The Witcher: Season 1 Review

Any time a new fantasy TV series comes out these days someone somewhere inevitably starts wondering if it will be "the next Game of Thrones". It happened when The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance came out. It happened when His Dark Materials came out. And it is happening again now The Witcher is out. Well, apart from a lot of blood and gore and an unnecessary amount of human flesh on display, The Witcher is in no way going to be the next Game of Thrones.

Which is one of the reasons I liked it so much.

The Witcher is a fantasy series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski which is comprised of two short story collections and six novels. It is the story of Geralt of Rivia, a freelance, genetically modified monster hunter known as a Witcher, who travels around an unnamed continent killing monsters for gold. The series inspired a popular video game series as well as a short-lived Polish film and TV series called The Hexer.


I've not played the games or seen the first film or TV series, but I have read both short story collections and rather enjoyed them. What I liked about them is that they are pretty much fairytale crime stories. Geralt is this reluctant, world weary detective, brought in by some ungrateful locals to solve a recent murder or disappearance and act as judge, jury and executioner on the monster responsible (who is usually pulled from some well known fairyale). But things are never as they appear and Geralt often finds himself sympathising more with the things he has been hired to hunt than with the ones paying the bills.

This season adapts tales from the two short story collection, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. As such The Witcher is more episodic than your average Netflix seriesThe short stories are mostly standalone tales with only a few treads connecting them, such as Geralt's on and off again relationship with the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg, and the origins of Ciri, a princess with a mysterious power who Geralt is forced to take in after her kingdom is destroying by invaders from the southern kingdom of Nilfgaard.

The show is fairly faithful to the original stories, although it does tone down some of their more overt references to well known fairytales. Stories based on Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are skipped while Renfri, the antagonist of the first episode, is less obviously Snow White than she was in the book. However, 'Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials' is more or less the same as the story it's based on, probably because the tale of Hans My Hedgehog is less well known than the others.


Since the stories are mainly told from Geralt's perspective, one of the biggest changes that showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has made is to give Yennefer and Ciri larger roles at lot earlier than they do in the books. Of the two, Yennefer's story works the best since the character has lived a longer life and there is more material for the show to work from. Ciri's races through the fall of Cintra in a single episode and then leaves her to wander around lost in the woods for the rest of the season. Their storylines do gradually converge with Geralt's as the season progress, although not as seamlessly as I would've liked.

The threat posed by Nilfgaard also could've been better developed. They're introduced right away as the obvious bad guys and the show does little to change that initial perception. These are bad people, doing bad things for vague reasons, who stand around a lot looking sinister. The later episodes do start to dig into Nilfgaard's backstory, but it's handled poorly. This is one of the things the show could definitely improve on next season.

Iffy wigs aside, Henry Cavill makes for a really good Geralt, nailing the character's gruffness, sardonic humour and general doneness with the entire world. He's also very impressive in the fight scenes, especially the fight in the first episode again Renfri and her men that earns Geralt the title of Butcher of Blaviken. Anya Chalotra also impresses as Yennefer, but the standout for me was Joey Batey as Jaskier (known as Dandelion in the English translation of the books and the games), a travelling bard and the closest thing Geralt has to a best friend. Sadly, Freya Allan didn't really get much to do as Ciri except look confused and worried a lot.


I came to The Witcher as someone who liked the stories, but wasn't a massive fan so I didn't have huge expectations. I came away very satisfied with what the show had done, even if there were a few things it did better than others. But overall I really enjoyed watching this show and look forward to seeing what they have in store for season two.

Three out of four iffy wigs.

Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011 More Mark Greig

8 comments:

Patrick said...

I was someone who hadn't read any of the books and hadn't played any of the games, and I loved this show. The action was amazing, I think the casting of the main characters was well-done, and I enjoyed watching everyone's stories converge. I do agree that Nilfgaard's backstory could've been better handled. I wanted to see more about Cahir's ascension to rule, what role Fringilla played in it, and what this obsessions with the "White Flame" is all about. I can only assume we'll get more of that in future installments.

Cavill was fantastic with the action, and apparently worked very hard to do his own stunts. You could definitely see in that fight with Renfri & her gang that it was all him. That fight, both halves of it, was one of the best sword fights I've seen since The Princess Bride.

I think one of the best things I can say about Season 1 is that the hug at the end felt earned, and I can't wait to see where things go from here.

lisam said...

If I didn't like Game of Thrones, will I like this?

Mark Greig said...

lisam, I think it really depends on what you didn't like about Game of Thrones. All I can say is I know people who hated GOT and have been enjoying The Witcher immensely.

Patrick said...

lisam, there really isn't a ton of similarity between the two, other than them both being in the "fantasy" genre. GoT played more like a period political story, and was pretty light on fantastical elements especially early on. The Witcher leans more heavily into the fantasy with more magic & monsters & whatnot right off the bat. They both have their share of "mature" content, but I would say in The Witcher it's less gratuitous and more purposeful. I think one big advantage The Witcher will have is that the original book series is already finished. The writers already know where the story is supposed to go, so if they decide to make changes they'll know the full effects those changes will have and how to account for them later on.

But a caveat, I've never read the books(I just started after watching the show), so I'm basing my evaluation only on what I've seen so far.

morgan india said...

