A BRIEF BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO THE WITCHER SEASON 1
What you should know if you've been holding off following along with Geralt of Rivia
Almost a year after it was released, I finally got around to watching The Witcher on Netflix. What deterred me was that I never read the books or played the game, and assumed that I’d be lost. I imagine that’s true for most who are even mildly interested but also didn’t watch. Indeed for a few of the details I was quite confused as I watched through the first season’s 8 hour and change-long episodes.
The Witcher wears a lot of its reason for being on its leather armored sleeve. Obviously it’s Netflix’ attempt at a comparable experience to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Gritty combat and swordplay, sexuality and nudity by the ample breast-full, and a lot of gnarly magic and CGI creatures are where we’re headed. It has a few elements I wasn’t entirely sold on, but largely, this is a rewarding and engaging viewing experience that I’m looking forward to continuing in season 2.
The world of the Witcher isn’t entirely unfamiliar. Since J.R.R Tolkien outlined and established many of the rules of what we now know as fantasy storytelling, many of the races and ideas you’ll meet are pretty standard by this point with a few exceptions here or there, which the series does a fair job of explaining to you when they’re introduced.
We meet first the series main protagonist, of which there are three, Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a Witcher, monster hunters who typically go about their business killing monsters and extraordinary creatures for a fee. It’s a solitary living, seemingly oft-interrupted to occasional comedic aplomb, but as the series progresses we discover that Geralt is in search of his destiny.
I would be remiss to mention Geralt is played by Henry Cavill, one of the main reasons I actually wanted to watch the show. Of course, playing Geralt, a scarred, white-haired man of few words means Mr. Cavill doesn’t look how he ordinarily looks, and thus, if you’re like me, you may spend some time wondering if your whole reason for crushing on him is because he’s Superman. Although, to be fair, I could certainly see myself helping, or at least watching up close, as he builds another PC. But I digress. If you’re a Cavill fan, he certainly illustrates his versatility in this role.
Cavill does a wonderful turn as a character you feel distanced from. Geralt isn’t where a lot of the storytelling is shouldered. He’s the perfect, experienced character to lead the viewer through the world, and meet some of its more complex characters and themes.
Ciri of Cintra is a young princess fleeing a kingdom recently sacked by a rival kingdom, searching for Geralt. You discover early on that she has some sort of power, and that her destiny is linked to Geralt. You feel much sympathy for Ciri and her circumstances throughout the show. But about halfway through, as the seeming linear storytelling is twisted a little, you discover that not everything you were led to believe about the reasons for Ciri’s predicament are as they initially appeared.
This shift to a nonlinear narrative is actually one of the gripes I have with the Witcher. As the story’s paradigm pivots ever so slightly to subvert perspective, it felt to me like an obvious manipulation of the viewer. It didn’t need to happen, and moreover felt like someone wanted to impress me. Storytelling, and the act of reading, is transactional by nature. It’s a series of rewards that makes the reader/viewer feel like they’re doing work, and accomplishing as they follow the story. It’s a little like placing a mouse in a maze with occasional blocks of cheese left around blind turns.
Disney Chairman Alan Horn once said that he reads scripts looking for that moment where the reader experiences a surprise, or subversion of expectations. If your story has that, then it’ll likely be a good one. In the Witcher that particular moment felt manufactured, or at least artificially sweetened. But press on, dear viewer, for there are better twists and satisfying turns ahead as you march to episode 8.
I related strongly to the story of Yennefur of Vengerburg. When we first meet her, she’s a hunchbacked girl whose father sells her for 4 pieces to a supposed witch. It’s the classic ugly duckling story, and if you’ve experienced anything like it in your life, you’ll latch on to Yennefur as I did. This performance was the one I felt the most empathy for, even as Yennefur grows into an incredibly complicated character. Of all the twists and turns in the maze that is The Witcher, Yennefur’s story arc was the one I enjoyed the most.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the Witcher. The previously mentioned shifts in narrative perspective happen fairly often, keeping the viewer on their toes. As I played 1945 Air Warfare on my cellphone for some reason, evidently needing more than two things to occupy me, The Witcher was tremendously accessible, interesting, and kept me following along to the next plot point. There’s a meditation in there somewhere on the modern attention span that one hour-long program isn’t enough in itself. I need to scroll Facebook, or play Mahjong alongside my binge-watching. I wonder if Netflix’ ever-present data collection knows we watchers do this and purposely gears their programming around it…
I digress. By episode 8, you’ll be rightly fulfilled in your journey through the Witcher world and ready, as I am, for Season 2 , (which comes soon!) It’s not always perfect. It’s like a meal with a side you don’t like. There’s a few elements that pulled me out of the experience, (how come we only see boobs and not Geralt’s penis?) but looking past those few misgivings, I promise you’ll enjoy The Witcher as I did.