Sam Brooks reviews Netflix’s The Witcher, a wildly fun adaptation of the Polish fantasy novels of the same name.
Mild spoilers follow.
It’s become a stock phrase in the age of streaming that you have to wait until it gets good. Think of the beloved BoJack Horseman which takes a full half-season to not just get good, but get watchable. The Witcher is the latest example: the first two episodes are not great, but they’re good. They’re also setting up an ambitious sleight of hand that shouldn’t be a spoiler to reveal, but feels like it’s set up as one. As such, I won’t reveal it here, but it’s worth waiting until you get to it. That’s in episode three, maybe four, for those counting their holiday minutes wisely.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. The Witcher is two things, primarily. One, it’s a Netflix adaptation of a bizarrely popular series of Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski which have also been adapted into a less bizarrely popular series of video games. Two, it is the latest attempt at a Game of Thrones follow-up, and has been released at just the right time to capitalise on it.
Tonally, and stylistically, The Witcher in each of its three forms – novel, video game and now TV series – sits somewhere at the nexus of the fantasy fiction you’re most familiar with. It’s not as brutal or humourless as Game of Thrones, and not as steeped in either encyclopedic lore or dense poetry as Lord of the Rings often is. It’s a little bit cooler, and a little bit more fun than either of those. To put it crudely: Lord of the Rings is an incel, Game of Thrones has sex, but The Witcher fucks.
Even though the show is named for Geralt of Rivia (a ridiculously muscled, ludicrously bewigged Henry Cavill), it actually follows three central characters. The first of these, Geralt, is a social outcast, but a necessary one: he’s one of a few Witchers, human men who are experimented on ruthlessly in adolescence to make them capable of killing monsters. Society shuns and hates them, because they tend to bring death and misery wherever they go. As a result, Geralt is a mumbling grump of a man, albeit a bizarrely charismatic one.
Another is Yennefer der Venderberg (an excellent, wry Anya Chalotra) – and yeah, you’ll be thankful that you honed your name-remembering skills with Thrones – a disfigured girl who is recruited by a sorceress for her powers, and then put through a training regime which is not dissimilar from Geralt’s. It turns her cold, cruel, and closed off from the world.
The third is Ciri (newcomer Freya Allan), the princess of Cintra, who is being protected by its Queen from the menacing Nilfgardians. She’s a waif, and because this is a fantasy series, she is a waif with unspecified special powers. At the end of the first episode, she’s told to go find ‘Geralt of Rivia’, and so her quest starts.
These three storylines are supported with a lore that is as rich and well-developed as the show itself; this is very obviously a series that Netflix has poured a lot of money into. At first it can be a lot to get your head around, even if you’re a fantasy buff; are these elves different from the elves you’re familiar with, how does magic work here, which empire is evil, what the hell is a curse – that sort of thing. Even though I’m familiar with the Witcher game to the tune of a few hundred hours of play, and a little bit less familiar with the novels, I found the amount of world-building that the show shoves into the first two episodes staggering. But once those two episodes are done, and the show reveals its sly (and frankly, quite strange) sleight of hand, the show settles into what it wants to be: a genuinely fun time, with a bit more depth than you’d expect.
Where The Witcher actually begins to be great is when it starts to dig into the characters. While the first five episodes, the only ones provided to critics, only start to see individual plotlines cross over, they do a lot of groundwork in setting these characters up. As a result, when Geralt and Yennefer actually meet, there’s a wild, dangerous energy that the show hasn’t had up until this point. The audience has seen these characters, they know their damage, and know that finding another point of connection in the world is a significant thing. Maybe a once in a lifetime thing. While neither character drops their guard, there’s an almost screwball-like chemistry to their interactions that more than lives up to the legendarily troubled romance in the novels and games.
The show also does a great job of showing us the stakes of the world, and where our protagonist’s abilities sit against that. Namely, Geralt’s near-superheroic fighting abilities and Yennefer’s artillery-grade magic. Fantasy fiction, quite understandably, tends to show us protagonists as they grow in strength, and defeat obstacles larger and bigger than them, until eventually conquering everything. With Geralt and Yennefer (and, to an extent, Ciri), we’ve got entities who are already tremendously powerful in the world – shown off with some well-directed and choreographed fight scenes – and just trying to make their way through it.
So is this going to be the next Game of Thrones? It’s an exhausting question less than a year after that show ended – it feels like every fantasy or fantasy-adjacent television series is going to have the Sword of Targaryen hanging over it for the forseeable future.
The short answer is no. The long answer is that The Witcher wasn’t ever going to be, and we’re luckier for it. It’s a lot weirder than Game of Thrones, and lacks that show’s self-serious and ultimately hollow feints at importance and thematic weight.
More importantly, The Witcher eschews fantasy fiction’s reliance on large casts, instead building a smaller cast of rich characters with conflicting goals and complex motivations. If the rest of the adaptation hews close to its source material at all –and the show appears to be quite wisely drawing from both the novels and games – then Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri have more than enough depth to sustain an entire series.
The Witcher builds good drama and rewards your investment, rather than punishing it. While it can be quite brutal and bloody, it’s also often fun, with a goofy sense of humour that is refreshing in this often portentous genre. The show’s already been renewed for a second season (thank Netflix’s optimism for that) and by the time it gets through the end of these first eight episodes, and that second eight, it might have amassed a following that ensures it a long life.
But you have to get through the first two episodes first. I promise it’s worth it.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.