Review: “The Witcher” Casts a Tiresome Spell

The Witcher Henry Cavill in The Witcher (Netflix)

Netflix’s adaptation of the popular fantasy novel series is a puzzling mess that brings little new to the table except Henry Cavill’s wig.

Let me just get right to the point: if you’ve never read any of the books in the Witcher series, you’re going to be hopelessly lost trying to follow the TV series. I don’t mean lost like mildly confused, I mean lost like feeling as if you’re constantly overhearing only half of a conversation. There’s in media res, and there’s the sense that you’ve been left out in the middle of the woods with only a map for a town that doesn’t exist, and that’s The Witcher.

Following the conclusion of Game of Thrones, it was inevitable that streaming services would scramble around to find its heir apparent. Netflix seems to have come the closest with their adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy series, which spawned six novels, multiple short stories, comic books, RPGs, and video games. Like Game of Thrones, it’s an epic tale of medieval monsters, magic and palace intrigue, with a lot of nudity and even more blood and gore. What makes The Witcher’s adaptation unique is that it’s 100% fan service. If you’re not already familiar with the books, you won’t know where or when any of it takes place, you won’t know anything about the characters, or any of the mythology that drives them. Five episodes in, and it’s still not any clearer.

Henry Cavill is Geralt of Rivia, the titular witcher, who’s introduced fighting a giant crab monster. Grim and unsmiling, with long gray hair, Geralt looks like a handsome Vigo the Carpathian. It’s not entirely clear what a witcher is, except that it’s a person who hunts monsters for money. We don’t know if witchers or born or made, and we darn sure are never told why people seem to hate and fear them, even though they provide a pretty useful service, like the Orkin Man. Before going into monster-killin’ mode, Geralt drinks a substance that turns his eyes black. Why? No idea. We’re also never told what the “mutation” everyone keeps mentioning that he has actually is. The Witcher cries out for some scrolling text, or a supporting character providing a little exposition in voiceover. 

When movies featured on RiffTrax do a better job of establishing a plot and characters than your TV show, you have a problem. Instead, we have characters saying stuff like “You know what Vesimir would say…” No, I don’t know what Vesimir would say, because I don’t know who Vesimir is, and, as far as I can tell after five episodes, Vesimir never appears, nor is ever mentioned again. In episode two, we’re introduced to Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a meek peasant girl who’s taken under the wing of a powerful sorceress (MyAnna Buring). In the very next episode, Yennefer’s hair has gotten considerably longer, she’s making aggressive power moves to try to get a placement as a palace sorceress, and she’s having sex in front of a council of witches like it’s no big deal. Obviously some time has passed since the events of episode two, but it’s never made clear. Is it a few months? A year? Several years? We don’t know, and evidently it’s not important.

Now, you may be reading this and thinking “Patience, Gena, it will all be explained eventually.” Maybe it will, but there’s simply no reason to keep even the magical potion Geralt must drink before fighting monsters a secret after five episodes. It’s important, clearly, though if what it is is being concealed as some sort of late-season twist, I’ve already lost interest. There’s simply too much other television out there to waste time waiting for a show to parcel out even the smallest crumbs of information like priceless gems.

It’s particularly frustrating because all of this mystery and obfuscation is in service of a standard Fantasy-Horror 101 plot, in which a drinking game could be made out of how many times characters mention the word “destiny.” “We don’t serve your kind here,” a bartender snarls at Geralt, and later, when Geralt comes face to face with one of the supernatural creatures he’s been hired to kill, he’s told, “We’re not so different.” The Witcher borrows heavily from that most tiresome of fantasy-horror cliches, where humans are the real monsters, as illustrated when they commit elf genocide, a farmer sells his disfigured daughter for less than half the cost of one of his pigs, a woman refers to her little person servant as “one of the clean ones,” a man forces his sister to commit incest, etc. Perhaps that’s why they hate and fear Geralt, but, as you might have guessed by now, it’s not entirely clear.

When movies featured on RiffTrax do a better job of establishing a plot and characters than your TV show, you have a problem.

On the upside, the production values are good, the special effects are solid, the scenery is attractive, and the gore is plentiful. Anya Chalotra, despite being topless for much of episode five, brings some depth to Yennefer. Freya Allan as Ciri, an orphaned princess whose path will eventually cross with Geralt’s, is also strong, despite her character not being much beyond “spunky tomboy” yet. Henry Cavill, on the other hand, is a glowering deadweight for much of the show so far. Trying for a brooding, taciturn Aragorn thing, he mostly just looks annoyed and uncomfortable, only truly relaxed when he’s either taking his shirt off or punching someone.

I could read the books to fill in the vast amount of missing information in The Witcher. But, let’s face it, a TV show about a magical hunk dispatching of crab monsters with a big sword shouldn’t require additional homework. A film or TV adaptation of a novel series should make you want to read the book, not feel like you have to in order to keep up with what’s happening. It should be able to stand alone as its own thing. The Witcher is weirdly paced, in which things happen both too fast and too slow, and a spreadsheet is required to keep all the characters and how they connect with each other straight. It’s too much effort, for too little payoff.

The Witcher comes to slay starting December 20th.

The Witcher Trailer:

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