Netflix’s The Witcher falls short of a phenomenon, but there’s still fun to be had

With the conclusion of Game of Thrones, it was inevitable that mythical, semi-medieval source material with an established following would be pushed by networks and studios alike, hoping to be adopted by its worldwide fanbase hungry for more. The Witcher ticked all those boxes; this time being both a successful book series, and a much loved gaming series. It was announced all the way back in May 2017, and last week the eight episode first season dropped onto Netflix, after a second series had already been confirmed, proving how confident they were of its success.

But it feels like we already knew this; the press campaign for The Witcher festered hype as soon as the show was announced, with comparisons on how the fight scenes, fan reactions and overall series would be bigger and better than that of the HBO juggernaut.

On paper, there’s no arguing The Witcher seems like the perfect fodder for a new phenomenon. The source material follows Geralt of Rivia, a ́”Witcher”, or monster slayer who traverses through the kingdoms of The Continent, killing vicious magical creatures for bags of coin. He is famously devoid of emotion, a condition of being a Witcher, and thus gruffly makes his way through the world swinging his sword, accepting his pay, and moving on to the next. The Witcher‘s world is one where the medieval and mythic unite, filled with mages, royals, warring kingdoms and villages caught in the inevitable crossfire.

The series not only contends with the PR hype train, but also an aforementioned rabid fanbase of both the books and the games. From a gamer perspective, thirst will be quenched. It ticks all the boxes to have aficionados fist pumping – recognisable characters (Triss Merigold gets the short end, building up to having a key role then disappearing), legendary monsters like the Striga in all their CGI, shrieking glory, gritty battle scenes and of course seeing the mythical Kingdoms of Temeria and Cintra.

For those of us who can’t merely subsist on nostalgia, unfortunately this season is a struggle to comprehend. The opening episode and overall timeline takes half the season to untangle, and the short eight episode length cuts the story, character development and world building off by the knees – concluding before the show has its chance to soar, or even salvage itself.

Presenting three distinct narratives. Geralt’s storyline is almost a mere vessel in which our other protagonists Yennefer, a burgeoning mage disfigured from birth, and Cirilla, a young Princess searching for her destiny after a life-altering tragedy, use to further their own self-discovery. Geralt remains the show’s anchor, all characters intersect and interact with him because this is The Witcher, but he is not the real hero of this journey.

The three narratives also run on huge time differences whilst their stories appear concurrent, something that I didn’t catch onto until episode three, where a formerly deceased character appears decidedly not dead and the double takes begin. Not only is there a gap between narratives but within the individual stories. Geralt’s journey spans over a decade, Yennefer’s over thirty years (more obvious for reasons that can’t be spoiled), but Cirilla’s seems to unfold in real time. Knowing this information beforehand would’ve made the season all the more coherent – so consider this your head start.

As episode one launches in at the season’s climax, the tension and drama is laden on extremely thick in the performances. The drama is painfully over the top and theatrical (particularly Queen Calanthe, who would be more suited to a Shakespearean stage play). It’s impossible to appreciate the brevity of these highly emotional deaths with such little backstory. I normally enjoy being thrown into a show’s maelstrom, wondering how in the hell we got here and excited to see the carnage unfold. But that’s usually once I have had time to establish myself in the world, in the characters, when I can feel how high the stakes are and the sudden impact of the situation.

The rushed, surface level relationships is a common theme through anyone connected to Geralt, again a victim of the eight episode count, glut of characters and multiple narrative structure. For a character without emotion, his various love affairs really seem to cut him deep, having a lasting impact on his psyche and decisions when they were really the product of ten minutes on screen.

There is also the Bard, who may as well be renamed obligatory comic relief – he gets more screen time with Geralt than anyone else with a relationship of consequence, and is the foil for one major turning point in the serie. But at the end of the day, he’s neither funny nor fleshed out enough to justify his large role. Whilst that now-famous ́”Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” tune certainly is catchy, it feels as though if he were relieved from the series, more room could have been made to build on meatier plot points. Cirilla’s parents, the aforementioned Triss Merigold, King Faultest and his sister Adda, these are all huge characters with key storylines who disappear after a brief appearance in one episode. There is simply not enough time to explore.

Amongst the confusion, however, there is certainly some fun to be had here. Henry Cavill as Geralt epitomises everything fans of the game will be searching for in their antihero. Taking heavy notes from his source material, everything from his gravelly voice, deadpan responses, even the way he lugs himself through rooms are all identical to his video game counterpart. He is hilariously grim, animalistic and gritty – a welcome change from the sleek Legolas-like promotional images originally released which did not look true to the scarred and scraggly character we expected.

The story line, whilst again jumps through time like mad, is never dull. Geralt plods around various Kingdoms killing monsters and foes in brutal and fast-paced fight scenes, Yennefer’s mage training and eventual blossom is most definitely full of over-the-top surprises, and the greatest mysteries behind Cirilla are yet to be seen. If you’re a fan of the mythical genre and like-minded shows, then it’ll be enough to have you watch the next episode. If not, this will be a hard one to cling to.

The show also really tries to do a service to the women who anchor the show, who share equal if not more screen time than Geralt. It is really their coming of age, their story, as they endure hardship and find their strength. However, it is disappointing in the case of Yennefer, that an obligatory makeover scene was teased – in a show about empowering female characters, surely we are past this nonsense. A later transformational scene is brutal and easily the emotional peak of the season as a vicious battle between Geralt and a monstrous Striga rages alongside, but the bad taste of the frivolous makeover reference was still playing on my mind.

With a higher episode count, coherent timeline and the drama dialled down from eleven, The Witcher could have been a really enthralling introduction to a series with longevity. By episode six, I felt invested in the characters and comfortable with the timelines, however this came too late to feel like it was truly worth the confusion and epic, over-the-top moments without context. If nothing else, hopefully season one provided sufficient set up for an in-depth season two which has already received the green light.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Witcher is available for streaming on Netflix now.

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