Based on the book series of the same name, The Witcher is a fantasy series that delivers much of what makes Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones great, although the first season would likely fail in comparison to the respected LotR film trilogy or acclaimed first five seasons of GoT. However, that doesn’t mean The Witcher’s first season was as bad as Game of Throne’s last but that isn’t saying much…
Writer’s Note: The Witcher is based on a book series that has been around for some time, but that isn’t the only medium that these characters have been portrayed. Video game developer CDPR has released a handful of Witcher titles and among them, their most recent RPG, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, is the only one I have played. However, I feel it necessary to point out that it is easily one of the best games of the decade, and that is underselling it.
The Witcher’s first season has some shortcomings but delivers a fun first season with some quality storytelling at its core.
The Witcher takes place in a medieval world on an unnamed landmass that is occupied by all sorts of fantasy creatures- elves, gnomes, dwarves, and the like. We are told that at some point, a magical event happened, referred to as the “Conjunction of the Spheres”, which implies that there were two worlds that collided with one another, where monsters showed up in this already magical world and started wreaking havoc. Werewolves, vampires, and other atrocious beings of the shadows appeared out of nowhere, and to vanquish these creatures one would need to hire a specialist. Enter our hero, Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher for hire.
The series follows Geralt on his adventures as he pursues and hunts down threats of the land. Among these adventures is his involvement in a hostile takeover and war between the kingdoms of Cintra and Nilfgaard, the latter of which being the hostile power. As Cintra falls to Nilfgaard, Citra’s heir to the throne, young Cirilla escapes capture (or worse) and is tasked with finding Geralt for help.
To understand what makes Geralt unique, one must first understand what it means to be a Witcher, as this isn’t just some random title bestowed upon any monster mercenary for hire. Witchers were individuals who have gone through agonizing training and extensive magic rituals and experimentation through their “Witcher school” in which they attend (Geralt being a student of the School of the White Wolf). Witchers undergo literal mutations to enhance their senses and skills, which is largely why they are shunned by the general populace. These “mutants”, while not really beloved by their fellow man (the large majority of Witchers were slaughtered for being freaks), are hired to take on supernatural threats due to their skill and magic ability. Geralt, being the most legendary or famous Witcher, makes him largely considered to be the best of the best by many.
I want to avoid as many spoilers of the show as possible, however, the single main and only semi-spoiler of this review is that the chronological order of the episodes are rather out of wack. There really isn’t anything major there to unpack for most, as you can likely figure it out by the third episode or even sooner if you pay close attention. Again, this isn’t some big reveal or major mind-blowing moment, but if you blink too much throughout your first viewing, you may miss the first few clues that let you know you are watching different timelines.
This serves as an annoyance to the viewer, at least it did for me when I watched it, as the show could have just started in order and gave us more backstory, lore history, or just a little overview in the form of a quick montage. Not entirely necessary, but it would’ve likely solved a menagerie of issues with the pacing of the show that many seem to have heavily criticized the first season for. Plus it would have been nice since the show basically just drops us in the world at a point of major confusion. To be fair, this is exacerbated by the fact that the terminology and character names are extremely complex and difficult to keep straight at times. I will admit I had the same problems with Game of Thrones during the first couple of viewings of the first season before I got hooked and became a super fan but that show didn’t need as much exposition since the show served that to the audience better with decent pacing from the start.
The action and fight sequences were some of the most smooth and crisp I have ever seen.
The fight sequences did impress me. They were crisp, smooth, and Cavill looked like a natural swinging a sword around hacking enemies to pieces. Often times the use of swords can either look clean or clumsy in film, and Henry Cavill demonstrated a certain skill and poise with a sword in-hand that made it look almost as if he had been using one his whole life. There was an emphasis on his posture and his strikes that I felt were extremely satisfying and pleasing to the eye, something that I feel has been absent from whatever media I have seen in recent years. And for that, I really have to hand it to the choreographers.
The Witcher is a vast and deeply constructed world with rich lore and characters that are full of depth and intrigue. However, the first few episodes of this fresh new season don’t exactly tell you that as much as the show expects you to sort of just know this already. These eight episodes don’t ever really redeem itself from this either, but instead, sort of just leave you to fend for yourself to figure it out through context clues which is aggravating as the audience is trying to also follow the core plot.
Series showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk when putting together this first season, particularly around the nonlinear direction. And while it didn’t do anything to help the story, it certainly hurt it by turning off a lot of potential fans that were hoping for some lead-in that replaced that void left by their depressingly disappointing fantasy series. I heard that many casual viewers gave up on the first episode due to Hissrich’s creative decision to do this, and I don’t blame them. This felt entirely unnecessary and could have been done in a much smoother way.
All in all, I really enjoyed Cavill in the titular role, and I enjoyed what I understood of the world within these eight episodes. The world-building could have been a lot better, and I really would like a lot more history and details spoon-fed in order to keep up, because it is real pain to have to rely on context, subtext, or some other out-of-sight plot element that felt necessary to be in the episode front and center but was only briefly mentioned in passing as two characters may be having a casual conversation about it. The world is interesting, and I want to know as much as possible, but the first season doesn’t really seem to want to give us that for no reason other than artistic creative vision.
The Witcher’s first season clearly had some real opportunity, but once you get through the thick of it, the show ends up being a more than decent start to a much larger fantasy world that hopefully continues into many successful future seasons.