I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reviewing quality media lately. That’s all well and good, but I’ve been hankering for a good bit of trash to tear to shreds, and oh boy have I found some good fucking trash.
First, a disclaimer, so that I can at least pretend to be fair: I know a lot of people genuinely love the new Witcher series, and I can completely see why. It has a decent budget, the characters provide sufficient setup for better future seasons, and the sixth episode is actually pretty fine all on its own. It’s clearly trying to one-up Game of Thrones right off the bat, and, in some ways, it handily succeeds.
But everywhere else, it falls flat on its face and that’s honestly the best part about it. The series is sitting pretty at an 8.3 on IMDb. Let’s take it down a few rungs, shall we?
3P Reviews Series: The Witcher (show)
Spoilers: Yes. Also a minor spoiler for Fable II, because that’s the direction we’re going.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: What Is Plot?
In writing this part of the reviews, I have seen this show all the way through exactly once. For the purposes of comedy, I think it would be best if I try to recap it wholly from memory without additional context, as that’s how I imagine most people will watch this show. Here goes!
There is a man named Geralt of Rivia. He is a Witcher, and he hunts monsters. I’m not sure if all Witchers hunt monsters, but it certainly seems to be related somehow. He has yellow eyes and white hair. Of these, the hair seems to be the most unusual part of his appearance based on the comments of other characters, one of which is (word-for-word), “Did your mother fuck a snowman?”
Geralt goes around as a sort of monster bounty hunter, killing evil monsters (but only evil ones, unless the person hiring asks nicely) in exchange for money, or because one happens to pass by. Everyone hates him, even though they’re the ones who hired him, and generally benefit from the monsters being killed. They may hate him specifically for being a Witcher, or a mutant, which he also is. I have no idea what mutants are in this world, but Geralt implies that they’re sort of cursed, except that they’re not cursed, because being cursed means something different but also bad.
The important thing is that Geralt is a monster hunter who is kind of part monster himself, and has a great deal of knowledge about monsters from his experiences. He is also sympathetic to certain monsters that he knows are harmless but which often get killed by people regardless.
In the first episode, Geralt comes back from slaying a swamp crab zombie to an indifferent pub at a nearby town. Some people in the pub harass him about being a Witcher. Outside, he meets a child who brags about how she killed a dog and sold its corpse for a lot of money. She leads Geralt to a man who hires him to kill a young sorceress. Geralt initially refuses to take the job because he doesn’t kill people, but goes to see the sorceress anyway. Upon meeting her in the woods, he realizes she was a butch young woman who flirted with him earlier in a bar (I think — I’m bad with faces).
Suddenly, a castle is attacked! (Yes, it is this abrupt.) A woman is on the battlefield, but someone on her side dies and she’s distraught. I have absolutely no idea who this woman is or what happens to her. I thought initially she might be the sorceress, but that seems unlikely given the rest of the episode (and season). Inside the castle is some sort of demon-possessed queen, who is dying. She sends her child off to flee with some body guards, then screams and dies. The guards soon die as well, and the child ends up alone in a field with a tower, being chased by a black knight.
The child screams, revealing she too is demon-possessed, which makes the tower fall over, unfortunately not on top of the knight. It creates a chasm in the earth, separating the two, and the child presumably runs off.
Back with Geralt, he has decided to kill the sorceress, I think because she killed someone herself, but it’s not really clear. It also almost looks like she was the one who ordered the attack on the castle, but it becomes apparent that the castle nonsense is happening elsewhere, as Geralt chases the sorceress into the streets. He kills her, and with her dying breath, she falls into his arms and tells him his destiny is intertwined with that of the child in the woods (offering no more specificity). The dog-killing child from before arrives at the scene of the sorceress’ death, and they all shun Geralt out of the city. I don’t think he gets paid.
Episode Two! A farm girl, Yennifer, has kyphosis and other deformities, and is teased by other kids for it. She teleports to a cave outside of a sort of magical school, and meets a guard, who is understandably surprised to see her there. Another woman appears in the cave, this one apparently coming through tunnels. The guard greets her, then runs back to Yennifer (who is, like, thirty feet away) and warns her to stay away from the headmistress. A scene or two later, Yennifer is in class with a bunch of other students and that same woman, the headmistress, who gives them each a small rock and a flower, and asks them to lift the rock using magic. She tells them that this is their first trial, and only the most magically-capable of them will progress to the next trial. One girl succeeds, but her hand shrivels up, at which point the headmistress informs them that magic requires a sacrifice in order to work. She holds up the flower and burns it to magically lift the stone. (This rule for magic never applies or comes up again, by the way.)
