‘The Witcher’ season 1 review: A captivating pulp fantasy tale


The Witcher season 1 is an unabashed pulp fantasy tale buoyed by its captivating characters, lush world-building, and strong performances.

I know that The Witcher is both a very popular fantasy series and an award-winning video game, but as I have neither read the books nor played the game, I’ll have to admit that my interest in the show initially began and ended with the fact that Henry Cavill was cast as the lead character of Geralt.

Part of this is vanity, of course, since whatever else you may think of him, Henry Cavill is clearly an awesome specimen of man. And yes, part of this likewise lines up with my DCEU fandom, as I generally just like to support him, and believe he not only gave us a tremendous performance as a great Superman, but remains a deeply underrated actor due to people’s personal distaste of the superhero movies he’s been in.

But part of this, too, is the obvious enthusiasm Cavill has for the role and how lovingly he’s spoken about the character of Geralt. It’s clear in every interview he’s given how deeply Geralt resonates with Cavill and how incredibly excited he was — both as an actor and as a fan — to be given the opportunity to portray him on screen.

However, while my interest may have initially began and ended with Henry Cavill’s involvement with The Witcher, it should speak highly of the show that his performance as Geralt — as great and impressive as it is (and it is so damn good!) — has ended up being fourth or so on my list of things I ended up loving about The Witcher.

Ahead of his star performance as the wry, laconic monster hunter is The Witcher’s unafraid pulp fantasy storytelling, its lush world building, and Anya Chalotra, who delivers a star-making turn as the captivating and complex Yennefer.

(Slight spoilers for the first five episodes of The Witcher ahead)

Since the end of Game of Thrones, many a media outlet has asked the question of whether or not this property or that property will be the next Game of Thrones.

It’s a question and a comparison that I’ve already often seen in reference to The Witcher, but one I’m not particularly fond of because it does a disservice to what Game of Thrones was and what The Witcher — or any fantasy show, really — is trying to do.

Because while I understand the temptation to make comparisons — both are fantasy properties based on books, both have messy and complicated court politics as part of their storytelling — The Witcher is much more open in its embrace of its genre elements and much more gleefully pulpy in its approach to storytelling. Which, if we must then make comparisons, makes the show more akin to The Mandalorian than to Game of Thrones.

Though both The Witcher games and books exclusively center on Geralt’s perspective, the show filters its story through three different points of view, all of which tell their story in slightly different ways and play with the passage of time as they do it.

There’s Princess Cirilla, better known as Ciri, who is a princess from a fallen kingdom on the run from those who would do harm to her.

Then we have Yennefer, who begins the story as a hunchback girl struggling to understand magic and ends it (at least where I’ve seen up to episode 5) as a beautiful, powerful sorceress gone rogue.

Unlike Ciri’s story, which more or less takes place in the same general timeframe and flows in a traditionally serialized way, Yennefer’s spans a large swath of time. While there’s a single thread, more or less, in her narrative, her story starts the furthest back in time and skips forward years — or even decades — every time we check in with her.

Finally, of course, there’s Geralt, whose story progresses forward in time but is by far the most episodic of the three narratives. Rather than following a single story thread like Ciri, a princess on the run, or Yennefer, a sorceress coming into her own, Geralt’s story and character are developed through monster-of-the-week episodes which jump forward in time and place with only a few narrative connections between them.

These three stories are easy to follow on their own, but taken together can prove to be a bit confusing, as they aren’t fitted together by time or narrative. I spent a lot of time wondering when, exactly, a certain storyline was happening, and it was only in my second rewatch that I was able to pin everything down.

Essentially, Yennefer’s story starts the furthest back in terms of timeline, while Ciri’s starts the furthest forward. Geralt’s is somewhere in the middle and jumps around, and the show cleverly references the same historical events in different narratives as a touchstone for the audience to figure out where in time they are.

The stories on their own are so enjoyable that not knowing when in the timeline something occurred didn’t necessarily detract from my enjoyment of the show, but I can also see why it might for someone who is more used to or expecting a more traditional type of storytelling. It took me two watches to fully appreciate the loose weaving together of the three different storylines, so that elements of the narrative that confused or frustrated me, then become the elements that impressed me.

