In Defense of the Witcher

Posted: January 1, 2020 by patricksponaugle in Opinion, TV
Tags: ,

This post will be about the Netflix show The Witcher. Full disclosure, I’ve only seen four episodes, and I will totally be dropping spoilers about what I’ve seen roughly halfway through this post. I will give a warning when things are going to get revealing.

I’m calling this post In Defense of the Witcher, but there’s very little that needs defending in my opinion. It’s a good show; but your mileage may vary. And early on in its release, the show might have needed some defending.

THE BUTCHER OF [PLACENAME]

I almost didn’t watch the Witcher. Getting free hours to watch TV can be hard at times (holidays don’t help, because usually I am just extra-busy) and Netflix dropping the show before Christmas when there were a slew of movies that I was going to see in the theaters – this did not help my couch-lounging schedule.

Due to fortuitous circumstances, I’m part of a Slack community that includes a handful of entertainment reporters who write about television, and their initial reviews of the show were not necessarily positive. (I’m not going to get into specific details, because what happens in the Slack stays in the Slack.) But I’m also online friends with several people who were fans of the source intellectual property – the books by Andrzej Sapkowksi and the video game adaptation by CD Projekt Red. They loved the Netflix show and because they were such fans, I had assumed they’d either love it or hate it. You know how fans can hate something. Like, Hate Hate.

It wasn’t clear to me though, if I would like it since I had not read the books or played any of the games.

I’m pleased to say that it’s a good show. (Again, I’m only halfway through the eight-episode season.) Maybe a great show.

I had to turn on subtitles, because character names and place names are (understandably for a fantasy) fantastic. During the first few minutes of the first episode, the show’s eponymous character was talking to a young girl named Marilka, whom he was trying to get info from and the stream of unfamiliar nouns was terrifying. Just turn on the subtitles.

I won’t be getting into major spoiler details yet, but if you’ve not seen the show, there are three major point-of-view characters. The Witcher (obviously), a young girl named Cirilla (introduced in episode one so that’s not too spoilery a detail) and another character introduced in the second episode. That’s all I say about the POVs at the moment.

It is perfectly reasonable to watch this show about three apparently disconnected people. After all, the hit fantasy show Game of Thrones often featured multiple seemingly-unconnected storylines – with Daenerys Targaryen building up her forces on the continent of Essos, young Jon Snow ranging into the unknown north of the Wall, and almost everyone else stuck down in King’s Landing (or getting murdered/tortured here and there.)

Since I brought up Game of Thrones, I promise I’ll try to avoid comparisons. The settings are very different with Westeros being somewhat realistically grounded with some light fantasy elements (until an undead army showed up) and the Witcher’s setting being very magical, with a fraternity of sorcerers and sorceresses providing occult resources to the nobility like a magical Mafia. And there are plenty of classical Tolkien-style elves hiding in the mountains to be routinely slaughtered by humans. The show deserves to be judged on its own, and not against the Westerosi Fantasy Juggernaut that made TV fantasy acceptable.

The show looks great, I appreciated the cast (besides Cavill, I’d only seen one or two in other things, so it was nice to see a lot of fresh faces), and I respect the show’s bold choices to present things how it wanted without worrying if the audience could keep up.

If you have not watched The Witcher, I recommend it, but I also specifically recommend that you stick with it through the first four episode, which run through action/adventure, magical coming of age, horror, and legitimate Fairy Tale themes. And should clear up any confusions that arose from the early episodes.

WATCH IT WITH SUBTITLES

Okay, I’ll be getting more spoilery now, so bail out if you want to keep the show’s mystery intact for you to unpack.

 

 

 

SPOILER SPACE

 

 

 

 

BEYOND BLAVIKEN

Thanks for sticking around.

One of the criticisms that came up from my friends who had early access to the show: they did not like the non-chronological storytelling. I think they gave up when it became clear to them that Geralt, Cirilla, and Yennefer were operating on different timelines. Look, fantasy isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in that. But stories told out of sequence are not new, and (in my opinion) often can add a fun wrinkle to things.

I’m sure that there are people still angry that the television show Westworld did not make timeframes perfectly clear (which would have negatively impacted the show, honestly) but were delighted with the latest adaptation of Little Women – Greta Gerwig unconventionally shuffled Louisa May Alcott’s story elements of the March sisters for a reason. It worked well in Little Women (I recommend the movie) and it works well here The Witcher.

I’ll give an example.

In the first episode of The Witcher, in Cirilla’s point-of-view, the kingdom of Cintra is sacked by the armies of Nilfgaard. The Nilfgaardians just overpower the Cintran army (thanks partially to a storm that delays the Cintran allies from Skellig – I assume that storm was magical since the sorceress Fringilla has really had an impact on Nilfgaard after being assigned there.)

In the fourth episode, which takes place before Cirilla is born (but she is in the picture, sort of) Queen Calanthe of Cintra openly mocks the suitor from Nilfgaard who has come to marry Calanthe’s daughter.

Had we seen this scene in a normal chronology, it wouldn’t mean as much. Just Calanthe mocking some guy from what must be a lesser kingdom. As presented in the show’s chronology, it’s eye opening and ominous. Calanthe is mocking a representative of the kingdom who is going to sweep over her army, smash into her city, kill her citizens, and take her keep. With ease.

This method of storytelling works.

By presenting Nilfgaard as this powerful opponent (and nefariously hunting Ciri) all references to Nilfgaard going forward in the past timelines have more import. Yennefer passing up Nilfgaard as a post. Nilfgaard’s throne being usurped and then retaken with Fringilla’s help. Nilfgaard’s rising prominence.

