The Witcher’s first problem is going the route of Game of Thrones early on by offering up gratuitous nudity and violence in its first few episodes, as if an audience will only latch on to a show if boobs and Mortal Kombat-style finishing moves are involved. Fortunately, it does settle down eventually, but it takes some time — or times — to do so.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, Sean Daniel, Tomasz Bagiński, and Jarek Sawko (executive producers), Jean-Philippe and Gossart Gavin Struthers (cinematographers), Liana Del Giudice, Nick Arthurs, Jean-Daniel Fernandez-Qundez, and Xavier Russell (editors)
Freya Allan, Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra, Jodhi May, Joey Batey (cast)
The second problem is playing around with timelines. This narratives structure was used to intentionally confuse viewers of Westworld, leading up to the big reveal, but here, establishing character history, world building, and relationships with the intent to have everyone eventually meet up in the present should not be this difficult to follow.
The Witcher’s story focuses on Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a mutated man who hunts monsters for coin. His story co-mingles with Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), a deformed young woman whose magical abilities bring her to the attention of Mean Hogwarts for Young Women. Finally, there’s Cirilla (Freya Allan), the princess of Cintra, a city that’s sacked by the invading forces of Nilfgaard in the first episode. This forces her to flee and find Geralt, who is her destiny as she is his.
Each of their stories circle around one another, establishing their characters and connections, but the problem lies in the fact that many of their stories take place in different timelines. With no visual cues, you have to pay very close attention to determine what time you happen to be in at any given moment, and more so when the age of certain characters are taken into consideration. To help with the confusion, I can tell you that Ciri’s timeline is the current one — however, there are still some back and forth moments within it. Yennefer and Geralt, due to magic and mutation, both don’t age as normal people do. Yennefer frequently speaks of her age in decades and lifetimes if you listen closely for those clues during her scenes, but Geralt’s moments take a little bit more work to unravel.
Like the video games, The Witcher television series is based on a series of books by Andrzej Sapkowski. The first season borrows many episodic adventures from the 1993 book, The Last Wish, which is a collection of reimagined fairy tale short stories. It also borrows from the more recent short story collection, Sword of Destiny. Ciri’s story and the larger role of Nilfgaard mostly play out in the ongoing series that takes place after these two books.
Fans of the game series alone might find some of the show’s choices odd, but viewers who have not read or played either may find themselves at a greater loss, on top of the timeline confusion. As a fan of both, I feel like the show has done the characters justice at least, which is what I pinned my hopes on when the showrunner, Lauren S. Hissrich, initially began speaking about them on social media. Her involvement also gave me hope for better representation of women for the show than the game series initially offered, though the show seems to follow the more gratuitous route of the first game when it comes to nudity. There are several scenes of unnecessarily topless or fully naked women, sometimes as backdrops, sometimes the main character of Yennefer herself — with very little of the same for men. Some are true to the books, but while bare breasts occur in passing on the page, the screen adaptation goes the unnecessary, male gaze-dominated extra mile with very little artistry.
Hissrich said in a Variety interview, “Personally it drives me crazy if there is gratuitous violence for the sake of shocking the audience, or if you’re having a conversation over here and two people in the background are just naked. I need to understand why they’re naked and what does that say about the characters?” Yet, there certainly is a lot of gratuitous violence in The Witcher initially, as well as a background orgy scene that can only be classified as the most unsexy orgy on record. I think the scene was intended to be a show of Yennefer’s power over a city she’d taken over, but, mostly it just made me wish the scene ended a lot sooner, as the clumsiness of the participants distracted from an important conversation. This occurs in episode 5, “Bottled Appetites,” which, despite the awkward moment, is the turning point where the series finally starts to pull itself together with some of the major players meeting and establishing their motivations.
Unfortunately, Yennefer’s motivations are largely related back to forced sterilization. She wants power and everything that comes with it, but despite an extended lifespan, she wants a legacy to leave behind and someone to leave that legacy to. Sterility is something that is enforced on witchers as well, but, as Yennefer points out, that means something vastly different for men than it does women, especially when we get to see Yennefer’s transformation moment as part of her origin story in episode 3, “Betrayer Moon.” Her sterilization involves a very graphic and disturbing gynecological process that then goes on to remove her deformities and transform the sorceress into her final, desired form for the rest of her long life. Forced sterility is an overused trope, but, as I said, the show is holding true to its book origins in many ways. This is one them. Yennefer’s motivations play a huge role in what’s to come, though the additional, graphic insight into her past, along with her deformity, are new.
