Title: The Witcher, Episode One
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Streaming on Netflix
Created by: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich
Running Time: 58 minutes
Half the Swords, Half-Baked Witcher
A grey fawn sits peacefully by a grey lake in a grey forest. This shows the audience what kind of world you might see in the mind’s eye of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, creator of The Witcher.
A bleached Superman bursts out of a grey lake, in the grey forest, and hacks off one of a Kikimora’s spidery legs. This shows the audience that the titular character is strong.
Finished with his fight, the witcher turns to the deer, injured during the fracas, and goes to the deed of putting it out of his misery. There is no quarter spared for nature’s most cuddly. This shows the audience that this is a dark show.
Thus, we break into Netflix’s imagining of The Witcher, in which Polish studio CD Projekt Red turned into a popular series of role-playing games. Hot on the heels of Game of Thrones’ finale, The Witcher is grim and grimy and full of difficult to pronounce words with double vowels.
As a review of The Witcher’s first episode, The End’s Beginning, we’ll hit some very general elements and avoid spoilers.
The show is based on Sapkowski’s fantasy series of novels, which he started writing in the ‘80s, but it took inspiration from the games as well. Henry Cavill, for whatever reason, plays the witcher—more accurately, a witcher—a mutated super-exterminator that the dirty folk of this world require to deal with their various monster problems, but do not trust. The premier doesn’t delve into it beyond a child asking Geralt if he’s killed various monsters, but witchers are part pest control and part bounty hunter. They’re also kind of like medieval versions of Blade in that they must take on some of the powers of what they hunt to do the job effectively, and, as we know from every story ever, dumb townsfolk reject what they don’t understand.
For fans of the pre-existing material, Netflix’s series gets a lot of details right. Geralt’s black leather armor; his wolf-school medallion; the design of his sword; his yellow, cat-like eyes; his horse, Roach; all are spot-on. In light of those details, it’s curious that Geralt has only one sword since a witcher would never be caught without two on either his person or his horse: one steel, for the more mundane, and one silver, for supernatural threats that are resistant to former. I’m curious if he’ll procure or reveal a second in the future, particularly since he even comments that “silver is for monsters” at one point late in the first episode.
While the gray pall that falls over the show can get tiresome and feel like merely an attempt to mimic a television trend, The Witcher’s first episode uses it to draw a contrast with certain scenes where it switches things up, giving brief reprieve with bright, warm, lighting and orange hues.
The look of the show was excellent. The End’s Beginning is hard on the ears. Cavill’s affectation to voice Geralt sounds inspired by former co-star Ben Affleck’s Batman, and it’s difficult to pin down what accent he’s going for. Presumably American—a bit odd since he’s surrounded by people with British accents and he, himself, is British—but words sneak in that are unmistakably accented. (Apparently, this mess of an accent it intentional). Whatever it is, he uses it to deliver some painfully out-of-place quips that don’t fit the character or the show. He also does some deep and meaningful monologuing throughout the first episode that is meant to be hard-hitting but falls flat. That reflects poorly on both the writing and the actor’s delivery. Such pronouncements aren’t limited to Cavill; the show repeatedly tries to punch above its weight with the drama in episode one. So far, the show has done nothing to earn those stakes. It feels like a soap opera.
Rather than hold your hand with exposition, maps, and background, the show drops you into the thick of things, tossing out the names of foreign places and exotic creatures left and right. There’s something to be said for that, as it feels more natural than every character getting a tutorial in the world they live in every day, but it is easy to glaze over and feel like you’re missing important details. Oh, word? The Nilfgaardians are marching to avenge their loss at Karkistan, where their champion, Borgis, was slain by the queens uncle-in-law? And there might be a raging Fleemur on the loose in the East Fargish Woods? Yes, that’s all going to matter at some later date. It’s a shame I’ve already forgotten everything I just wrote.
While the dialogue could have used some work, the camera work was a cut above. Even working within the confines of a grey world, shots are used effectively and contrasted against each other to remain visually appealing. A massive battle scene—between somebody and somebody else, I’m sure—is framed exceptionally well, with wide shots of the barren land and rising sun providing a grand sense of scale for a Lord of the Rings-esque clash. Cutting the gory battle with scenes of a conversation provides effective relief.
The first episode features two main plotlines that, by the end, are destined to converge for the rest of the season. The one featuring not Geralt but a bunch of disposable royal-types is more compelling and well-executed, though Geralt’s does include a sharply choreographed fight scene at the end. Suffice to say, Geralt is a much more impressive fighter when battling other humans than CGI creatures (not sure how that bodes for a monster hunter).
The Witcher’s premiere is about forcing Geralt to make a choice despite his attempts to refuse. Recognizing moral ambiguity on both sides, he tries to remain impartial and avoid wronging anybody. He wants to go about his business. People don’t let him, and, as one character rather bluntly says, “You made a choice. You’re never going to know if it was the right one.”
Then everybody turns on him. This shows the audience that Geralt lives in a cruel, unfair world.
Verdict: If Aaron Sorkin took a whole bunch of drugs and tried to write a game of thrones knock-off, starting on season 5, episode 8, you’d get the first episode of The Witcher. It pushes too hard to be what it wishes it was and hammer its points home without doing the work of building up stakes. That said, there are some beautiful cinematography and costumes, and the show ended on a stronger note than it started on. I hold out hope that it will pick up in future episodes. It has time.
- Good cinematography
- Well-choreographed fight scene
- It might get better?
- Bad dialogue
- Questionable casting
- Which of these proper nouns matter?
- Show desperately wants you to care; it's hard to
- Crappy-to-the-point-of-funny sex scene