The Witcher, based on the writings of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, debuted on Netflix in 2019 and has remained one of its top draws ever since. It’s not hard to see why. The series is full of action, adventure, and romance, tempered with a wry, dry, typically Polish sense of humor.
The Netflix show is actually the latest media production in a string of many that began 35 years ago when Andrzej Sapkowski wrote his first Witcher story. His creation has gone on to spawn six novels, several collections of short stories, two collections of Witcher short fiction spinoffs written by other Polish and Ukrainian authors, two comic series, one Polish, one American; and a Polish language TV series. Clearly it’s a phenomenon the West has missed out on, save for a series of successful video games which began release in 2007.
Like the HBO version of Game of Thrones, The Witcher is fantasy for adults. There’s nudity and sex, gore, violence, and moral ambiguity; but instead of pre-Tudor England we’re in Eastern Europe, specifically Poland and the areas around Poland – Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania. There’s an ornate heaviness in the sets, costumes, and depictions of castles, while the commoner’s wooden cottages are scrubbed clean with painted designs on the walls and curtains at the windows. This world is civilized, more cultured. Yet superstition abounds – a very Balkan type of superstition, based on life debts, fear of magic and monsters, and xenophobia, for Elves are this world’s undercaste.
Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher of the series’ title, is a superhuman monster hunter, part of a brotherhood of magic-created warriors sworn to protect the land and its people. When Geralt saves the life of a king he claims The Law of Surprise as payment for the deed, a big part of the story’s plot. The Law of Surprise is a superstition that dictates a life-debt must be paid with a thing that the debtor doesn’t know he has, and is surprised that he does… which usually translates as the unborn child of a spouse who surprises him with the news she is pregnant. So, our man Geralt finds himself the reluctant ward of young princess Cirilla, or Ciri, of the kingdom of Cintra, whom he must protect because it turns out she has powers. World destroying powers, in fact, wrapped up, Joss Whedon style, in a fragile, angsty teen girl.
Geralt’s love interest, and sometime friend, sometime enemy, is Yennefor of Vengerberg, a female mage born a deformed servant girl who becomes beautiful and powerful through the school of mages; hers is the secondary story. Geralt also has a companion, Jaskier, a dissolute minstrel who accompanies him on his travels and reacts as the amusing Everyman to the far-fetched adventures the previous three get in.
All this takes place across a Slavic-tinged Europe before the advent of gunpowder and the Age of Exploration, but well into the mercantile revolution. There are small, separate kingdoms in the north, the encroaching Empire of Niflgaard in the south (similar to the Hapsburg version of the Holy Roman Empire) a scheming mage’s guild, and displaced and disgruntled elves and dwarves. Not only that, fairy tale elements get thrown into the mix: Baba Yaga’s bird-legged hut, a riff on Beauty and the Beast, strigoi and demons and dragons, The Wild Hunt of Celtic myth. These are not haphazard elements thrown in for decoration but have logical underpinnings in the story, so that what seems childlike at first is more adult and complicated. There are also astral conjunctions where creatures and races can slip from one multiverse into another. Princess Ciri, it turns out, is part elf and carrier of a hereditary power to breach those astral borders, which make her cursed to some policy makers of the Continent, and attractive to others who seek to use her.
And, like the recent Regency Romance series Bridgerton this world, called The Continent in the series, is multiracial, for elves * and dwarves as well as humans. These characters are not the bland pretty youths of, say, the recent Elfstones of Shannara series, either. There are European, British, Indian, and African actors, some rotund, some offbeat, some super-athletic or even a bit creepy looking. Compared to 1980s fantasy movies, where everyone looked like they escaped from a music video, it’s refreshing.
The main quartet of characters – Geralt, Yennefor, Ciri, Jaskier — drove me crazy at times, but they were always watchable. They had qualities both good and bad: they have flaws, and are at times heroic, but are not heroically flawed, if that makes sense. They are neither the agents of good or of evil, they are simply trying to survive and create some meaning with their lives. Which is different from the stereotypical Western-written fantasy of a singular Chosen One charged to save the universe. If I could compare Geralt to another fantasy character, it would be Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibonë, not a typical hero, yet seen that way by others. The plot itself could have been influenced by anime, any of dozens, hundreds, of royalty-and-ronin-on-the run stories, while the horrid creatures, and the Witchers themselves might have cribbed from Claymore, a 2007 anime series of silver-eyed, golden-haired female warriors whose duty is to kill monsters threatening the human populace, and run the risk of becoming monsters themselves if they push their powers too far. Sapkowski was a fantasy reader before he became a writer. I’m sure he collected influences here and there, as we all do.
But in the end the characters, with their stoicism and irony, were uniquely Sapkowski’s, and uniquely Polish. That part of the world has suffered so much over the last two centuries a multigenerational trauma, a lack of idealism, has taken root, a disillusion with high ideas combined with a nose-thumbing, impish sense of humor… an imp who is closer to a leering devil than a cheerful sprite. It’s hard to explain if you weren’t raised Polish (I was) but suffice to say, you will not find grand heroic quests in this world. Ambiguity reigns, as does humanism, and more than a splash of cheekily shocking bad taste.
The first season was mostly setup, delving into the characters’ backgrounds and ending with the inciting event of the main plot. The second season picks things up from there while explaining the world’s history some more. Personally, I prefer the more linear storytelling of the second season, but others like the more episodic first, which jumps back and forth in time.
