Review

Netflix's The Witcher Series Review - Out Of Order

  • First Released Dec 20, 2019
    released
  • television

Henry Cavill is a great Geralt, but there's something fundamentally broken about Netflix's Witcher series.

There was plenty of hubbub over the casting of Superman as the brooding Witcher Geralt, but Henry Cavill is not the problem with Netflix's Witcher series. In fact, Cavill is great--he grumbles and growls like the Geralt that fans know from the Witcher games, and the actor thrusts and pirouettes during action scenes just as author Andrzej Sapkowski originally described in the books.

The Witcher's problems run much deeper than any arguably questionable casting. They're in the show's very bones, its core structure, and the way it communicates information to viewers--or, more accurately, doesn't.

It's impossible to convey how The Witcher is so fundamentally flawed without revealing information that some viewers might consider spoilers, so be warned--from here on out, that's what we'll be doing.

As anyone who's played the games or read the books knows, The Witcher concerns the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a monster-killing mercenary with special abilities granted to him via extensive training, magical procedures, and a deep knowledge of potions and elixirs. His destiny is tied with those of Ciri, a young princess without a kingdom, and Yennefer, a beautiful and powerful sorceress with whom Geralt has a complex relationship.

The Witcher's fundamental, unfixable flaws have their roots in the way this story was originally told. The Last Wish--considered the first "book" in the Witcher saga--is actually a series of loosely connected short stories. Book 2, Sword of Destiny, is the same. All the stories in both are told entirely from Geralt of Rivia's perspective; Yennefer and Ciri are important in several of these tales, but they're also undeniably side characters. When showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich decided to base the Netflix show primarily on these first two books, but also try to make Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri equal co-protagonists, she created for herself a problem with no easy solution. And the solution that she did come up with doesn't even come close to working.

The Witcher attempts to seamlessly weave Yennefer's totally new backstory and Ciri's existing (albeit remixed) origins into the stories that originally featured only Geralt. That makes the show a nearly incomprehensible mess in which it's often practically impossible to tell when in the larger story each disparate plotline is taking place, which characters are alive or are dead in any given scene, and what each character's story has to do with any of the others.

In any given episode, scenes that take place decades apart and are completely disconnected from one another might nevertheless be edited together as if they're somehow related. Major events that take place in Episode 1--including a battle and several character deaths--literally take place again in later episodes, from slightly different perspectives, without the show ever clearly communicating that one character's storyline was set in the build-up to that war, while another's took place in the battle's aftermath. Characters who died in one episode will pop up again looking perfectly spry later on, while one character appears as a child in the background of one scene, while also featuring as an adult in a different storyline during the same episode. And the show never, at any point, gives any direct indication that it's jumping around in time not just from episode to episode, but even from scene to scene.

Anya Chalotra's Yennefer
Anya Chalotra's Yennefer

The result is hopelessly confusing, even if you've read the original short stories and/or the novels that came afterward. It's simply too difficult to parse what's going on when the show is constantly jumping back and forth between scenes that take place decades apart with no title cards or other markers to indicate where or when anything takes place. Every time you start a new episode, it feels like you accidentally skipped one in between, and the show actively refuses to put any work into catching you up, because it unreasonably assumes you'll put an inordinate amount of work into following along.

The problem is, there's very little reason to get invested enough to attempt to make sense of the whole thing. From the jump, in the very first episode, characters constantly yammer at Geralt about "destiny" this and "destiny" that, which isn't nearly as interesting in 2019 as it might have been in the 1980s when the stories were originally published. Even if you love the original stories and books, they're remixed and altered here to the point that they often no longer make sense. For example, Geralt's famous fight in the market at Blaviken totally lacks the context that gave it weight in the story "The Lesser Evil," while a major change to Ciri's storyline makes her eventual intersection with Geralt borderline nonsensical. The show attempts to keep these and other key moments intact while changing major plot points around them, with disastrous results.

At other points, The Witcher is hopelessly convoluted even without taking the multiple separate timelines into account. The show invents a hefty backstory for Yennefer based on a few lines in the original stories about Geralt suggesting she used to be hunchbacked before transforming into a beautiful sorceress. Actress Anya Chalotra does a truly terrific job embodying the character through every phase of her life, but thanks to inadequate writing and shoddy editing, Yenn's storyline overflows with baffling moments.

Joey Batey's Jaskier
Joey Batey's Jaskier

The show takes that opportunity to flesh out several side characters better than the books ever did, including the sorcerers Istredd, Fringilla, Stregobor, and Tissaia, but it also invents its own rules for how magic works and then constantly breaks those rules. Magical events like portals opening and characters teleporting happen at random or simply whenever the plot demands, often with no explanation as to what exactly is going on. There's one moment in Yenn's storyline that's so mind-numbingly irrational that it overshadows several entire episodes, and when the show revisits the moment later, it still doesn't satisfactorily explain how it could conceivably have taken place. The show's stiff, often pointlessly cryptic dialogue rarely helps (I'm still unsure what "sometimes the best thing a flower can do is die" is supposed to mean).

Production-wise, The Witcher lives up to expectations. The show features several battles that were discussed in the books, but never described, and they're appropriately huge and impressive. Ditto for the effects--the monsters Geralt fights look great, particularly the Striga, and magic effects ranging from illusory gardens to massive fireballs look like they could have been plucked from Game of Thrones. In addition to Cavill, Chalotra, and Ciri's actress Freya Allan doing wonderful jobs embodying their characters, The Witcher is filled with well-cast side characters, from Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe to Mahesh Jadu as Vilgefortz. Joey Batey deserves special praise for his portrayal of Jaskier, who fans of the Witcher games, or of the translated books, know as Dandelion. Batey's Jaskier is charismatic, talented (the actor really plays the lute), and full of life. He brightens every scene that he's in, providing the perfect contrast to Cavill's mirthless Geralt--as it should be.

But in the end, Netflix's The Witcher is simply broken. Like the original stories, it begins in media res for Geralt of Rivia, so game fans hoping to learn more about the witcher himself won't find an origin story here. And by trying and utterly failing to cram new and remixed backstories for Yennefer and Ciri in without making any attempts to place each plotline within the larger story, The Witcher completely falls apart. Game fans who haven't read the books will be totally befuddled, and book readers will be scratching their heads just as frequently. If you're utterly devoted to the world of The Witcher, you'll certainly enjoy the familiar aesthetic and characters, but beyond that, this series is hard to recommend.

Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot's parent company

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The Good
Henry Cavill perfectly portrays the brooding witcher Geralt of Rivia
Other great casting, including Anya Chalotra as Yennefer and Joey Batey as Jaskier/Dandelion
Production design and action do the original stories justice
The Bad
Confusing structure that constantly cuts between unrelated stories taking place decades apart
Filled with stiff, pointlessly cryptic dialogue
Attempts to portray important moments from the books while changing key points around them, with nonsensical results
Yennefer's backstory, created for the show, is poorly written and filled with baffling moments
4
Poor
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Mike Rougeau is GameSpot's Managing Editor of Entertainment. He loves sci-fi, fantasy, and dogs.