Itinerant monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) roams the countryside slaying beasts for coin while being reviled by almost everyone he meets. Meanwhile, swineherd’s daughter Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) discovers an affinity for magic and Princess Cirilla of Cintra (Freya Allan) goes on the run from the army who slaughtered her family.
The Witcher begins in a swamp, when a white-haired Henry Cavill bursts from the mire and sets about battling a multi-limbed hellbeast. Thrust beneath the water and half-drowned, flung through the air and near-skewered, he hangs on for dear life, barely able to catch his breath before finally gaining the upper hand and dragging its ichor-soaked carcass away in triumph. As far as metaphors go, it’s not a bad one for watching this first season of Netflix’s new fantasy series.
With its sylvans, strigas and rampaging kikimoras, The Witcher is far from the most accessible show, and for those not already familiar with Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels or the Slavic folklore in which they’re rooted, it makes for a baffling introduction to the Polish author’s world. Cavill’s Geralt is a witcher: a professional monster slayer who plies his trade to king and serf alike. A potion-quaffing mutant often treated like a monster himself, he rolls into town, cracks heads and goes on his way — like a medieval Jack Reacher with a pair of bloody great swords.
There are elves, dwarves and the occasional wizard, but that’s largely where the similarities to ‘traditional’ fantasy end. Here, magic is distinct from ‘signs’, fairy-tale curses are serious business and arcane traditions such as the ‘law of surprise’ are as prevalent as they are inviolable. It’s a lot to take in and writer/showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (The West Wing) refuses to pander to any who can’t keep up.
If you can stay afloat until it clicks into place, however, there’s a lot to love here. Cavill is delightfully gruff in the lead, lending the character both stoic charm and physical menace. The Witcher’s world, meanwhile, is enjoyably bleak and morally bankrupt, unflinching with its use of gore and rich in challenging themes (incest, infanticide and ethnic cleansing all make an appearance). Like Game Of Thrones, both blood and boobs are in abundance here, and when shit hits fan, it does so to spectacular effect. Breathtakingly choreographed swordplay neatly captures the witcher’s whirlwind style of fighting, while the use of magic is wisely understated.
If you can stay afloat until it clicks into place there’s a lot to love
Season 1 adapts most of Sapkowski’s short story collection, The Last Wish, which provides a loose introduction to the world, while making Geralt’s adventures more episodic than we’ve come to expect from streaming shows. It’s through the secondary narratives of Princess Ciri and the sorceress Yennefer that the show forges its through-line, the three strands gradually converging to set up the larger story arc.
Thanks to a trio of bestselling video games, many will already be familiar with The Witcher’s lore, providing a much-needed leg-up. It’s the uninitiated who may end up bailing early — likely somewhere between two girls being turned into eels and the appearance of a hedgehog knight. But to give up would be to deny yourself a real treat. As with Geralt’s swamp beast tussle, there are riches in store for those with perseverance, and The Witcher’s is a battle well worth seeing through to the end.
A rewarding, if convoluted, fantasy romp with a memorable hero and a vivid, grimdark world.