Monsters, sorceresses, ballads, and swords. Netflix’s The Witcher is fun high fantasy pulp, particularly if you’re already a fan. We sit down to talk about what we did and did not like in this latest adaptation of the classic book series.
The Witcher is rough around the edges but it has a lot of heart. Fans of the books will hopefully enjoy how each episode feels like a familiar short story and fans of the games will have a chance to learn more about Geralt past. What works? What doesn’t? It’s time to break it all down.
Heather Alexandra: Let’s throw a coin to The Witcher, shall we?
Riley MacLeod: Ugh, now that song is in my head again. Can we talk about the music, though? The music is… weird. I like it, but it’s weird. I can never tell quite what it’s trying to be—it’s like a basement show where someone tries to modernize ballads from the Middle Ages
Heather: We can talk about a lot of things. I think this is a show with some pretty rad highs and a few perplexing choices along the way. You’re telling me you don’t like Jaskier’s bitchin’ witchin’ ballads?
Riley: I don’t know if I like them! I do really like Jaskier. As I wrote in my impressions of the first five episodes, I feel like he adds some levity the show really needs. I’m not surprised it’s so grim, but I did have a few moments of being a little overwhelmed by the violence and nastiness.
Nathan Grasyon: Jaskier’s big ballad at the end of episode two (or three?) was what made me realize I loved the show. Or at least, that I was having a lot of fun with it.
Additionally, The Witcher is rooted in anachronisms, so having anachronistic music makes perfect sense. On one hand, you have swords and sorcery, but you also have science advanced enough to alter people’s genes. Geralt himself is a man out of time in many ways—older than most people he encounters but also sometimes comically modern in his expressions and sensibilities. In short, I think the music fits and gets to the heart of why The Witcher is so able to work across a wide range of mediums (books, video games, and now, television).
Heather: I think The Witcher’s always split that difference between bloody and tongue-in-cheek. That said, I guess before we chat we should let folks know where we stand with the series. I’ve read a majority of the books (finishing up The Tower of the Swallow now) and played The Witcher 3, and I think that if you approach this series like reading The Last Wish, you’ll end up digging it a lot more than if you’re expecting a big Wild Hunt epic.
Riley: I’ve played Wild Hunt and read The Last Wish, so had the experience of everything sounding half-familiar. Finishing the last three episodes last night, I did shout “That guy’s a Gwent card!” more than once, though.
Nathan: Yeah, honestly the Big Epic Moments are what worked least for me (granted, I’ve only watched five of the eight available episodes, but still). The overarching plot they’re trying to weave together often feels too disparate to stick any resonant or emotional landings. I enjoy Geralt and Yen’s discrete stories, but Ciri’s saga largely feels disconnected, as though she’s just treading water until Geralt and Yen catch up. Weird call on the showrunners’ part, given that Ciri is such a central figure and, at one point, was apparently going to be the show’s main character.
Heather: The show’s structure is maybe one of my biggest complaints, even if I mostly liked it overall. We’re jumping from three characters, sometimes leaping in time, and trying to put the pieces together until the final moments. I think that’s great for letting us know each character individually; I think it also makes it harder to trace a clear line from the start to the end.
Riley: The three timelines stuff is a… bizarre and maddening choice.
Nathan: Yeah, and I think it even does characters a disservice in a few cases. The Witcher had to split the difference between introducing characters and (slowly) rushing them to a point where they could meet up, and it shows. For example, I really didn’t like how they handled Yen’s motivations. Like, she has her big transformative moment, and then the next time we see her, it’s 30 years later, she hates her job, and she wants a baby For Reasons. None of these reasons are ever shown. She gives this big speech to a dead baby on a beach (did Hideo Kojima write this?) and it does not feel even the slightest bit earned.
Riley: I’m actually really annoyed by her “I want a baby” arc, part of which might be that I live a life now surrounded by people with babies when I have no desire (or, like our stars, the physical ability) to have babies. Like in later episodes, there’s this idea of her “legacy” and all this stuff that seems so tied to procreation, and I’m just like, “Buddy, you’re good. Stop stressing about babies.” Overall, though, I like her. I think she stands up well as a character on her own, which is so often a rarity for women in TV.