All of the students try again, but Yennifer can’t make it work. In desperation, she eats part of the flower. Still nothing. The headmistress informs her that “Sometimes the best thing a flower can do for us is die.” And she dismisses Yennifer from the class.
Meanwhile, Geralt has found a bard! The bard sings at him while Geralt tracks down some monsters that have been causing problems for a small town. Geralt is unhappy about the bard, but powerless to do anything about him. (Big mood, Geralt; I too have played the Assassin’s Creed games.) He runs into a faun, who insults him, and then gets captured by elves. There’s something about the elves in Nilfgaard, wherever that is. (I know what you’re thinking — “Isn’t ‘Nilfgaard’ just a mash-up of the Norse words for where the frost giants live and where the humans live?” and yeah, probably.)
There are two main throughlines in the series regarding the elves: that they were nearly wiped out by men, and that they’re invading places with their enormous army. The elves eventually let Geralt go, and he and his bard walk off down a canyon.
Yennifer is back in class for the second trial, even though she failed the first one. The girls are to catch lightning in bottles. Many of them are injured or knocked back. Yennifer fails again, but attacks the headmistress with a magic ball this time. She then runs away.
The guard boy from earlier kisses her, and Yenifer returns to the school in time to see the headmistress turn all of the other students into yellow eels. The headmistress tells Yennifer that she knows she is there, and commands her to push the magician-eels into a pool (which they are about a foot away from and probably would have wriggled into anyway). Yennifer grabs a special eel-pusher and sets to work. The water glows. The head mistress informs Yennifer that she meant for her to win the trials all along.
I barely remember Episode Three, but it involves Geralt chasing down a demon thing. He eventually learns the demon is sort of a secret child of inbreeding and jealousy, and that the non-father cursed it or the cursed the mother or something. The important thing here is that Geralt decides to spare the creature if he can. Also, the bard has disappeared.
Yennifer, now the elite student of the school, wants to go to a ball with the king, but the headmistress says, no, you’re too ugly. Yennifer decides to undergo magical surgery to make her pretty, and her guard friend/lover tells her it’s a bad idea. She spurns him and goes for it anyway. The surgeon warns her that the process will make her sterile, and it’ll hurt, so she should be unconscious for it. She refuses. The procedure works, making her look like every other female character in the show, which means figuring out which one is her is now a matter of constant guesswork. She goes to the ball and dances.
Episode Four: Jaskier the bard is back! He happens to run into Geralt in a pub, the pub-goers now much happier with Geralt due to that catchy song you’ve probably seen memes of. It comes up a lot in this show, often in places it doesn’t need to be. As does the bard himself. Jaskier gives Geralt a bath, then asks Geralt to go to a ball with him to protect him from a man whose wife Jaskier slept with (I know, I was excited for how the scene started, too). He tries to disguise Geralt as a nobleman, but several people at the ball recognize him. The queen takes a liking to him and has him sit next to her, like he’s her husband or something.
The ball is supposed to be an occasion for men to offer their hand to the princess, who rejects every proposal until a knight comes along. The knight declares his love, but his head is covered, and the queen orders his helmet removed. It comes off to reveal that the man is part porcupine. The princess runs up to the porcupine-man and proclaims him her long-lost love. He drank from a stream when they were kids, and that’s what cursed him. The queen is outraged and wants the man killed. Geralt says that they’re right about him being cursed, and when the queen’s men attack the knight, Geralt steps in to defend him. The party breaks out into an all-out brawl, until Geralt drinks some juice and pulls a power move that stops everything with Witcher magic. Porcupine Knight and the princess get married, sort of, in the middle of the dance floor, and somehow this lifts the curse.
Porcupine Knight, now with less porcupine, asks to pay Geralt for his service, and Geralt off-handedly claims something called the Law of Surprise, which means they owe him something they have but don’t know about yet. Without missing a beat, the princess vomits on the floor (vomiting happens quite a few times in this show, actually). Surprise! She’s already pregnant, and Geralt’s just accidentally Rumpelstiltskinned her child. He is thrilled about this, obviously. He takes his bard and leaves.
