Geralt and a Striga in Netflix Witcher series

The Stark and the Sumptuous — “The Witcher”

“The Witcher” as a Netflix series feels like walking into the middle of a “Final Fantasy” cutscene halfway through the game. Halfway through means about 70 hours in. It’s stunning, it’s emotional, it’s riveting, you’re missing a ton of context into the scope of why it matters, everyone’s hair is amazing, and 10 minutes later you’re going to put it all on hold to race Chocobos.

If you’ve never played a “Final Fantasy” game, “The Witcher” feels a lot like my opening paragraph. It’s willfully inaccessible, borders on the absurd, and despite that you’ve already read the second one.

“The Witcher” follows Geralt. Witchers are men like him, mutated at a young age to specialize in monster hunting in this medieval fantasy world. We also meet a hunchbacked young woman named Yennefer, who becomes a sorceress-in-training against her will. Finally, there’s Ciri – a child princess on the run from an invading empire.

Know that what I’m reacting to is the first three episodes. This is a review about how “The Witcher” is introducing itself, not the entire first season.

The show is sometimes ridiculous. It’s episodic. It careens through different tones. It’s grounded in straightforward plot that’s very serious until you meet the character who sees if you’re quick enough to pick up on his modern colloquialisms and meta jokes. Then it takes itself extremely seriously again. The occasional effect or wig looks ever so slightly silly. Then somebody’s arm is withering off or you’re confronted with a creature that would feel at home in a Guillermo Del Toro movie and you’re rooted to the spot. These things shouldn’t work together, but thankfully nobody told this to showrunner Lauren S. Hissrich.

The “Game of Thrones” comparisons are silly. “Game of Thrones” was a drama that proved to take itself too seriously in the end, obsessed with the detail of blood, grime, nudity, incest, and murder while forgetting the detail of its world and the people who lived in it.

“The Witcher” presents an exquisitely detailed world full of realistic people annoyed that the protagonist is interrupting their day. It’s a world that you want to stay in and investigate.

It still has all the blood, grime, nudity, incest, and murder that you could want, but these are usually incidental to solving a problem. Aside from some phenomenally crisp fight choreography, all these things are used as clues to larger mysteries – not as set pieces in and of themselves.

The show’s painted in broad strokes, but it’s filled with detailed design and nuanced performances. The plot is political and historical in a world where you know very little of the politics and history. That’s OK because the storytelling is always centered on the characters. These characters don’t always care and aren’t always informed about the politics and history. They’re often misinformed about that history, and the show quickly delves into genocides and massacres being painted over with propaganda.

Let me describe it this way. “Game of Thrones” was a show that always moved plot forward. Sometimes that meant losing consistency in its characters, because they were always serving the plot. Sometimes it meant forgetting about a character for ages because they weren’t important to the plot. That’s all well and fine, but then why should I care about that character? Sooner or later, it means you’re undermining your plot because no one remembers how those characters are supposed to act.

In other words, it’s fine for characters to be pieces on a chessboard. It’s a travesty when the writers begin thinking of them that way for their own purposes. If they show up and do something because it’s needed for the plot, and not because it’s what they choose to do, then that character is just a useful piece of scenery.

“The Witcher” is a show about characters moving through vast, complicated plots. Sometimes they only brush their way through the barest edge of someone else’s complex story. Sometimes, they’re the focal point of a plot that moves empires. The focus is rarely about what’s going to happen in this world or who’s going to be in power. The focus is what these characters are going to do to get through the damn day. What is Geralt going to do to solve a mystery, what is Ciri going to do to find safety, and what is Yennefer going to do to realize who she wants to be? The show gives us characters who actively resist a world that wants to treat them as chess pieces – Geralt through measure and information, Ciri through desperation, Yennefer through determination and anger. That’s a lot more interesting to me.

“Game of Thrones” was a show about who was going to rule an empire through conquest and political manipulation. It increasingly boiled down to rooting for a team and amping everyone up for the bloodiest matches.

“The Witcher” is a show about a guy who kills monsters for coin and has really bad days because he keeps on trying to do the right thing. His course seems to be guiding him toward a handful of other people who are also extremely good at their jobs and who also keep having really shitty days despite it.

I know that the characters on “The Witcher” will get more politically involved down the road, but these are still two really different shows. They shouldn’t be compared. This isn’t the new “Game of Thrones”, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

I’m coming to “The Witcher” as a fan of the exquisitely realized games. They started off atmospheric, convoluted, and problematic. The most recent delved into complex themes of othering, abuse, and systemic corruption while painting a gorgeous world to explore.

Some viewers will be coming to the show having played one or more of the games. The show’s based on the series of short story collections and novels that precede the games. It’s a joy to fill in some confusing blanks. You get to see certain legendary characters realized, and the origins of the ones you know best.

The most difficult part of shifting from the games to the show is that the games let you explore to your heart’s content. I have 240 hours in the third “Witcher” game and its expansions. That’s 10 real-time days of my life. And you know what? They’re really well spent – it’s a profound and often heart-wrenching piece of art. Yet because you have agency in the games, you can absorb the atmosphere of a moment and sit inside it. You can exhale after a harrowing moral decision and simply watch the sun set. You know what the water and wind in a frequently visited area sound like. You can appreciate a view. Some philosophical conversations with morally gray characters might take half an hour. A single mystery might unthread itself over hours and hours of playtime.

A TV show doesn’t have the time for that. It can’t do that unless it’s trading another big focus away. The show presents so many stark and beautiful vistas that you’d love to sit in, to feel, to explore. Yet you can’t. It’s the nature of being a show.