Nathan: Yeah, I agree that she’s largely a well-done character. I just wish they would have given us, like, one additional episode showing her doing her work in some royal court or another. I want to know why she hates all of this stuff so much and how that ties into her suddenly realizing that she needs a baby. I’m kinda hoping that she eventually comes around to recognizing that what she actually wants is connection to other people? That it doesn’t have to be a baby, which then feeds into the Geralt-Ciri-Yen pseudo-familial dynamic?
Heather: The Witcher’s always been a series about legacy. That’s most clear with Ciri, who has connections to special bloodlines with both political and magical power. I think that, in some ways, the dynamic that will eventually form with Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri is something of a rejection of what most people in the setting would consider important. And I think Nathan’s got the right of it: Yen starts out wanting power and position. As time goes on, she needs something else.
Riley: Ciri is definitely the least strong of the bunch, character-wise, which is unfortunate. But then, I can’t see her name without being crippled by my own lingering Wild Hunt guilt, so maybe I’m biased.
Heather: You were a Bad Dad, this is true.
Nathan: I find it funny that the character who is an almighty Source has the one story that was not adapted from any source material. Which I think explains some of the weakness of her arc.
They had plenty to draw on from the short stories for Geralt and Yen, but they just needed Ciri to be doing... something for a while. And that something mostly turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. All the while, they inserted this “destiny” stuff to continuously remind people that Geralt and Ciri would meet up eventually. That felt really contrived and against the spirit of the show to me.
Heather: It’s there in bits and pieces. For instance, her showing up in Brokilon.
Riley: I did really like when Geralt and Ciri finally meet up, though. The last episodes got way more big-battle heavy, but I think they also got more emotionally resonant in a way I’d been looking for in the early episodes. (Maybe that’s a spoiler? But: You know they’re gonna meet!)
Nathan: Even that Brokilon bit was tremendously underwhelming, though. The elves learn things about Ciri that we already knew, and then fake Mousesack shows up, and she just goes along with it, even though he can’t explain what happened to him after they parted ways during the destruction of her city. AND THE ELVES HAVE MAGIC WATER THAT REVEALS ILL INTENT, JUST HAVE HIM DRINK THE WATER AS A PRECAUTION, GIVEN THAT YOU SEEM TO DO THAT TO EVERYBODY.
Also, can we talk about Dara for a second? Because seriously, what the fuck? In the forest, he tells Ciri about how her people genocided his, and she’s like “Nah, that can’t be true,” and he’s like “Motherfucker, the only reason I’m alive is because I hid.” So he clearly wants to stay with the elves and not his presumptuous jerk friend who also let him get shot by an arrow earlier and didn’t do anything to help him after he saved her life *twice*. But then when Ciri decides to leave the forest with Definitely Totally For Sure The Real Mousesack, Ciri is like “We’re family,” and Dara is like “Yeah ok sure, that’s enough for me to abandon all motivations, needs, and feelings of my own.”
Heather: I think both these reactions are fair. The series can get nice and emotional, and then it can also be really frustrating. For me, and I’m really shocked to say this: I think the glue that held it together really was Henry Cavill as Geralt.
Riley: Insert me screaming “MOUSESACK” whenever anyone said his name with a straight face. But yeah: Henry Cavill as Geralt is...good? He grew on me, even with his Doug Cockle voice.
Nathan: I loved his bad Doug Cockle voice!
Riley: His relationship with Yenn has always seemed weird and rushed to me in the canon, but I was really moved by it in the show. And the episode about his past gave me some tears, though full disclosure I was using a foam roller at the time, so they might’ve been pain tears.
Heather: Cavill’s familiarity with the series helps a lot. He’s played the games and it shows. I think he’s out-acted by Anya Chalotra, but he’s definitely comfortable with the character and I think that shows.
