It took all of five minutes after GAME OF THRONES ended for audiences to ask, “what’s next?”
What’s next is a dangerous question, since it implies that you better deliver something that will automatically deliver the quality that audiences came to expect during the near decade long victory lap that GOT had, and reach it within a season or less. Any less than that, and you risk losing the audience before season two even gets announced.
As luck would have it, that’s exactly what THE WITCHER delivers: A vast, mythic adventure serial of immense quality, which, if NETFLIX plays their cards right, will become the next big thing for audiences hungry for big set pieces, complex characters, sensuality, and dick jokes.
Adapted from the five part book series by Andrzej Sapkowski, THE WITCHER follows the titular monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia, as makes his living in the unpredictable and dangerous world known as The Continent.
Played to perfection by an extremely game Henry Cavill, Geralt is a wonderful subversion of the stoic alpha male. Sure he’s still a gruff, buff, and monosyllabic wonder, but underneath that guise is a fountain of warm, snarky humor and a strong sense of justice. He also has a vulnerable side that shows itself at the most unexpected times. Just as we expect to endure a long-winded sermon about the necessities of being hard and brutal, Geralt sweeps the rug out from under our feet with a simple admission: It hurts that he’s bullied for his abnormalities. A subplot later in the season has him go off on a dangerous quest to make up for being rude to a friend. They’re simple things, but in the grand scheme of things it’s nice to see quests grow from simple desires as opposed to world ending ones.
Geralt is also an unexpected hero in that he’s not afraid of his shortcomings. He’ll happily tell people ready to sing his praises about the times he screwed up, and there’s nothing that wearies him more than blind adoration. Cavill is a revelation here. He’s already played stoic to a fault in the soporific MAN OF STEEL and swaggered with the best of them in the horrifically underrated MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., but it’s in Geralt that he seems to really come alive. He carries the show effortlessly, easily selling the lore-heavy early episodes with an easygoing charm that constantly flirts with incredulity.
The show gets even better when he’s paired early on with Jaskier, a happy-go-lucky bard with no understanding of how to read the room, played by a scene stealing Joey Batey. Geralt would know nothing better than to travel alone in peace and quiet; Jaskier can’t think of anything grander than to follow Geralt around and compose songs about his adventures. It’s already clear that Batey is going to be the breakout this season, as Jaskier is the life of every scene he is in. There’s a wonderful chemistry between him and Cavill, and their bickering could carry a dozen adventures together.
The other side of the story belongs to Yennefer of Vengerberg, played by Anya Chalotra. Born into rural poverty with a hunchback and family that despises her, Yennefer is sold by her father to a traveling witch without a second thought to what could happen. Much of the first season is spent on her transformation from timid observer to master of her own destiny, and Chalotra’s performance is a star-making turn. She makes Yennefer’s journey a believable one, even when pitted against magic and destiny. Even better, the smart writing and directing allows for Yennefer to explore aspects of feminine power and sexuality that rarely, if ever, get noticed or displayed in popular culture in this way. An early scene featuring Yennefer’s budding sexual awakening is directed with nuance and grace, as is her tender first love that has many firsts for any production of this kind. It’s a much needed relief after much of the blunt darkness in other big budget fantasy shows.
Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich emphasizes character above all else, even as cities fall, and it’s immensely satisfying to watch. Sapkowski’s rich prose has already opened the stage for some wonderful characters in the books, and every episode seems to introduce a new cast of characters you want to spend more time with. Jodhi May is especially a delight as the unpredictable Queen Calanthe trying to keep her kingdom together under the weight of patriarchal tradition and the looming threat of invasion. Like many of the female protagonists in the story, Calanthe is hardened by a world designed to be hostile against her, and there’s genuine tragedy in her character much in the same way there is to Yennefer.
The third story in the show belongs to Ciri, played by Freya Allan, who sadly remains for much of the season a distant cipher. She serves mostly as an audience surrogate, as much of the backstory and world building is explained to her through the various encounters she has on her journey. Not that any of it is boring or unnecessary, it’s just that Ciri’s story is only just beginning and the desire to jump right back into the adventures of Geralt and Yennefer can feel overwhelming at times. Allan does bring a genuine tenderness to the part of a sheltered princess out on her own for the first time. There’s a wonderful moment early on in the season where Ciri has to encounter the costs of her privileged life, and Allan sells the heartbreak and loss of innocence beautifully.
THE WITCHER feels massive, and that’s not an easy feat to pull off. It discards all the usual tropes and shortcuts that epic television uses and thoroughly rids the story of any indicators of how much time has passed. Characters will ask one another on occasion how long it’s been since they last saw, and there’s clever uses of seasonal effects subtly laid out in the background to indicate the years rolling by. But it’s never overtly explained and unless you pay attention it can easily be missed. Like much of what the show does, this too feels genuinely refreshing. Much of the first season is built around the short stories, with the occasional plot point from the pentalogy thrown into the mix.
A pattern quickly emerges: Geralt is out making a living, trying to avoid problems, and problems always find him. Be it Jaskier needing a bodyguard or a local town being raided by a hungry monster, the world is in a constant state of flux. It has the air of the great 70s cult classic, KUNG FU, and old samurai stories, but with a distinctly European flair. The Continent is vast and filled with adventure, and there’s a genuine sense of destinies coming together at every turn.
Then there’s the action, which features some of the most graceful and well thought out choreographing in recent memory. Utilizing again location specific styles for multiple different kinds of weaponry, the end result is once again an eye-opener. Of course this is how it should look and feel like, yet because everything else has copied each other in the past, THE WITCHER now feels like it’s pushing the envelope. In the grand tradition of telling through showing, Geralt and his companions express themselves through combat, and it’s a thrill to see them adapt depending on the situation. From street brawls to big showdowns with monsters, Cavill especially stands out by amassing multiple different styles of swordplay into his repertoire. A shindig breaking down into an all-out brawl sees him using no less five different kinds of weapon in a single scene.
I’m thrilled about this show. Initially skeptical, I was worried that the books couldn’t be translated in a way that would be both satisfying to a larger audience as well as fans who enjoyed the darker, more morbidly funny aspects of the story. Yet somehow Hissrich and her team have done it. THE WITCHER hits all the notes in a way that few adaptations ever do. It’s both accessible for anyone who has never read the source material, and even more enjoyable to those that have. There are Easter eggs buried in every scene, and the rich set design looks ravishing in 4K. Creature work deserves a special shout out, as everything from the makeup to the CGI is spot on, capturing a dark and fantastical look of faded nightmares in a beautiful and brutal manner.
The soundtrack by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli tips its hat at the popular game series while being an entirely fascinating creation of its own. Mixing influences from different time periods in European history together, the soundtrack gives THE WITCHER a timeless quality that is hard to pinpoint.
Like the best kind of fairy tales, it lives just at the far reaches of our reality; recognizable in familiarity and bewildering in its fantasy.