In addition to its non-traditional timeline, The Witcher was surprisingly pulpy in its storytelling. I say surprising only because the previews led me to believe that it would be grounded and grim — which, don’t get me wrong, it certainly is at times — but it wasn’t gritty.

The Witcher embraces the larger than life elements of fantasy storytelling — the fantasy archetypes, the monsters, the different races and creatures, the exotic locales. It pushes the pace in its storytelling, giving us self-contained episodic adventures with Geralt and compelling and rapidly-paced narratives with Ciri and Yennefer. And while the story itself is often serious, The Witcher as a show doesn’t take itself too seriously — it delights in its stories and its characters, and isn’t afraid to go big or embrace the lurid and grotesque parts of its world.

I enjoyed this approach to storytelling, though I’ll admit it threw me off initially — but that’s only due to my own expectations. A second rewatch, in which I knew what to expect, increased my enjoyment of it and allowed me to fully appreciate the pulp fantasy elements all the more.

Of course, like the original pulp magazines and stories of the early 20th century, this approach to storytelling isn’t going to be for everyone. And, like pulp fiction (the medium, not the movie), The Witcher does sometimes suffer from clunky and inelegant writing and pacing issues — especially in the first few episodes.

However, these issues smooth themselves out, for the most part, as the season progresses, and what you get is a fun and fast-paced fantasy story with top tier fight scenes.

Chief among my list of criticisms for The Witcher is that the show’s pilot episode, which features some of the show’s clunkiest — and sometimes cringiest — writing, suffers from pacing issues and hasn’t quite yet figured out how best to use its characters.

However, I always keep in mind that pilot episodes — by their very definition — are generally going to feature the show at its worst, and one of the things to applaud The Witcher for is how much it immediately improves after that initial episode.

However, for all that first episode’s flaws, it also frontloads what ended up being two of my favorite elements of The Witcher: the show’s pulpy storytelling, and it’s unabashed embrace of its fantasy elements.

The very first scene of The Witcher features Henry Cavill’s Geralt facing off against a many-legged monster in a dimly lit swamp.

Then, halfway through the episode, Geralt meets a mage in an enchanted tower, who has used magic to enchant a scene that includes a bevy of naked women picking fruit.

Finally, at the end of the pilot, we see a truly god-tier fight scene that features Geralt using his telekinetic powers to push attackers away from him.

To put it simply — The Witcher is a fantasy story that doesn’t shy away from or try to ground its more fantastical elements; instead, it revels in them and fully integrates them into the story. This is a world filled with monsters as a matter of fact rather than as whispered mythologies and isn’t afraid to show them. Over the course of the first five episodes given to critics, we see a wide variety of them.

We’re also treated to long explanations of the magic system, varying displays of the magic within that system and a wide array of fantasy races and creatures, including different types of Elves, Sylvans, Dryads, Djinns and some kind of shapeshifting creature in the fifth episode.

And, like all of the best fantasy stories, The Witcher treats these fantastical creatures and magical places as pre-existing parts of the world, meaning that they’re dropped into the storyline without much fanfare or explanation. It’s a great way to make the world feel fuller and more real, like all these elements have always existed and been part of The Continent.

But, it also makes the world a little more inscrutable — and sometimes inexplicable — to viewers who are new to the world of The Witcher. Like the unconventional timeline within the show, the system of magic, the varying members and divides of all the different races and peoples, and varying ongoing historical and cultural conflicts can be rather confusing. In fact, it took me a second watch to really understand what was going on with Yennefer’s training at Aretuza or the varying conflicts mentioned in the show.

However, that’s a soft criticism, if it’s even one at all. The real thing to focus on, in my opinion, is that while dropping someone into a complicated fantasy world can be confusing at first, The Witcher is good enough and interesting enough to also make someone want to revisit that world and rewatch the show to better understand it.

Yennefer in The Witcher

Though The Witcher books and games are known for keeping their focus on Geralt, the show pretty evenly divides its focus between Yennefer, Ciri and Geralt. Showrunner Lauren Hissrich has mentioned multiple times that she wanted to bring the female stories and a female perspective to the forefront of the show, and I’m so glad to have a showrunner who thinks that doing so is important.

I’m also grateful to this because Anya Chalotra’s performance is a revelation and Yennefer has emerged from the show as my favorite character.

