There’s a new grown-up fantasy show ready to play the game of thrones. In The Witcher, streaming on Netflix starting Friday Dec. 20, Henry Cavill is a wandering warrior roaming from town to town in search of beastly bounties from humans who don’t like his kind — but often finding that it’s not just the monsters who are monsters…

Sometimes it’s the people who are monsters. They’re people, you see, but they act like monsters.

It’s subtext, right?

Cavill plays magical mutant monster hunter Geralt of Rivia, the white-haired hero of author Andrzej Sapkowski’s popular Witcher books and the Witcher game series. This nine-episode Netflix adaptation begins with Geralt finding himself torn between a sinister wizard and a bandit princess in a town where the locals give him the evil eye, while — look, sorry, can we go back to the people being monsters thing, because this is the Witcher’s central theme and it comes up a few times and I just feel it’s really important to get this across, OK? Sometimes people, as in humans, y’know, people, can be the real monsters, as in they act in a way that’s monstrous.

Even though they’re people.

But they’re like monsters.

OK, where was I? It’s the classic Yojimbo setup: A jaded hired gun rides into town and plays the warring factions against each other until his conscience kicks in. Call it A Fistful of Monsters.

 

With his flowing silver mane, square jaw and shoulders like castle battlements, Cavill looks the part as much-loved hero Geralt. The Superman star handles the action scenes with grim aplomb, although his Witcher wavers when wit is called for. It’s a charismatic performance, but it doesn’t help that he’s cinched so tight into his leather jerkin he often looks like an action figure about to tip over.

In episode two Geralt picks up a capering comic sidekick, Jaskier the bard. Joey Batey is great fun as the garrulous companion but seems to think he’s in a completely different show as he launches broad gags and meta jokes about the amount of exposition he’s required to deliver. His self-aware performance punctures some of the deadpan tone and draws attention to how affected Cavill’s growly posing is, but as they spend more time together he draws out Cavill’s comic stylings.

In the first couple of episodes, Geralt fetches up in a succession of muddy villages with a monster problem to solve. When he goes in search of the killer creature, he quickly discovers there’s more to the story, usually involving humans blaming monsters for their own sins. Because sometimes, and I really want to make this clear, it’s the people who are the real monsters.

Geralt’s Xena-ing about the place is perfectly entertaining, but it sits awkwardly next to a couple of other running plots that have seemingly nothing to do with him. There’s the gritty and compelling story of a kingdom being invaded and a princess on the run, and the sinister tale of an embittered young woman sold into witchcraft. Geralt’s monster-of-the-week escapades feel like little side missions while much weightier Game of Thrones-esque intrigue and mystery unfolds in the other stories, making Geralt feel like a passive minor character in the first couple of episodes.

Things start to make sense in episode three, however. The monster-hunting action explodes into a fever pitch of intensity with a chilling gothic horror mystery involving a deserted palace, a perverted king and an obscene creature of the night. And as the blood and guts spill — literally — the show spills clues that the separate storylines aren’t so separate after all.

Episode four brings the strands together. The explanation is kind of satisfying, although it does mean The Witcher is another of those Netflix shows where the first handful of installments are basically backstory and the actual story starts several episodes in. In the old days of pilots and weekly episodes, a show’s gang would’ve been united by the first commercial break. These days, that point doesn’t come until you’ve waded through several hours.

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Witcher step. Katalin Vermes/Netflix

But as much as I hate to be the guy who’s all, “Oh, you’ve just got to keep going; it only gets good around episode four,” the Witcher does reward you if you stick with it. Not only does episode four begin to tie things together, it also has the best story of a generally upward trajectory — the opening episode on its own is nowhere near as strong.

In the very opening scene of the premiere episode, the first time we’re introduced to Geralt as our main character, he’s pinned down by a monster with his sword just out of reach. This should be the moment when the show reveals why this guy is worth our time, but he doesn’t do something cool or clever, like, I dunno, faking out the creature or improvising a different weapon or even using magic. He just strains a bit harder until he can grab his sword.

In another scene, a desperate fugitive evades capture not by doing something resourceful or desperate that reveals something about her character, but by literally hiding behind a tree. And a big battle doesn’t have any interesting elements, any thrilling ebb and flow — it’s just two lines of guys running into each other and hacking away with comically exaggerated squelchy noises. These should be the showpiece moments that grab us, but they’re a bit flat.

Anya Chalotra decides which witch is which. Katalin Vermes/Netflix

And then there’s the dialogue. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the dialogue, which manages flashes of being funny or poignant, when it’s not shoehorning in every possible way of saying that people, right, people, can be monsters. No, it’s the terminology. In the first episode a character delivers a speech that in about 90 seconds crams in a ton of names like Eltibald, Falka, Fredefalk of Creyden, the Blahdibloog of Blompoblomp… Barely a scene goes by without mention of Calanthe or Stregebor or King Ziggletig and the Amulet of Eckywoop in the Forest of Wancre.

This isn’t a criticism — I’m delighted for fans who are no doubt having a field day, and to be fair it’s not that hard to follow (subtitles help). It’s only a problem when the wordy world-building sounds more fun than what’s actually happening on screen. Like when a mad wizard explains at length that he’s in hiding because he hunted and dissected a bevy of young women thinking they were harbingers of the apocalypse, until he was thwarted by a vengeful princess-turned-bandit. Heck, I want to watch that show!

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Witcher watchers will wonder which witch this is. Katalin Vermes/Netflix

Fortunately, while Geralt’s story takes time to warm up, The Witcher still works, because the other storylines are stuffed with compelling characters. Jodhi May‘s warrior queen, Emma Appleton‘s outlaw princess and Anya Chalotra‘s spiteful witch are just some of the characters getting their hooks into you while Geralt takes his sweet time meandering toward them.

Despite the fact The Witcher himself initially feels like a bit of a spare part, the supporting cast makes this new Netflix fantasy show worth a watch as it comes together over the course of a few episodes. The complicated royal intrigue and extreme violence make it a decent addition to the wave of lurid fantasy shows following the demise of Game of Thrones, with the added bonus that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Throw in some schlocky monster action and Henry Cavill’s hulking hero and The Witcher has the ingredients to cast a fun spell. Because when people are capable of such terrible actions, who are the real monsters?

People. It’s the people — honestly I really thought we’d covered this.

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