In this same episode, a different young princess and her baby are guarded by a powerful witch, who I think is supposed to be Yennifer. How did she get there? Why is she their guardian? Who knows. That blonde-headed girl from the first episode also has moments in this and every episode, and does very little of note, but I want to remind you that she’s still here, too, because I am still at a loss for that as well.
Anyway, this princess’ wagon is attacked by some sort of assassin and his giant pet bug. Yennifer creates portals for them to jump through to escape, but the assassin follows them. Yennifer realizes the woman is being tracked by something and strips the girl of her jewelry, but the assassin keeps following. The princess offers him the baby in exchange for her life, but he kills her anyway. Yennifer, who is now baby-obsessed for some reason, tries to flee with the infant, but the assassin throws a knife into Yennifer’s back, and the baby dies.
In Episode Five, Geralt goes fishing. The bard finds him again, even though it seems by this point they are not travelling together, nor is either of them trying to find the other. Jasker pesters Geralt for some food, and Geralt says, no, he’s fishing for genies. He’s tired, and needs a djinn to put him to sleep. When he pulls up an amphora from the lake, Jaskier immediately wrestles him for it, uncorking the bottle. Jaskier wishes that the djinn straight-up murder a man he doesn’t like and then wishes that a woman who left him should want to get back together with him. Before he can make a third wish, the djinn chokes(?) Jaskier, and leaves him ill. The amphora breaks. Geralt takes his bard to a nearby healer (just in the woods — it’s very weird), who sends him to a brothel in town, but warns him about the woman there.
Geralt drops Jaskier off at an orgy and asks for the woman’s help. She agrees to help him initially, but then takes a bath with him and gets handsy. Geralt is into it. He wakes up in prison, realizing he’s been duped. Jaskier, meanwhile, discovers the woman trying to turn herself into a new amphora for the djinn. Geralt breaks out of prison and comes to the rescue, revealing that he was actually the person the djinn was bound to grant wishes to. He makes his wish, freeing the djinn, and then he and the brothel owner have hot and steamy sex (while Jaskier watches). Geralt then passes out, getting that sleep he wanted in the first place.
The next episode is the one good one, and it’s still pretty squirrely. Jaskier has found Geralt again. They have been invited to a dragon hunt! Geralt doesn’t like to hunt dragons, and Jaskier doubts they’re real, but four other teams of people have been invited to kill a dragon killing livestock at a nearby village, so they’re jumping on the bandwagon. But who should show up but a woman dressed in gray furs! I have no idea who she is. Geralt and the camera do, though, and seem intimidated by her, so I assume it’s Yennifer. This is the point where I realize the brothel owner from the previous episode was also probably Yennifer. How did she go from failed body guard to brothel owner? Who knows! I’m more concerned at this point about how the character seemed to be in her young teens at the start of the series and I have no idea how much time is supposed to have passed since then. Not enough, is my guess.
Anyway, everyone is off, hunting the dragon competitively, together. I don’t care much about competition, so I’m fine with it. There are some dwarves and a smarmy fella. The smarmy fella, who looks to be a prince, kills a lemur-like creature and Geralt gets angry at him. He then eats the creature and gets diarrhea. The others later learn that he has been murdered while taking a dump. This has nothing to do with the dragon hunt. The little girl from before is living with the elves, and opts to not live with the elves anymore. She runs off, is nearly assassinated, and the cinematography implies that she is in the same forest as the dragon hunters. She is not. She does not encounter any of them, and never appears in the episode after that.
Geralt gets into a conversation about dragons and the colors they come in. A guy dressed in fancy gold clothes overhears and claims there are golden dragons. Geralt says no, that would have to be a recessive mutation, so they don’t exist (???). While climbing a mountain, fancy clothes guy falls off a cliff. Geralt tries to save him, but he lets go of Geralt’s hand to keep Geralt from dying too. Fancy clothes guy’s two body guards also jump off the cliff, even though neither of them are in danger.
The remaining party gets to the dragon cave and finds the dragon dead with an egg. The two guards from before appear and threaten Geralt and Yennifer. Then a golden dragon appears and talks to them. It‘s fancy clothes guy! He tells them that they can’t move the egg or it will die, and asks Geralt to help protect the egg from the other hunters. Geralt does. Yennifer tries to kill the dragon because a folk remedy says that she can use a dragon uterus in place of her own or something, but at the last minute, she decides not to kill it. The dragon turns back into a human and gives the hunters who lagged behind dragon teeth to give to their king. Everyone lives happily ever after, except Geralt is angry at Jaskier and I think Yennifer runs off.