Of course, one might say that these things won’t matter if people don’t recognize the timeline juxtapositions, and that is true. But the show in the very first episode establishes some of this, with Cirilla making mention of her grandmother’s military victories and Renfri mentioning the same victory as a current event. Should the show have made more of an effort to make the audience aware? I’m saying no. Bold storytelling choices should be rewarded, as well as the efforts of people who watch with engagement.

Put in the effort, reap the benefits. People who aren’t keeping up can watch the episode explainer recaps on YouTube.

In fact, my only real complaint with the show is that it was dropped all at once, instead of on a weekly schedule. As shown with the success of Disney+’s series The Mandalorian, holding back the content lets discussion of the show continue and grow. There’s less constant buzz and analysis of The Witcher, because – unless like me who stopped from watching it all at once to write a blog post – one can just watch the whole series and have the mysteries revealed.

TOSS A COIN TO YOUR WITCHER

So, why did I stop watching to take the time to write about The Witcher? Sure, I could have watched the entire thing but I do miss speculating and talking about a show without having the answers.

I’d be less likely to write up something with the entirety of the series behind me, and I really want to write about The Witcher because I want to participate in its promotion. I was fortunate enough to set aside the negative early criticisms I had heard and try the show. And to have the positive reviews from my friends help me to be patient with the storytelling. (And then I noticed and was intrigued by the clues pointing to different timelines – I was hooked.)

I want there to be visible discussions of the show, to encourage more people to give it a try. It’s a good show.

So, toss a coin to your witcher, oh valley of plenty, and talk about the show. You don’t have to spoil things, just encourage your friends to watch.

Does the show need defending? No. I think it stands on its own – if people aren’t into it, they won’t be into it.

Do I think it needs promotion? Yes.

Just like Geralt of Rivia needed some positive PR after killing a bunch of dudes in Blaviken.

Hmmm. Does this make me Jaskier? I don’t know. I think I can sing better.


(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But remember I’m only 4 episodes in on the the first season of The Witcher.)

Images from Netflix’s The Witcher (obviously.)

I make no claims to the images, but some claims to the text here. So there.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2020 Some Rights Reserved

Comments
  1. Merlin says:

    It could do with a bit less explicit, unnecessary content, the magic system first establishes that they need a source of energy to do their magic and then completely forgets it, and the fights actually leave something to be desired, in my opinion… oh, and Triss is supposed to be a *redhead* whose looks and spirit are directly on par with Yennefer’s… but those personal complaints notwithstanding, I still found myself enjoying the show quite well, especially the musical moments, not least of which is when Ciri and Geralt finally meet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We just watched the whole series this weekend and it was so, SO good. Watching the different timelines unfold was really fascinating and, I agree, good storytelling. This is a very good show and we’re looking forward to S2. -Kelly

    Liked by 1 person

  3. alysonmiers says:

    You should totally watch the rest of the season. I haven’t read the books or played the games, so okay I don’t have that for comparison. But still, it’s great fun on its own. I found the time-jumping a bit jarring but then I binged the whole season a second time and it totally paid off. I was just posting inappropriate GOT comparisons on Tumblr a few minutes ago. Yes, definitely watch with subtitles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahah, You? Inappropriate GOT comparisons? I’m glad you liked it, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest. Thank you for the feedback and your take on watching the show and your relationship with the books/games (same as mine…)

      Like

  4. Haylee says:

    You already know I’m a fan – we’ve the finale to go and it’s all rounding off very nicely. I’ve enjoyed that there have been some elements of surprise for me, having only read the first book, such as Cirilla and Triss’ characters (although I knew of Cirilla and what was alluded to early on). I don’t know why the timelines would be an issue to anyone though – the first book isn’t in chronological order and even without having read it, there are enough hints for it to make sense without being laid out on a plate.
    We are of the same opinion in regards to having it all watchable at once though – definitely think they should consider teasing the second season out weekly.
    As for any other complaints, sure some characters don’t ring 100% true with book or game versions (I feel Yennefer should be slightly older, for instance) but then we always manage to get over a new Bond every few years!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Willow says:

    I haven’t seen the series but my husband has. I’ve read the first three books and am familiar with the games (but my husband isn’t). I haven’t watched the series because I’m always wary about book to TV adaptations. I’ve heard they stick close to the books though, so I might give it a shot soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. phellorian says:

    “Put in the effort, reap the benefits.”
    I try, but this old brain usually misses things. Like Renfri talking about Calanthe’s victory as a current event in the first episode. I did catch on about the timelines when Geralt and Jaskier visit Cintra in the third episode.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. ghostof82 says:

    I got to the spoiler warning and bailed, but I’ll be back once I’ve seen the show (plan on doing so over the next week or two). Hope you continue with posts about The Witcher, it’ll be fun now that GOT has finished to see what you think about a different fantasy spin.

    I just wish the Conan series that Amazon was working on had gotten made. Done well its probably the nearest thing to GOT (I’m certain Robert E Howard was a huge influence on the books, much more so than Tolkien) and its a major missed opportunity.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The first episode was a bit slow, but I managed to get through it. I intend to continue it after I catch up on some other things. My friends all recommended it to me because I have a thing for silver haired guys, but Henry Cavill isn’t quite pretty enough for me lol (plus I actually prefer him with shorter and darker hair), but there are (shockingly) other reasons to watch something besides eye candy. I’ve heard mixed reviews, but one of the good things I heard was the show doesn’t take itself *too* seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

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