Still, the fact that the show features several women in writing and directing roles, Hissrich included, leads me to give the series the benefit of the doubt when it comes to representation and the handling of the issues women face. The nameless Continent is ruled by men, but the women are slowly carving out their place and rising above gendered abuse and mistreatment. There is ample talk of rape occurring, but thankfully, it is never shown. The Witcher does mostly come through in its female representation with many women playing prominent, well-developed or developing supporting roles. We meet the formidable, though arrogant, Queen Calanthe (played by Jodhi May) at the start, as well as several powerful sorceresses who, as the series progresses, begin to question the ruling males of the brotherhood who control the comings and goings of magic.
We also meet Renfri (Emma Appleton) in the first episode, a brutal Snow White from The Last Wish who Geralt is sent to kill by an unscrupulous sorcerer named Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen), who also is part of the brotherhood. But there’s another side to the story, as Renfri is one of many women born under auspicious circumstances that give her peculiar, though largely unexplained anti-magic or other abilities. Stregobor, has, according to Renfri, been capturing and experimenting on women like her. She wants revenge.
Unfortunately, Renfri doesn’t get to stick around, serving only the purpose of establishing that Geralt tries to maintain a neutral stance in all things political, religious, or even apocalyptic, and doesn’t kill humans in cold blood even though, as we will be told and shown repeatedly, it’s often the humans who are the most monstrous and constantly exist to force Geralt’s hand. She also inexplicably connects him to his destiny of finding the “girl in the woods.” It should be noted that destiny, fate, elf blood, and a “time of contempt” are also topics and phrases that come up so often as to be worthy of a drinking game that will send you to the hospital. This is a throwback to the books, where the titles of each novel is uttered numerous times within it to hammer the concept soundly home.
Cavill plays Geralt’s stoicism satisfactorily. The character relies on physical intimidation and sardonic glares. Geralt is meant to be taciturn, sometimes only responding with grunts, but Cavill works best when he has a stronger actor to play off of and carry the weight of the scene beyond what his muscular shoulders can bear — and provide distraction from his horrible Christopher Lambert-as-Raiden wig. Most often this role is fulfilled by Queen Calanthe, or by Joey Batey as Jaskier, the scene-stealing bard who ingratiates himself as Geralt’s PR person and friend.
Similarly, while Cavill handles himself amicably in the fight scenes, his brute force belies what should be the more delicate — though no less deadly — dance of a witcher. His fight scenes are far more interesting to watch when he’s accompanied by or facing one or more of the other prominent characters whose swordplay is more about artistry than brutality. Still, the overall choreography in The Witcher is enjoyable to watch, and bonus points for battles that use actual battle strategy, as well as varied magic that has a cost.
And then there’s Yennefer. Chalotra can easily chew Cavill up and spit him out in their scenes together, but as with her character’s magic, she holds back the full force of her chaos for just the right moments. When news of her casting was announced, I had some concern with the age difference between an actress that is more than 10 years younger than Cavill’s 36 years, but, given Yennefer’s timelessness and Chalotra’s skills as an actor, she embodies the role with crackling energy and maturity. When she gets to wear gorgeously designed dresses instead of comely frocks or nothing at all, she commands attention, whether she’s walking into a crowded room, or holding her own in battle.
Finally, I am pleased to report that this fantasy series that has room for dragons and elves, also finds room for people of colour to populate the Continent. Granted, none of The Witcher‘s leads are people of colour, but several actors play tertiary roles, including Mimi Ndiweni as the sorceress Fringilla, whose role increases as the story progresses and promises even more for the future.
Over the course of eight episodes, The Witcher stumbles with some questionable choices, but by the end, it more or less finds its footing — well, by the end, I still struggled to figure out when the final scenes were taking place, but I enjoyed the finale no less. The Game of Thrones comparisons are inevitable, but The Witcher shows promise as a series that can find its own a place in the genre of dark fantasy television.