Adapted to the screen by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, based off the short stories and novelizations of The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski, the show follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), a witcher chased by destiny as he moves from one adventure to the next, slaying — and sometimes saving — monsters. Alongside his story, but not always in the same time period, is that of the mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), her origin story and subsequent political drama as a mage-at-court, and finally, the Princess Ciri (Freya Allan), the Child Surprise, as she escapes from the attack on her city of Cintra.
So much happens in season one of Netflix’s The Witcher. It’s exhilarating to watch unfold and certainly requires a second watch through to pick up on timeline details and such. You’ll be wanting that second watch anyway. Toss a coin to your witcher if you don’t believe me. With a bit of Dunkirk flair, Schmidt lets the three main storylines unfold onscreen at once, but they only converge near the end, with little hints dropped along the way. It can be a bit confusing if you’re not paying attention or haven’t read the stories. However, the convoluted structure of the series helps set the tone for the often long and meandering life of Geralt and Yennefer.
As two characters who age very slowly and whose stories span somewhere between 20-70 years during the show, the seemingly quick pace of Geralt and Yennefer’s stories help give off the monotony that comes with a long, ageless life. For Yennefer, her days training with Tissaia (MyAnna Buring) feel hard-fought and grueling, culminating in episode three, “Betrayer Moon,” with a transformation and a sacrifice, all in the name of spitting in the eye of fate. Just two episodes later, in “The Last Wish,” some 30 years after her transformation, Yennefer attempts to regain her ability to have children. In terms of screen time, this seems like a quick turn around. But the long jumps in years between episodes, and with little fanfare for the changing time, creates an emotional dissonance between us and Geralt and Yennefer, respectively. And yet, their exhaustion and cynical views of the world ring through in the performances of Cavill and Charlotra.
While Geralt’s journey heavily involves singular monster hunts in somewhat of a monster-of-the-week format, the three converging timelines give The Witcher a much more solid feel to it. As Geralt hunts monsters, destiny finds its way to him, even as he runs from it. In the show’s best episode, “Of Banquets, Bastards, and Burials,” we see the start of Geralt’s accidental tie to Princess Ciri when he attends the wedding feast of Ciri’s mother, Princess Pavetta. Here, Geralt calls destiny “horse shit,” but still claims the Law of Surprise as payment for saving Duny, Ciri’s father. Destiny can sometimes feel overstated and overdone, but the show manages to bring a bit of comedy to the whole ordeal, while still making it feel like a weighted thing.
Perhaps the most amazing part of The Witcher is Lauren Schmidt Hissrich herself. Women-led fantasy shows are rare, which is why what Hissrich does with The Witcher is proof we need more of them. Not only does Yennefer exemplify flawed and strong female characters, but great care is put into the secondary female roles as well. There’s Princess Renfri (Emma Appleton), Triss Merigold (Anna Shaffer), Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni) and Tissaia, who all get wonderful, varying stories of how they’ve come to be.
But it’s Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May) that feels the most refreshing. A queen tired of the laws of men, she’d rather be on the battle field than sitting on a throne, but rules nonetheless with a firm hand and even sharper sword. She holds tightly to her beliefs and banishes Geralt from Cintra because she doesn’t want her granddaughter to be taken from her. Like Yennefer, she’s not afraid to go against destiny. No matter who it is though, Hissrich’s female characters feel powerful and vulnerable in the same breath, their chaos allowed to be let loose on the world.
In Yennefer’s case, this is especially important. Abused for most her life, Yennefer goes through an agonizing transformation to remove her deformities, giving up any chance at having a child. This loss and Yennefer’s subsequent quest to regain what she lost lets her power and grief coexist with each other. Ultimately, it’s both of these that saves them from enemy attacks.
Even with the hardcore fantasy elements and mesmerizing sword fighting, The Witcher feels like both a high stakes fantasy drama and a bit of a western, nailing down the lone ranger trope with Geralt fairly easily. It would be remiss not to mention Joey Batey’s Jaskier, the bard who invites himself on many of Geralt’s adventures before they become friends. Perfectly capturing the quirkiness of a bard, Jaskier turns Geralt into a legendary figure through his ballads of monster fighting, often conflating events to add more of a dramatic flair to them. His most popular tune, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” will probably be stuck in your head for days after this.
Destiny and chaos rule the underlying point of The Witcher. But sometimes, it’s just really cool to hear Geralt say the F-word a lot, kill some monsters, and get into some killer sword fights.