All of the actors do a fine job and there is not a bad note among them. Henry Cavill (the most recent Superman) gives Geralt a hulking yet thoughtful presence. He’s always standing back, pondering, analyzing, as much an alien to himself as he is to the world, with his blacksmith’s physique and grayish-white hair drawn back in a topknot. (Unlike the Claymore women, his eye and hair colors are reversed.) Sometimes it seems the nerve connections between his brain and limbs move more slowly than a normal human’s, and I felt the urge to speed him up. I thought the other Witchers would be like him, but when we meet them in Season 2, they’re mostly normal looking blokes, so he stands out even more. But the script often pretends he doesn’t. For such an intimidating warrior, he’s thrown in prison way too easily or the target of insults. It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing an average Joe in Total Recall who gets his ass kicked by the baddies. Seriously? Both men could mash their enemies into meat paste with a flick of the wrist, and the enemies would know it.
Anya Chalotra’s Yennefor is equally magnetic. Regal and wounded, shrewish at times, her disillusioned mage character is an outsider no matter how hard she tries not to be, cynical and critical of the status quo, and not afraid to say it. Her sharp tongue is one of the delights of the series for me, because she says the obvious things the other characters won’t or can’t. As a watcher, I’m more into Yennefor’s story than Geralt’s… she’s more desperate. The recently released Wheel of Time ministeries has been touted by its makers as being more female-focused and friendly than fantasy forerunner Game of Thrones, which relied on gratuitous nudity and sex; yet The Witcher is female-friendly as well, for its fine showcasing of Cavill’s physique as well as telling the stories of its two other main characters, Yennefor and Ciri.
Now, Ciri. In Season 1 hers was perhaps the weakest character, being little more than a pawn of fate. But she was fun to watch in Season 2, trying, and failing, to find a place to call home. Freya Allan won me over with her frank and pained depiction of a girl trying too hard not to hate herself. Joey Batey as Jaskier, the troubadour who rounds out the quartet, plays the Moonglum / Grey Mouser sidekick well, aside from having no special abilities to draw on aside from his musical skill, which is often called into question by the other characters without reason (he has a fine voice.) At times he gets bitchily histrionic, but he adds levity to the show, and gets the sharpest dialogue and the best costumes, such as the purplish-red leather coat he wears in Season 2.
Of the minor characters, I was fond of the mage Vilgefortz played by Indian actor Mahesh Jadu, and Tissaia, Yennefor’s teacher and headmistress of the female mage’s school, whose cold strictness is belied by her slightly upturned mouth. She’s a character I loved to hate, yet by the end, I was rooting for her.
The writing avoids clichés for the most part. Many times I thought a trope would be enacted, only for the writers to pull back and have things go another way. For example, in the first season, when Ciri’s kingdom falls to Niflgaard, she goes on the run and takes refuge with a bunch of druids, earning the regard of a druid youth, Dara. When Mousesack, her grandmother’s trusted advisor (actually someone Ciri thinks is Mousesack, but he’s a shape-shifting bounty hunter) comes to retrieve her and take her to safety, Dara chooses to go with them, to protect her. But when things go south and the killings start, does he stay out of loyalty, and get slaughtered? No, he gets the hell out of Dodge, leaving Ciri in tears once again.
If there are clichés in the show, they are the time-worn ones of shock for shock’s sake. Some violence goes over the top, like a monster in Season 2 then bites off men’s heads and faces leaving bleeding stumps. There’s also a disturbing bit where Yennefor, after graduating from mage college, rushes the magic ritual that will bequeath unending youth and beauty on her by undergoing what amounts to a hysterectomy without anesthesia, her excised female parts being thrown in a brazier to burn. That was disturbing.
Each chapter of the show was engrossing but sort of exhausting to watch, as so much TV is these days. The sad thing about TV on demand is that one notices, with frequency of viewing, all the little things that one shouldn’t if the series was paced out over weeks. For example, almost every indoor setting had tons and tons of torches lining the hallways, candles in ornate holders, or oil lamps hanging in gigantic chandeliers, yet we never see a servant tending to their upkeep. (Of course, CGI effects keep the flames discretely perfect.) There’s a lack of reality in other elements as well, like the scenic backgrounds which, though glorious, lacked verisimilitude, and for all the traveling the characters do, we never see them carrying tents, packs, or food, and sometimes not even a warm coats in what is portrayed as the dead of winter. I mean, it looks good, but too much like a video game which simulates a fantasy series.
Contrast this with, say, The Last Kingdom, a historical epic set in England at the time of Alfred the Great. Using natural lighting, with sets built on location, you feel the characters are really there, shivering and cold, connected to the landscape. Or even Monty Python and the Holy Grail which was shot before any kind of CGI trickery, and manages, for all its nose-thumbing, to look somehow authentic within its shoestring budget, which made it all the more funny, and grandiose.
It was that kind of visceralness that I missed in The Witcher. It felt flat, not only like a video game, but like a soap opera — the American kind, not the lively telenovelas of South America – with its smooth camera panning and shot-and-reaction work. Par for the course for SFF TV these days, the technique is likely here to stay barring some other technical innovation. The exception was a story thread in Season 1 that was set in the mountains, which was a pleasant change because it was real, and the viewer could tell it was real. The mountains in question were also dry and sunny enough for me to realize they couldn’t have been the Carpathians, the Caucasus, or any of the other Eastern European ranges, and it turned out later I was right: those scenes had been shot in the Canary Islands, before the recent volcanic eruption, obviously.
But for how well I was entertained, the too-even stone blocks of the castle interiors and the eternally pristine costumes are small criticisms, really.
I plan on reading the first book of the series, The Blood of Elves, for my reading challenge this year, and it will be fun to see how the two compare.
* The poorly received Dungeons and Dragons big-screen movie of 2000 did the same, with its trail breaking depiction of a Black elf, Norah. It also utilized an East European setting in that it was shot partly in Budapest.