Review: The Witcher (Season 1)

Something Ends, Something Begins

Distributor: Netflix

Directors: Alik Sakharov, Alex Garcia Lopez, Charlotte Brändström, Alik Sakharov & Marc Jobst

 Writers: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, Jenny Klein, Beau DeMayo, Declan de Barra, Sneha Koorse, Haily Hall, Mike Ostrowski

Starring
: Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan, Joey Batey, Et al.

Composers: Sonya Belousova, Giona Ostinelli

Genre: Fantasy, Action, Adventure

Rating: TV-MA

Beginning in November 2018, I embarked upon a mission to review the entirety of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga, both in celebration of, and preparation for, the Netflix television series that was announced in 2017. My efforts also included the recently translated to English Season of Storms as well as Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. I burned myself out while reading The Witcher: Video Game Compendium, so I did not have any energy remaining for the Witcher comics (I actually forgot about them). Still, I would recommend the Compendium for those who are struggling to comprehend the differences between the Northern Kingdoms, or if one just cannot get enough of all things Witcher

Overly-handsome Geralt is overly-handsome.

Fast forward to 2019 (or 2020 by the time this review reaches publication), and Netflix’s The Witcher was renewed for a second season before a single episode of season 1 had aired. It is possible to attribute this pre-approval to the fact that the Witcher as a franchise had both book and video game fans alike burning with lust for the series to come to life on the small, rather than silver, screen. Securing Henry Cavill (Superman!) to the roster upgraded the hype train from electrical power to nuclear. All that remains is for us to determine how faithful or deviant showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is with Andrezj Sapkowski’s source material. 

Content Warning

Who would not want their own set of School of the Wolf silver knuckles?

Those sensitive to mature content should approach the Witcher franchise with caution. This is fantasy for adults. 

An exhaustive content guide detailing what Christians might find offensive would be a novel-length guide. In this space, I will adhere to Netflix’s 2019 television run. To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Last WishThe Sword of DestinyBlood of Elves, Time of ContemptBaptism of FireThe Tower of SwallowsThe Lady of the LakeThe WitcherThe Witcher 2, The Witcher 3 and Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales to acquire more comprehensive insight concerning the adult nature of this intellectual property.

And this isn’t even the worst thing that happens to the fellow!

Violence: While fans of the video game series might be accustomed to seeing decapitations and dismemberment, the Witcher TV show amplifies the violence with ad-hoc anatomy lessons. At least twice are characters allayed of their colons from wounds inflicted with blade or claw. One character cuts a chunk of flesh from a freshly deceased individual and consumes it. Expect someone to bleed a little in every episode. There is even some early child abuse!

You put your uterus in, you take your uterus out, you put your uterus in, and you shake it all about!

A primary character tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. Later, she suffers a hysterectomy without anesthesia. This character endures an excruciating magical surgical procedure that fuses her spinal column, requiring it to first expose itself from her back to correct itself. 

A novice Fringilla Vigo successfully casts her first incantation.

Spiritual: Magic is an expectation in the fantasy genre as much as it is a convention, yet here, Netflix’s Witcher establishes that mastering magic requires a give-and-take relationship with its wielder, making it proximate to the show’s violence. Some spells require the literal life-force of the one who casts; a nose bleed or decayed limb pales in comparison to the ultimate price paid by some mages. 

Those accustomed to “spell-flinging” in D&D might be disappointed to witness how taxing it is to cast a simple wall of thorns, let alone a wall of fire.

Netflix’s Witcher places a heavy emphasis on destiny—not necessarily predetermination, but fatalism. Veneration of a god or gods is absent; gods primarily exist in the form of the occasional interjection. 

Who needs sildenafil in the thirteenth century when there is magic to cure…performance issues. Behold this man’s face—the effect is instantaneous!

Sexuality: Before finishing all eight episodes, viewers will become well-acquainted with a main character’s breasts. Her toplessness is treated with such nonchalance that in one scene, she intimidates a man by chasing him around a room while bare-chested—her body language implies that if sexing her up was his wish, she would have allowed it. Comparatively, a one-shot of a topless prostitute hanging out in bed with Geralt is innocuous as are the nude garden nymphs in Episode 1. The orgy scene in Episode 5, which those attentive to the trailer noticed, is tamer than “orgy” might  imply, where the participants over-exaggerate their gyrations; yet it is still an orgy. 

Jhodi May’s Queen Calanthe is a total bro. And that’s why they call her the Lioness of Cintra.

