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The Witcher Season 1 (1.1-1.5) Review

December 20, 2019 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Witcher Netflix
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The Witcher Season 1 (1.1-1.5) Review  

Author’s Note: This is a spoiler-free review for The Witcher based on screeners for the first five episodes provided by Netflix.

The Witcher

“Evil is evil, Stregobor. Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I’m not a pious hermit. I haven’t done only good in my life. But if I’m to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”

– Geralt of Rivia, from The Last Wish, Introducing The Witcher; By Andrzej Sapkowski

Welcome to The Continent. It’s a world besieged by conflict. The nobility and monarchy classes rule over the weak and the poor. War is waged. The innocent suffer. Human and non-human races are constantly at odds. The peaceful non-humans have been marginalized and mistreated. If war, plague or famine doesn’t take you, then all manner of vicious monsters just might rip to you shreds. In a world where myth and monsters are a way of life, those bred for monster hunting are the Witchers. They are an elite band of monster hunters for hire, bred and mutated since childhood. The Witchers are this world’s thankless exterminators. Due to their genetic mutations that grant them their enhanced abilities, they are generally shunned by “civilized” society and ostracized by the nobility — the same people who will come crawling to them to perform the dirty jobs no one else wants. This is the world of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher.

Walking the Path of the Witcher is one Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a Witcher hailing from the School of the Wolf in Kaer Morhen. As our designated Byronic hero, or rather antihero, Geralt seeks to stay on the Path and avoid getting involved in the affairs of men. However, the Sword of Destiny has a way of manipulating fate, and “Destiny” has a debt to collect on Geralt that he’s been avoiding for years. He will not be able to avoid paying the debt much longer. On the other side of destiny is a young girl, a princess named Ciri (Freya Allan). Ciri is put on her own journey of self-discovery and a search for Geralt of Rivia.

The Witcher arrives in a post-Game of Thrones television landscape. It’s a dark fantasy series that pulls absolutely no punches, and it couldn’t have arrived sooner. Based on Sapkowski’s best-selling book series, executive producer and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich exceptionally captures the morally ambiguous world of the book saga that became known worldwide, due to the blazing success of The Witcher video game series developed by CD Projekt RED, and based on the same source material. The new television series is based strictly on the original books, and it’s a fresh, exciting, sword and sorcery romp.

Unquestionably, there are some bumps along the way in the first season. It’s already been debated to death at this point, but some of the design choices, such as the Nilfgaardian armor, are very questionable. The reveal for a crucial character, Cahir (Eamon Farren), is a significant letdown, as the reality doesn’t quite meet the ambition. To their credit, it appears the complaints have reached the ears of the producers, and hopefully, the issue will be amended later.

Eamon Farren as Cahir. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes.

The other main criticisms are more or less nitpicks. Specific events are switched around. Certain characters are either MIA or transferred to other times and locations. As a result, some significant events, precious characters and passages from the books are sadly missing. Some of the changes are understandable for the sake of adapting the narrative for a television-viewing audience. The good news is that this sometimes leads to some surprising twists. The bad news is that some dynamite pieces of dialogue or character interactions are gone, or they have not always been improved for the better.

The Witcher is not Game of Thrones, and that’s a good thing. It does not attempt to emulate Game of Thrones. This is dark fantasy, but Hissrich is tells the story at her own pace and in a unique fashion that’s interesting and refreshing.

Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes.

Thus far, the fight choreography looks impressive. The camera is able to stay in close on Henry Cavill during a lot of his sword fights and stunt choreography. The production crew took great pains to adapt a unique, visually enthralling fighting style for Geralt that makes sense from a narrative standpoint. Geralt is not human in the traditional sense. His Witcher mutations give him enhanced abilities, senses, strength, speed and reflexes. The Witcher Signs imbue Geralt with limited magical abilities to use during combat.

Specifically, Geralt’s reflexes are sharper and more honed than those of a normal human. His fighting style in the show reflects that. When a brigand prepares to draw his sword, Geralt is already there, ready to slice him in two before he can think about his next parry. There’s an amazing sword sequence in the first episode that had the audience in attendance at the world premiere at the Egyptian theater giving it a well-deserved round of applause.

Performance wise, I am happy with the results of Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. He was not my first choice to play the character. I was always keen on the idea of Black Sails star Zach McGowan as Geralt. Cavill more than surpassed my expectations. He really gets a chance to stretch his acting legs in a way Zack Snyder never allowed him to. Perhaps, he was always better suited to play a brooding loner, such as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Maybe he could have played a more traditional Superman, but he was never really given the opportunity. However, the distinguishing feature with The Witcher and Geralt is that the whole brooding, tortured loner act is where Geralt lives. Geralt hangs his hat on being a gruff, brooding antihero. That works for Geralt of Rivia. It doesn’t work for Superman.

Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes.

Cavill has very enjoyable material to work with here. Geralt’s people skills are like the inverse of a well-practiced Jedi Knight. He attempts to mind trick people and use reverse psychology to get out of sticky situations, but those tricks only seem to have the opposite effect and draw him in deeper to where he does not want to be, cozying up with nobles or getting involved in royal squabbles — much to his chagrin. Along with Geralt’s unique fighting style, these are important, indelible aspects of the character that both Cavill and Hissrich have pulled off beautifully.

You cannot talk about Geralt of Rivia without discussing Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra). Fans of the source material know how crucial and integral this character is to the lore. I was incredibly skeptical and concerned when I first heard about Anya Chalotra’s casting. My initial thoughts were she looks nothing like Yennefer, and she was too young. Granted, I knew very little about her actual body of work, but there was a time when I sincerely believed she was not capable of pulling this off. I was unequivocally, 100% wrong, and I personally told this to Chalotra when I spoke to her.

Without getting into too much detail, Anya Chalotra knocks it out of the park as Yennefer. Her backstory is suitably fleshed out here. Chalotra takes Yennefer through so many different stages of her life, and it’s a very rough, harrowing journey. This was not an easy role to accomplish. Chalotra captures the essence of Yennefer and the building blocks of an extraordinary relationship with Geralt.

Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes.

There is only once choice here to accurately describe The Witcher’s show stealer and breakout character of the first season. That is Joey Batey as Jaskier (Dandelion to fans of the games). Batey is a triple threat. He can act, sing and play the lute. An experienced musician was required for a role like Jaskier. Batey has the voice of an angel, and he is a joy to watch onscreen. There is a moment where he creates a song for Geralt that is amazing and beautiful. Jaskier takes it upon himself to become Geralt’s bard and chronicler. He is not the best friend Geralt wants, but he becomes the friend that Geralt needs. This is another indelible relationship that was very crucial for the series to nail and get right, and Joey Batey is a star in the making.

Thus far, the lesser casting choices appear to be Mimi Ndiweni as Fringilla Vigo and Anna Shaffer as Triss Merigold. This has nothing to do with their looks from a physical standpoint. Their performances are rather bland and unimpressive. Fringilla especially lacks a certain presence and magnetism that someone in her role as a court mage should have. It’s a style that Chalotra, and her mentor Tissaia (the always fantastic MyAnna Buring), manage to capture.

Visually, the show has a nice color palette. Some locations are dank, dark, dusky, grimy and goopy. Others are more bright, idyllic and colorful. There’s a nice variety of different locations with flourishes, so the whole show doesn’t look like a muted, monotonous and drab mess. Brokilon Forest looks quite impressive. It’s shot in an eerie, otherworldly fashion by director Alex Garcia Lopez. Brokilon Forest looks like a set built for a fairy tale story, but it was all actually shot on location at the Canary Islands.

This wouldn’t be a Witcher show without monsters and creepy crawlies of all shapes and sizes that prey on the weak. The creature effects and makeup work look fantastic. The Striga storyline, a famous one from the books, is brought to vivid life. It’s a confrontation that does not disappoint.

Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes.

The travesty of the Nilfgaardian armor aside, most of the production values, costumes and sets for the show look strong. Watching the show on the big screen at the Egyptian Theatre, the series has a very cinematic quality, and it looked like it belonged on the big screen. If there’s one universal fact that can be agreed upon for Game of Thrones, it’s how the show raised the bar in terms what can be accomplished from a production standpoint for an ongoing television series. In that regard, the show inarguably changed the game. Does The Witcher rise to meet those expectations? Yes.

A major benefit for The Witcher is that it features a tight, focused narrative and group of central characters. They are heading to a destined point. To the show’s benefit, Sapkowski’s book series is, for all intents and purposes, complete. The Witcher has finally arrived for television, and it’s a welcome addition to the Netflix lineup.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
There are some bumps in the road, but thus far, The Witcher is a satisfying dark fantasy, sword-and-sorcery romp that manages to impress with strong performances, great visuals, elegant music and topnotch production values. Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra and Joey Batey are the top standout performers in a highly entertaining romp. With a first of only eight episodes, The Witcher is not a huge time commitment and is definitely worth a look and sampling on the Netflix queue for this holiday season. It isn't the lesser evil. It's Destiny.