There clearly has been a lot of investment in the Witcher. Big premieres, billboards, and loads of marketing to punt this dark R-rated fantasy based on the hit series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The hype machine is chugging away, hard at work to position this series as the much-watch genre successor to Game of Thrones. Its even been greenlit for a second season before the first one airs. But is the show worthy of the fuss?
Firstly, let’s talk about what the show is about. If you haven’t boarded the hype train yet, The Witcher centres on the mysterious Geralt of Rivia, a solitary, monster-hunting mutant. Taking place in a world known enigmatically as The Continent, it’s a dark, destructive universe of magic and elves, queens and sorceresses, the aforementioned monsters of various shapes and sizes, and the monsters that hunt them. There’s good, evil, intertwining fates and a lot of action. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time though, here are five reasons you should consider giving it a chance.
Henry Cavill – From Superman to Super Dark
When casting for The Witcher was first announced, there was a fair amount of (armchair) criticism that the titular role went to clean-cut Superman actor Henry Cavill. This did turn to cautious optimism after the first images were released and a fair amount of excitement after the trailer debut. But even though Cavill has done a lot to look the part, looks aren’t everything. After all, the show is based on the books, not the hit video game.
That said, fans of the game Geralt should appreciate Cavill’s work. Truth be told, he makes a far better Geralt than he does Superman. He’s gritty and animalistic while fighting his nature, and gruff when fighting people’s perceptions of his species. There’s a lot of stiffness to Cavill’s performance, but it’s a formality appropriate to the character and offset by a healthy dose of dry wit expressed in gruff asides.
The Women of The Witcher
Though the show may be named after him, it’s not all about Cavill’s Geralt. In the rich tapestry of the show, he is surrounded by interesting, complex and occasionally dangerous female characters. The first one we meet is Ciri, the fated young princess of Cintra. Ciri looks like a storybook character come to life, with pale blonde hair and wide, innocent blue eyes. Ciri has the more traditional fantasy story: she’s a somewhat pampered and sheltered teenage princess who is forced on a journey and needs to discover her inner strength in order to survive. As plain as that might sound on paper, Freya Allan does a good job in balancing her performance between naivety and purpose.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the sorceress Yennifer, a character very in touch with her inner strength but, thanks to her complicated upbringing, is never satisfied. Dark, troubled and shrouded in mystery – not unlike a certain someone else – Anya Chalotra channels an inner fire for the misanthropic Yennifer, as she goes through horrific tribulations to become the mighty sorceress she believes she is destined to be.
Rounding out the cast are various other supporting characters, again with the women standing out. The Witcher will likely have you reaching for your phone as you struggle to place vaguely familiar faces, such as Jodhi Might as Queen Calanthe, the ferocious if dismissive Lioness of Cintra (and Ciri’s grandmother), and MyAnna Buring as Tissaia, the head of a magical academy for promising young women that makes Hogwarts look like Recess.
Scratching the dark, morally ambiguous fantasy itch left by Game of Thrones
One of the most enjoyable things about The Witcher is its exploration of moral ambiguity. Just like the video game, there are no easy choices for the characters, forcing the viewer, like Geralt, to consider their position on the issue in question and choose between the “lesser of two evils.” Despite his best intentions, Geralt doesn’t always get it right, leading to suffering and death.
The Witcher is intelligently structured, seamlessly weaving stories together while its main characters remain separate. At first glance, every episode appears as a “Geralt for hire” escapade, where the witcher must deal with some monster that has cropped up, often with Jaskier the bard (played by Joey Batey) around for some welcome comic relief. However, this formula is mixed up by its combination with the ongoing, far less episodic stories of the other main characters.
Remember that clunky unconvincing fight by the Sand Snakes in Game of Thrones? One way that The Witcher consistently trumps the HBO hit is via its combat choreography. It’s incredibly well done, featuring some badass (apparently) single-take sword fights that put Daredevil’s signature hallway fight scene to shame. And, for those wondering, the show is, for the most part, very well-lit and the flurries of action are easy to follow.
When it comes to action, The Witcher is gritty, visceral and very gory at times. Even some of the slower, more intimate, deaths (of characters I’m not allowed to name) are hard-hitting and hard to watch.
Big budget and it shows
On that note, overall, The Witcher comes across as visually big-budget and impressive. People may have had knee-jerk reactions to the first released stills, comparing the show to a low-effort cosplay (and I was honestly one of them), but in reality that’s far from the truth. While the series clearly spent a chunk of its budget on contact lenses, a large portion was also clearly invested in visual spectacle.
The Witcher is a magic-rich universe, and the effects really bring that to life. There’s a mix of practical effects and CGI creations that tie the world together, making the character transformations, monsters and world in general wholly believable.
If there’s one fantasy trope that irritates me to no end, it’s the concept of “destiny”. Possibly because it is so overdone, every fantasy story since the dawn of time has used that concept to drive plots, force characters together and explain away anything that happens. Trust me, you don’t want to take a shot every time a character says the D-word because you might end up in hospital before the credits roll on the first episode.
Though the showrunners have focused more on the horror aspects than on the fantasy side, The Witcher falls prey to plenty of unoriginal fantasy tropes, through no fault of its own. There’s only so much source material to draw from, but at least some clever decisions have been made to mitigate the more yawn-worthy aspects of the basic story.
The source material is also clearly a very rich, well thought out world – which comes as somewhat of a barrier to entry for a casual viewer. Obviously, for those that have read the books or played the games will have an advantage, but for newbies, trying to keep kingdoms, allegiances and complicated fantasy names straight in your mind from the get-go is a minor frustration. The plot and how the various characters relate to each other is confusing in the first few episodes, but it does start to come together later, thanks to the clever plot-wrangling as mentioned.
We only had access to the first five episodes for review purposes, but based on what I saw, if I had access to the rest, I would have finished binge-watching it by now. To me, this is the mark of a good series, that despite the very small niggles I encountered in the beginning, The Witcher picks up steam very quickly and kept me intrigued.
Last Updated: December 20, 2019