Suffice to say, this show marks the first time I have been treated to a sex scene involving a hunchback. Unlike HBO’s Watchmen, there is no full-frontal male nudity, bt there are at least three pairs of glutes. Booties come in pairs, right? Or does the plural only apply to the cheeks? Hmmm….

If a dwarf appears in a fantasy show and he cannot cuss the paint of the walls, the audience is being patronized. Here, Yarpin Zigrin ain’t bad.

Language/Crude Humor: The titular character’s catchphrase is “f**k,” setting the tone for the caliber of language one should expect. At a feast, a certain bard sings “The Fishmonger’s Daughter,”a song concerning cuckoldry, seduction, and other colorful euphemisms concerning adventures of the sexual kind. When dwarves appear, expect invectives more creative than the bard’s. 

An enraged Toruviel aep Sihiel cannot decide who she wants to thrash first.

Racism and Bigotry: Netflix’s Witcher adheres to the books’ conflict between humans and non-humans, or what Hissrich calls “species-ism—humans vs. elves vs. dwarves vs. gnomes vs. halflings vs. monsters and so forth.” The second episode, “Four Marks,” adapts Sapkowski’s short story “The Edge of the World,” where Filavandrel aén Fidháil of the Blue Mountains appears and outlines why the elves hate humans so much—because the humans hated them first. In a related scene, a human woman abuses a dwarf, and he takes his revenge by stabbing her. All of this functions within the backdrop of the Witcher…and yet, the show references several instances of humans and elves engaging in interracial sexual congress.

I included this shot for no other reason besides the fact that this unnamed character is the first elf the audience sees.

Positives: Despite all of the mature content, fundamentally at its core, the Witcher series is about camaraderie, friendship, and family. What at first is a bard’s professional curiosity concerning a witcher becomes a genuine relationship despite the taciturn witcher’s predilection for solitude—also a professional habit. One could argue that a queen endangers her entire kingdom for the love of her granddaughter. A barren woman jeopardizes her career and reputation in pursuit of remedying her barrenness. 

Hissrich (bottom right) and her team are “The White Flame Dancing on the Barrows of [internet trolls.]”

The criticism of modern fantasy has escalated over the past twenty years for its lack of diversity. That is not a problem here—a genre rectification that Hissrich and her writing team addresses with intentionality. Melanin is poppin’-a-plenty!

Review

“Go ahead. Make my day.”

I am excited to take on the challenge of reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher (2019) in anticipation of capturing the attention of fandoms distributed across three categories of media: video games, books, and television. As I know that each fandom maintains different expectations for the show, I will try my best to appeal to all three. I hope the result is more than satisfactory to everyone.

Book Fans

Geralt carries his swords in his bag as often as he carries a (1) sword on his back.

Hissrich’s frequent tweets and participation on Reddit AMAs demonstrate her dedication to both the Witcher as an intellectual property, and also her pursuit of creating something that everyone will enjoy—not just book fans. I believe said fans will enjoy, as I did, her expanded focus on the fall of Cintra, as well as Yennefer’s (Anya Chalotra) life before, during, and after her life at the sorceress’ academy at Aretuza. Like the books, the show does not bother explaining the phenomenon known as the Conjunction of the Spheres which resulted in the arrival of humans and monsters alike on the unnamed Continent. From this approach, Hissrich justifies the existence of brown characters where our brains might strain to accept them due to our conditioning in the genre to expect white humans, elves, and dwarves and dark(ie) trolls, orcs, and other undesirables. I am hoping that the reception of Netflix’s Witcher will normalize diversity in high fantasy so that it becomes commonplace rather than extraordinary. 

Eithné, queen of the Dryads.

Fans of the Witcher books already know that this show is an adaptation of Sapkowski’s first two texts. While he did not publish those short stories in chronological order, we established the chronology ourselves. I think that executing a non-sequential narrative is fine as a literary methodology because multiple close readings for discerning the fine details of a work is part of the fun. However, I believe that TV fans will agree that time-skipping is difficult to follow on the small screen, especially when every episode shows rather than tells that it is performing this work.

I was looking forward to a showdown between Geralt and Istredd for Yennefer’s hand as per the short story “A Shard of Ice.” Instead, the blue-eyed Istredd mans-up.

