Surprise is probably the word I would use to describe The Witcher‘s first season on Netflix. I was certainly surprised when Netflix announced they were working on a Witcher TV series back in 2017. I was even more surprised when we found out that Henry Cavill (known for his role as Superman in the current DC cinematic universe) would be playing the titular character. But the biggest surprise was just how much I ended up enjoying the show. It’s not perfect, of course, but it creates a relatively solid foundation that future seasons can grow upon, and with a few of the kinks ironed out, I think we’ll have something really special on our hands.
This first season is comprised of eight episodes, which roughly adapt Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, two short story collections whose events precede and serve as a prologue for the main saga. These stories introduce key characters, set up The Witcher‘s fantasy world and its politics, and give us a taste of the conflicts that are yet to come. All of those things are good, but probably the most controversial thing about this first season of the show is the way the stories are organized chronologically.
Basically, the show’s three main characters — Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer of Vengerberg, and Cirilla the Lion Cub of Cintra — exist in three different time periods for most of the season, only syncing up in the last few episodes. For example, a lot of what we see of Yennefer takes place decades before anything involving Geralt, and Geralt’s material in turn takes place largely before the plotline involving Ciri. The show doesn’t signpost this overtly, so it can take a few episodes to pick up on the clues and make the connection, and that can potentially be a little off-putting. It does allow for some cool realization moments, like when later episodes provide context for events in the premiere, but it’s also a tad confusing until you get your bearings. To be fair to The Witcher, stringing these stories together in chronological order probably wouldn’t have worked much better. You’d end up with a show where the titular character doesn’t even make an appearance until several episodes in, Yennefer is conspicuously absent in the middle, and Ciri finds all of her scenes squeezed into the end of the season. It would feel horribly unbalanced, perhaps more so than jumping back and forth between timelines might initially seem. Personally, I didn’t mind the way the show was structured that much, but this is one of those areas where your mileage may vary.
Let’s move on to what actually happens in this first season of The Witcher. Geralt, as you might expect, does a fair amount of witcher work, tackling pesky monsters at the often begrudging bequest of people who don’t trust him that much. A few of his foes put up fights that make for standout scenes in this first season, particularly the duel in Blaviken and the showdown with the striga. Along the way, Geralt inspires the loveable bard Jaskier to join him on his travels and eventually stumbles into an unexpected brush with destiny that he spends most of the season trying to avoid (despite being reminded that he can’t outrun fate). Whatever you might think of the wig and the contacts (both of which look distractingly fake sometimes), it’s clear that Henry Cavill has a passion for the character and the world of The Witcher. He perfectly portrays Geralt’s weary resignation when faced with the various evils of the world, both the ones he is paid to kill and the ones manipulating things behind the scenes, and he has mastered Doug Cockle’s gravelly whisper from the games to a degree that is uncanny — there were times when I almost thought it was Cockle’s voice I was hearing.
Jaskier (played by Joey Batey) is also fantastic, by the way. Video game fans know him by the name Dandelion, but regardless of the moniker, the character is the same loquacious songster who chronicles Geralt’s adventures and occasionally gets himself into trouble. Jaskier and Geralt play off each other quite well, and the bard’s songs are incredibly catchy, especially the tune that has essentially become the show’s anthem, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” Just one listen will get the melody stuck in your head for weeks.
Moving on to the ladies, The Witcher shows us Yennefer’s tragic backstory and how she became a powerful sorceress. In truth, Yennefer’s scenes in the first half of the season helped pique my interest in the show at large. There are politics at play in the world she is trying to make herself a part of, and some of the things she has to do to get what she wants are quite gruesome, but I was riveted all the same. It helps that Anya Chalotra is absolutely captivating as Yennefer, effortlessly capturing her sharp wit, conflicting desires, and moments of weakness with grace and aplomb.
Rounding out the main cast is Freya Allan as Ciri, princess of Cintra and the child bound to Geralt by the Law of Surprise (an important concept the show explains midway through the season). Ciri spends most of her time on the run after the Nilfgaardian Empire invades and conquers Cintra. Her story is the least compelling of the three main characters, but to be fair, she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. She basically runs from one temporary safe haven to another, evading a dangerous Nilfgaardian soldier and dealing with mysterious powers along the way. Allan does a great job with the material she has to work with, and I look forward to seeing more from her (and learning more about Ciri) in future seasons once the main plot starts to pick up.
Outside of plot and character development, The Witcher does its best to present a grim fantasy world through set design, costumes, and special effects. The show is generally successful at using all three of these effectively, aforementioned wig and contact issues notwithstanding, and you can tell that they had a decent budget to work with. Monster designs are appropriately gruesome, and I couldn’t help but smile every time Geralt used a sign (AKA magic) in battle. While the show is an adaptation of the books, and not the games, fans of the latter will find the world and characters instantly recognizable thanks to strong performances from the cast and little touches here and there that call back to CD Projekt Red’s trilogy, such as the look of Geralt’s armor and even the soundtrack. Balancing the source material from the books with elements from the video games in such a way that fans of either can feel right at home is no simple feat, but The Witcher manages it with ease.
When I started the first episode of The Witcher, I was uncertain if I wanted the show to exist. By the time I finished the last episode, I was absolutely desperate for more. And more is coming. Season 2 was greenlit before season 1 premiered and should be making its way to Netflix sometime in 2021. In the meantime, I suspect a lot of fans will be returning to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or checking out Sapkowski’s novels to tide them over until Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia once again graces their screens. I know I certainly will.