Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’ Is A Worthy Rival To Game Of Thrones’ Fantasy Crown
To evoke the immortal words of The Prodigy: pay close attention. The Witcher, Netflix's new adaptation of the fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which inspired the video game series by Polish developer CD Projekt Red, delivers its meaningful details with devilishly rapid delight. It skips between myriad locations in the same episode with whiplash abandon, slipping essential pass notes on proceedings into the margins of its adults-only action. Sneak a look at your phone while it plays on your TV, and you can expect to miss a potentially vital exhalation of exposition.
But The Witcher is also a show that knows that it needs to work this way, to cram everything it can into eight hour-ish-long episodes. These begin by following the witcher of its title, Henry Cavill's Geralt of Rivia, in his monster-hunting line of work - he dispatches a particularly nasty insect-like beast called a kikimore in the opening moments of episode one - but speedily switch to the sinister sorcery of supernatural events elsewhere. Don't be alarmed if you feel the need to rewatch each episode, immediately after it ends.
Besides, if you do, you'll not only be rewarded with blink-and-you'll-miss-it context for future conflicts - on sodden battlefields and in stony throne rooms alike - but you'll also be able to once again drink in some sumptuous set designs, superbly detailed costumes, fantastical environments and truly nightmarish creations. The Witcher clearly doesn't quite arrive with the financial clout of Game of Thrones, but it uses what budget it has well, bringing Sapkowski's medieval-y Continent - home to humans and elves, magic and mystery - to life in a manner every inch the equal of the video games.
In another parallel to Game of Thrones, Netflix's original plan for the Witcher books was to turn them into a movie. But after five episodes of its first season, it's palpably apparent that to have brought out The Witcher in that way wouldn't have worked. You could have maybe taken two of Sapkowski's short stories and woven the pair into a decent film-length yarn of Confucius morals and bloody massacres - but then you'd have no space to explore more than Geralt and, perhaps, one other main character. And what The Witcher, as a series, delivers is Geralt alongside a sizeable cast of significant others.
At the forefront of these primary characters is Ciri, a princess on the run played by Freya Allan, and Yennefer, a nascent sorceress played by Anya Chalotra. This is the trio that appears on The Witcher's promotional material; and the three, all portrayed by British actors, enjoy comparable amounts of screen time. In episodes two and three, 'Four Marks' and 'Betrayer Moon', Yennefer (pictured below) steals the spotlight with a literally transformative performance (squeamish types, look away); while in the fourth, 'Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials', Ciri's character is developed in such a way that her importance to everything cannot be denied.
Which is to say, while this is called The Witcher, much like the books and the games before it, Geralt's role in the season's plot progression is often quite secondary. When he is called upon to track a quarry, mishaps of some kind or other tend to await. But when he draws either of his swords - steel for men, silver for monsters - you can bet that the mutated superhuman can best just about any opponent. Which is fortunate, as the Continent is a dangerous place indeed, making the risks of a romp across Westeros look like a tour around Disneyland in comparison.
Cavill's physical size - he's a lot more muscular than Geralt appears in the games, which is never more apparent than when he's bathing with meme-worthy nods through the fourth wall - is well complemented by a certain balletic quality in fighting sequences. It's clear that this self-confessed fan of the games has been studying how virtual Geralt can pirouette, how he can dance around his opponents. But he can get down and dirty, too - a fistfight with a striga, a horrific biped born from a cursed child, sees him battered and bruised and resorting to appropriately lupine silver knuckle-dusters to get the job done.
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If you're coming to The Witcher from the games alone, expect to be playing catch-up when it comes to Geralt's common companions. Yes, Dandelion is here (pictured below), albeit under his Polish name from the books, Jaskier. (At one point he pretty much calls out the potential for audience confusion by announcing, while riffing on the land's Elven past, "There I go again, just delivering exposition.")
But others, like the vengeance-fuelled princess Renfri and reclusive mage Stregobor, both of whom fill important roles in episode one, are mentioned only in passing in CDPR's interactive experiences. Thus, their prominence may trip some over. But, again, be prepared to put in a little effort, perhaps going so far as to watch each episode twice, and everything will begin to click together.
What never does, in the five episodes I've seen, is the sheer scale of the Continent, and where the locations the show visits are within its boundaries. The world of The Witcher is vast, encompassing a multitude of kingdoms each ruled by a different monarch. We meet a king and a queen inside the first few episodes, at least one of whom will be familiar to gamers, but exactly what lands they call their own isn't obvious, likewise the locations of battles and monster hunts. A Game of Thrones-style opening-credits map would help matters, albeit while inevitably attracting even more comparisons to HBO's hit show.
Maybe our guide to things you need to know will help; or maybe you prefer to struggle through, not worried about where in the world all of these things are taking place. It's your call - but even as someone who's played hundreds of hours of the games and read some of the books, I needed to pause from time to time to take stock of precisely where Geralt was, where Yennefer was (the show's version of Hogwarts, Aretuza, is prominently shown from the outside but its exact whereabouts isn't specified), and what dangers Ciri was walking into (girl, there's a reason those trees over there are known as the Forest of Death).
Aside from a little confusion regarding the positions of the chess pieces in play on its board, though, The Witcher is a fantastic slice of escapism that marries low-fantasy blood and dirt with a sparkling magic that's more volatile than most.
Its unusual structure - which I am forbidden to detail here - will take as many as five episodes to properly make sense of, and the 'monster of the week' format of the season (up to episode five, at least) brings it more in line with something like Doctor Who than Game of Thrones. But make no mistake: this show has promise aplenty, and is already delivering on it with these openers. And with Sapkowski's stories just as strong, as rich and as mature, as those penned by George R R Martin, there's no reason to doubt The Witcher's chances of becoming a similarly successful televisual juggernaut.
Addendum! Now I've seen all eight episodes (thanks to my commute taking four hours today), my opinion of this show is higher than it was after five. The last three episodes pull together many of the loose ends of the first few, bringing sharp focus to characters and their motivations, and there are set-pieces to marvel at, on scales usually reserved for cinema. It's good, is what I'm saying. Go watch it.
Featured Image Credit: Netflix / James Minchin