*I will preface this review with the following statement: I have never read or played any form of media related to The Witcher series prior to watching Netflix’s adaptation of the popular franchise. That is the context under which I am reviewing the first season of Netflix’s The Witcher. This is an advanced review based on the first five episodes of The Witcher’s first season.*
Prior to watching this series, I knew of The Witcher because of the video game franchise, namely the most recent entry in that series, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The game looked cool and I heard great things about it, but never got around to playing Wild Hunt myself. After watching Netflix’s adaption of the novels on which The Witcher games were based, I’m dropping by my local game store to purchase Wild Hunt because I can’t get enough of The Witcher’s fictional world.
A brief summary for those who know nothing of The Witcher: the series’ mythology centers around the magically/genetically engineered monster hunters called Witchers. Those hunters exist in a magical world steeped in brutality and cynicism, with the series main protagonists looking for some sense of direction in their lives.
I can see The Witcher appealing to fans of the Game of Thrones series, if any remain after the eight season’s negative fan and critical reception. The politics (though minimal), realistic violence, strong performances, fully realized medieval fantasy world, and general cynicism of Game of Thrones are present in The Witcher. This series may be more fantastic in nature, but feels very similar in terms of tone and direction. The biggest differences between the two is the way each episode of The Witcher is structured.
Netflix’s The Witcher is an episodic series with serial elements. Watching the first season is akin to reading a short story collection where each tale is intertwined together, making for meaty standalone episodes with no filler. The standalone nature of The Witcher is great because the overarching narrative elements are a slow burn. For instance, despite me being keenly aware that the three protagonists will eventually meet towards the end of the season, the series takes its time in maneuvering the core cast together.
Despite Netflix’s advertising focusing predominantly on the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), he’s only one of three central characters. The first season divides its time between Geralt, budding sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), and a princess on the run named Ciri (Freya Allan).
Geralt takes a little time to gain some viewer investment in, but Henry Cavill’s performance and some smart writing adds a layer of tragedy to his character as the season progresses. I found Yennefer interesting from her first scene because of her character’s somewhat ambiguous moral compass and background as a societal outcast. Yennefer’s seen the darkest parts of the world and her personality is deeply reflective of her surrounding s as a result. Actress Anya Chalotra does an excellent job in her portrayal of Yennefer, giving the character a vulnerability without making her weak.
Geralt and Yennefer had shitty childhoods. Their lives are difficult and for the most part devoid of any meaningful connections. Ciri is the opposite, a princess raised in a bubble who is now experiencing a loss of innocence as she’s thrust into an unforgiving world after her kingdom was attacked. The juxtaposition of the three main characters is interesting, especially because thus far their interaction has been minimal.
The Witcher is building slowly to having all the character meet in person, and it’s a pretty effective narrative strategy. Each individual character is established on their own in individual stories that have tangential connections. In fact, all the characters are deeply connected, not just in the Witcher’s overarching destiny-based narrative, but in how they provide what the other deeply lacks. The seeds of their future relationships with each other are planted in a way that will hopefully make for organic character growth and a compelling group dynamic.
The world building in The Witcher is enthralling and without the heavy use of exposition. The series’ mythology is rich with magical creatures and medieval kingdoms, something fans are sure to become heavily invested in. There are no exposition heavy dialogue moments — unless done ironically. The narrative is non-linear, so important background information becomes the story rather than being explained to the viewer. Without going into specifics, a crucial piece of background information regarding Geralt is turned into an episode’s primary story rather than having it revealed through exposition.
Visually the world of The Witcher is stunning, with solid effects work and an ambitious production design. The monster designs are a mix of practical effects and CGI. The production team uses CGI for more complicated monster designs, rendering more humanoid beasts with practical effects that look really good. The CGI is are pretty good with only a couple — and largely forgivable– lapses in quality. The Witcher’s sets, props, and costumes are detailed and grand in scale. Clearly Netflix put a lot of money into The Witcher because the production team had the resources to realize each village and kingdom in this fictional world.
For a series steeping in fantasy, the fight scenes are incredibly realistic and unrelenting. The Witcher doesn’t shy away from gore, and similar to Game of Thrones, uses it for a very specific purpose. The depiction of violence in The Witcher is a visual representation of the harsh world in which the characters reside — making it thematically appropriate.
So far, The Witcher is off to a great start. I have a feeling that the series will become Netflix’s next big show, and for good reason.
Rating: 8.5/10 — Pretty damn good.