The Witcher – The First Three Seasons – Series Review

The Witcher series poster

Andrzej Sapkowski, the Polish fantasy author, has incredibly good luck. Actually, he has two strokes of luck. His overwritten, rambling, and disjointed “Witcher” series first inspired a successful role-playing game, and then Netflix decided to give a shot to the magic-supported, mutant monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia. Sapkowski and the subscribers of the streaming platform couldn’t have been luckier. (Maybe just a tiny bit luckier.)

Because the claim applies to Sapkowski just as much as it does to the renowned sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout*: his ideas are good, but his style is terrible. However, the Netflix series cleverly pruned away what was unnecessary and kept the rest. “The Witcher” builds a twisting, exciting, and unique medieval world, full of great heroes, magic, adventures, and plenty of emotional highs. At least in the first season.

Season 1: The Witcher Starts with a Full Swing

The books’ occasionally fairy-tale-like twists barely make an appearance here; the striga reverting to human upon hearing a rooster’s crow, and the genie fulfilling three wishes remain, but let’s not be greedy.

The series, however, excels in many aspects where the Polish author falls short. The perpetually mournful Geralt, constantly sulking in the books, is nowhere to be found; instead, we have a laconic, endlessly cynical yet still feeling hero. Henry Cavill was truly born to play a Witcher. The paper-based version’s silly and dim-witted Dandelion, whom you’d rather smack with his own lute incessantly, has transformed into a charming and lovable rogue. And Yennefer… well, we all know what powerful sorceresses are like. Yennefer in the series is just as arrogant and insufferable but also a sexy beast. Moreover, some of the most emotional scenes in the early episodes are tied to her. Of course, this required the creators to thoroughly and perhaps somewhat unjustifiably alter the timeline of the books’ plot.

Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if you’ve already read the books. But if you’re just getting acquainted with the Witcher world, you might not easily follow the events’ sequence. Well, it’s totally incomprehensible:

The Witcher series Yennefer
“You will be turned into a froggie, dude!”

If we take the first episode’s attack by the damn Nilfgaardian empire as the story’s starting point, then Geralt’s scenes happen roughly a decade or two earlier. Yennefer, on the other hand, arrived at the Aretuza School of Magic about 75-80 years earlier, making her a HOT ninety-year-old during the series! (Not without reason, a significant portion of the series’ titty flashes are associated with her.)

The chronological mixing and confusion, besides being bothersome, are also completely unnecessary. Geralt’s standalone adventures would have excellently set the stage for a slower introduction, a comfortable acquaintance with the world of the Continent, before the war that turned everything upside down erupted.

Ever since the TV show Lost, we’ve known the value of a few (hundred) well-placed flashbacks. If we had encountered the powerful Yennefer first and then learned about her not-so-enviable past, it might have served her personal drama even better.

But, I say, let’s not be too demanding. Not least because in the sequel, we must inevitably lower our expectations. The powerful and dynamic, sometimes quite moving first season is followed by another 8 episodes, which are, to put it mildly, rather mediocre.

Season 2: The Witcher Finds Itself Off Course

For some reason, the series creator Lauren Schmidt Hissrich decided during the first season to largely abandon the two introductory Witcher books and immediately dive into the main conflict that unfolds in the third installment of the novels. During the preparations for the second season, she probably realized that, oops, this won’t be enough material. Thus, 8 more episodes were created, which, apart from the names of the heroes, have very little connection to the novels. Sure, we know that the novels can only be generously described as acceptable in quality, but they are coherent and transparent about where they are heading.

The same can’t really be said about The Witcher’s second season. The characters basically run around the Continent and get into increasingly stupid mishaps. (The situation is similar to that of Game of Thrones: there, if the show creators changed anything from the original book, it was either completely unnecessary or simply downright embarrassing.)

Moreover, it’s totally uninteresting.

When it comes to wizards, the two dumbest clichés that can be found in any story are that they either lose their magic or become too powerful too quickly. The series ticks both boxes.

