Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy series, The Witcher was Netflix’s attempt to make an adult fantasy series. They spared no expense with the first season having action sequences, CGI effects, and a big-name star in the title role.
Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) roams the lands as a monster hunter for hire. He’s a skilled swordsman and a mutant which gives him some magical powers, but he suffers from discrimination because of it. Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) is a hunchbacked woman who gets trained to be a mage to advise rulers across the land. Ciri (Freya Allan) is a princess who has to go on the run when her kingdom falls to the Nifgaardians. Their paths start to merge as the series progresses.
Sapkowski’s series of novels and short stories have a cult following but the series really grew in popularity due to the video game series. Audiences outside of Poland will properly think of the video games first. Netflix hoped The Witcher would be their Game of Thrones, but it was more like a TV version of Conan the Barbarian.
Both The Witcher and Conan the Barbarian followed beefy men of few words who did missions for various kings, lords, or townspeople. Geralt and Conan inhabit incredibly violent worlds and they were only a small part of it. The action and swordplay in the series felt like a throwback to the 1980s due to all the bloodletting and monster hunting. Despite the violence and some dark subject matter, the series did at times have a campy tone like in the fifth episode “Bottled Appetites.”
The first season of The Witcher was based on the first two books in the series: The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. These books were collections of short stories and because of this Geralt’s story had a monster of the week structure to them. They were standalone adventure with only a loose connection to them. This was worst with the first two episodes which led to the question where was the series going? The storylines only started to merge by the fourth episode, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials” where a debt owed to Geralt would have ramifications later in the series.
The most interesting character in the series was Yennefer. Yennefer started off as a bullied nobody due to her deformity and finds out she had magical powers. Her journey was one where she went from a scared young woman who was forced to become a powerful mage. She was the character that grew the most and suffered a lot. One of her most important moments was when she chooses to have surgery to make her beautiful, but it came at the cost of her fertility. Yennefer’s poignant moment was in the fourth episode when she was trying to protect her chance and she revealed her world view.
Ciri’s story wasn’t as interesting. She had to go on the run in the woods and meet the elves whilst the forces of evil hunt for her. She’s only important because her destiny was tied to Geralt’s. She was a plot device.
The showrunner, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, told TV Guide that she was influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Schmidt Hissrich copied the different timelines structure. Yennefer’s story took place over 70 years, Geralt’s story was 20 years long, and Ciri’s lasted only a few weeks. However, this wasn’t clear in the first episode where Geralt got embroiled with a conflict between a wizard and the fall of Cintra and Ciri going on the run happened simultaneously. The first episode felt like a proof-of-concept rather than starting a series. It doesn’t help that none of the characters aged and technology, fashion, and culture don’t change during the series. The timelines only start to merge by the fifth episode.
J. R. R. Tolkien looms large over the high fantasy genre. George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan were influenced by Tolkien and there’s a fine line for a fantasy story to be seen as inventive or generic. Sapkowski was Polish so he did draw from Eastern European influences which audiences from beyond that region might not be so aware of. This led to some interesting monsters and curses. I personally like the magic system in the series because it’s stated that there is a price for using magic and the training academy for the mages reminded me of The White Tower in The Wheel of Time series. Characters also referred to a genocide against the Elves which sounds like it would play an important role in future seasons.
The political situation of The Witcher was less interesting. The conflicts, kingdoms, and cultures were undercooked. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Martin’s Westeros felt much richer and more defined. Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire told different stories – Lord of the Rings was about the ultimate battle between good and evil whilst A Song of Ice and Fire went for a more realistic portrayal of medieval politics. To be fair to the series Geralt was low down in the social order so he wasn’t going to get too involved with court politics.
The first season of The Witcher can give audiences a fantasy fix and will please fans of fantasy action and violence. Just don’t expect the complicated world-building and characterization that’s present in some of their rivals.