Going into this dark fantasy series knowing next to nothing about the video games or the books upon which they are based, I almost gave up on it after the very first episode.
The pacing seemed off despite the abundance of action and gore, the many branches of its plot seemed to be growing out of different trees, and Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill’s dour turn as the titular monster hunter was a trifle off-putting initially.
Then something changed for me with the second episode, which introduced a new character: a hunchbacked outcast named Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) who is unceremoniously plucked from her dire existence and thrust into what seems to be just another set of crappy circumstances.
But it is through Yennefer’s struggles – we soon learn that she has some magical talent, and is being groomed as a spellcaster of sorts – that The Witcher starts to coalesce into something more than your garden-variety sword-and-sorcery epic.
Through Chalotra’s courageous and resolute performance, Yennefer becomes one of the strongest characters I’ve encountered in any fantasy yarn made for the screen and as a consequence, she makes the show that much more engaging.
And the “dourness” of Cavill’s character, Geralt of Rivia, soon turns out to be just the veneer put up by a weary man in a disdained but necessary profession, as a way to keep an unappreciative world at bay. It’s a winning performance by the actor that grows on you with each episode, and one I now greatly prefer to his time in the red cape and blue tights.
The Witcher is based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and is set in some medieval European equivalent, though one where magic and fantastic beasts abound.
Elves are a dwindling and fading race, mankind has basically screwed up the natural order through greed and political scheming (yes, The Witcher’s world is very “equivalent”, I’d say), and a kingdom of zealots known as Nilfgaard is bent on conquering the continent. Oh, did I leave out the dragons?
Geralt, a mutated (deliberately, and by parties only hinted at late in this first season) monster hunter, plies his trade in this rich but somehow blighted-seeming land for coin, wine and women.
We learn early on that his destiny is tied for some reason to Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan) of Cintra, a realm with a strong and fearsome queen that has been targeted by Nilfgaard. (Just why their destinies are interlinked is revealed in the really good fourth episode Of Banquets, B******* And Burials.)
And it also becomes apparent that Yennefer has a significant part to play in the Witcher’s adventures too, just that the circumstances of their first meeting are... shall we say, quite unusual even for fantasy tales.So we have three characters on course to meet and, possibly, influence the destinies of the realms as well.
But that course is where The Witcher becomes challenging.
Its non-linear storytelling can sometimes be confusing – more so because Geralt never seems to age – but not to the point that the story becomes incoherent.
In fact, this is one show that demands and rewards all the attention and focus invested in it by the viewer.
It is not too much of a strain on your grey matter to tell the timelines apart, and there are moments when events dovetail that left me quite in awe of the intricate planning on the creative team’s part.
The Witcher certainly impresses in its action sequences, too – whether it’s our hero with his flashing sword against foes either bestial or human, or magic users standing firm against the relentless ranks of Nilfgaardian stormtroopers.
Yet it also possesses a sense of humour that’s quite unique among filmed fantasy: one that’s as world-weary as the characters, sardonic and poker-faced yet sparkling in its own way – for example, the rather grin-worthy sniping between Yennefer and Jaskier (Joey Batey), a travelling bard who latches on to Geralt as a source of inspiration, coin, protection and... er, other fringe benefits of hanging around a maiden magnet.
Jaskier is also the “composer” of Toss A Coin To Your Witcher, a ballad in honour of Geralt’s (mis)adventures that has become the year-end’s ear-worm.
And the musical richness does not stop there. The Witcher also boasts some truly haunting, melancholic songs, such as The Last Rose Of Cintra (episode five) and The Song Of The White Wolf (episode eight).
Heard in context of the episodes that precede them, these tunes – courtesy of composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli – are little bits of added characterisation and world-building, and all but scream for Netflix to release a soundtrack album (free to stream for existing subscribers, of course, wink wink).
After my initial troubles with the series, I was soon won over and really glad for this gem to have come along.
Fandom, the showbiz press corps and industry mavens have been looking for “the next Game Of Thrones” even before GOT ended (maybe they knew in advance how sucky Season Eight would be).
Well, with enough material to spin a saga at least seven seasons long, The Witcher is – in my book at least – worthy of seeing that much screen life (and stopping just short of a hateful eighth).
Make no mistake, though. This is not “the next” anything. It is a unique beast that steps to the beat of its own drum and flexes a muscularity all its own, a show that this reviewer will gladly stream for as long as it’s being made.
And who needs Hedge Knights when Hedgehog Knights are so much more adorable, and gallant?
The Witcher is available on Netflix.
How bewitching, this Witcher
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