It might be slightly alienating to those unfamiliar with the material, but this is well-crafted pulp-fantasy of a distinguished vintage, with a huge amount to offer to established fans.
This review of The Witcher (Netflix) Season 1 is spoiler-free. Check the bottom of this article for a full episode guide including in-depth recaps of all eight episodes.
Netflix finally has its big-budget fantasy franchise response to Game of Thrones — and it’s an adaptation, of all things. Based on the works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski — particularly his first short story collection, The Last Wish — and the stellar video game series those stories inspired, Netflix’s The Witcher Season 1 is a treasure trove for established fans while also doing plenty to court an aimless crowd desperately in need of a replacement for George R. R. Martin’s HBO epic.
That crowd, though, might have the toughest time getting to grips with The Witcher, which assumes at least a passing familiarity with the source material and doesn’t go out of its way to acclimate newcomers. It’s dense with characters, worldbuilding, mythology, and macro storytelling that weaves through various locations and across various time periods, with huge sections of episodes occurring out of sequence. Splitting time almost equally between mutant monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) and his bard bestie Jaskier (Joey Batey), the origin story and three-decades-later exploits of all-powerful sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), and the misadventures of the displaced Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), heir to a sacked kingdom, this eight-episode first season tells each character’s story chronologically but leaves the audience to discover for themselves that they aren’t occurring simultaneously.
This structure, while it’ll initially be a bit confounding for anyone without an idea of what they’re watching, is ultimately one of The Witcher Season 1’s better ideas, helping to build a fuller picture of events in an unusual, satisfying way. There’s a real sense of assembling a puzzle, feeling the outline of each character and moment so that you can slot it into the broader picture. But the show also has plenty of moment-to-moment pleasure. It’s exceedingly well-cast and amply budgeted, and contains some of the finest swordplay choreography I’ve seen in some time. The writing, while occasionally a bit unavoidably dense with exposition, is often lifted straight from the page, and is frequently satisfying in a terse, no-nonsense way that most fantasy properties aren’t able to capture.
While it’s undeniable that this show is very explicitly geared towards existing fans — I literally lost count of all the nods, references and cameos littered around for those in the know — with The Witcher Netflix has a property that’ll doubtlessly appeal to a wide swathe of the fantasy enthusiast demographic, and Cavill’s star power in the lead will help to garner casual interest. Since the books and games — the latter especially — are already exceedingly popular, The Witcher Season 1 has an audience in waiting who I can’t imagine will be disappointed with it. Having seen the full thing, I can say with a good amount of confidence that it’s just as good as you hoped it would be. It might even be better.
Episode 1: “The End’s Beginning”
Episode 4: “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials”
Episode 5: “Bottled Appetites”