I reiterate, this is the good one.
Episodes Seven and Eight are a two-parter for some reason, and I barely remember anything that happens in them! The incoherence of the episodes is mainly due to them being battle-heavy, with most of the run time occupied with preparing for and then fighting in a sequence that makes the Battle of Helm’s Deep feel brief.
Geralt senses that the child he accidentally bought is in danger, so he rides to the castle from Episode Four. She’s safe, and she’s also twelve now, which means I’ve completely lost track of any sense of time in this series. No clue where Jaskier is. Yennifer plays a part in the battle and argues with her former headmistress about something, but otherwise, she’s mostly absent from these episodes as well.
Oh, also, the girl’s name is Ciri, which is the name of the girl the story has been partially following along her dull adventures through the woods. This is the most bizarre choice made in this episode, and possibly the series as a whole. Normally, when a series reveals that two events played alongside each other actually occur in different timelines, there’s, you know, a point to it. A reveal. A moment of clarity. Something.
Not here; the show drops the name as though this character just happens to have the same name and look identical to the child in the woods, like it assumes the audience already figured it out. Except, then they replay scenes we’ve already seen, which simultaneously points out how unimportant those scenes were initially and makes them wholly redundant here. It is not dissimilar to someone revealing the punch line of a joke early on in the conversation, setting up the joke later, not realizing they’ve played their hand already, and repeating the punchline anyway, but with all of the verve of a statistics professor. It’s kind of hilarious, especially when you realize how much of a nothing character Ciri is in the story. The plot would remain unchanged if she were a sack of coins with a cartoon dollar sign drawn on the front.
Back to the plot, insofar as one exists. Geralt is unconvinced that the castle could withstand an attack, so he negotiates to take Ciri out of the city for a while. I don’t think Geralt has any reason to be so adamant at this point aside from a vague “feeling” that shit is about to hit the fan. The queen refuses to give up her granddaughter, since Ciri’s parents, Porcupine Lad and the princess, have died tragically in a boat accident (exactly like the parents from Frozen). After a few unsuccessful attempts to persuade her otherwise, Geralt leaves.
The elves attack! Yeah, I have no idea why they’re attacking, but I think it’s something to do with persecution by humans. So, you know, it’s nice to see the persecuted people as the villains of this story. Very woke. We see the battle from the first episode, which still makes very little sense except now it’s also less exciting because we’re seeing it for the second time in one season, in its entirety. There’s a lot of yelling, people I don’t recognize fighting each other, some magicians show up.
Seriously, imagine Helm’s Deep, but spliced into the middle of the fifth Harry Potter film. That is exactly how cohesive this sequence is.
At some point, Ciri escapes, and at some other point, Geralt passes out and ends up in a farmer’s wagon. They find each other at the farm, leaving me wondering when on earth Ciri’s entire subplot was supposed to take place. They hug.
End of season.
Part Two: What?
As you can imagine, the show has problems that the gloriously absurd summary only starts to touch upon. Foremost among these is that the story lacks any real focus or hook. Why would you want to watch this series, aside from to make fun of it? The characters, plot, and world are an offbrand generic version of The Lord of the Rings, the effects are good but have no relation to anything else in the story, and the show lacks structure so severely, it threatens to collapse and smother everyone working on it. Occasionally the show seems marginally self-aware of its own faults and tries to become a tongue-in-cheek comedy, but the rest of the show remains dead-serious, clashing with the comedic elements rather awfully and implying the show was intended to be straight-laced and viewed as such. Even if the show opts for a lighter tone moving forward, I sincerely doubt Netflix intended to spend a hundred million dollars on a Game of Thrones parody.
Speaking of Game of Thrones, one of the more unintentionally hilarious moves The Witcher makes is to provide several easy points of comparison to that other expensive fantasy show. Plenty of articles warn against comparing the two, as although The Witcher boasts a budget and genre comparable to mid-series Thrones, its story is simpler and less nuanced. I’ve never held the writing of Game of Thrones in especially high regard, so I’m inclined to see such warnings as embarrassed attempts to excuse The Witcher, much as early concern about Better Call Saul tried to distance it from Breaking Bad. The Witcher is not coy about its relationship to its predecessor; indeed, it seems to think it has not only matched but exceeded the standards set by Game of Thrones.
