How to Watch Netflix’s ‘The Witcher’

January 24, 2020

Generally speaking, I try to focus on the positive aspects of a new film or show. I try to talk about the parts of the work that other critics might overlook. And while I did enjoy bingeing Netflix’s “The Witcher,” I cannot overlook some of its glaring flaws. 

By the time the Netflix series aired, the Witcher franchise had gained some popularity in the U.S. The Polish book series by Andrzej Sapowitzki had already been adapted into comic books and a trilogy of video games, most notably “The Witcher Three: Wild Hunt,” which won the 2015 Game of the Year Award, according to The events of the Netflix show take place well before the events of the third game, but it’s the show’s internal chronology that is its biggest flaw. The confusing timeline combined with excessive world building make the show less accessible to everyday viewers.

We follow three stories that intersect later in the season. One plotline follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), who is a Witcher, or a mutant that hunts monsters. The second storyline follows Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), a deformed hunchback who becomes a powerful sorceress. And the final storyline follows Ciri (Freya Allan), a princess escaping the besiegnment of her home. In an approach similar to shows like “Game of Thrones,” we get a glimpse of the story through each character’s perspective. The problem with this, however, is that the stories are told out of chronological order. A simplified version of the chronology is that Yennefer’s story occurs first, Geralt’s second and Ciri’s occurs last. But the constant flashbacks further confuse the muddled plot. I found myself having to rewatch certain moments, only to realize three episodes into the eight-episode season that these threads were being told out of chronological order. 

Gleaning new information and details from repeated viewing usually makes a show worth rewatching. But in this case, I needed to rewatch the entire show in order to better understand the basic plotline. I am usually against the use of title cards to show the passage of time like a line of text appearing on the screen saying “One Year Later,” but “The Witcher” could really use some.

This was likely a stylistic choice in order to have the character’s respective arcs align, even though they don’t happen concurrently in the timeline. In practice, this technique actually confuses the timeline, and without dates and a clear chronology the audience cannot know how long Geralt’s, Yennefer’s and Ciri’s respective journeys take over the course of the eight-episode series. While eagle-eyed viewers and hardcore fans may be able to recognize this decision, it makes the show less accessible to viewers.

In addition to the confusing timeline, the show requires a knowledge of the lore of the Witcher Universe to fully enjoy. As with any adaptation of a book or game, there will be incongruities between mediums. For example, there are many differences between the lore of the video game series and the book series. Usually adaptations are altered to make the show more accessible to a wider audience, however, in this case I felt my limited knowledge of the Witcher universe was a detriment to my enjoyment of the show.

That being said, the show does have many good qualities. In particular, Cavill’s performance as Geralt is phenomenal, as he captures the rough and raspy voice of the Witcher and his sword play mimics the fighting style portrayed in the video game series. Chalotra also does an amazing job as Yennefer. She captures Yennefer’s vulnerability and emotional transformation and she psychically transforms from a hunchback into a stunning sorceress. But my favorite character in the show is Jaskier (Joey Batey), the bard that follows Geralt around on his adventures. Batey’s performance as the charismatic sidekick is a perfect foil to Geralt’s stern and serious demeanor. Their dynamic is the most entertaining part of the show.

Of course, the main attraction of the Witcher franchise are the monster fights. Instead, the show seems to focus on the evils of humanity as much as the monsters. To be fair, this is in keeping with the role of the Witcher as a protector of both worlds, both human and monster. But some of the monsters suffer from bad CGI, which means that the show does a better job with some monsters more than others. One example is Geralt’s fight against the Striga: this fight is low on CGI, but the fight choreography, set and even the sounds the Striga makes really make the fight enjoyable to watch. On the other hand, the opening fight with Geralt and a CGI spider monster called a Kikimora is less believable-looking, and seems like it belongs more in the video game than on the Netflix series.

Despite its many flaws, Netflix’s “The Witcher” was still enjoyable to watch, even with only a basic knowledge of the universe in which it takes place. However, this well-performed adaptation is bogged down by its own internal chronology.  If you’re planning to watch it once, be prepared to watch it twice (if you want it to make sense).

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