I finished watching the 2nd season of The Witcher on Netflix last week. Overall, I think it is quite good and worth watching. I give it a solid “Recommend.”
I’ll start off with the production values and look of the thing. The spectacle of special effects, the magic, the battles are pretty good though sometimes a little cheesy. There are attractive people, sometimes scantily clad and having sex. The sets and props look good. The show runners have done a good job of matching the set dressing to the tone of the scenes. The cinematography is a little underexposed to get a grim and gritty feel making details difficult to see at times. The costumes can be a bit lame ren faire. Some thought has been given to making certain groups of characters stand out as part of the same country or culture. The main antagonists of the story are in matching armor and uniforms. Most of the rest of the characters are mish mash. If I have any major critique of the show it would be costuming and armor. I’ve come to expect that sort of issue with fantasy film and TV so it isn’t a deal breaker.
If you are unfamiliar with the setting I’ll give a brief rundown. The concept of the setting is a world that came into contact with another “sphere” of existence that brought magic and, most importantly, monsters into the world. Having never read the books, I’m not deeply knowledgeable about the lore. For purposes of this recommendation, what you need to know is: The spheres came together, monsters and magic and different humanoid people came into contact in the world. During that time the elves, dwarves, and, humans had to figure out a way to deal with the monsters.
Using magic and “science” they mutated some warriors and turned them into the Witchers. In D&D terms, the Witchers are a class of fighter that have some command over magic and alchemy which they use to fight monsters. The Witchers undergo a long period of training and then magical mutation in order to have the capacity to stand up to the horrors that plague the land. All this began 1,500 years ago and in the centuries since, the Witchers have become feared and hated though people grudgingly accept their obvious value.
The story is about a Witcher named Geralt of Rivia, his hot sorceress girlfriend Yennifer, and an inverse “chosen one” princess he’s mixed himself up with named Cirilla. The first season of the Netflix series is confusing because of some of the narrative techniques and flashbacks they use to tell the story in the first part of the season. Once the timelines all converge in the last few episodes, it becomes much easier to follow.
One element I liked about it was that it had a story structure reminiscent of pulpy sword and sorcery short stories. There is the primary story of Geralt, Cirilla and Yennifer that connects the series together. Each episode has a “monster of the week” story. Geralt deals with whatever monster is the focus in that episode.
I also watched the animated Netflix film Nightmare of the Wolf when that came out earlier this year. It is an origin story for one of the main characters and one of the witcher’s named Vesimer. It also gives some foreshadowing to the 2nd season of the live-action series and parts of the story in the second season refer back to it. It isn’t necessary to watch it to follow the 2nd season but it does provide further understanding of the complex and difficult situation the Witchers find themselves in.
The Witcher feels a bit like old school Dungeons & Dragons.
First, there are the various races of humanoids. Humans are the primary race in the show but there are also elves and dwarves. The elves and dwarves are very much Dungeons & Dragons style. The elves are not angelic beings of Tolkien’s creation nor the capricious faery of folklore. They are more like the elves of the AD&D era. Long lived, knowledgeable about magic and nature but far less potent than the elves of Middle Earth.
The dwarves are not a common people in the show and they are kind of cliche. The one group of dwarves that we do see a few times are mercenaries for hire. They are hard drinking, hard fighting, looking for adventure and gold. They generally serve the purpose of comedic relief. Also, Scottish (sort of) accents. A little lame if you ask me, but there it is.
The human kingdoms are continually at war with one another but seem somewhat incompetent at times. The order of wizards known as The Brotherhood are schemers and conspirators trying to keep the kings (and everyone else) under their thumb while seeming to be benevolent counselors and protectors.
Then there are the monsters. The monsters are my favorite part of the series. They are quite varied and complex. There are a lot of undead. Some monsters are more like dangerous predatory animals. Many of the monsters are the result of curses, spells, mishaps, and evil deeds. What I like most is that they are MONSTROUS.
While the monster may have been an innocent victim of a malicious act which turned them into a monster, the monster is a danger and in most cases must be destroyed to save lives. From a narrative standpoint, the monsters produce powerful dilemmas for a protagonist. “I know this was your wife and the mother of your children but now she’s eating the villagers and we have to incinerate her before she kills everyone. Sorry, no we can’t turn her back. By the way, you owe me 200 gold for the service I’m providing.”
I like that the eponymous Witchers are not merely a bunch of meatheads running around killing monsters. They have traditions, a code, and a deep lore of the monsters which they use to intelligently deal with the threats. They are masters of alchemy with which they produce potions, salves, and, poisons. The Witchers themselves are magically mutated so to be stronger, faster, and quicker healing. It’s a sort of fantasy performance enhancement drug program. They also use some limited forms of magic to defend themselves and destroy monsters.
This is not a story about nice things happening to nice people.
What makes it feel very old school is that a lot of people die in terrible ways. Normal folk have no chance at all when a monster shows up. Even armored warriors get shredded by the monsters. The Witchers have to be very cautious and clever to survive an encounter with a monster and some of them don’t. There is real danger and often it is from other people, not just monsters.
This danger and potential for death has a very classic fantasy adventure gaming vibe to it. The show has many of the classic fantasy conventions, sometimes bordering on cliche. However, it does twist and up end some of those conventions to keep them interesting.
The protagonists have real agency in the world. They are actively trying to achieve their own objectives while fighting monsters and villains they meet along the way. They aren’t perfect heroes. They make bad choices sometimes. They cause as many of their own problems as they solve. Often their choices make their problems worse. Sometimes they get their friends killed.
While they are in a bad situation that was not of their making, they are also responsible for some of their own mess. The protagonists are not victims.
I am a fan of dark fantasy and this hits my spots.
I haven’t read the books but as a result of the TV show, they’ve made it something I’ll watch out for at used book stores. This isn’t my highest level of interest though I am curious enough to put it on “target of opportunity” list.
If you have the time, and are looking for some classic sword and sorcery style entertainment without commiting to a novel or 50 hours of game play on a console, I recommend The Wicher Netflix series.