Slow, plodding villains in the first few seasons? Psshhtt, we’re going to introduce our main character fighting a swamp monster!
“Look at me,” says The Witcher. “My dragons are fully-grown at the start of the series!”
You couldn’t afford to show a battle in your first season? Ha, amateurs! I’ll throw an expensive battle into the very first episode!
Meanwhile, said battle is easily the most confusing part about the first episode and clearly doesn’t belong there.
Indeed, most of the decisions made by The Witcher that try to parallel or one-up Game of Thrones feel dissociated from the story the rest of the show is trying to tell. While the establishing shots and creatures are admittedly impressive, the show doesn’t seem to have a clear handle on when or where to use them. The dragon in the sixth episode is well-made, but it just sort of sits there, barely moving. The massive Hogwarts-like castle is positioned precariously on an island in a frothing ocean, an impressive visage, but we return to it so rarely that the effort spent in introducing it is irrelevant. Most of the monsters Geralt battles are either obscured, implying the massive budget couldn’t go quite that far, or resolved through non-violent means, which belies the show’s attempt to make all encounters fights. The show has something of an obsession with violence and flashy sword fights (which we will get to, mark my words), many of which as superfluous or even contradictory to Geralt’s entire character thesis.
And this is the point where I should probably admit that I know a bit more about the Witcher lore than I earlier let on. Now, most of what I know is second-hand through people who like the series, but I am somewhat familiar with the setup of the series and other depictions of Geralt. The most recent Witcher adaptation that many fans will be aware of is the video game The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, which came out in 2015 to great acclaim and is widely touted as one of the most narratively complex RPGs out there. I have played a little bit of it, and while I haven’t put in the hours necessary to get a full scope of the game, its narrative emphasis holds. Admittedly, I’m less familiar with the main plot of the game, but it’s the escapades Geralt finds himself on that craft the core appeal of the story anyway. The series sets up Geralt as a figure perhaps a decade or two past his heyday, somewhere between youthful adventurer and wizened mentor. He has a ward named Ciri whom he trains and teaches, but she’s too young to go adventuring with him. Geralt himself is still readily capable of taking on missions like any fantasy hero, but he’s been around for long enough that few things aside from human ignorance and cruelty surprise him. He’s a bit jaded from the worse things he’s witnessed, and if he lived in the modern world, he’d be thinking about retirement. The main reason he hasn’t given up and gone off to settle down in a cottage in the woods is simply that he doesn’t know how. This is his life, and he’s often the only one available for the job.
The Witcher series is based on Eastern European folklore and comes from a Polish writer, but the archetype Geralt portrays has continuity with American cowboys and pulp detectives. Indeed, some of the mechanics of The Witcher III revolve around tracking creatures and investigating mysteries related to them. These elements are important in defining the identity of The Witcher as a series, not merely because they are entertaining in their own right, but because they serve as a springboard from which the narrative can push far further than others of its genre generally do. The Witcher III, at least from my understanding of it, focuses on small stories and the profound emotions of its characters as they go about their lives. Rather than the fantastical creatures or world being the series’ main appeal, these elements are merely the hook to attract an audience, before the stories told about and around Geralt start to converge on topics that span a far greater breadth than the superficial curiosity of the fiction.
This strategy of writing deeply emotional character moments that could, without much difficulty, be disconnected from their source and relate to a reader’s real life is found in other fantasy series, even moderately basic ones. The game Fable II, for instance, has a side quest where a man begs the main character for help rescuing his son. The son was kidnapped by hobbes, little gremlin-like creatures that are basic early game enemies that usually pose more of an inconvenience than a threat to the player. However, they appear to eat people and cause problems to the ordinary townsfolk of the game, so the man traveling with you is understandably frightened. You escort him through the cave, defeating droves of hobbes easily, but find that you have reached the boy too late; the Hobbs have turned him into one of them. The father who recruited you is disconsolate, and refuses to leave the tunnel.
