Bloody battles, a world of fantasy, witches and warriors...
No, I am not talking about Game of Thrones, but about the the show being touted by some as the next Game of Thrones, aka, Netflix's new hit show The Witcher (if the headline hadn't given that away already).
The Witcher has already become something of a rage in pop-culture nerd-dom, so much so that some numbers indicate that it is the most in-demand show on Netflix. Season 1 was released recently and fans are already impatient for the second season.
But is Netflix’s big fantasy gambit really set to step into the shoes of HBO’s much-acclaimed (and now much-maligned) saga? It’s not just me but a huge number of pop-culture nerds who are asking this question.
Before we move on, fair warning that spoilers lie on the path which you are about to follow.
The Witcher already had its work cut out in terms of expectations, because while the series is adapted from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's hit series of books, it also had to satisfy the expectations of the huge fandom of the video game series based on the books – with Witcher 3: Wild Hunt widely considered one of the best Role-Playing Games of our times.
But above all, it is the remarkable success of Game of Thrones which looms overhead, and which the new show has had to compete with. Comparisons were perhaps inevitable, given the general similarities between the shows in term of genre, and even some more niche similarities, including the same director (for some episodes), Alik Sakharov. And one might even argue that the success of GoT might is the reason The Witcher was greenlit in the first place.
Game of Thrones had the advantage of having far less expectations when it came out. Even in terms of just having freedom to play with visuals, GoT showrunners Benioff and Weiss could make things look like whatever they wanted as their adaptation was from a book. Lauren Hissrich’s Witcher, however, had to deal with the expectations of those who’d played the games and expected the characters and the world to look a particular way.
But while The Witcher managed to shoulder some of these expectations well enough, they are not the reasons behind the flaws that the show has.
While right from the first scene, the show tries to set its tone with an action-packed monster-hunting scene involving Henry Cavill’s
Superman... oops, I mean Geralt of Rivia, the convolutions of the script quickly catch up.
O’ Valley of Plenty
GoT took its own sweet time to build its plotlines and introduce the huge roster of characters by giving each of them and the audience enough space to grasp things and make sense of what is happening. On the other hand, season 1 of The Witcher (based on the first collection of short stories by Sapkowski) has an almost rushed feel at times, as it takes the opposite route of dropping you into its intricate world without much preliminary.
While GoT felt like it was using its first season trying to simply introduce the audience to Westeros, its characters and GRR Martin’s unique brand of fantasy, The Witcher bombards you with just about everything imaginable in its first season.
You could also be at a major disadvantage if you haven't played the game or read the books since the dialogue will often matter-of-factly just drop unexplained terms and concepts on you, to comprehend which you may have no choice but to pause the show at short intervals and Google the term.
And let’s not forget, the show plays – quite bravely, in some ways – with time. But you probably won’t figure that out until the latter half of the season when you will have a MIND=BLOWN moment, when you’ll see it’s been ricocheting between a time period of 70 years using only throwaway lines for reference.
But until then, much like with HBO’s other hit show Westworld, you might find yourself extremely confused and puzzled about what is going on, who that strange character is, and much more.
The Witcher plays with three timelines –Geralt of Rivia’s monster hunting adventures, the origin story for sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and the story of Princess Ciri (Freya Allan) after her kingdom is attacked by the menacing forces of Nilfgaard. All three characters are connected, but their stories take place at different points in time, with only the most unexpected intersections.
As confusing as this may be, you should still find yourself hooked on to the show till the end of the season, even if just to understand what on earth is going on, and find some rewarding moments through it all.
Hmm... F**k. Is That All?
The main protagonist of the show, Geralt of Rivia is supposed to be a sad, shunned and vagabond-ish character, who despite his lack of uttered words, is actually quite profound. And as his horse will attest, he can even come up with the odd well-timed comic punchline.
And yet, as the BBC says, if you didn't know much about this character before watching the show, you might well wonder why anyone would make a TV show with him at the centre.
Many critics argue that the character isn't an easy one to play and Henry Cavill can only do so much. The show's Geralt is almost perpetually brooding, with the only words coming out of his mouth in entire scenes just monosyllables like "Hmm" and "F**k" (so much so that there is a new drinking game around it), making him seem dull and even shallow. Almost like an ever brooding Jon Snow, with better swordsmanship.
The only times his character seems to make an effort to add some colour to the show is during his interactions with Yennefer, when he goes beyond his usual two words. But otherwise, Geralt himself is a character who fails to breathe life into the show, distancing him from the audience.
Fans of the books may argue that the characterisation is not inaccurate, but when this is added to a script which doesn't always justify his actions and motivations, you could be forgiven for wondering why he needs a series.
But then again, Geralt isn’t the only person this show is about.
When One Woman Picked up a Sword, And Another Bottled Lightning
A certain Reddit user has pointed out that one of the defining moments of the show is when Renfri (Emma Appleton) picks up a sword to fight Geralt. This particular instance in the first episode itslef defines how women are portrayed throughout the show.
In a refreshing change, women take centre-stage in the show from the outset, and often overshadow the male protagonist. The female protagonists are not black or white but are complex and have several facets to them, from engaging in combat, to lusting for power, to thumbing their nose at authority.
The show may only say The Witcher in its title, but its women have equal screentime and have equal if not more importance than the male protagonist (the last episode of the season is an excellent example of this).
While it is not short of the odd gratuitous nudity, the show doesn’t make sexuality the cornerstone of its female characters. For example, Yennefer is probably the show’s most complex character: a sorceress who is constantly torn between her desire for power and position, and her lack of satisfaction. If you remove the magic, she becomes a very relatable character.
The Daily Beast argues that another show might have used the character's sexuality to get her to attain power, but instead, she uses her magic to gain power and she’s even showed enjoying sex and intimacy for no ulterior motive, not like women in other fantasy series of this sort.
Too Soon For a Verdict?
So while there are some similarities between the shows, The Witcher has a fair few things, good and bad, that it is doing differently. I leave it to your discretion to decide whether The Witcher is just an attempt at being another Game of Thrones, or could be something more.
The show has several flaws that need to be addressed in the forthcoming seasons (if it wants its audiences to not get a headache) – and it does look like it’ll get a decent run because if the numbers are any indication, it certainly has managed to get its audience hooked.
The next Game of Thrones or not, the show holds a lot of potential and has some excellent source material to work with (there is another collection of short stories and five novels for it to draw on). One can only hope that it doesn't meet the disappointing end which its alleged predecessor did.
Until then, toss a coin to your Witcher and give him a chance.
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