The Witcher series review: Middling affair with streaks of brilliance
The Witcher, the new Netflix fantasy series, based on the books of Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, fails to exploit its immense potential but turns out fine anyway
Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski has created a world that easily lends itself to the web series medium. Teeming with dragons, elves, dwarves, strigas, kikimoras, bruxas, witches, mages, and everything mystical, The Witcher universe is already familiar and popular among fans of the successful video game series of the same name. It is no wonder then that Lauren Schmidt Hissrich decided to make a show out of it for Netflix. But, perhaps the very abundance of the source material and storylines has led to a chaotic show that puts the onus on the viewer to fathom the tangled narrative.
Even for someone who has read the first short story collection, The Last Wish, it took some time to sort out the chronology of the events that were sprawling in a confusing pattern. A decades-long jump of the storyline is just announced in a dialogue. The never-aging capabilities of the characters don’t help either.
The eight-part first season of The Witcher essentially comprises three storylines. The first one is that of the witcher, Geralt of Rivia, a mutant with extraordinary physical and magical powers, which are further enhanced when he gulps down potions. It is the story of the redemption of this cynic, who considers destiny and order of the universe to be “horse shit.” The show would have been more layered had there been a proper justification for his transformation from a pessimist to a believer of destiny. The same could be said for the narrative of the mage, Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), who finally believes that she, after all, has a legacy to leave behind. The third one — perhaps the most underwritten of the lot — is the redundant story of Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan). This hapless child, the only heir to a fallen kingdom, is always on the run meeting similar foes and friends.
The show is torn between wanting to have an adventure/monster per episode and trying to tell the spinal storyline simultaneously. The attempt here is to adapt the first two short-story collections — The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny — and narrate the adventures of Geralt running into different monsters every episode, and at the same time, indulge in world-building and prep us for the story of the Witcher novel series. This method might have been worked with words, but as a show, this is only confounding. It is more bewildering than intriguing.
In the show, a sorceress, Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring) tells her students, “Magic is organising chaos… Balance and control. Without them, chaos will kill you.” It would have turned out to be a self-referential joke had the waywardness killed the show, but The Witcher survives, largely thanks to the spunk it exhibits at several moments. For instance, the way the fourth episode Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials introduces us to the world’s The Law of Surprise is stylish with the right degree of pomp. Here, it is more intrigue than bewilderment.
Other saving graces are the convincing performances of the lead cast. Henry Cavill's hefty build fits like a glove for the role of Geralt. As a taciturn and expressionless mutant, Cavill doesn’t have to do much here with his face but he compensates for that by breaking a lot of sweat in the strenuous fight sequences. However, the best of the lot is easily Anya Chalotra as Yennefer. Starting out as a hunchback woman with a facial disfigurement, Anya turns out to be a stunner and shines in both the looks.
Without a doubt, The Witcher's performance will be compared to the unflinching success of Game of Thrones as it is expected to fill the void left by the HBO hit show. But that is just unfortunate, and given the shaky start of The Witcher, a bit unrealistic. Yet, the spell cast by The Witcher is effective to a certain degree and all is not lost for the show.