I am a long time fan of The Witcher in all of its incarnations. I loved the books and The Witcher 3 might well be my favorite game of all time (if I can somehow find it in my heart to dethrone Final Fantasy VII.) So I was full of equal parts joy and terror when I heard that Netflix was going to be making a series based off the franchise.
My wife and I spent Christmas day binge watching the entire series and I’ve come away… conflicted.
There are numerous problems with the show. The pacing is much too fast. They skip over scenes that should be slow and quiet in order to jump from action scene to action scene. This keeps the viewer entertained with lots of sex, gore and violence, but it neglects the far more important emotional connections that the viewer needs in order to bond with the characters and empathize with their plight. You only care when characters are in danger when the narrative has taken the time to show you what they care about, their hopes and ambitions. The Witcher does this a little, but you can tell it’s less interested in it than it is in being witty and the show suffers for it.
Another complaint that I have (and this is a little bit petty) is with some of the aesthetic choices. The sets designs are beautiful. Geralt’s armor is spot on. Some of Yennifer’s dresses are almost distractingly gorgeous and the monsters all look absolutely brilliant.
So why are the contact lenses so obvious? Why do the elves look like they bought all their costumes at Spirit? Why does Geralt need to talk like Batman and why is his wig so unapologetically wig-like?
This is probably my least important criticism, but Netflix is clearly throwing big money at this show and they’ve chosen to cut costs in some very unusual places.
But the biggest problem is that it is confusing. I’ve read all the books, and I still had a hard time keeping track of all the different timelines that the show skips through. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the first two books that the show has been (thus far) primarily based on are actually collections of short stories. Saperkowski wrote each of these stories separately and the compiled them into collections before beginning his grand narrative in the third book, so it makes sense that viewing them as a linear story could be disorientating, but there was a simple solution that movies and TV shows have been using for years. Just use dates! I could plug the series into Adobe Premier right now and in about 20 minutes I’d make the show 10X easier to follow. A little date in the bottom left corner of the screen during transitions would ground the viewer in when we are so that we can focus on what’s happening in the story instead of trying to figure out when it happened.
And yet… for all of these flaws… I still love it.
Henry Cavill plays Geralt very well. He captures the character’s moodiness, his frustration, his loneliness and his heroism all in equal measure. Yennifer’s storyline was something I don’t remember especially well from the books and yet I thought it was the best part of the show. Anya Chalotra treads the line between heartless ambition and heartrendingly human regret better than I ever could have hoped. Jaskier (Dandelion) compliments Geralt’s brooding with the perfect amount of levity. The witcher’s tolerance of the bard is also the perfect mechanism for illustrating his desire for acceptance and friendship without compromising his protective veneer of emotionless utilitarianism. The Lioness of Cintra is somehow incredibly likable in spite of being a stubborn double-crosser and a bloody tyrant. It really takes something to make an intolerant, blood-stained rebellion crusher one of my favorite characters.
I think the show is at its best when it’s finding humor in its own themes. The world of The Witcher is full of sex and death. So it really hits home when Geralt walks into a room covered in the guts of a monster he’s just killed right after we’ve seen the patrons talking about how they saw him get eaten alive or when Yennifer conjures an illusory crowd of people to watch them have sex just so they can all applaud when the two climax.
The show knows what it is and while it takes itself seriously when it needs to, it also knows that the world can’t be all-serious all the time. One of my favorite scenes in the entire show is when Geralt insults Jaskier’s singing and the bard takes about a three second long reaction shot before proclaiming that the monster slayer needs a nap.
There seem to be a lot of shows that are trying to fill the void that Game of Thrones left after it aired its final season. It’s easy to see how The Witcher could be a prime contender for that position. They’re both fantasy series featuring swords, sorcery, court intrigues, and gritty worlds with breasts, butts and bloody violence, but I think it would be a mistake to compare the two. The Witcher is its own story with its own characters, style, morals and themes.
So toss a coin to your witcher, and watch it.