The Witcher Season 1 Roundtable Review
Geralt of Rivia has quite a journey behind him, from humble beginnings as the titular character in short stories to one of the most recognizable names and faces in contemporary fantasy. Though Sword of Destiny, the beginning of what we now consider The Witcher Saga, was first published in 1992, Geralt himself has been a central figure in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories dating back to the mid-’80s. Since then, he’s appeared in graphic novels, video games, and even an early-2000s Polish film and TV series. Though the previous games attracted some interest, it was CD Project RED’s 2015 effort The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt that truly propelled Geralt’s lustful and bloody adventures into the mainstream, and it is no surprise that digital distribution powerhouse Netflix greenlit an eight-episode live-action adaptation of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, releasing it on December 20, 2019.
Having watched the season in its entirety, a number of the RPGamer staff of varying familiarity with the source material have gotten together to discuss the ins and outs of Netflix’s The Witcher, and whether the show works for both the casual viewer as well as the hardcore enthusiast. Join Erik van Asselt, Zack Webster, Michael Apps, and Pascal Tekaia as they talk of dragons and dandelions, sorcerers and strigae, and everything in-between, and feel free to toss in your own coin or two in the comments below.
Pascal: Contrary to what one might expect, The Witcher does not exclusively follow Geralt on his exploits, but rather divides its time amongst its three central characters: Geralt; Yennefer of Vengerberg, a misshapen girl with a hidden talent that will one day make her one of the most powerful of sorceresses; and Cirilla, crown princess of Cintra. Though some of their storylines occasionally overlap — namely Geralt and Yennefer — the show, for much of the first season’s runtime, indulges each character with their own storyline that stretches over the course of all eight episodes.
Not only do the three principal characters have largely independent story arcs, the longevity of witchers and sorcerers affords the show’s writers the opportunity to cast them in completely separate timelines, thus being able to relate events entirely out of order, perhaps showing the “after” several episodes prior to the “before”, depending on which character is viewing them.
Much has already been made of this decision to play fast and loose with the non-chronological narrative, that it’s too confusing or frustrating to watch, but I think this is actually an aspect that adds a good bit to the show’s denseness. Opposing timelines appear as early as the very first episode, where we get to follow Geralt as he acquires the moniker “Butcher of Blaviken”, and there’s nothing on-screen to spell the change in timelines out to the audience. Rather, subtle hints are woven into the dialog and visuals that require the viewer to really pay attention, and ask certain questions of themselves; it may, at times, be necessary to pause a scene in order to digest some of this subtext and be able to paint an accurate mental picture. It makes The Witcher a far more interesting experience to watch, particularly if watching with others to bounce thoughts and ideas off of. It’s a far more exciting way to experience a show.
Erik: I couldn’t agree more. The Witcher can be a little bit jarring because of these three storylines, but that makes the payoff even better when they finally come together. We get introduced to all the characters and see their place in the world of The Witcher through the separate short stories portrayed in each episode. In itself, this is not strange, since the first season is based on the first two books: Sword of Destiny and The Last Wish. These are a collection of short stories and the series uses them perfectly to create a bridge towards the larger narrative, and that makes me even more excited for season 2.
Zack: I’ll third most of the opinions presented here, but Ciri’s stuff didn’t really work for me. A lot of screen time was spent with her just wandering around forests where we don’t even get a decent opportunity to learn much about her except she’s scrappy. I think saving Ciri for season 2 while giving Geralt and Yennefer more time to breathe would have been the better method. I also think waiting until season 2 or casting Ciri a bit younger would have been a better choice, as Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan are only five years apart but will have to try and sell a mother-and-daughter relationship.
Pascal: Yeah, Ciri’s story didn’t really do it for me either, and really just served to provide a reason to spend time within the kingdom of Cintra, both before and during its fall, which worked pretty well for me as a throughline story for the season and a decent anchor to some of the other characters’ narratives.
Hands-down my favorite storyline, if we ignore the anthology-style tales that jumped all over the place from one episode to the next, was Yennefer’s coming-of-age journey from deformed village outcast to radiant sorceress. She, too, falls into the anthology trap afterwards, where each episode sees her further aged, with different experiences and priorities, but her initial time at Aretuza in the second and third episodes were, for me, a clear high point of the season.