The advantage of being a show is just how much character and plot are conveyed. The first episode hits the ground running: “The End’s Beginning” feels like a mid-season episode in a show’s third season. There are advantages to that so long as you’re willing to trust the pace of “The Witcher” and let it take you. There are some things you’ll catch up on along the way – the important thing is to appreciate the character detail inside each scene and the movement of the plot overall.

After the second episode, “Four Marks”, I sat and thought about how complex an arc sorceress-in-training Yennefer had endured in just a few episodes. Then I realized she’d only been introduced that episode.

The third episode is the show hitting what I hope is its stride. “Betrayer Moon” is absolutely magnificent, tying together some threads begun in prior episodes while delivering elements of horror and mystery.

The world itself is one that’s medieval in nature, composed of often warring empires. Magic exists but is accessible only to a few. It requires extensive and dangerous training. Medical science is very advanced along particular avenues, to the point where the educated have access to knowledge about mutations and genetics. These in turn can be fiddled with when aided by magic.

The entire world is built on an original genocide – it was an elven world until a magical event took place centuries ago. It brought humans and monsters from other worlds there. The elves taught people how to survive, even sharing magic with them, and were in turn massacred and pushed out of their lands.

It’s a remarkable thing to hear a young man in a refugee camp talk about his pride in killing elves on land his people stole, while also talking about how he’ll rise against an invading empire that’s just taken his family’s home and land.

A lot of this is coded in from a place you might not expect. The original novels are by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Poland has a centuries-long history of being invaded, taken over, warred over by neighboring German and Russian kingdoms, and fighting and negotiating its way toward independence.

You’ll recognize the standout aspects of the show quickly. Its design is gorgeous and exceptionally varied. The cinematography works with that design in a sumptuous and textured way. The dialogue gets to the point and reveals character detail with deft skill.

The fight choreography is incredible – particularly the fights involving Geralt. Unlike “Game of Thrones”, it seems to remember that the purpose of armor is to be impenetrable to a sword, so strikes have to focus on exposed areas. It makes for a precise and efficient choreography that works with guards, redirection, and leverage. It’s fantastical because Geralt is fantastical, but it also makes so much more sense than the gritty but often shoddy fight choreography in “Game of Thrones”. That’s no knock on their fight choreographer, by the way. Vladimir Furdik led the fight choreography on both shows. It’s a knock on what was asked of him from other showrunners.

One of the most unique aspects of the show is that you keep a distance from these characters. It’s a strange but effective way of appreciating emotional investment. There are very few close-ups. Part of this reinforces the nature of these characters: Geralt’s mutations as a witcher have dulled his emotions, Yennefer possesses both exceptional vulnerability and power. They both keep people at arm’s length as a way of protecting themselves.

These are characters who don’t get close to people, so why should the audience be treated any differently? The show feels very protective of them, and that translates a level of care centered around their presentation in the story. The characters aren’t written or shown as trying to play on our emotions. They do emotional things sometimes, but for themselves – not us. They’re too busy trying to survive to worry about the audience. Instead, they act as those characters act in that moment. It makes them feel real in a world that draws from a challenging range of influences.

It’s a risky approach because it demands a lot from filmmakers and actors alike. They pull it off exceedingly well.

We’re grounded in the characters and the show’s care for them. We believe the world and the number of experiences and places thrown at them because they’re trying to get through it all. Henry Cavill does strong work as Geralt, and the job is deceptively hard given he needs to carry stories while limiting emotion. Anya Chalotra is the show’s standout, though. This is her show as much as Geralt’s from the minute she appears as Yennefer.

I don’t believe it’s an easy show or one that automatically caters to any and all viewers. At first I wrote that there’s a learning curve starting out, but I don’t think that’s really the case. It’s more that there’s a level of trust required on the part of the viewer. Put faith in where it’s going to take you, and the show impresses and rewards. That faith helps you enter into an incredible range of world-building influences, internal history, and complex moral stories. Three episodes in and I’m already resisting the urge to binge through it all so I can re-watch it in greater detail. That day will come, but I really want to take my time and enjoy it.

I’ve cried at “The Witcher” already, I’ve watched it with awe and glee, I’ve become wrapped up in it because this is what I didn’t know I wanted the show to be: rangy yet precise, both emotional and guarded, complexly layered yet efficiently told, beautiful yet deceptive, the stark cutting through the sumptuous. It tells tales of people surviving a world that ruins them, and that holds value now. It always holds value because somewhere somebody always needs to hear that story.

I love that the show guards these characters. I love that “The Witcher” gives them range within its story to act as they will, rather than play to the audience. I love that everyone in the show is concerned with what’s in front of them, a problem to solve, a day to get through, a situation to endure.

What communicates in “The Witcher” is that sometimes people surviving in a world that ruins them are pitted against each other for that survival. In those moments, that world doesn’t feel fantastical anymore. We wish those problems could be solved by slaying the occasional monster, but “The Witcher” is deeply interested in the human actions that cause those monsters to arise.

This is where the show’s already at its most compelling. You can beat the obvious monster in that moment, at a cost, exhausted, spent, and bloodied. Yet they were only created by someone else’s abuse, corruption, and greed, and those will continue churning out monsters that keep everyone pitted at each others’ throats for their own survival.

Sometimes we yearn for the world a work of fantasy gives us. We begin to feel separated from it when we set it down. The best works of fantasy can break our hearts this way. This is not at all what “The Witcher” does.

“The Witcher” yearns for a fantasy world: its tales evoke how separate we feel from our own. I don’t think it can break our hearts as much as its heart is already broken for us.

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