Based on the popular book series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher is a fantasy drama following the story of famed solitary monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and Cintran princess Ciri (Freya Allan). While I’m more a fan of the games, and I’m sure I’m not alone, I was excited to see this world translated into a live-action series on Netflix.
While I initially didn’t think casting Henry Cavill as the mutant monster hunter was a good choice, he turned out to be the best thing about this eight episode first season.
The thing that will help you watch The Witcher is understanding the story is non-linear. The entire season consists of different stories of multiple characters spanning different decades that eventually come together to focus on the war that’s come to the homeland of Ciri. This can make it confusing at times. Geralt of Rivia is a mutant who doesn’t age like a normal human. Likewise, Yennefer and other sorceresses also appear ageless due to their magical powers and – for the most part – look the same as the decades pass.
So when the episodes jump between different points in time, it’s not obvious by looking at the characters (ignoring the first few episodes of Yennefer’s story where she’s not yet a sorceress). While the season finale attempts to tie everything together on what they probably thought was some level of clever writing, it actually ruins the overall flow of the story.
The constant jumping between time periods and skipping large chunks of time is one of the main things that lets The Witcher down. Skipping over decades of a character’s political career or skipping over years of character bonding made the overall story feel rushed. For example, about halfway through the season, Geralt and Yennefer meet and quickly hookup. By the very next episode, however, they’re fighting like old lovers because they are, in fact, in a unique relationship as a result of a wish with a Djinn that has spanned many years.
This is frustrating because we – the audience – are never given any time to see any kind of relationship develop or grow over time between them. So when they are arguing about their situation and “history”, it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t just have a line of dialogue that references years of relationship and expect the audience to feel or connect with them.
Another example is watching the transformation of Yennefer from a deformed farm girl into a beautiful sorceress. This happens over a number of episodes and turns out to be the most interesting story arc in the whole season. It’s engaging. We watch her struggle. We want her to succeed. She’s the underdog. Go Yennefer! She overcomes obstacles to eventually achieve the goal of being placed in a political position of power within the kingdom she wants. Then literally one episode later she’s travelling with a noblewoman lamenting all the decades she’s spent in court and is ready to move on with her life. Wait, what?
The second issue with the story is how Geralt of Rivia, i.e. the titular Witcher – the title of the series – isn’t really what drives the overall narrative. He isn’t really the main character for the most part. He wanders into town and does a very entertaining job of slaying monsters (the fight sequences are really well done), however he’s just kind of there. He’s a mercenary, a monster slayer for hire who doesn’t take sides in political events unless his hand is forced. Being a mutant strips him of nearly all his emotions. He just fights, eats, loves the ladies and moves on to do the same thing again in a different town.
All this sounds great for a playable game character, but this doesn’t translate to a main character in a big-budget television series. This probably helps explain why the main driver of the overall story is Yennefer. Even Ciri just kind of occupies space, spending most of the time just wandering around waiting for Geralt to find her. Geralt’s role is so inconsequential for the most part that he isn’t even needed in the season’s epic battle finale.
If the story wasn’t bad enough, the acting also lets The Witcher down. The acting across the board wavers between nothing special to pretty woeful. Many scenes are painful to watch due to what I imagine was simply poor casting. The majority of the supporting cast simply can’t pull off being serious medieval characters, often resulting in a show that feels like Xena: Warrior Princess trying to step up its game. The sub-par acting becomes more apparent due to Henry Cavill’s performance because he absolutely nails the role of Geralt. And there lies the problem.
Henry Cavill is the highlight in terms of acting and I have to admit, when I heard he’d been cast as Geralt I thought, no, he’s Superman. There’s no way he can pull it off (the early screen test footage released online was pretty cringeworthy). Well he proved me wrong. The voice, the dry humor, the physicality of the character – even the whitened hair – feels like I’m playing the game. It’s the one performance that really stands out, even when the series doesn’t seem to know what to do with him.
As mentioned above, he’s not even part of the major battle at the season’s finale. While Yennefer makes the show interesting at the start (her performance goes downhill once she becomes a sorceress), it’s Henry Cavill’s Geralt that kept the show reasonably watchable.
I really wanted to love The Witcher, and not just because I’m a fan of the games. Even before I’d watched all eight episodes and the grand finale I just wanted it to end. While Henry Cavill absolutely nails it as Geralt of Rivia, the rushed and erratic storytelling, along with a mediocre supporting cast, make this a cringe-worthy viewing experience suffering from severe Game of Thrones envy. I’m sure Netflix would love to have something on par with HBO’s just-ended fantasy juggernaut, but grand adventures need time to simmer and grow. I’m just hoping we’ll see improvements in season two.