The Witcher is a weird fantasy series
The Witcher debuts on Netflix with a fully formed fan base who devoured the novels and video games that inspired it. This TV version was inevitable, given the potential in courting viewers who have been trained to see dragons, sorcerers, and beheadings as par for the prestige-TV course.
Even if you've never read the books on which the Netflix series is based, or played Polish developer CD Projekt Red's wildly successful video game spin-offs (we're talking many hundreds of millions in revenue here), you're bound to find it familiar. The Witcher mythology has bobbed around ever since the 1990s, when Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's novels broke out of their home country. But it's the video games, which began in 2007 and continued through 2015's The Witcher 3, that undoubtedly brought The Witcher franchise to the mainstream.
Netflix's The Witcher sports fairly conventional, post-Game of Thrones aesthetics—blood-and-boobs, dark (and very adult) themes, labyrinthine plots, epic battles—but the tone is all its own. That's due to Sapkowski, whose novels mash fantasy tropes with raw yet fleet humor to create something of a rib-crushing bear hug. It's a sane response to a harsh world, where the absurd and sublime comingle. Death is always close, as is laughter.
Netflix's efforts to portray this would be a mess if not for the showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich ("Daredevil," "The Umbrella Academy"), who has smartly adapted the source material in league with creator Sapkowski. In the first five episodes we screened, Hissrich's detail-oriented approach brought the series to life with panache, whether it was in minute character details (the makeup and costumes are near-flawless), casually shocking violence (oof, just buckets of crimson-black gore), or the lusty side-eyes that usually consummated before an episode expired. It's easy to understand why Netflix has already approved a second season.
Henry Cavill has taken a break, perhaps permanently, from playing Superman in the DC movies to lend his chiseled-everything to the title character. And Cavill is arguably the ideal vessel for Geralt of Rivia, as The Witcher is known (although not having seen anyone else try it, it's hard to say for sure). He's reportedly a massive fan of the series and was as deeply involved as they'd let him be in every aspect of it.
It's an ideal marriage of subject matter and actor. Cavill doesn't speak much, is powerful and imposing, and looks great in a wooden bathtub. Honestly, he's fetching even when he's sitting still, despite the wig, pale-boi makeup, colored contacts, and several pounds of leathery costume-armor. When he's showing a bit of skin, in motion or speaking, you can't take your eyes off him.
If the series is successful, Cavill may well own the character moving forward (never mind the early 2002 Polish series The Hexer, based on the same material). But lore-wise, there's a lot of buy-in to be had with this stuff, from our growling, cat-eyed freak of a hero to the intimidatingly dense world he inhabits.
Where does The Witcher take place?
The Witcher takes place on the Continent, a loose European analog with a vaguely Middle-Ages time stamp. It's divided into the scattered Northern Kingdoms (where the first few episodes happen) and the Southern Kingdoms, which are ruled by the black-armored Nilfgaard Empire. There are other regions—deserts and mountains, glimpsed briefly. But for the most part we're traversing grassy fields, swamps, thick forests, oceanfront cliffs, and the creaking, candlelit interiors that dot them. It's about as traditional as it gets for a European-sourced fantasy epic, although in every version of the mythology, Sapkowski sees a world riddled with inequality and prejudice.
The lore is similarly deep, offering irresistible (if intimidating) opportunities for would-be adaptations; as such, the TV version can only hint at its richness. Having spent a couple hundred hours with The Witcher 3, lots of details in these early episodes looked and felt immediately familiar to me. I have no doubt Netflix is counting on that.
Who and what is The Witcher?
The Witcher is the nickname for Geralt of Rivia, a bounty hunter who travels the Continent cutting down foul beasts for coin, be they spidery abominations or black-smoke spirits. He's also known as the White Wolf or the Butcher of Blaviken, depending on where he is and whom he's talking to. Tales of his exploits get passed around through bards—in particular the golden-voiced, wickedly petty Jaskier (Joey Batey), who becomes a foil and traveling companion for Geralt in the first few episodes.
