The Witcher review: Netflix delivers a slow-burn saga that’s worth the wait

Adaptations of video games have always been a tricky nut for Hollywood to crack over the years. Films and television shows based on dark, medieval fantasy novels, however, have a considerably better success rate — particularly in this post-Game of Thrones world. So where will an adaptation of a series of dark fantasy novels that inspired a massively popular video game fall?

That’s the question facing The Witcher, the live-action Netflix series based on writer Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels that follow a stoic monster hunter in a grim world filled with magic and terrifying creatures. Digital Trends was given an early look at the first five episodes of season 1 of The Witcher, which is now available on Netflix and has already been renewed for a second season.

The Witcher - Geralt - Henry Cavill

The Witcher casts Superman actor Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous Witcher tasked with protecting humanity from supernatural beasts. He stars alongside Freya Allan as Ciri, a young princess whose kingdom was conquered by sinister invaders; and Anya Chalotra as Yennefer, a powerful sorceress with a secret past. The three characters’ stories gradually intertwine over the course of the season as they each struggle to find their place in a world where humans are often far more terrifying than any monster.

Despite a slow start to the show’s debut season, the series rewards its audience’s patience with an adventure that could very well be the next big hit for the industry-leading streaming service.

Binge benefits

Like many of the best Netflix programs, The Witcher is a series built for binging.

The adaptation unfolds in chapters — with each episode advancing one or more of the three main characters’ arcs — but the story at the heart of the series is one that develops at its own, patiently deliberate pace. Even when Geralt is battling a terrifying creature in what might seem like a traditional “monster of the week” episode, what happens leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the hunt often shapes key events to come or results from events that have already transpired.

The Witcher - Yennefer - Anya Chalotra

It’s that big-picture scope of the series that has it sharing a lot in common with the game and books its based on, making it feel less episodic than the typical week-to-week TV fare. It also feels right at home on Netflix, where you can easily go back at any point and explore how the series seeds certain plot points in prior episodes.

Newbies welcome

Given the deep mythology of the source material, which encompasses multiple installments of the main book series, spinoffs and prequels, comic books, and several video games and add-on content, The Witcher also manages to be surprisingly accessible to newcomers.

There’s an impressive amount of history laid out in the series’ first five episodes, spanning multiple generations of events and kingdoms that rise and fall on the continent where the story is set. But the show parses out that history in a way that makes the pieces fall together organically over time.

The Witcher - Freya Allan - Ciri

The rich storyline requires some patience from the audience, as certain plot points or moments that seem unnecessary — or even confusing — early on can take an episode or two (or four) to truly settle into their place in the series’ narrative tapestry. But, as each of the three main characters provide a window into the show’s brutal world, the smoldering pace produces a saga that feels increasingly more epic as each of their paths inch closer to crossing.

Character building

World-building in a show as rich as The Witcher through three (initially) discrete narratives could go awry if the threads aren’t supported by strong acting, but all three of the series’ primary cast members hold their own in their respective story arcs.

The Witcher - Henry Cavill - Geralt

Cavill’s stoic, eternally brooding Geralt isn’t all that much different from his angsty spin on Superman, but it works well, given that an absence of emotion is a defining characteristic of the role. His comfort level in action sequences, particularly those involving heavy visual effects, is also on full display in The Witcher, and he makes Geralt’s battles with monstrous beasts (and humans, for that matter) feel like entertaining palate-cleansers amid all the political drama and intrigue.

Of the main trio, Allan gets the least amount of screen time in the show’s first five episodes, but she makes good use of the time she’s given. Her character could easily fall into an outdated damsel in distress role, but she keeps Ciri walking the line between youthful naivety and reluctant nobility through the twists and turns of her story.

Five episodes in, however, it’s Chalotra who ends up delivering what might be the show’s breakout performance.

The Witcher - Anya Chalotra - Yennefer

Her portrayal of Yennefer provides one of the show’s most dramatic character arcs, both thematically and physically, and she pivots between heartbreaking and empowering, hero and villain and everything in between, as the story demands. The breadth of her performance in just five episodes is impressive, making it easy to look forward to where the season’s remaining episodes will take her.

Looking ahead

Even without seeing the final three episodes of the first season, I’m not surprised Netflix has seen fit to renew The Witcher for a second season.

The Witcher - Henry Cavill - Geralt

The world inhabited by Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer is as fascinating as their story is compelling, and the show’s first five episodes feel like the early chapters in a story with much more to tell and a far greater world to explore.

Unlike so many dark fantasy series that have come and gone, The Witcher feels as if it’s aiming higher than the typical sword-and-sorcery fare, demanding more of its audience by telling a complicated story without seeming desperate to keep your attention with gratuitous elements. It’s a bold approach, and it pays off with a nuanced, layered tale that draws you in a bit more with each episode.

If the rest of season 1 unfolds as impressively as the first five episodes, two seasons could be just the starting point for The Witcher, and we’ll be seeing quite a bit more of Geralt of Rivia down the road.

All eight episodes of The Witcher season 1 are available now on Netflix.

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