’t fully understand why she was made out to be such a bad person, or why that crusty wizard man had a target on her back. Without fully fleshing out this story, Geralt has already killed her by the end of the episode. I don’t get the significance of Renfri’s character to the overall plot (aside from her “girl in the woods” prophecy), but at least Episode 1 featured that nicely choreographed sword fight.
One episode that I will applaud is Episode 4, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials.” Geralt’s storyline in that episode is excellent, and gives some great setup for what is to come in later timelines. To my understanding, the concept of the Law of Surprise is a rather difficult one to describe in the Witcher universe, but the writing in this episode does a terrific job of explaining it to an audience who isn’t familiar with the books. This episode gives a clear explanation of why Geralt and Ciri are connected in the future, and feels much more relevant than, say, Geralt’s rather brief encounter with the elven king and weird goat man in Episode 2.
Unfortunately, one character arc that I was particularly disappointed with was Yennefer’s. When she is first introduced, she is a mistreated outcast due to her hunchbacked appearance and facial deformity. Actress Anya Chalotra’s performance as a pre-transformation Yennefer feels much more authentic; you can see Yennefer’s real pain and struggle on the screen as she faces frequent abuse at the hands of the mage Rectoress, Tissaia. The raw and visceral scene of her transformation is haunting to watch, and very well done, special effects-wise. After her physical transformation into a deformity-free sorceress, however, Yennefer loses a lot of depth of character.
The new and beautiful version of Yennefer is cold and doesn’t show a lot of emotion, and as a result becomes a pretty bland character. Even the heartbreaking scene where she buries the dead infant in Episode 4 is completely lacking in sentimentality. In this sense, Yennefer’s narrative (which is also rather ableist) feels a little underdeveloped—now that she’s become a Hot Sorceress™, she can have and do anything she wants, and showing her nude enough times will make up for any lack of character development. I get that her arc was supposed to show that even with great beauty and power in her hands, she is still very unhappy and unfulfilled, but this message was lost in her banal portrayal.
I also wasn’t a fan of the romantic development between Geralt and Yennefer. Anyone could predict that they will inevitably end up together, but their complicated relationship wasn’t fleshed out enough to be interesting. After the whole djinn incident in Episode 5, they sleep together, despite not having a whole lot of chemistry (although I will admit that the bathtub scene was well-scripted, and I could never complain about seeing Henry Cavill shirtless). Next thing you know, the second time they appear on screen together, they are supposedly madly in love—a rushed narrative that I didn’t really buy. If the writers took the time to properly develop this, I probably would have been more invested in their relationship.
That being said, Henry Cavill plays a pretty perfect Geralt of Rivia. He is tall, muscular, and handsome, of course, but the way he plays around with Geralt’s personality makes for some good character development and entertainment. Geralt is very brooding and serious, but he also has a nice touch of a dark sense of humor and wit. This characteristic is highlighted in his banter and (although he would never admit it) friendship with the clever bard Jaskier. There is also a great depth of character to Geralt that Yennefer is lacking: everyone assumes that he is unable to feel human emotion, but he does just that. You can clearly see his moments of anguish and heartache, showing that he is much more than just a serious and unfriendly monster hunter. I am really looking forward to learning more about his childhood and backstory, and how exactly he became a witcher in the first place.
To conclude, this show has a lot of ups and downs regarding plot, storytelling ability, and character development. There are certainly many good aspects overall, but you can’t ignore the downfalls when it comes to exposition and certain character arcs. In fact, the first season doesn’t even fully explain what a witcher is, other than describing them as an unnatural combination of human and magic. With basic explanatory elements such as this missing, it’s hard to get a full grasp of the story without doing some research online. I found the Witcher wikipedia page and the Netflix Witcher timeline map particularly helpful.
With all this in mind, I did enjoy watching this series, even with that annoying “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” theme song playing frequently in the background (it sounds more like a viral TikTok song than anything). The fight scenes are pretty well done, the CGI isn’t bad, and like I said before, Henry Cavill is quite easy on the eyes—even though the showrunners did go a bit overboard with the aggressive usage of fakey color contacts. Even with all of the violence and heavy themes, there is some good-natured humor involved, leading to a show that can be entertaining to almost any fantasy fan. Just be warned: you will spend a great deal of your viewing time feeling confused.