Casting and Characters
Erik: When the first casting news hit the internet, there was quite a backlash to Henry Cavill playing the lead character, Geralt of Rivia. So let’s get the first thing out of the way: Henry Cavill not only plays a fantastic Geralt, he actually became Geralt for me. After watching the first episode, I was already blown away by his performance. Not only in his line delivery, but the small mannerisms, grunts, and facial expressions. You can really see that he loves the source material and knows the character well. He deserves all the praise for his performance; it really shows how reluctant Geralt is to follow his destiny.
Anya Chalotra plays the role of Yennefer of Vengerberg in her first big role and displays the sorceress’s road from being a hunchback to becoming a proud magic-user. The series follows a great part of her past and transformation into the character fans know. But unfortunately we do not get to see the full potential of her role. She starts the season strong, but it seemed as if the writers ran out of things to do with her by the end.
And the same goes for Freya Allan, who portrays Ciri in the series. Because her story does not evolve that much in the first series, we do not see the full extent of the character. So this makes it hard to really develop an opinion on Ciri. Let’s see what she and Yennefer bloom into next season.
And I couldn’t end this section without mentioning Joey Batey as Jaskier, or Dandelion for the non-Polish speakers. His portrayal of the bard is amazing and there is great chemistry between his character and Geralt. It really feels like an unlikely friendship was forming throughout the season.
Zack: The casting may be the biggest surprise of the show. Cavill is definitely doing his best to match the mannerisms of the game character, including Doug Cockle’s excellent performance, but he absolutely nails it. He really does carry Geralt with the dignity of a classic cowboy, the Man with No Name who goes from town to town solving problems.
But the biggest revelation is Anya Chalotra. Consider me part of the backlash who thought they cast far too young for the part and that she would be ill-equipped to handle the world-weariness of a character like Yennefer. But she proved me wrong and then some. She and her stories end up doing much of the emotional heavy-lifting and she carries some of the darkest scenes in the show almost entirely by herself. I may still think she’s a bit too young right now, but if the show continues long enough she may grow into being the most inspired casting of the bunch.
And yes, Joey Batey as Jaskier is perfect. I didn’t actually expect as many of his jokes to land as they did.
Pascal: Ha, Jaskier brightened the screen so much, I really came to miss his presence in the later episodes!
I think maybe being only slightly familiar with the source material (played a bit of the games and only ever read The Last Wish) made it easier for me to be accepting of Anya Chalotra. Without a lot of preconceptions, I immediately accepted her, and she quickly became my favorite character. Though Cavill’s Geralt is easily a close second, but that was clear to me from the moment the first trailer hit. As it stands, from the moment he literally explodes onto the screen facing down the business end of a kikimora at the beginning of the first episode, there is zero question that this truly is Geralt.
Michael: The music sticks mostly to your typical fantasy soundtrack. It feels fitting for the various story moments while never overpowering things. Still nothing is particularly memorable, except of course for everything the bard does. Largely serving as comic relief, as well as a way to see the softer side of The Witcher at times, he proves to be consistently entertaining throughout the season. The instantly catchy “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” is obviously the highlight, but it’s a highlight of a season full of wonderful moments with the character. The show does a great job of mixing in humour and fun to an otherwise very serious show and the bard is a prime example of this. Hopefully he continues to spice up the soundtrack and the story in season 2.
Erik: Yes, I totally agree. The soundtrack is good, but never steals the spotlight. The only exception is indeed anything from Jaskier, the bard. It is hard to not compare the soundtrack of the Netflix adaptation to the videogame adaptation done by CD Projekt RED. Both use Slavic influences in their music and really set a tone. I can hear those influences in the Netflix series, but it also tries to keep the high fantasy vibe going. There just aren’t any earworms that viewers will find themselves humming from the show. Except for that one song. “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” has been stuck in my head for a month already. Damn you, Jaskier!
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Adaptation
Zack: The Witcher comes to Netflix in a weird way. While not the first adaptation of the property to television — its homeland Poland received a movie and TV series in the early 2000s — it is an adaptation made after the release of mega-popular The Witcher 3 video game several years prior. What that means is that there are expectations a good chunk of the video game-playing population has regarding what they expect The Witcher to be and what a more straightforward adaptation of the source material is. Let’s face it, for most parts of the world, The Witcher 3 is what The Witcher is supposed to look like. It certainly influenced the aesthetic of the show and Henry Cavill’s performance as Geralt. Some whiplash is to be expected when what the plurality of the audience knows is different than what the author had in mind.