Fans of "The Mandalorian" and the classic TV westerns it draws from will see parallels: the quiet loner/swordslinger arrives, loves 'em, cuts 'em up, and leaves 'em on the floorboards. But Geralt has a complicated, magical backstory into which Netflix isn't afraid to dive, and each episode is innately connected to the ripple effects of his presence, even as it adds substance to the previously underwritten women characters.
The books and short stories that birthed the series cover different time periods, but the Netflix timeline picks up shortly after Cintra in the north has been attacked by Nilfgaard in the south. That pushes Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), a daughter of Cintran Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May), into the wild. Ciri, as she comes to be known, is on a collision course with Geralt of Rivia and the shrewd mage Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), although none of them seem to know it at first.
Geralt's impulses swing between self-interest and flock-tending. He's got a conscience, however bent, and often dispenses wisdom about souring one's life in pursuit of revenge and other such high-mindedness. But his own powers and personal history are less tidy.
Where does all this magic come from?
The show takes place after a global event known as The Conjunction of the Spheres, which linked parallel dimensions and introduced monsters and humans to the Continent (there's little distinction between them at times). But there was magic before that, too, with Elder Races such as elves and dwarves roaming the land. Now they've been subjugated by humans, providing fertile ground for race and class metaphors to take root in the scripts. Mages also play indispensable roles in the courts of the mad, self-interested rulers who lead various regions. Pretty much everyone on the Continent seems bedraggled and accustomed to some manner of brutality or abuse. It's a dark worldview the show doesn't shy from—this sense that we're all just meat in someone's future feast. But it's not, mercifully, anywhere near that reductive when it comes to character interaction and drama, and here Geralt's role as the strong, silent type comes into play, goading people into action (or paralysis) with his mere presence, no spells needed.
Even with all this weirdness, people remark superstitiously about the propriety of various beings, including the Witchers (yep, there's more than one of them) who are mostly regarded with fear. Geralt is a mutant among mutants, having been raised from youth to work in this thankless profession and undergone a transformation during an event called The Trial of the Grasses. The early episodes don't explain it, but Geralt's mutated genes dictate his powers, which comprise predictable super-soldier/sorcerer stuff (incredible strength, speed, damage resistance, healing properties, etc.). Like any good RPG hero, potions and spells tend to buff or nerf Geralt's stats, and here the show feels directly influenced by its video game depictions as characters chant or guzzle various concoctions at will, portals and barely-visible entities floating before them. (Sapkowski has disavowed the video game series; Netflix would be stupid to follow suit.)
The show may eventually delve much deeper into Geralt's past, but the first five episodes aren't obsessed with hints about his history, allowing him to surprise the audience instead of snapping into a get-to-know-you rail. It's The Princess Bride meets Harry Potter, with a bucket of Game of Thrones-style sex and blood. Or Pan's Labyrinth meets Shrek. Castlevania by way of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit? You get the idea. The improbably funny, violent sensibility is hard to define. Slugging someone in the crotch is often the best response to murder, or vice versa.
Do I have time for this?
Maybe. Depending on your tolerance, you'll either find the first few episodes intriguing or exhausting, as they invite you into an Underworld-looking (i.e. drained of color and heavily sharpened) universe that threatens to grow only more tangled with each passing episode. Do you like jokes, characters named Rat Boy, porcupine people, and zero hint of electricity or plastic? You're in luck.
It's almost too much. So many thickly-drawn, wide-eyed principals are introduced in rapid succession that their payoff seems distant. But surprising decisiveness, tender moments, and beauty are there, too. I'm particularly drawn to Yennefer, who begins as an abused but gifted woman but quickly asserts herself. Her inevitable transformation feels earned. But, it's worth debating if her many topless scenes are liberating or sexist. And given the source material, the show is unfortunately lacking in representing female characters or people of color.
Despite its flaws, the show does have promise to evolve beyond these first five episodes. Like any good series these days, identity is at the core of the evolving drama, a micro/macro encapsulation of the larger organism that is the Continent. Things aren't so black and white in The Witcher, despite its color palette. It looks to be a bumpy, horny, gleefully unhinged ride, and it may just take us to some interesting places.