Fable II is not an especially deep game, and while the series occasionally delves into moments of grief like this, it often does so in a fairly cartoonish way. It’s easy, for instance, to miss the dramatic revelation entirely if the father dies on the escort mission, if you aren’t in the room with him when he finds his son, or if you accidentally kill the hobbe that’s supposed to be his son before he gets there. The core of the Fable games is not story, but rather the joy of running around a creative and often oddly comedic fantasy landscape. Like many games, its appeal is in its mechanics, so moments like the episode with the hobbe boy are anomalistic and don’t leave much of a lasting impact on the player.
The Witcher III crafts its core gameplay around narrative, turning poignant little episodes of its own into memorable events in the life of the main character. Even though the game offers little in the way of meaningful choice, the humanity in the responses of characters makes the audience to view them less as interactive toys, as in most games, and instead allows the audience to attach to them like characters in a film.
What I’m trying to say through all of this is that even the video game of The Witcher is a better Witcher show than the actual show is.
Part Three: On Geralt’s Dance Moves
For all of its writing foibles, The Witcher is nonetheless successful. We’re getting at least one more season, and if the money put into the show is any indication, I would venture to guess Netflix isn’t likely to give this one up easily. So what are we to make of the series?
Well, if I’m honest, I’d rather fewer people watched it, as entertainingly bad as it can be. The series isn’t especially worse in its treatment of female and minority characters than conventional fantasy tends to be, but it still propagates many unkind tropes, and as a follow-up to Game of Thrones, we have a certain obligation as viewers to do what we can to ensure that the trends set in fandom reflect the direction we want society to go. It’s gotten plenty of lukewarm attention already by those hoping it will slowly edge toward marginal improvement in subsequent seasons. It’s 2020; we don’t have time for bullshit anymore. If you’re going to talk about the series, slam it. It’s what it deserves, and also, it’s fun.
With that in mind, I’d like to touch upon the more fundamental problems the series has.
The Witcher reminds me a lot of Bright, in that it’s a clumsy execution of what seems at first to be a fine idea, but which on closer inspection, is more or less unsalvageable. Bright was a film that took the fantasy tropes from The Lord of the Rings and set them in modern-day Los Angeles, attempting to use the fantasy concepts of race to comment on the racial tension between white and black L.A. communities in the real world. It was a bit of a mess.
Lindsay Ellis pointed out the specifics of why Bright doesn’t work on really any level in her excellent video essay Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding (which I think I’m unintentionally aping a bit in the way I’ve structured this review, but it’s a well-made essay that warrants homage). In her video, Ellis explains that the plot of Bright is clunky in a way that makes the actions of the characters confusing and the progression of scenes incoherent. On top of that, the film mangles its attempt at political commentary by failing to recognize the subtext it has imported alongside its fantasy elements. However, even if these two not-insubstantial issues were resolved, the underlying issue remains: Bright‘s worldbuilding is superficial. Says Ellis, “There’s no imagination put into the history of the world past the central conceit of a modern setting with orcs and elves in it.” The potential of the film only really goes as far as its premise.
The Witcher does not often try to make comparisons to real world strife, for which we should perhaps be thankful, given its abyssal track record with the few subjects it does try to comment on. However, it still bears a similarity to Bright in that re-cutting it so that the plot makes more sense and the delivery is smoother would not improve the story much. The Witcher show’s problems are tied up in its core point — namely, that it doesn’t have one.
I mean, I’m sure it makes money for Netflix, so I guess it has a point in that sense, but internally, the show offers nothing of substance to its audience. It doesn’t have much in the way of compelling characters, its plot has no meaningful progression and seems confused over whether it wants to be continuous or episodic, and although the show has clear themes, it seems wholly uninterested in exploring them.
Nominally, the show focuses on Geralt’s internal conflict as the core around which everything else revolves. Several episodes, including the first one, point to Geralt as someone who craves company and affection on some level, but is largely isolated from the rest of the world because he’s a Witcher. His romantic relationship to Yennifer is significant because she’s similarly isolated but responds to it in a more violent way. Jaskier is one of the few normal people willing to spend time around Geralt, which is why Geralt tolerates him despite not meshing well with Jaskier’s personality. His main goal throughout the first season is to find Ciri, with whom he shares some crucial bond, and the season ends with their finding each other, no longer alone.
This is a fine foundation on which to build the show. However, this is not what the show seems to want to be.
