The Witcher TV series was written for television by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and stars Henry Cavill as the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. Initially, I had neither the desire nor the words with which to review the show, seeing it as merely an adaption to be enjoyed for what it is and then moved on from. And that’s an important word, “adaption.” If half of the planet can watch and enjoy Game of Thrones for what it is without the need to weigh it against its source material (which the majority hadn’t even read), then I think it’s fair to look at The Witcher as independent from the games and the books which precede it. That’s why I’ll be reviewing this in the context of itself, and not by the faulty standards of the books or the games.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE ENTIRE SEASON!
The divisive feelings and surface-level commentary on the show’s appeal hinges upon a bigger problem with ubiquitous media intelligent property in general. To be completely frank, The Witcher was not nearly as bad as its detractors wanted it to be. Far from perfect, sure, but not even close to being a travesty. As a matter of fact, as far as television serials are concerned, it surpassed most of its contemporaries. The production value was top-tier, particularly the cinematography. There are some truly breathtaking shots across the board that cement it as a faithful extension of the fantastic media which it’s based on.
Such as this shot of Geralt from the first episode…
While we’re glossing over the praises, I really loved Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. He turned each scene he was in into an immersive experience to behold, particularly because he had a truly larger-than-life presence. Henry Cavill’s Geralt demands attention even in his most vulnerable, and this is an aspect of the character that I’ve always felt would be difficult to pull off in live action form. Geralt is a total badass, but that stoic badassery has always been grounded in his humanity. The duality of a larger-than-life character who’s also vulnerable to the ways of the world is a character trait that I’d always appreciated, even in less-than-average storytelling. Cavill made a better Geralt of Rivia than he did a Kal-El of Krypton, and I totally appreciate and love his Superman!
Even though Henry Cavill was a highlight for me, the acting in the show was pretty solid for the most part. Every performer accomplished the goals necessary to move the plot along, and if that’s not a compliment of the highest order when it comes to judging ‘pretty good’ acting, I don’t know what is. The show was a wave of subversion to the medieval fantasy setting, the most notable moment being Episode 6, titled, “Rare Species.” In this episode, Geralt, Jaskier, and Yennefer join a dragon hunt organised by Borch, an adventurer. The party also includes a band of dwarves, and a company of monster hunters called Reavers. This is a classic Dungeons & Dragons quest if ever there was one, but the kicker arises in the climax of the hunt, which reveals that Borch is a golden dragon who assimilated with the monster hunters upon learning that they had been planning the hunt for the dragon egg. He reveals he enlisted Geralt’s help, not to slay the dragon, but to protect the egg. Episode 6 was based on Sword of Destiny, the second of the two collections of short stories, and one of the ones that I hadn’t read. In most stories of this form, we’ve been conditioned to imagine the dragon as a beastial force of nature (this is exactly how they speak of it) in need of a good slaying from a group of passionate adventurous.
This innate quality of a classic adventure tale and the values which we’re accustomed to hold is embodied by the knight who fights “for kingdom and for glory.” His mindless madness is conveyed when he brutally kills a forest creature, an action for which there was never a need, as the creature would have left if they had offered it food. The creature was a mere monster, and the knight was bravely fighting for the values which convention has held for ages; ones that paint the beast as villainous creatures of the night and the handsome knight as the hero of the stories that are told through time. After camping overnight, Yennefer’s knight escort is found dead which signaled the death of this baseless idea that we’ve grown accustomed to hold as truth, thereby foreshadowing the subversive outcome of the quest on which they had embarked. The Witcher TV series is packed to the brim with unique narrative devices that can be truly apreciated. Not to mention the death of the Queen and her royal court in the first episode, which harkens back to the death of Ned Stark in the first season of Game of Thrones.
Obviously The Witcher wasn’t without its fall-outs, and my qualms was with some of the key characters. Particularly the characters of Yennefer and Cirilla. Let’s unpack the characterisation of Yennefer first as it seemed most of the story was focused on her development. I was behind her character when she was introduced, as cripples and broken characters are my Achilles heel. Sold for a measly Four Marks to mage, Tassaia, and inducted into the Brotherhood of Mages, it was a strong setup for an old-fashioned underdog story in a medieval fantasy setting. Always weak and unappreciated, her quest for ultimate power was understandable and it was a motivation that was instrumental in her thematic narrative of “controlling chaos.” Her strength was the unbridled chaos that was often touched upon, but the key to that strength was control. As she was being reborn, it was made clear that in order to acquire the strength she desired, it would take away her ability to bear children. Seeing as power was her ultimate goal, to the point that she’d give up any future that was not in service of that end, her accepting of these terms was well within character for her at that point in the story. The issues for me, came to light when she decided to change her tune, when, all of a sudden, she desired a child more than anything.
But… Why? Why? Why now?
There was nothing in her past that foreshadowed a healthy experience with maternity. Let’s take a step back and explore this; in Episode 4, titled, “Of Banquets, Bastards & Burials,” Yennefer, having served Aedirn for three decades (information they neglected to share), is escorting Queen Kalis of Lyria when they are ambushed by an assassin. Yennefer escapes with Kalis’ newborn daughter, but the baby dies in her arms. She buries the child and then monologues about the world being a terrible place for a child anyway. From the lips of one who desires power more than anything else, this is quite understandable, but what about this single encounter with a dead child sells that motivation? Her words only go so far in explaining her unreasoned motives. She then goes on a bender where she manipulates kingdoms and ill-treats her cohorts in service of reaching the one goal that she, herself had decided to give up for the sake of ultimate power. It made no sense. It was at this point that whenever her character mentioned this goal, I’d sigh and roll my eyes, because I had little reason to care about that plight. When she mentioned that she wanted “everything,” it all felt like a dream for dream’s sake.
Don’t get me started with the weird time-skipping that plagued the entire series. I couldn’t tell where I was in the calendar, as some of the scenes take place at one point in time and then others in a far-distant time. If you’re adapting a story that you’d like to be judged on its own merits, you don’t write it hoping that because the books or the games exist, the audience should know what happens at each point in time. It’s extremely irresponsible. The Witcher is unfolding three primary narrative threads in three different points in time, and it made it difficult to follow. The first episode depicts Nilfgaard’s breach of Cintra, as well as Cintra’s fall and the death of Queen Calanthe. These characters are brought back via flashback without warning or explanation. These flashbacks were so frequent that I couldn’t tell where the present begins and the past ends. At which point in the timeline does Geralt meet Jaskier? Does he know him during the events of Episode 1?
Ciri was an on-and-off character for me. I loved her portrayal, but for a key character, she lacked the agency necessary to make her a meaningful aspect of her own part of the story. Outside of her whole “destiny” thing with Geralt, she didn’t feel like she brought anything to the story. To put this further into perspective, let’s talk about Aria Stark for a moment. After she escaped Kingslanding she went on an entire journey that explored who she was as a character outside of her identity as a Stark. She became a meaningful agent in her own story, and when she finally acted in service of her goals to avenge her family, we understood her character outside of that identity. I only hope they put as much development in Ciri’s character as they did with Yennefer’s in the coming seasons.
With all that said, the action scenes were utterly magnificent, from hand-to-hand melee combat to the special effects which brought to life all the magic and sorcery. Aside from the issues that I’ve mentioned, this was a pretty solid adaption. While it could’ve been better, it could’ve been a lot worse, and it was an experience that I’d never change for anything. I’m going to give The Witcher TV series a 7.5/10.
The Geek Writer