Before I go on to gush about Anya Chalotra’s performance as Yennefer, I want to take a minute to say that the entire main and extended cast of the show are all very good, with the three leads in particular doing a fantastic job embodying their character.

As I’ve mentioned many times in this article, I came to The Witcher with very little pre-existing knowledge, so I can’t really tell you whether Henry Cavill’s Geralt is a good adaptation of book Geralt (because, remember, this show is based on the books, not the video games). However, what I can tell you is that Henry Cavill gives a fantastic performance as Geralt, giving the character enough charisma to be charming, enough menace to be intimidating and enough wry world-weariness to make him likable.

Also, the show puts him in a hot bath multiple times during the season, which is absolutely the best possible use of fan service and for which I salute the show.

Freya Allen likewise turns in a strong performance as Ciri, especially when you consider that this is her very first big role. Her character isn’t given as much to do in the first five episodes as either of her fellow leads, but Allen carries the role well, conveying both the fragility of a young, lost girl on the run and the strength of a young woman who was meant to (and will one day again?) be queen.

However, of the three leads, it’s Anya Chalotra’s performance as Yennefer that truly mesmerized me and made me not only a fan of her and the character, but made me hope for a long and successful career for her.

Part of this, I have to say, is because Yennefer has by far the meatiest storyline out of the three leads. While Geralt more or less stays steady as the lone monster hunter throughout the five-episode run I watched, and Ciri has yet to undergo a transformation (though I’m sure it’s coming) as she continues her time on the run as a lost princess, Yennefer begins the show as a poor, hunchbacked young girl not even worth six silver coins, to one of the most powerful and feared sorceress on the Continent.

To see how effortlessly Chalotra fully embodies both the pitiful and pitiable pre-transformation Yennefer and the powerful, confident post-transformation Yennefer is a sight to behold. And, on second rewatch, it’s a joy to watch all the small adjustments she makes to Yennefer throughout her time at Aretuza — from the way she holds herself, to how she looks at people, to how she speaks — and to see her slowly build on Yennefer’s inner strength and calculated ambition and drive over the course of the story.

I’m grateful to The Witcher for a lot of things, but chief among them has to be the fact that it introduced me to Anya Chalotra’s talent and to now one of my favorite fantasy characters in Yennefer.

The Witcher three leads

I had a fantastic time watching The Witcher and can’t wait to complete this review so I can finish the rest of the season. What’s more, as much as I enjoyed it, my husband — who can generally take it or leave it when it comes to fantasy properties — has become a fully converted Witcher fan, and has gone on to purchase two books in the series and the award-winning game, The Wild Hunt.

However, as much as I enjoyed it, I can see, too, that The Witcher isn’t going to be for everyone. I can see it being Too Much for some folks — too pulpy, too fantastical, too fast-paced — or else, not enough — not enough traditional linear storytelling, not enough quality in the writing style.

I think those are legitimate concerns; they’re just not concerns that bothered me enough to take away from my enjoyment of the show. How much or how little you can handle your pulp, your fantasy and your unconventional timelines will likely determine your enjoyment of the series.

I think, too, it’s important to accept the show on its own terms and to judge it by what’s it’s trying to do and the story that it’s trying to tell. That’s why, even though I understand why we make them and why I myself did it earlier in this review, I dislike drawing straight line comparisons between properties that exist in the same genre because each show ought to be judged on its own merit, not against some measure of what some other show did.

The Witcher is not a show about court politics or historical conflicts, though it does include elements of both. It’s not a gritty show about the brokenness of human nature or the cyclical nature of human history, though it includes both those ideas here and there in the story.

Instead, The Witcher is a story about good and evil, and the choosing between them; it’s about the monsters we kill and the ones we create; it’s about the relationships we forge and the ones we run away from, and how all these choices and journeys put together shape the person we are.

Telling that story — with these particular characters, in this unique, individual world — is what The Witcher is trying to do and, more importantly, what it succeeds in doing. The Witcher is an enchanting and entertaining fantasy show that gives us three strong performances and a brand-new world to get lost in, and I for one am excited to see what awaits us in the show’s second season.

‘The Witcher’ season 1 is now streaming on Netflix!

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