If my limited familiarity with the broader series is anything to go on, I wouldn’t be surprised if this setup is the core of the original books and perhaps other adaptations based on them. However, scenes relating to Geralt’s internal conflict and the theme of isolation are relatively sparse in the show, and the show doesn’t seem to have a good grasp on how to use these concepts to tell its story. Indeed, the show seems to prefer very basic fantasy tropes as a means of storytelling, favoring the depiction of Geralt as a brave knight who has to solve the world’s problems because everyone else is too stupid to breathe. Many of the fantasy elements critical to understanding the drives of characters are distilled until they no longer make sense as anything other than faint homage to the original source material. How does the magic system work? Who are all of these royals and what do they control? Do the fantasy beings like elves and dwarves live in their own kingdoms, or are they more like indigenous people whose territories overlap with those of the humans? What even is a Witcher, and why do some people seem to dislike them?
These are kind of important questions considering they directly feed into the structure of the world and the actions of the characters within it. Isolation as depicted in the few thematically-coherent scenes is an externally-driven phenomenon. If we don’t even understand how those external forces work on a basic level to isolate Geralt, how can we hope to explore what that isolation means to him? Especially if the series is extremely reluctant to make Geralt vulnerable in any visible way? Essentially, the show has created an expansive fantasy world that it refuses to show us, and deeply conflicted characters it refuses to let us meet.
The fight scenes are a neat little microcosm of where The Witcher‘s priorities lie. Even beyond the chaos of the big battles, individual skirmishes between Geralt and other figures throughout the series point to a vapid, rote lifelessness that is covered in the most superficial way by meaningless flair that isn’t actually as impressive as it initially seems.
Take the swordfight at the end of the first episode. Geralt walks into town in a shot I believe Netflix used in its Witcher trailers, and comes across a blockade of burly men, none of whom we’ve met before to my knowledge. They exchange a few words, almost none of which make sense even upon rewatching the episode, culminating in Geralt reluctantly realizing he’s going to have to fight them. Geralt’s resignation is supposed to convey that he so outmatches these overconfident grunts that he’ll tear through them like tissue paper, a common trope among experienced fantasy badasses, especially those who don’t look or act particularly combative. Except, we’ve seen Geralt fight already at the start of the episode, and it’s not exactly like he looks meek or unprepared. His reluctance to fight is perhaps related to his moral code that he only kills monsters, as comes up in the dialogue throughout the scene, but if that’s the case, he’s both far too brutal in the subsequent fight to seem remorseful and far too quick to calm himself for the fight to have stirred some sort of bloodlust he was trying to avoid. The show is mimicking a beat from other fantasy series without care for why that beat occurs in those other series.
The fight itself is fast and sleek, initiated with an expensive-looking CGI arrow that Geralt deflects. It’s all done in one shot, too, which normally I would love. Save the oddly gory note of a man getting his head bifurcated by Geralt, the first few seconds of the shot are fine. As Geralt turns the corner, though, even someone not very well-versed in stage combat (hello) can recognize that Geralt is moving somewhat slowly from man to man, each of them taking turns to attack, not even positioning themselves like video game characters to surround him, just waiting until the guy in front of them has been killed.
And that’s when the spinning starts.
Now, I am about as experienced in swordfighting as I am in rocket science, but I did once find myself in a fencing club. I have very little idea of how I got there, given that I’m the least athletic person I know, but I did learn a few important things in the process. For one, if you are fighting with swords with the aim of hitting someone, you generally don’t aim for their sword, certainly not in a way that will ensure they block you automatically. For another, swords are pointy. You don’t need to swing halfway across the room to land a hit. Granted, fencing swords are not supposed to be lethal, but the longer you take in the swing, the more opportunity your opponent has to stab you. Bladed weapons are far more about precision than power, especially if you’re using shorter blades, like knives. And for a third, you don’t spin around like a goddamn ballerina in the middle of a swordfight, for any reason. Because why would you? It leaves you wide open to attack on almost every side, it makes you dizzy, it keeps you from seeing your target, and most importantly, it messes with your footing. The whole point of footing is to reduce the target you present, keep you from falling over, and provide a platform for you to push off from for faster and stronger attacks. By spinning, you lose all of those advantages and gain absolutely nothing.
Several of the characters in The Witcher spin around every fucking time their sword hits something. For every fight. In every episode. It’s one of the most asinine things I have ever seen in my life.
So no, unless the series turns into The Witcher on Ice, I don’t have high hopes for the next season.