Ever since HBO turned George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones into a worldwide phenomenon, every major small screen combatant has been on the hunt for an epic science-fiction/fantasy tale it can alchemize into a similarly addictive TV series. Enter Netflix, which tapped creator and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (Marvel’s The Defenders) to adapt Andrzej Sapkowski’s sprawling book series The Witcher, which also inspired a collection of globally popular video games. The goal is to deliver television’s next great saga. But will those among Netflix’s 160 million subscribers who are unfamiliar with the fantasy source material be enticed? Have audiences had their fill of dark fables that juggle several story lines, an abundance of characters, and imaginary realms?
In a world where Star Trek‘s cinematic comeback was stunted by the return of Star Wars, and Jurassic Park‘s revival knocked the new Godzilla franchise back into the Atomic age, The Witcher feels doomed to become an also-ran sandwiched between Game of Thrones, Disney+’s The Mandalorian and Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings.
The Witcher stars Henry Cavill, bigger and deadlier than in his Superman days, as Geralt of Rivia, a solitary monster hunter struggling to find his place in a world where people often prove more wicked than beasts. He, along with the teenage Princess Ciri of Cintra (Freya Allan) and the magical mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) serve as the show’s three main characters who are mostly trapped in disparate story lines through the first five episodes provided to critics.
In a vacuum, they all hold potential: Geralt is our badass protagonist who kills mythological beasts both familiar and terrifyingly new; Ciri is a young royal from a kingdom under siege forced to survive on her own; and Yennefer is a powerless and abused woman with a hump on her back who is soon introduced to a world of great magic. But The Witcher races through much of the context surrounding their situations and the early events that set their plots in motion to the point of confusion. Character names, kingdoms, allegiances and betrayals, romantic entanglements, hidden bloodlines, power and politics all come rushing out like candy from a pillow case on Halloween.
This is a world that is meant to inspire wonder and yet manages instead to mostly just draw skepticism. Who was that character? Which group do they belong to again? What timeline are we in? The whirlwind of scarcely explained backstory turns you into your hopelessly lost parent who just can’t seem to figure out how to DVR Criminal Minds. Game of Thrones maintained an engaging narrative pace through its early episode attempts at fleshing out the magical realism of Westeros and beyond. When not swinging a sword, The Witcher feels impatient to move forward without settling on a direction.
Cavill does enough with Geralt, imbuing him with just the right amount of pissed off grumpiness and eye-twinkling deadpanning. He’s a mutant—half human, half magical something or other—who is met with prejudice and discrimination everywhere he goes. “Witchers don’t feel,” a provoking townsman spits at him early on in the pilot. Naturally, our witcher’s fatal flaw is that he secretly cares too much. Geralt is essentially Wolverine, a grizzled and jaded man of few words pressed into becoming the reluctant hero. He even gets a nice monologue that underscores his desire to be a force of justice in the world and not the monster humanity believes him to be.
That works to create a noble main character, but it erases any lingering doubt we might have about the direction of his arc. It removes the character’s choice when presented with ethical dilemmas later on—there’s no real internal conflict because he just explained that he wants to be the good guy. “Find Geralt of Rivia, he is your destiny,” Ciri’s grandmother tells her in the pilot (The Witcher uses destiny like a thematic jackhammer). So we’re doing a fantasy Western where the reluctant hero protects the ingenue—got it. Even when Geralt wades into morally ambiguous territory, the writing bends over backwards to justify his actions.
In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is introduced as a wandering rider whose motives and identity remain unclear to start. In Star Wars, Uncle Owen describes Ben Kenobi as a “crazy old man” before he’s revealed to us as Obi-Wan. A bit of mystery could have done Geralt’s arc some good, especially as the show seems intent on keeping our core players and plots apart for as long as possible.
Where The Witcher does excel is in the loud and bombastic moments. Directors Alik Sakharov (Game of Thrones) and Charlotte Brandstrom (Outlander) and production designer Andrew Laws use every last penny of the show’s immense production budget to create a fully realized and immaculately crafted world. Worn down kingdoms invaded by mud and rot, colorful mystical locations that swirl with energy both tantalizing and threatening, lavish sets that remove all semblance of modernity—its all effectively transportive. The battle scenes are particularly expansive and ambitious, bubbling with riveting action and creative execution from stunt coordinator Franklin Henson. The smaller scuffles boast nimble and kinetic fight choreography with a savagery that the genre’s predecessors dared not match. The Witcher is most certainly not for the faint of heart and scores points for pure entertainment factor alone.
It’s a visually rich new series that requires a commitment in the same way that The Wire, Deadwood and GoT needed in the early going slog. But unfortunately for Netflix, The Witcher can’t quite earn the pathos and carefully calculated intricacy of its forebears, leaving it grasping at an epic scope like an earthbound astronomer unable to touch the stars.