The Witcher knows when to not quite take itself seriously. For every bloody battle, gruesome monster, or dire portent, there’s a gag, a cheesy bard song, or, indeed, Henry Cavill in a bathtub. At its best, it balances these elements to create a story that, if not quite the most dramatic fantasy saga, is fun to watch. But it’ll take a good bit to get to that fun.
Debuting on Netflix as we speak, The Witcher—writer/producer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s adaptation of the cult Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, catapulted to wider cultural recognition outside of his home country by the success of the smash-hit Witcher video game series from CD Projekt Red—is set in a dark fantasy world of monsters and supernatural horrors, and humans who are capable of being just as cruel and sinister.
Amid the backdrop of a war between the tyrannical Nilfgaardian Empire and the small kingdom of Cintra, the series follows the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill, taking a break from being DC’s Superman or reloading his arms in Mission Impossible movies), a wandering mercenary who uses the enhanced abilities that make him a distrusted outcast of human society to hunt and kill the monsters stalking those same societies for gold and pleasure.
Many viewers heading into The Witcher may be coming to the series from the perspective of being fans of the games, where Geralt is played with a gruff charm by voice actor Doug Cockle, a portrayal that is at this point practically synonymous with the character. This puts a great deal of unnecessary pressure on Cavill’s broad shoulders, especially given that the Geralt of the game series is in a very different place to the Geralt of Sapkowski’s books. But thankfully, much of The Witcher’s charm works because of Cavill’s gung-ho performance. Not just in the action scenes, of which there are many, where he gets to hack, slash, and magic his way through monstrous and human foes alike (highlights for fans of the games include a battle with the Kikimore that opens the show, or Geralt’s mission to hunt a Striga, a pivotal quest in the first game) with a lavish aplomb, shot in a style that feels intentionally rough to mirror Geralt’s brutally-to-the-point approach to both people and fighting.
Cavill balances the gruff, taciturn lone-wolf persona Geralt inhabits in most of his interactions with other humans, whether they’re lowly commonfolk or lavish noblemen with a surprisingly warm sense of humor, a charm that only begins to reveal itself once he begins to begrudgingly open himself to the people he meets on his travels. It’s a trait most notably embodied in his delightfully banter-filled relationship with the bard Jaskier (played wonderfully by Joey Batey), a goofy and incredibly cheesy minstrel better known to Witcher game fans as Dandelion, who decides to follow Geralt along to chronicle his adventures as his unwanted best friend/personal hype man—and a refreshing foil to the relative grimness of Geralt’s profession.
Cavill understandably plays a big part in making The Witcher work, but equally important to the series’ success is Anya Chalotra as another focal character from Sapkowski’s fantasy world, Yennefer of Vengerberg. Her story starts entirely separate from Geralt’s, and while Cavill is left to bear the brunt of the series’ monster-slashing action-heavy sequences, Chalotra serves as its emotional foundation across the opening few episodes, as we explore the backstory of how the young Yenn, raised in an abusive family environment due to a severe spinal defect, is taken in by the sniping sorceress Tissaia de Vries (MyAnna Buring) after its discovered Yenn is what’s known in The Witcher’s world as a “Source,” a naturally-gifted wielder of magic.
Yennefer’s tutelage in her power by de Vries at the magical school of Aretuza plays into many of The Witcher’s darker subversions of typical high fantasy. Aretuza is a bit less Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and a little more akin to The Magicians’ Brakebills, where the danger comes from not just the physical (and often potentially deadly) cost of using magic, but from cutthroat rivalries with Yenn’s fellow students, all vying not just for de Vries’ approval but for mastery over dark, untamed magical power. Unlike Cavill’s Geralt, more often than not, Chalotra plays Yennefer with an open emotionality, running through a gamut of grief, anger, horror, and self-loathing that she slowly overcomes over the course of her magical education to transform into a cunning, charismatic, and powerful mage in her own right.
While Geralt’s emotional arc over the first half the show is relatively flat, Yennefer’s arc provides The Witcher with a satisfying character development that drives home its darker themes of what it means to be human in a world of monsters—and when she and Geralt eventually cross paths, the butting of heads between their strong and dominant personalities makes for a compelling relationship to watch blossom.
But while Cavill and Chalotra stand at the core of Witcher’s biggest strengths, the series’ third major star, Freya Allan—who plays Princess Ciri, blessed with powerful magic and fleeing her invaded homeland of Cintra as the sole survivor of its royal family, tasked with seeking out Geralt for protection—is left relatively underserved in comparison. This is not particularly down to Allan’s performance; in contrast to her fellow leads she’s not really given much material in the first half that lets her sink her teeth into who Ciri is as a character. Unlike Geralt and Yennefer, her backstory is left mostly untold beyond the immediate reasons for her flight from Cintra, and what time we actually spend with her over the first few episodes sees Ciri mainly on the run from her sinister pursuers and occasionally screaming (very loudly).
But we also simply just don’t spend a lot of time with Ciri in general, with the structure of the show’s opening salvo of episodes heavily leaning in Geralt and Yennefer’s favor. This structure is an approach mostly inspired by the book series itself, which opened with several collections of short stories before tackling longer-form novels, so we’re treated to many takes on several of those short stories before The Witcher really begins getting into the wider narrative it establishes in its opening scenes. But given that Ciri is the focal character of The Witcher’s wider arc, and the character that is meant to propel not just her own story, but Geralt and Yennefer’s as well, it’s a perplexing decision for the series.
There are swathes of time across those opening episodes spent without her that, while they are compelling in the moment, the minute you start considering the wider picture, they’re underscored with this lingering question of why we’re not spending time with Ciri—and how what we are spending time with is ultimately building towards something beyond Geralt’s mercenary adventures or Yennefer’s development of her magical powers. The show is so slow to get to Ciri’s arc or give us a reason to care for her beyond the fact we’re told by a character (and oft repeated by Ciri herself)that she must find Geralt, that it completely robs itself of forward momentum for several episodes.
This is far from the first time such critique has been levied at a Netflix series, of course. These streaming shows are made for a binge-able TV era where it’s almost expected that an audience is in for the long haul by default—because if they’re sitting down to watch a show at all, they’re often sitting down to watch multiple episodes at once, or even all of them in one go. But The Witcher’s sluggish pacing and structural issues in its first half are beyond just the commitment of time. They create a layer of impenetrability that makes its main characters difficult to connect to, or necessarily care about, as much as we should by the time they begin to dissipate. These issues also impede the audience’s understanding of the flow of the wider plot arcs of the show, to a point of confusion, a decision as needless as it was bewildering.
And even if these problems were just about asking a bit too much of your time?That is still a grave error to make. There are plenty of other excellent shows around right now people could watch in this age of peak TV that just being good enough, as The Witcher eventually is, is not going to be a compelling reason for some people to sit around waiting to get to that point.
All that said, if you are willing to sit through those trudging opening episodes, punctuated by a cool fight here or an intriguing character scene there, The Witcher slowly but surely finds itself a fantastical slice of bloody, schlocky fun. The fine line between its humor and its darker fantasy elements is served well by solid performances from Cavill and Chalotra, and the turning cogs of its larger storylines eventually create enough intrigue to give those performances and relationships some meat to chew on. Whether that intrigue pays off remains to be seen—the final three episodes of the season were only provided by Netflix shortly before the review embargo lifted, and are therefore not part of this review—but there’s still enough sword-and-sorcery excitement in The Witcher to while away at least some of your time heading into the holiday season...maybe just not so much of it.
All eight episodes of The Witcher are available to stream now. We’ll have more thoughts on the rest of the season on io9 in the coming days.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.