Riley: As I wrote in my impressions, I felt like he didn’t have a lot of cool Witcher moments—like, I don’t think we really get to see much of what being a witcher is all about. But he plays the character with the sort of distance that I’d expect of Geralt, but with a lot of humanity going on under the surface, especially in how he relates to the people around him. I liked him, which I wasn’t sure I would, because I’m not sure I can like Geralt who’s played by anyone who isn’t… me.
Heather: Bare minimum, I buy him in the scenes where he’s wearily putting up with courtly politics as much as I really, really buy him in the action scenes. Grabbing those two sides of Geralt feels important to me.
Nathan: I actually really like the more intimate action scenes he gets, too. Like, first of all, the striga episode. Just great Witcher action all around. That fight was both wild and grueling.
But also, this show does an excellent job of letting characters express themselves through combat.
Heather: It’s honestly one of the better short stories, too.
Riley: The striga episode was great, even if the monsters are a little Buffy-looking?
Nathan: On more than one occasion, Geralt reveals his true motivations through how he fights.
The Renfri fight in the first episode is the best example, but the striga episode also stands out. In both cases, he has to try really hard to not kill somebody, even though it’d be much easier to just do that. And with Renfri, he ultimately makes the decision to kill her mid-combat after trying really hard not to for most of their fight. I wish more video games let you hold out on making a decision until that moment!
Heather: It’s a good scene.
Riley: Yeah the Renfri stuff was also great. The show does a good job with the “monster battle but it also means other things” structure.
Nathan: Yeah I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the monsters for looking a little Buffy-y, but also... the show is a little Buffy-y.
Heather: It’s a proud Polish cultural export, but it’s also pulp. And that’s fine!
Nathan: Better than fine! I want more pulp, not less. Grind everything into pulp and funnel it directly into my mouth, I say.
Riley: But it’s also, on occasion, a super-serious fantasy political epic? Which The Witcher is, to be fair, but that stuff sometimes lost me. I, like, completely lost track of which political figure was what and why fairly quickly, which to be fair has always been my problem with the canon, and with fantasy in general I guess.
Heather: I’m not really into how Nilfgaard feels in this show. Yes, it needs to feel like this unending tide that’s consuming everything, but for a while it’s all really generic.
Nathan: I still haven’t reached a point where I understand their motivations, and I’m more than halfway through the season!
Riley: I felt like Nilfgaard turned around in the later episodes? They did feel like Generic Marching Army for a while, but late in, they got more unique and scary to me. Sorry, Nathan! We’re spoiling everything you… probably already know. The show does have to walk a weird line, because it seems to presume viewers know The Witcher but also still be dramatic.
Heather: They’re working on this buildup to exactly who is behind it all. Which! If you know, you’re just waiting for the shoe to drop. If not, I guess it’s a decent idea, but it leaves Nilfgaard as something of a rudderless entity for a while.
Riley: I can’t imagine watching the show with no knowledge of The Witcher, though. I pity the random Netflix subscriber who goes “ooh, monsters!”
Heather: I think it’s fair to say that the series really does assume you’re here because you’re already on The Witcher’s bullshit.
Nathan: Which is weird, because it also seems kinda like Netflix wants this to be its Game of Thrones.
Heather: I think it’s going to be around for a few more seasons. But I can’t imagine it taking off nearly as much.
Riley: Well there’s a second season at least, which is good. This season definitely feels like setting up all the pieces.
Nathan: I do, however, appreciate that it’s not just Game of Thrones, but starring a dude with white hair. It does have its own weird, sometimes surprisingly wacky (a sorceress school that runs on eel energy? lmao sure) appeal, even if it takes a bit to reveal just how weird it’s capable of being. Based on trailers, the first episode, and things like that, I think it’d be easy for newcomers to assume otherwise.
Heather: I’m just glad Monster of the Week is back in vogue.
Nathan: Personally, I can’t wait until season three, when Geralt and his friends graduate from high school and defeat the mayor, who is also a giant snake.