Review: The Witcher – Season 1 (Netflix)

I have neither read any of the Witcher books (see here) or played any of the video games, so I came to this show with very little background other than:

  • The main character is a gruff, sexy, outcast magic guy
  • He has baths

The Netflix series is something very close to an unholy mess: a mish mash of fantasy tropes, corny dialogue, cliches, and sudden tonal shifts. It veers from quippy modern-speak to faux grandiosity mid dialogue and has the inevitable quota of blood and boobs that defines post-Game of Thrones TV fantasy.

In short this show should be a disaster. Somehow it isn’t. I’m not saying it is great (and episodes 1 to 3 were very mixed) but it repeatedly somehow pulls itself together. The biggest flaw and strength is the very odd narrative structure that it adopts for most of the show. Not knowing what to expect it wasn’t initially clear in episode 1 and 2 that what you see is essentially three quite different fantasy TV shows that (at least initially) are unconnected other than being set in the same world.

Show 1, is literally “The Witcher”. Hunky Henry Cavill plays the white haird Geralt of Rivia — a ‘mutant’ (their choice of word) with supernatural powers who is a professional monster hunter. Show 1 works as a monster-of-the-week fantasy show crossed with a Western. The gruff loner walks into town, the locals beg him for help, things get complicated, he kills the complication, the locals resent him and he leaves. The status quo of Geralt as a monster hunter is established with some extra levity from his unwanted sidekick, the bard Jaskier.

Show 2, is quite different. Aiming more for the epic battle and downfall of kingdoms style of story line, we follow Cirilla the crown princess of the kingdom of Cintra as her fearsome grandmother fights (and loses) a war against the empire building Nilfgaardians.

Show 3 runs off on a different fantasy plot altogether, the bildungsroman tale of a poor girl who discovers she has magical powers, goes off to a mage-training school and must suffer to learn. Yennefer of Vengerberg is mistreated by her family because she has a severe curvature of the spine and finds herself recruited by a mysterious woman to train in the art of magic.

It’s only in episode 3 that there is a clearer sense that the each of these stories take place at different times and along different time scales. This narrative approach is surprisingly effective. Yennefer and Cirilla are not side characters but drive their own narratives. When the narratives start colliding, we already have met various characters at different times in their lives.

It’s a corny, cobbled together fantasy world with random monsters and costumes that wander from the Dark Ages to the Regency but the three-track story does lend the world a feeling of depth and complexity without huge amounts of exposition.

I know many fans of the show would already be familiar with the core characters but I found it refreshing that after episode 3, I really had no idea where Yennefer’s story was heading. Less good was the whole element of her being transformed from her physical disabilities. I assume this was a plot element from the books.

Episodes 4 to 8, where plot lines and backstories tangle together, were each quite compelling. Episode 4, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials”, essentially begins the main story arc that we’ve already been watching setting a whole series of events in motion with a story about a banquet that has a very satisfying feel of a fairy tale.

So by the end of season 1 I learned that:

  • The main character is a gruff, sexy, outcast magic guy
  • He has baths
  • His best friend is his horse and not the bard
  • There are a whole bunch of far more interesting characters

18 thoughts on “Review: The Witcher – Season 1 (Netflix)

  1. Well…Henry Cavill does get a whole lot of mileage out of “Hmmm” and “Fuck.” His dialogue is even more efficient than “I am Groot.”

    I just went back and re-watched the first episode, and the three-timeline thing is laid out from the beginning. You just don’t make sense of it (or at least I didn’t) till episode 4.

    I thought the best episode was #6, the one with the shape-shifting dragon. There’s character development for both Geralt and Yennefer, and the story was nicely self-contained.

    It’s definitely got its problems, but I’ll watch season 2.

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    1. Lot of pay offs in terms of how the characters and relationships had developed in episode 6. The show does a great job of sketching in gaps and implied events. It’s only the second time where Geraly & Yennefer have interacted on screen but it’s convincing that they are now deeply connected. Simple trick of giving Geralt a lot more dialogue when he’s with Yennefer (which he even comments on).

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    1. I went into this with fairly low expectations based on observing Mr angharad play the first two games (which are fairly egregiously sexist), and having not watched but heard terrible things about the recent Superman movies. I ended up liking it more than I thought I would. In particular I found Geralt surprisingly likeable

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      1. Also, don’t forget Henry Cavill’s appearance in an episode of Midsomer Murders, where he got interrupted by David Bradly during sex in the woods and was subsequently bitten in the leg by a fox. Later he stepped into a trap and was shot by the murderer, making him one of many stars-to-be who started their careers as murder victims in Midsomer Murders.

        YouTube has both clips online:

        Geralt of Rivia is still embarrassed about those incidents and sincerely hopes that Jaskier will never find out.


  2. I’ve never played the games either, but I was at least cursorily familiar with the books as in “I vaguely know what happens, even though I haven’t read them”. And the fact that I haven’t read the books is something of an accident. If the Witcher stories had been translated into German a few years earlier than they were, it’s very likely that I would have encountered them via my East German great-aunt who hooked me up with translated East European SFF.

    Nonetheless, I wasn’t planning to watch the series, because the trailers looked so much like cheap “Game of Thrones” wannabe, even though the source material is something quite different. Several folks on Twitter convinced me to give it a try and now I’m quite enjoying the series. Though I still wish that Netflix had rather given a chunk of money to some East European filmmakers to adapt it, because as someone who watched a lot of East European fantasy TV growing up (there was a lot of it on West German TV, including some movies and TV shows which have become beloved classics) the juxtaposition of East European tropes with Western post-GoT aesthetics is occasionally jarring.

    I also agree that many of the other characters are more interesting than Geralt, though I like the fact that Geralt usually tries to solve the problem of the week without killing the monster, if at all possible. Compare that to US fantasy, whether it’s Supernatural or the Monster Hunter books.

    As for Jaskier, I find it telling that the adaptation stuck with the untranslated Polish name, because using the translated name from the books would not have fit in with the “serious business fantasy” style of the series. Finally, it’s amusing that while Jaskier is always named after a flower, the Polish original as well as the English and German translations have all gone with a different flower. I think the Polish original means “Buttercup”. In English, he’s Dandelion, probably because Buttercup is too closely associated with The Princess Bride. In German, he’s called Larkspur.


    1. “Larkspur” wouldn’t have been too bad a name, especially for a bard.

      I’m just surprised Netflix hasn’t released a soundtrack, especially with “Toss a Coin To Your Witcher” seemingly taking over the world. 😉

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      1. I quite like Larkspur, too. I suspect the German translator went with the name, because literally translated the German word for larkspur is “knight’s spur”, which sounds suitably medieval.

        I irritated my parents by humming “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher”, while visiting them today. Eventually, I pulled up the song for them on my phone and now they’re humming it, too, without ever having seen the show.

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      1. As far as I know, the original stories are a mix of western and eastern influences. Sapkowski draws on East European folklore, but also on western fantasy like Tolkien (whose books were available beyond the Iron Curtain) and Roger Zelazny, whom Sapkowski has cited as an influence.

        The series goes more for a generic fantasy land vibe, though you still get some East European influences. I was also kind of annoyed, when the show had Geralt fight selkies off screen, because in the books Geralt fights rusalkas on the page, selkies originating from Celtic rather than Slavic folklore. They’re also not the same thing at all beyond being both associated with water.

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