Book fans will be perplexed to see the first episode of this production portraying the fall of Cintra since this event takes place in the last short story in The Sword of Destiny, “Something More.” The show then doubles back to before Ciri’s birth to the betrothal of her mother, Princess Pavetta, in Episode 4, “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials,” an adaptation of the short story “A Matter of Price.” It is not until Episode 5, “Bottled Appetites,” or the adaptation of “The Last Wish,” do the timelines between Geralt and Yennefer align, and only more than halfway through the season does Ciri’s flight from her conquered kingdom make sense in the grand scheme of things.

I was not expecting to see Vilgefortz of Roggeveen in season 1. He is described in the novels as good looking and talented. Ok, double checkmark. That’s the best I can say for him because book-readers already know.

In Netflix’s Witcher, additions to and departures from the books are to be expected. In an attempt at explanation, I wonder if Hissrich adjusts the chronology of the events found in the books to establish Ciri and Yennefer as major players immediately rather than as additions to Geralt’s entourage of characters. In exchange for splitting time equally between three characters, Hissrich writes a story that will be disconcerting for book fans, and confusing for TV watchers and gamers. Even as the episodes skip around, the amount of time that passes between events is unclear. Mentions of Jaskier’s crow’s feet, for example, are not adequate clues to discern the days, weeks, months, or years, especially as different character trajectories overlap. I think it is unfair, if not cheating, for Netflix’s Witcher to assume that viewers (already) know more than they should. For that reason, Netflix’s Witcher is better upon a second viewing. 

Hissrich did not have to, but she managed to fit in Coral, and she even looks like she’s born of the Skellige Isles. Nice nod to Season of Storms!

I am glad to see the short story “The Eternal Fire” excised from the series as I find it doltish, yet I lament that “The Grain of Truth” and “A Little Sacrifice” are missing. I would attribute their exclusion, again, to Hissrich’s dedication to featuring multiple protagonists. Despite this realization, I would have preferred more exposure to Geralt since the novels (which will be the topic of Season 2) progressively shift away from him.

TV Fans

Freya Allen’s Ciri will frequently look shell-shocked in this season. I hope Allen is up to the task for a more dynamic character.

Welcome to the Witcher fandom! I am sorry, almost ashamed, to admit that this show is not the Game of Thrones killer that I thought it would be, and I blame the aforementioned disjunctive narrative. Still, those looking for a good balance between exposition and action will get plenty here. This show typically doubles-down on everything. Where there is exposition, two characters will enjoy this treatment in two different locations; if a sword fight breaks out, another fight takes place simultaneously elsewhere. In other words, the payoff is worth the anticipation. Once the timeline debacle settles down when Geralt and Yennefer meet, Netflix’s Witcher entertains thoroughly. 

Anya Chalotra’s interpretation of Yennefer surprised me even though I wish her hair was as wild as Triss’. It’s as though they swapped heads.

A principal reason for the show’s success is its acting. When Henry Cavill joined the team to play the main character, Geralt of Rivia, fans who have been tracking his career since even before The Tudors knew he could pull off a medieval character. But then we learned that he put on his best Doug Cockle impersonation because Cavill is a gamer, and he absolutely nails the essence of Geralt from the games and the books. I was ambivalent about Anya Chalotra as Yennefer at the cast reveal, but the Indian-British actress exudes not only Yenna’s saltiness concerning her plight, but also plenty of sass. If you Googled “Joey Batey,” you would not expect his glum mugshots to metamorphose into the vivaciously gregarious Jaskier (“Dandelion” to English readers and gamers alike), but if you want to witness virtuous acting Batey nails it! I was not impressed by Freya Allen’s Ciri, but this is because her character is still a child. We can return to her in Season 2. 

I thought it too early to introduce Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach, but how else could Hissrich explore the escape from Cintra without the knight with the winged helmet? More sinister than I imagined him to be, we know he will be humbled eventually.

Even the second-tier of characters impress, especially MyAnna Buring’s Tissaia de Vries and Jodhi May’s Queen Calanthe. Buring embodies the austerity that I would expect from the rectoress of Aretuza, her shrewdness a weapon as formidable as her magic. May appropriately whoops and hollers, and her raucous depiction of Queen Calanthe lives up to a name such as the Lioness of Cintra. Not settling for a mere warrior-queen, May plays a convincingly conniving ruler right up until destiny claims its postponement. Also, shout-out to Adam Levy; I have not seen him since his role as Peter in A.D. The Bible Continues, and I am glad to see him getting work. However, his cadence is so reminiscent of his biblical character that I was never convinced he became instead the druid known as Mousesack.

