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Netflix’s ‘Witcher’ Series Brings Dark European Folklore To Life

  • by Jeff Bennett
  • 3 Years ago
  • Comments Off

Netflix is approaching a critical juncture. The streaming company is facing more competition than ever, not only from the likes of Hulu and Amazon Prime, but also Disney Plus. Not to mention data that shows a rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows in both subscription rate and stock growth, it’s no secret that the once-dominant media giant is hungry for a hit show to keep its head above water.

Company executives are apparently banking on The Witcher to be their Game of Thrones-style cash cow. While I was skeptical at first, the dark fantasy series has won me over.

Starring Henry Cavill of Batman v Superman and Mission: Impossible fame in the leading role as the solitary monster hunter Geralt, The Witcher‘s first episode opens with a heroic battle against a beastly human-arachnoid and doesn’t stop drawing you in until the end credits roll after the eighth and final episode.

The Witcher‘s various incarnations: books, video games, and television.

Truth be told, this series was my introduction to the world of The Witcher. The Playstation game has been in my backlog for years and I never got around to reading the original books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. However, after finishing this opening season, all of that has been rectified as I immediately started playing the The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt video game and picked up a copy of Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, the first collection of Witcher stories.

How did the TV show motivate me to do all that? Well, for starters, I’ve long been infatuated with Slavic mythology. So much so that I researched Slavic folklore when writing my own short horror story collection called Suburbs of the Underworld. I apologize for the shameless plug, but I think it’s important for you to know where I was coming from when I sat down to watch this show. The legendary creepy cast of creatures in The Witcher are very authentic to actual fables and old wives’ tales of ye olde European region.

The performances in The Witcher are also excellent. Not only Henry Cavill, but also Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg and Freya Allan as Princess Ciri. Joey Batey as the eccentric minstrel Jaskier adds some levity to the proceedings, too. All of the supporting cast deliver superb performances as well. Seriously though, I can’t remember a single bad performance throughout the entire first season.

Anya Chalotra, Henry Cavill, and Freya Allan deliver believable portrayals of Yennefer, Geralt, and Ciri.

The actors’ portrayals and writers’ scripts make for a magical combination. I particularly enjoy how realistic and raw the representations are. Yennefer is a great example. Instead of simply making her a one-note badass femme fatale, the series isn’t afraid to give her flaws. Her painful transformation wherein she sacrifices her fertility to become a beautiful sorceress is veritably empowering.

However, the show does a good job of showing both sides of the story. The exchange wasn’t entirely a win for Yennefer as she eventually comes to regret her decision later in life when confronted with the reality that she would actually like to have children of her own.

In the end, it’s probably all for the best that she can’t, but it’s a legit concern that many real-world career women face and it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. Who would’ve thought that it would take a fantasy series with a Middle Ages setting to call attention to this common frustration of modern life? I appreciate that The Witcher doesn’t hold back and fearlessly goes places other series dare not tread.

From the very first episode onward, bigotry and downright racism are also depicted in thoughtful ways. Instead of lazy caricatures of racist bigots, we are treated to realistic depictions of how prejudices form, how they fester, how they affect victims, and how they operate on both a macro and micro level. I think The Witcher has true potential to allow viewers to face uncomfortable questions about these topics without getting defensive. In that way, the fantasy setting proves quite useful in shedding light on these very real issues. I am relieved at how well the writers handled this sensitive subject without coming across as preachy or overly judgmental. Nobody’s hands are completely clean in the dog-eat-dog world of The Witcher.

At times, the various creature designs on display in The Witcher would put Guillermo del Toro to shame.

The special effects are generally impressive for a made-for-TV production. Sometimes you can tell where they had to cut back resources, but the visuals usually hit the mark and are occasionally even better than what you see in some theatrical outings. It’s not Marvel or even Game of Thrones-level (yet), but it is on par with horror films like A Quiet Place.

The costume and monster designs are equally admirable.

Musically, I loved the soundtrack provided by composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli. They infuse the score with genuine medieval-sounding melodies that will pump you up at the appropriate times. That said, I’m not sure the instrumentals are as instantly classic as anything like the Game of Thrones theme.

Yes, I know I’ve compared The Witcher to Game of Thrones several times already, but you know that is going to be inevitable with a big budget TV fantasy series like this. While the music is legitimately good, it hasn’t given me any catchy earworms that I can recall. Still, I must admit the lyrics from the traveling minstrel’s song library are impressive. They often play over the end credits and I wish Netflix wouldn’t automatically skip to the next episode when his songs are being performed in the background because I’d like to hear each of them all the way through.

Geralt reflects on visions of being Superman in another life.

As far as criticism goes, I’ve mostly been thinking of potential complaints that other people might have with the show rather than any complaints of my own.

For instance, I assume many viewers might be thrown off by the unconventional order in which the story unfolds. Instead of taking a linear approach, each episode essentially skips around the narrative timeline from the past, present, and future. It didn’t take me long to adjust to this method of storytelling, but I’m still not sure it was the wisest creative decision if the show’s creators want this show to have wide appeal. Still, if David Lynch’s Twin Peaks could find a broad audience among network television viewers in the early 90s, I don’t see why modern consumers wouldn’t be able to follow The Witcher‘s through line. It might be a little confusing at times, but it’s not that confusing.

Some might also find the tonal shifts between fantasy / drama / horror / comedy to be disorienting. I, on the other hand, appreciate the variety. It keeps things lively.

Honestly, whether you’re a longtime fan of the source material or a newcomer to The Witcher universe, I recommend you check out at least the first three episodes of this show. If it hasn’t won you over after that, then it’s probably not your cup of tea. I think it’ll leave a positive impression on most couch potatoes though. Just keep in mind that it is a very mature show featuring a lot of nudity, violence, and dark imagery.

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