Debut date: December 20, 2019
Genre: Drama, action, dark fantasy
Created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich
Based on novels by Andrzej Sapkowski and on video games developed by CD Projekt Red
Starring Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Freya Allan
Rating: TV-MA for intense violence, some horror elements, nudity, and language
Author’s note: This review contains minor spoilers for the first three episodes of The Witcher.
On December 20, 2019, Netflix debuted The Witcher, an engrossing, complex, and occasionally confusing television series adapted from the eponymous video games and from the novels on which the games are based. After finishing the first season (which comprises eight episodes), I heartily recommend it—but with a few caveats.
The story centers primarily around Geralt of Rivia (played by Henry Cavill), but several other characters play major roles as well. Geralt is a witcher, a human mutated and enhanced by magic to become a singularly effective monster slayer. He is something of an oddity, both in comparison to other witchers and within the fantasy genre more broadly, primarily because he believes in objective truth and tries to live consistently by a certain set of life-serving principles.
Some reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Witcher and Game of Thrones, citing the complex political narratives they have in common, but such comparisons run only surface deep. In my view, The Witcher is fundamentally different from (and superior to) Game of Thrones in at least one important way: Whereas Game of Thrones is short on heroism and benevolence, The Witcher revolves around a protagonist who believes in keeping his word, in protecting the innocent, and in the general goodness of the average person.1
Granted, Geralt’s philosophy is incomplete and occasionally contradictory. At times, he struggles to reconcile his beliefs about human nature with the actions of those around him; he sometimes gets depressed when others act immorally and consequently criticizes decent people unfairly, but he nonetheless acts to protect them. Most of the time, his internal conflicts serve to dramatize his best qualities, which rise to the surface more often than not. As Cavill said in an interview, “Geralt himself, despite his stony exterior, is actually quite good. . . . Despite what he says, he still believes in the goodness of people. Couple that with incredible sword skills, speed, agility, and endurance, then you have an interesting character.”2
Whether or not you enjoy The Witcher will depend largely on how willing you are to cut Geralt some slack when he’s in a bad mood. There is more than one way to highlight heroism and endorse life-serving values in fiction. For instance, the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand created heroes who are perfect or nearly perfect in their moral consistency. Another way to highlight heroism is to create characters who are clearly imperfect, but who grow and become better as they make good choices (as is often the case with good horror). The Witcher employs this technique to great effect: Geralt’s heroic actions are contrasted not only with the actions of the human villains he faces, but also with his own occasionally misguided ideas.
Geralt constantly tells others that he isn’t interested in taking sides in petty political bickering. That’s true—he refuses to get involved in such bickering when that’s all it is, but he does take a firm stance when substantive values are at stake. In the show’s first episode, a sorcerer tries to hire Geralt to kill a woman who is trying to kill him (the sorcerer). Geralt immediately refuses, and only partly because witchers are monster hunters, not assassins.
The sorcerer seems to think Geralt will change his mind if he knows the whole story, which is, in short: The sorcerer imprisoned and “culled” a number of women because of a prophecy that predicted that eventually they would become evil and cause great suffering. Some of them did, but the sorcerer killed even those who never had harmed anyone, in the name of the “greater good.” He tells Geralt that his actions were the “lesser of two evils,” seemingly convinced that the witcher will understand and accept the job.
Instead, Cavill delivers, with conviction, one of the best lines I’ve heard on television in years: “Evil is evil. Lesser, greater, middling. It’s all the same. If I’m to choose between a ‘lesser’ evil and a ‘greater’ one, I’d rather not choose at all.” He then leaves the sorcerer to his fate without another word, making clear that he refuses to sanction evil. (I won’t spoil the resolution of this particular plot thread—I encourage you to watch it unfold for yourself—but it does involve an instance of the aforementioned inner conflict.)
Later in the show, Geralt initially demands payment for dealing with an especially dangerous monster, as he normally does and has every right to do. But after the offer of payment is withdrawn, he decides to finish the job anyway—pro bono—once he learns the unusual circumstances under which an innocent girl’s life is at stake. It’s clear that his motives are neither altruistic nor suicidal; he believes in protecting innocent life because it’s a value to him, he has the skills to stand a reasonable chance against the monster, and he expects to win.
The Witcher’s technical aspects are consistently impressive. The cinematography is clean and striking, and CGI is used sparingly, seemingly only when practical effects were incapable of achieving the desired result. However, when CGI is used, it sometimes looks noticeably fake, which breaks the immersion somewhat.
Cavill’s acting is convincing and heartfelt. He does an excellent job of bringing Geralt to life on the small screen. Joey Batey is wonderfully entertaining as the charmingly obnoxious bard whom fans of the games will immediately recognize as Dandelion (although, in the show, he goes by Jaskier, his original name in the novels). He performs much of the show’s music, including the second episode’s theme song, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” which is ridiculously catchy, explicitly endorses the profit motive, and showcases more effort and musical skill than I’ve come to expect from modern television shows.
The show averages two or three fight scenes per episode. As a martial artist who (sometimes excessively) mocks most Hollywood fight choreography, I think the combat in The Witcher is above average. It’s fast, precise, and brutal—and definitely not child friendly. That is to say, Geralt fights purposefully. Once he’s decided that fighting is the only way to solve a problem, he’s committed to ending the threat as quickly as possible. I find the fight scenes more believable (and, from technical and aesthetic viewpoints, more satisfying) than the drawn-out, ultra-flashy sword fights depicted in many other fantasy shows. Of course, they’re still dressed up in the name of showmanship, but like Keanu Reeves’s excellent work in John Wick, they’re built on a generally realistic foundation.
As much as I love The Witcher so far, it’s not without flaws. Its biggest one is its tendency to skip around chronologically with absolutely no indication that it’s doing so. Various characters advance their respective subplots within a range of time spanning nearly thirty years, but because there are no timestamps anywhere, viewers are left to piece together the order of events themselves, often with few or no obvious clues. Nonetheless, it’s worth pushing through that confusion, as some of it is satisfyingly cleared up later in the season, and most of what is left unexplained isn’t truly essential to the story. The Witcher definitely is not a show you can half watch while browsing the Web on your phone—you’ll need to pay close attention to get the most out of it, but it’s a show worth paying attention to.
Finally, there are some legitimate (and as-yet unanswered) questions about the role of “destiny” in the show. To me, it seems as though the frequently recurring concept of destiny is being set up primarily to highlight the fact that Geralt does have free will, but it’s too early to tell exactly where the writers are going with it. Given the show’s emphasis thus far on choice, it seems unlikely that it suddenly will switch gears and become deterministic (but given that the writers have free will, they could do whatever they like with the script).
All in all, the first season of The Witcher is an excellent dark fantasy tale that’s not actually all that dark—not in terms of its general sense of life, anyway. Whereas a lot of modern fiction advocates moral relativism or champions the “antihero,” Geralt of Rivia offers philosophically refreshing, action-packed rebuttals to those tiring tropes.
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1. George R. R. Martin’s nihilism and cynicism are evident throughout his writing and are best expressed by the words of one of his characters, Sansa Stark, who said, “There are no heroes. In life, the monsters win.” This quote is presented as evidence that the character, a formerly happy and “naive” girl, has “grown up.”