In that regard, this may be the strongest adaptation of the source material yet. It more or less manages to adapt the text of several of the stories from The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny with a decent enough budget to pull them off in an acceptable, if unspectacular, fashion. As someone who has read some of the books, admittedly years ago, I was able to recall the details of stories as they were happening and this first season hits many of the high points from the various short stories. Having each episode be a distinct story is probably the right choice, but most episodes do a poor job of establishing the multiple running timelines and just how much time has passed between adventures. The clues are there, but even a location and date at the start of an episode would have helped to clear this up a bit.
While the “what” of the stories makes it through more or less intact, the how sometimes can feel a bit rushed. A book is often going to have an advantage in this regard, but the Netflix series can feel rushed with character-focused bits at some points. This feels particularly egregious with Ciri, who doesn’t really appear until the end of the printed short stories that lead into the novelized series proper. The Netflix show decides to introduce her from the beginning, weaving her earlier tales throughout a season that feels like it should be mostly a Geralt and Yennefer story. As a result she is given very little to do and her various bouts with Nilfgaard and the dryads feels inconsequential for the amount of screen time they take up. But on the whole, The Witcher lands as a success, if a rocky one. I look forward to seeing more of it.
Pascal: As mentioned earlier, I actually really enjoyed having to piece together the various timelines without it being spelled out to me, a challenge I would wholeheartedly recommend potential viewers to accept. It adds an extra sense of achievement; I like having to work a bit. One thing that was a bit difficult, admittedly, was not so much the “when” but the “where”. In a serious work of written fantasy fiction spanning such geographic distances, a printed map inside the book cover can be an invaluable resource. Here, we are depending on throwaway lines featuring land layout and cardinal directions to paint a mental image of the different kingdoms that become embroiled in battle towards the end of season 1, and it’s a bit daunting.
Only being familiar with The Last Wish, I thought episodes like Blaviken and Geralt’s battle against the striga worked particularly well. On the other hand, the episode “Bottled Appetites” was more of a let-down for me; Geralt’s adventure with a djinn that nearly kills Jaskier fell rather flat for me, largely due to the action being not much more than a lot of bluster. In the end, it really only served as a vehicle to get Geralt and Yennefer together for the first time (and oddly introduced some inconsequential side characters for five minutes who were never heard from again), and stands out in a season otherwise full of fantasy action.
Erik: When the credits rolled over the screen at the end of the last episode, I was just excited to see more. This season established the world and the characters, so give me season 2 and plunge me into the great story of the next book, Blood of Elves.
If you are looking for a great fantasy series and you are able to forgive it for some of the flaws we have discussed above, then go for it. And don’t forget to toss a coin to your Witcher.
Pascal: The Witcher was a highly enjoyable watch nearly from beginning to end, with only a few slightly lower points along the way, namely when the show veered away from its more enjoyable storylines to cover the side characters. Interestingly enough, it’s not always Geralt who’s in the limelight, as the show’s badass finale belongs almost exclusively to Yennefer, with Geralt and Ciri playing distant second fiddles.
I think those who will perhaps get the most out of the show are viewers like myself: familiar enough with the source material to know a bit of backstory about the characters and their relationships, but not so well-versed that it makes enjoying a new take on the material impossible. There is a cerebral element to the storytelling due to its multiple timelines, so those only looking for swords’n’muscles may get frustrated, but dissecting the narrative honestly makes the whole experience far more worthwhile than a simple watch would have.
Zack: Compared to the long-running tradition of disappointing or underwhelming video game adaptations, even though the series follows the book more, The Witcher ends up on the more positive side. On its own merits, it’s a messy show that nonetheless gets by on charm, charisma, and some interesting stories. It definitely left me wanting more, which is generally a good thing for the first season of a TV show, but I would like them to do better work on the overarching narrative, especially as going forward it will follow a much more traditional structure. Overall, I enjoyed the show, but I am a sucker for exactly this kind of storytelling.