Even Geralt wonders why Mousesack did not bother to drop his depiction of Peter.

Unfortunately for you, Netflix’s Witcher fails at explaining what a witcher is. Only in the last episode does Geralt ask a key character a rhetorical question concerning if they know what is done to boys so that they might gain a witcher’s eyesight—the keyword “might” referencing the Trial of the Grasses, which only three out of ten survive. What is the Trial of the Grasses? The show does not say, but it does disclose that a Geralt’s—and by association, a witcher’s—heartbeat is four times slower than a normal human. Once, Yennefer asks him to describe the nature of the minor spells he can cast; gamers and book readers will know that they are called Signs, but you, only familiar with what you see and are told on the screen, will not know what they are and how a witcher can draw from the Power to cast them. You will see, but will not know why Geralt drinks witcher’s elixirs. 

Burning’s Tissaia is on point.

But that is okay, because when Geralt grows pale and his eyes turn black, you know that something is about to go down! In this regard, you will be hard-pressed to find a pathetic effort in the show’s special effects. From the introductory scene with Geralt fighting a kikimore to the choice of using a combination of puppetry and CGI for the Striga, I never had to suspend disbelief because of Netflix’s budgetary prudence. I do wish that with additions such as the expanded story of Yennefer, Hissrich would have added a few more monsters for us to see Geralt fight. At any rate, I have to give a nod to Tim Aslam for the costume designs, sometimes needing to prepare Cavill multiple shirts because his buffness would stretch the leather!

Gamer Fans

Triss Merigold does not even appear in the short stories, but Hirssrich wanted to provide some fanservice, including the freckles. No red hair, though. Triss in the books has chestnut hair.

I saved the best for last, right? Just kidding! The reason why this section is last because you are arguably as familiar with the Witcher franchise as the book readers, though most of your knowledge comes from what happens after the books. Whether or not the TV adaptation is your first exposure to what precedes the video games, you too are in for a treat! You will get a modernized reenactment of Geralt’s battle with the Striga, and the first half of the Witcher 3 mission, “The Last Wish,” as a call-back to the original short story.

I know that the games influenced Hissrich’s vision because Triss’ involvement with the case of the Striga seems to pull from the first Witcher game.

You will love Sonya Belousova’s interpretation of the video game series’ theme song, “Geralt of Rivia.” “Linked by Destiny” samples heavily from more video game songs than I can recall. “Yennefer’s Theme” even reminds me of the folkish sound of a Heroes of Might and Magic town. 

When he’s not acting, Joey Batey looks like he hates life. Perhaps that is why he makes for a fantastic Jaskier/Dandelion: the role brings BOTH actor and character to life!

In fact, Belousova’s animation of the Witcher universe by way of music is masterful. Of course, fans have been going wild over “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” and justifiably so—it is an amazing song. Joey Batey likewise demonstrates his talents in “Her Sweet Kiss.” “Song of the White Wolf” could very easily replace “Geralt of Rivia” as the theme song. 

Conclusion

One of my favorite characters, Borch Three Jackdaws accompanied by his Zerrikanian guard, Téa and Véa.

As I have said, Netflix’s Witcher is not the GoT killer that I thought it would be, and I blame the triple-nonlinear narrative disrupting the flow of the show. I mention this again because it is so vexing that Netflix has produced a post-release timeline due to this universal criticism. I will add another: the show spends considerable time explaining how mages make magic from chaos. This is only to Yennifer’s benefit, which makes her appear to be the star (pun intended) rather than Geralt. While the Witcher franchise has always been reticent about making Geralt out to be a hero who overcomes impossible odds, season 1 ends on an anticlimactic note. Book and gamer fans will be back for season 2, but I am uncertain if there is enough here for TV connoisseurs to return. 

Okay, so maybe there is a firewall after all….

The Bottom Line

Netflix's Witcher is not a Game of Thrones killer, but it provides enough entertainment to satisfy audiences whether they are fans of the games, books, or are first-timers to the realm of the Northern Kingdoms.

 

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Maurice Pogue

Since picking up an NES controller in 1985 at the age of 2, Maurice and video games have been inseparable. While most children aspired to be lawyers, doctors, or engineers (at the behest of their parents), he aspired to write for publications such as EGM, PC Gamer, PC Accelerator, and Edge. After achieving ABD status in English at MSU, Maurice left academia and dedicated his writing to his lifelong passion. He is currently the Video Game Editor at Geeks Under Grace.

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