Now that Game of Thrones has ended after 8 season every major streaming outlet is looking for a successor. Netflix is well placed with shows such as Stranger Things and Altered Carbon. Yet, one franchise fans have been looking forward is The Witcher. Based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski it first came to my attention with the release of The Witcher 3. It is the game that put developer CD Projekt RED on the map. I doubt many people remember the first two games, from 2007 and 2011 respectively. In The Witcher 3 you play as Geralt Rivia, slayer of monsters. Fans feel it is a spiritual successor to The Elder Scrolls whose last game dates from 2011. But in contrast The Witcher games do not shy away from displaying violence, gore and nudity.
Little wonder than that Netflix decided creating a Witcher series could supplement their current offering. It would continue the trend of high-concept high fantasy that originated with Game of Thrones. It could capitalize on a large and vocal fan base of The Witcher 3. That would certainly propel any series to the top of the charts. To top it off Netflix have managed to provide for wish fulfillment by casting Henry Cavill as Geralt.
What is The Witcher all about?
As such the threshold of starting to watch The Witcher is notably low. The series starts pretty much as you would expect. Witcher Geralt Rivia is slaying monsters in a world that inexperienced viewers only slowly get to know. Geralt is an expert at being taciturn. To him the monsters that inhabit his world are not evil. They are misunderstood, out of place or created on purpose. In season 1 of The Witcher Geralt – along with the other primary characters Yennefer and Ciri – is dragged into a larger conflict. Not unlike Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. But unlike that story Geralt does not live in a cozy village with houses built into mounds. Geralt, as well as Yennefer lead a wondering existence and both are swept away by events.
That said, The Witcher can also be confusing to watch. Most reviewers dislike how the story jumps back and forth. With some events set as much as 30 years back. Because of magic and mutations neither Geralt nor Yennefer age. To make things worse two actresses, who play mother and daughter have more than a passing resemblance. The daughter is Ciri, grand daughter of Queen Calanthe of Citra (Jodhi May) whose kingdom was just conquered. In the first few episodes we watch all this unfold as well as her subsequent escape from the clutches of Nilfgaard whose army took Citra.
The law of surprise
Those first few episodes, about the first four, are difficult to understand, but also captivating. Thus ensuring the viewer will carry on. But viewers who are unfamiliar with either the novels or the games will become confused by terms such as the law of surprise, which seemingly binds Geralt to Ciri. Its a fate that Queen Calanthe desperately tried to avoid. It is in episode 4 “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials” we finally learn of the origin of these strange events. During the betrothal of Ciri’s mother Pavetta to a cursed knight named Duny Queen Calanthe tried to kill the latter. Geralt saved him, by killing a fair number of other knights. As a reward Geralt invoked the law of surprise – to take something from Duny he does not know he has.
Once the pieces of this plot comes together a lot of season 1 makes sense. In fact the creative staff deserve credit for maintaining this structure. An otherwise linear story would not be as rewarding to watch as actions would appear inexplicable. Now with past events detailed viewers are aware of the background of characters.
Yennefer of Vengerberg
But The Witcher is as much Yennefer’s story as it is Geralt’s. During the first two episodes she undergoes training in magic at Aretuza – the magical academy. Yennefer (played by Anya Chalotra) is a hunchback whose elven heritage can easily spell her doom in a world in which elves are hated. Her own father sold her to the rectorress of the academy – Tissaia de Vries – for four marks. Through both neglect subterfuge Tissaia manages to coax the most out of Yennefer. Here the viewer becomes aware of just how the Brotherhood of Sorcerers has been manipulating the politics of the various kingdoms.
Yennefer’s story has a lot more psychological aspects, manipulation being the foremost and is a lot deeper than just the brief overview I gave above. Her journey from being a hunchback to a powerful magic user if filled with hurdles. It is when she runs into Geralt she manages to find company. Geralt meanwhile is torn by his fate being sealed with Ciri. He can’t sleep and seeks out a Djinn, which can grant a wielder wishes.
Yennefer seeks out the same Djinn to grant her fertility – which was the price magic took when she was cured of her hunchback. But after a series of unfortunate events Geralt is forced to use the final wish to save Yennefer. We don’t know what exactly he wished for, but the short of it is that their fates are sealed to each other. Yennefer remains torn over Geralt’s decision. She has feelings for him but does not know whether they are genuine or because of his wish.
The Witcher novels
The final episodes of this season deal with the fallout of their confrontation with the Djinn. The fall of Cintra has caused great turbulence in other kingdoms. Ultimately The Witcher series is firmly rooted in the storyline of the Saga which are the five novels the author wrote in the 90s. The origin stories of Geralt and Yennefer are actually from two short story compilations published between 1986 and 1993: Sword of Destiny and The Last Wish. The first season is based on these latter books with only a small amount of Blood of Elves adapted. Future seasons will of course use more of the actual saga.
I hope you are convinced to at least try out The Witcher if you have not done so already. The series is multi-layered and I have barely scratched the surface. I have not talked about Jaskier – the bard that accompanies Geralt, or the king that commits incest with his sister who turned into a demon or many of the eccentric secondary characters. The Witcher has a strange vibe. It is not meant to be taken seriously, despite the drama and story depth. The Witcher relies on no small amount of camp. With some scenes it feels as though you are watching a remake of Xena Warrior Princess. The Witcher lies between camp and Game of Thrones, which may just be fine after eight seasons of the latter.
That is not to say The Witcher is not without its faults. Sometimes the cinematography fails and the music is not great either. And even I was confused by the back and forth of the timeline. Yet, The Witcher is captivating and feels like a prelude of the wonderful shows set for release in 2020: Altered Carbon, Westworld, Devs, Shadow and Bone and afterwards The Lords of the Rings and The Wheel of Time. As for The Witcher, season 2 had already been confirmed before the first aired. That gave me hope perhaps we would see season two in the fall of 2020, but alas the creative minds have confirmed it will be 2021.
I have opened a dedicated page for The Witcher on the discussion board. Please feel free to leave a comment on what you thought of The Witcher and what you want to see in season 2.