As someone who has read the books and played the games repeatedly, I really loved The Witcher. I was very hesitant about Cavill as Geralt when the first screen test thing came out, but now I'm really on board with him in the role.

I definitely agree with what you said about Joey Batey as Jaskier/Dandelion. I was really surprised to find out that he played the absolutely reprehensible Edward Lancaster in The White Queen, and I've had "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" in my head since Friday.

High points of the series for me: the cinematography, the casting and acting (although I wish we had seen more of Triss, but she's more fleshed out in later books; I also really appreciate her casting and think the actress fits despite everyone wanting her to look just like her game design), the loyalty to the books but also tiny homages to the games), Cavill's Geralt voice (he took elements of the audio book's Yorkshire accent interpretation and Doug Cockle's game!Geralt voice).

Low points: not enough episodes to sate me until 2021 or very late 2020.

I was hoping for episode reviews for The Witcher, but I'm really glad that it got a review here, so thanks Mark!

Corylea said...

I adored the first Witcher game, so much that I made a ton of mods for it and went on to read both the short stories and the novels. I fell a little in love with Geralt, with his perpetual outsider status, his sarcastic humor, and his desire to do the right thing even though the world rarely rewards him for that.

I was a bit dubious about Henry Cavill when I heard he'd been cast, but he's been great in the two episodes I've seen so far. It may help that he loved the game, too, and learned a bit from the voice actor who helped to make the game's Geralt so memorable.

I've loved game Geralt since 2008, and it's really exciting to see him brought to life a decade later. If only my husband were willing to watch more than one episode per day... :-)

lfraser said...

I actually came to this site because I was interested in how people were reacting to The Witcher, and spent half a day reading reviews of my other favourite shows!

I've played all of the Witcher games obsessively for years, and recently started to read the books (which are really quite good). I, too, was concerned about Henry Cavill being cast as my favourite grumpy, caustic, hunky old witcher -- he seemed too young and far, far too beautiful -- but it turns out he's also a big fan of the books and games and obviously invested a lot of time in his characterization of Geralt.

As to the series, I loved it so far, but I'm concerned about its future because of the way the series jumps between time lines. We gamers and fans of the books know the huge cast of characters and the politics of the series, but I think it might be very confusing for anyone coming in cold. Also, critics are lukewarm on the series.

That said, the production values are amazing and the casting nearly perfect (except, in my opinion, for Triss Merigold, who is a dazzling redhead in the games). Some of the story lines were taken directly from the books and games and felt like old bedtime stories to me. The monsters are all familiar. The characters are old friends and foes (some of whom I, in my Geralt alter-ego, have killed or let live on multiple occasions).

It seems that Netflix has given this series the green light for another season, so let's hope it attracts a large audience and survives the cut.

Red Pearl said...

Finally finished watching the Witcher series, have to say I love Henry Cavill's Geralt. I don't agree with everything he believes in, but I do love his character.

Also, the cinematography is great, the fight scenes are well-staged and well done.

The world-building is quite weak though, all those different countries we heard about, we knew almost nothing about them. Why did the Nilfgaardians invade the North? Why were they after Ciri? It's never really explained.

We knew nothing about the host of people neither, especially with all the time jumps, we met some people, they are gone in the next episode, it's difficult to get to know them and get attached to them. Some recurring characters like Queen Calanthe just add to the confusion, she jumped to death in the first episode, the next time we met her, she's alive again in a past time, the next we see her, she jumped again. It's difficult to get invested in such a character when her situation is so confusing.

The three main characters of the series didn't suffer from the confusion of the random jumps in the timeline, Geralt, Yennifer and Ciri, but their characterizations are somewhat uneven.

Ciri gets very little to do, her storyline, if it can be called such, is very repetitive. She ran away from the Nilfgaardians, meets new people, Nilfgaardians caught up with her, she ran again. So even though she's on-screen for a large amount of time, there is almost no character growth for her.

Yennefer on the other hand had a lot of character growth, but it doesn't exactly make her endearing. Yennefer grew from a farm girl to a powerful and self-centered sorceress. I don't know what her character is like in the novel or in the game, but in the TV series, she's unlikable.

She blamed the order of the mages for her inability to bear children, but she made the decision to undergo the enchantments herself. She knew what she had to give up, and she agreed. It's not like she couldn't still be a mage if she didn't go through the enchantment, she just wouldn't be a court mage. Yet she didn't see her own responsibility for her situation.

Yennefer's world is so small, it seemed it only has space to hold herself in it. The other mages may not be very nice people, but they all have things they cared about, things they strived for, be it the rectory they teach or the country they serve. But Yennefer, she cared for nothing and no one, she wanders through life aimless and directionless. This obsession with having a child is just another extension of her own need.

The romance of Geralt and Yennefer developed too fast, it's unconvincing, considering Yennefer's actions when they met weren't all that different from Stregobor's actions when Geralt met Renfri. You really had to wonder why he had fallen in love with Yennefer because she wasn't so beautiful that would overwhelmed his senses. So maybe Yennefer was right, it was magic they made them fell in love. It wasn't real.

But Geralt was well written and well-acted. I'd watch season 2 just for him alone, but here is hoping Season 2 will be less confusing.