NOTE: This is a spoiler-free review slash guide of The Witcher, a good as hell show that you should watch. (Not sure if you saw the headline.)
After months of promising an unabashedly genre and horny jaunt, Netflix has delivered exactly that with its biggest and best entry into the recently vacant fantasy TV arena. Despite initially looking like the adventures of Legolas’ roided out brother Chadagorn, The Witcher is a surprisingly sturdy offering that sticks the landing — for the most part. Coming in at a crisp eight episodes that only ever-so-slightly flirts with the dreaded Netflix bloat, the streaming series could’ve easily pulled off a Mandalorian-esque weekly schedule that would’ve dominated social media for months. Lauren S. Hissrich has crafted a show that genuinely has the chops to be something more than just another binge-watch dump even though that’s how I greedily devoured it. Just downed the whole thing in three nights. But enough about armchair quarterbacking release schedules, let’s tangle with the cursed monster in the room.
Is The Witcher the new Game of Thrones?
It’s virtually impossible not to compare The Witcher to Game of Thrones. Christ, I’ve done it several times on this very site, but that’s what happens when you’ve got a fresh vacuum left by a massive pop-culture juggernaut that everyone from Amazon to HBO itself is trying to refill. But here’s the thing, outside of both being male-gaze heavy fantasy novels that started in the early 90s — The Witcher actually came out of the gate first — the two television series are almost nothing alike. While David Benioff and D.B. Weiss hesitantly used Game of Thrones’s genre elements because they were afraid of scaring off jocks and moms, The Witcher absolutely bathes in its Tolkien roots and Slavic fairytale monsters as its story focuses on three main protagonists who are magical as f**k. The goddamn show opens with our man Geralt (Henry Cavill) already in the throes of his Witcher tonic as he battles a kikimora in a desolate swamp. It tells you what you’re in for from the jump. A straight-up heroes’ journey — in the midst of a convoluted power struggle involving several kingdoms, tons of gratuitous nudity, and a blonde heiress of destiny at the center.
Okay, you know what? Maybe there’s a passing similarity. But the last thing you want to do is approach The Witcher like its genre predecessor or you’re going to be in for a world of confusion.
Who or what the hell should you pay attention to?
While talking about The Witcher in the Pajiba Slack, I definitely noticed some confusion over which characters and events are important because the show tosses you right into The Continent (yup, that’s the name of the setting, alright) with practically zero information. Thanks to being a gaping dork, I’m gonna help you out. The first season pulls heavily from the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, which do some table setting for The Main Event, the five-book The Witcher Saga, but more importantly they’re an introduction to a day in the life of Geralt. As you’ll learn from the show, those days often include fighting creatures, cursed princesses, and townspeople who we’re supposed to believe hate the shit out of an handsomely jacked dude with a clearly defined buttchin because of his… contacts?
For real though, in this world, Geralt is a mutant abomination who’s been engineered by various magics and potions to kill monsters for money until the day one of those monsters get the best of him, which judging by the supremely excellent sword fights, will be a while. As a Witcher, he’s supposed to be devoid of all feelings and detached from the concerns of others, but as we follow Geralt from job to job, that’s clearly going to be a problem. Turns out, there’s more to him than just being insanely ripped and wearing a terrible wig. Anyway, the key is to not fret too much over the characters Geralt meets like there’s going to be a quiz later. The majority of his encounters are merely bit players for the first six episodes, and yes, that includes the dragon even though that other show made a big deal about them. Basically, the “monsters of the day” are more about developing who Geralt is than the over-arching narrative. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a larger story being built, but for now, you’re learning what makes the main characters tick while the shit slowly hurtles towards the fan.
Wait. Did you say main characters, as in plural?
One of The Witcher’s greatest strengths is that the show could’ve just as easily been called “Yennefer” because the sorceress played by Anya Chalotra is given equal footing to Cavill’s Geralt, making her a breakout hit for viewers who expected to sit through a show solely centered on a male lead. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from the trailers, which understandably played it safe by banking on elements that would attract fans of the wildly successful Witcher games. However, it is a welcome surprise because Yennefer is a central character in the books, and her story in the first season is absolutely as intriguing as Geralt’s, if not more so.
That said, Yennefer’s arc throws a buttload of characters at you, and even my nerd-ness didn’t know who the hell half of them were. Here’s all you need to worry about: The Chapter appoints mages like Yennefer to advise and protect kings, and like any power structure, there’s a pool of corruption and greed simmering underneath, not to mention, a growing disdain for the monarchs The Chapter serves. The key takeaway is you’re getting an early look at a cracked foundation that’s not going to hold up well when the adversarial kingdom of Nilfgaard starts making moves to conquer The Continent.
As for Ciri (Freya Allan), the third main character, well… she’s not much more than a MacGuffin in this season. You’ll want to pay attention to the talk of her bloodline, and the cunning guile of her grandmother Queen Calanthe, but for the most part, Ciri’s time to shine is still waiting in the horizon of season two, and she will be dope.
OK, could you put all of that into a tidy little nutshell?
You got it. Basically, season one of The Witcher introduces you to three main characters whose paths (and separate timelines) are on a collision course with destiny. Don’t get lost in the weeds of Geralt doing his Witcher-ing, and instead, just enjoy Cavill doing yeoman’s work chipping away his gruff exterior all to the tune of one banger of a song. The cursed princesses and zombie hordes are merely window dressing on the way to The Main Event. The same applies a little less so with Yennefer. Her arc sets up the background conflicts that will move events forward, but you don’t need to get bogged down in the names and details. The gist will become very clear: Nilfgaard is the invading force with apocalyptic plans for Ciri that will test and break alliances. Just let the events wash over you like a horny bath.
Should I get attached to this show?
Well, it was renewed for a second season a full month before the show even aired, so it seems like Netflix likes what it’s seeing. On top of that, The Witcher is already the third most in-demand streaming series behind Stranger Things and The Mandalorian, and it’s only been out for a week. Those are very good signs. When you consider the fact that Cavill is literally the only recognizable name in the cast, and there are definitely a few moments where the CGI feels very budget, the show could be walking carefully on eggshells to last all seven of the seasons that Hissrich has planned. Then again, this is Netflix we’re talking about, so the chopping block is always nearby.
But here’s the good news, unless you hate reading. After watching the first season, you could pick up Blood of Elves, the first book in The Witcher Saga, and have no problem diving right in. This story will always be around for you to finish no matter what happens at Netflix, and the books really are a fun time. I’ve been obsessively reading them in the dead of night for the entire month of December because my life is a non-stop roller coaster of thrill and adventure. You can trust me.
Header Image Source: Netflix