This The Witcher review contains no spoilers.
It’s inevitable that Netflix’s The Witcher will be compared to Game of Thrones. Both are fantasy series based on popular existing properties, and The Witcher is being released in the wake of Game of Thrones‘…oh…how about “controversial” ending.
Yet, that comparison isn’t entirely fair. After watching the first five episodes of The Witcher, it’s apparent that both series are aiming for relatively different things despite their apparent similarities.
If you’re looking for that Game of Thrones comparison, though, then here it is: The Witcher is like if Game of Thrones was written by the guy you knew who only watched Game of Thrones for the nudity and violence and the girl you knew who always claimed to love the show but could never seem to remember any of the characters’ names.
The Witcher is based on the book series of the same name (with a few nods to the popular video games), but you don’t need to be a fan of either to get the gist of what’s going on. Its basic premise follows Geralt of Rivia (the titular witcher) as he roams the lands accepting mercenary work as a monster hunter and doer of other difficult and often unpleasant assignments. Around the same time, princess Ciri of the kingdom of Cintra is forced to leave her home after her family and her people are slaughtered by the Nilfgaardian Empire. Armed with nothing more than a few prophetic words shared by her grandmother which seem to suggest that she is destined to meet with Geralt, she begins to wander a world that is far more cruel and mystical than what a life lived in the castle would lead her to believe.
That’s about as simple of a set-up as we can share without diving into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that the initial episodes of The Witcher are less about the show’s seemingly central characters and their stories. It’s more about fleshing out this world, establishing a few primary players and experiencing a series of adventures that are actually a little closer to a “monster of the week format” than what we’re used to seeing in more serialized forms of modern prestige television.
There are a couple of things that need to be said about that, and the first is an admission. I’ve never read The Witcher books, and it’s been widely reported at this point that this show is based more on the books than the video game series that I have played (and love). However, those games utilize a similar format to the show, and a little research reveals that the first book in The Witcher series also offers a collection of short stories and adventures that eventually turn into a grander story.
What makes that format work (at least in the case of the games) is that they’re packed with complicated and often morally ambiguous characters inhabiting a fascinating mystical world teeming with legends and political intrigue. You’re fine jumping from character to character and story to story because the things on the peripheral are often as interesting (or more interesting) than the “main” plot.
That’s not the case with Netflix’s The Witcher series which fails to execute that formula because it fails to deliver on two of the more important aspects of writing: quality characters and good stories.
In fact, one of this show’s biggest problems is that most of its characters are actually caricatures. With few exceptions, you know exactly who a character is the moment that they are introduced, and the show rarely bothers to challenge your expectations through subversion or just simply allow a character to find their footing before they settle into a groove.
By far the most glaring example of this shortcoming comes in the form of a traveling bard who accompanies Geralt on his adventures. It’s no exaggeration to say that 95% of his lines are jokes or dirty limericks, and 90% of those lines fall flat on their face. It’s been said that there’s nothing quite so bad as an unfunny comedy, and this character certainly does his part to prove that theory. In fact, some of his lines don’t even really make sense in the context of a world that has a different culture and historical progression than that of our own.
He’s basically like Tyrion if most of Tyrion’s jokes were bad and Tyrion didn’t benefit from any meaningful character development or the chance to prove himself in scenarios that show he is capable of being more than just funny. In other words, he’s Game of Thrones Season 8 Tyrion.
Even characters that benefit from substantial screen time end up being forgettable or worse. Princess Ciri’s adventures, which largely see her bounce from location to location to be a bit player in someone else’s mostly uninteresting story, is one of the more unfortunate instances of an underutilized character, but that’s nothing compared to what we get with the character of Yennefer.
We are, sadly, prohibited from discussing the disturbing details of her character arc in this review, but I will say is that there will no doubt be much discussion regarding this potentially offensive and certainly cheap storyline which tries to hide its cliches with a sprinkle of shock.
Actually, there are several instances when the stories of The Witcher remind me of the children’s book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales in that they seem to aspire to be slightly darker takes on watered-down fairy tales that hover somewhere between homage and parody. The difference is that the writing in Stinky Cheese Man is far more engaging.
Again, it’s hard to dive into this problem in full without getting into nasty spoiler territory, but to give you an example, there’s a particularly tired subplot involving a beastly man and a great beauty that plays out about the way that you’d expect with the exception of the addition of a few curse words and some more bloodshed. It’s this maddening blend of cliche concepts peppered with an over-reliance on nudity, violence, and swearing that would have only appealed to me when I was a child that couldn’t process anything deeper in entertainment than the bottom of my Saturday morning cartoon cereal bowl but couldn’t wait to watch adult movies so I could see “the good stuff.”
It doesn’t help that the show’s production values and most of its performances remind me of watching five straight hours of those medieval Bud Light commercials. With the exception of some good costumes, a couple of heartfelt line reads, and one or two pieces of CGI that aren’t laughable, everything could best be described as “serviceable” in terms of delivering what you mostly expect a modern piece of sword and sorcery entertainment to look like.
Henry Cavill turns in a mostly fine performance as Geralt, but it’s largely limited to grunts, looking good in action sequences, and the occasional choice line. It reminds me of how Tom Hardy was used in Mad Max: Fury Road, but the big difference between the two was that Hardy in that movie was used as a vehicle for certain plot points and the hook for a much more interesting world packed with far more intriguing characters.
In lieu of greater overall themes and ideas, The Witcher leaves you clinging desperately to the odd good moment or interesting turn that leads you to believe that something good may come of all of this. For instance, you may have heard some of those early reactions that stated The Witcher’s action sequences leave Game of Thrones in the dust. That’s true so far as the choreography of some of the one-on-one fight scenes go, but the strength of Game of Thrones best fight scenes (and most great fight scenes) has less to do with the choreography and more to do with the emotions we invest in the participating characters and the strength of the situation. Here, you’re left with fights that carry no real weight and rely on choreography that is nowhere close to being good enough to carry the load based solely on the virtue of its execution and technical merit.
That said, there are a couple of neat sequences such as a battle in the pilot episode and an attack on a snowy carriage that offer the reactions and astonishment that its creators were clearly going for. Sadly, watching them is a lot like being stranded in the ocean and being tossed a lifeboat from a ship that doesn’t bother to stop. Your situation has improved, but wow, this show is bad.
While we only received the first five of the eight episodes that will eventually comprise The Witcher’s first season, it’s hard to imagine the creative turn it would have to take in its final hours in order to shake off what seems to be some fundamental problems. While some of those issues seem to be related to pages pulled directly from the books, that’s hardly an excuse.
As anyone who has tried to adapt some of the more bloated works of Stephen King will probably tell you, adaptations are sometimes about granting yourself the perspective to step out of the initial creative process and the emotional attachments that come with it in order to discover what really makes something work and what keeps it from being all that it can be. This is likely why the writers of The Witcher games set their titles after the books and mostly retained some of the stronger elements that we see here (some of the world design, certain principles of the ongoing conflicts, and refined versions of the more notable and interesting characters).
Netflix has already confirmed that The Witcher Season 2 has been approved, which means there is still plenty of time for this show’s creative team to take that hard look at what does work and what doesn’t. If they fail to do so, though, then The Witcher might end up being one of the more notable missed opportunities of the Netflix era.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.