Kaer Morhen, the secret stronghold of the Witchers, where in the books only the mournful Vesemir lounges around, is now teeming with Witchers now. Many of whom are malicious, cantankerous rascals, wwhose appearance and behavior lack the cold indifference of Geralt and Vesemir, brought about by the mutation. It’s as if Vesemir’s drinking buddies from the village tavern moved into Kaer Morhen, pretending to be Witchers…

Of course, the elves, members of this noble race, fared even worse: they look like rough Slavic peasants, to whom someone, to make them even more ridiculous, attached incongruous, pointed silicone ears…

Season 2: The Witcher Takes Itself Too Seriously

The third and final season, in which Henry Cavill portrays Geralt of Rivia, is somewhat more coherent than its predecessor, perhaps because it largely follows the path already trodden by Sapkowski. However, it’s clear that the stunning impact of the initial season has now faded.

As the action-packed episodes roll out according to schedule, they eventually lose their edge because there’s little reason to fret over the characters during the routine clashes against CGI-monsters. Only Geralt’s duel in the sixth episode proves to be an exception.

Although the plot of the third season can be summed up quite simply: Geralt and Yennefer unite their forces to protect Ciri at all costs – while everyone is searching for the traitor siding with Nilfgaard, the series often fails to convey a genuine connection between consecutive scenes.

This becomes most apparent primarily in the case of Cahir and Fringilla, with whom the showrunners already struggled to handle in the previous season. Consequently, it sometimes seems as if these two have completely lost their minds. They do exactly the opposite of what would make sense. Their hair-raising decisions and sudden changes of allegiance, without any prior setup, typically contradict their previous attitudes entirely.

Moreover, the two of them are in a difficult position for yet another reason. This reason is none other than the persona of the White Flame. Alias Emhyr var Emreis, the Nilfgaardian Emperor, jigging on the graves of his foes. (AKA Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd.)

Andrzej Sapkowski, with a keen sense of timing (or more likely, as a shot in the dark), only revealed the true identity of the conqueror that bathed the Continent in blood towards the end of his book series. However, the series robs viewers even of the little joy of pondering who this major player, this mastermind, this uncompromising tyrant might be, leaving them no chance to shudder and speculate.

Well, as it quickly turns out, he’s just a simple bureaucrat.

If you think about The Lord of the Rings and its wizards, you know that nobody can hold a candle to them (maybe a Balrog from time to time). The magic users of the Witcher universe, however, regard Emperor Emhyr with reverential awe. A pathetic Muggle! Instead of effortlessly directing an Agannazar’s Scorcher* at him the moment he sets his mind on wanton destruction of the continent.

Indeed, much like Sapkowski’s book series, the cinematic production also remains indebted to a very important question: why on earth did Emperor Emhyr launch a total war against essentially everyone who is alive and kicking, when his main goal was just a simple family reunion? Why didn’t he send a fancy letter of invitation instead?

The Witcher series Jaskier Dandelion
(No) more seriousness pls!

The third season clearly works the least when it takes itself most seriously. The aforementioned characters, as well as all the sulking fairies and Dijkstra’s machinations that go beyond his own position, are worth reflecting on. But it’s also worth pondering why the carefree womanizer Jaskier (Dandelion) was completely stripped of his character. Because this way, he completely lost the essence. Just like with Yennefer, who has now become as gentle as a little lamb.

Yet, the most comical is Tissaia abandoning her previously purposeful self-identity, casting the MOST OUTRAGEOUS SPELL IMAGINABLE in battle. Without discrimination, regardless of whether it affects friend or foe. Thus, the scene intended to be the most impactful becomes the most absurd.

Visually, The Witcher still remains pleasing; that’s its only virtue that has persisted. Henry Cavill, from the outset, has embodied the role, essentially carrying the entire series on his back. The big question now is, what will remain to hold it together after his departure following the third season?

Cavill, a big fan of the book series, reportedly left the series because he felt it didn’t faithfully portray the more intellectual, brooding, and significantly more moralizing character of the Rivian monster hunter from the books. Whether Henry Cavill realizes it or not, this was exactly what made his portrayal so excellent. Otherwise, the Geralt in the series would have been just one of the many pretentious, whiny noodleheads churned out by Andrzej Sapkowski.

First Season: 8/10
Second Season: 5/10
Third Season: 6.5/10

The Witcher, TV series, First three seasons, 2019-2023. (IMDb)

* Kilgore Trout a recurring character in Kurt Vonnegut’s books (see: Slaughterhouse-Five), also the author’s own twisted alter ego
** An elegant reference to the video game titled Baldur’s Gate

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