Tag Archives: The Witcher

Big, Cozy Fantasy Blanket — “The Wheel of Time”

One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.

I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.

When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.

Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.

One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.

The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.

These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.

I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.

“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.

The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.

The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.

I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.

To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.

The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.

It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.

There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.

There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.

By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?

The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.

There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.

Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.

The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.

I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.

You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.

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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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