Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, roams far and wide killing monsters for bounties. It’s all he’s good for; it’s all he was made to do. The mutant Aragorn is all gruff speech, dadly stubble, and exciting swordplay. It’s a tough job playing a character known for his emotionlessness, made tougher when he’s also appointed the shepherd to a storied fantasy universe. But Cavill and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels (which themselves were turned into a beloved series of videogames) is up to snuff due to its willingness to play by its source’s rules, bringing high fantasy fun to Netflix for anyone willing to vault a few hurdles.
Shows get exponentially easier to watch when the lead is having this much fun. Cavill delights in every grimace as his grimy, sour Geralt traverses locales familiar to any Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Candle-strewn taverns, pornographic wizard illusions, and foolish nobles—no matter the job, Geralt perseveres in true Lawful Neutral form (to keep things in D&D terms). A bemused yet not unkind cynicism comes across in Cavill’s slow baritone and rare, slight smile. It’s the best he’s been aside from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and everyone either hates him or is horny for him. Often, it’s both. And yes, those looking for Outlander levels of long-haired, musclebound shirtlessness will find what they seek. Those simply angling for Geralt taking a bath should skip to Episode 4.
That said, the first five episodes of this distinctly R-rated monster-of-the-weeker aren’t all that concerned with the Witcher. Instead, the magical women in his life—Cirilla (Freya Allan), a deposed princess blessed/cursed with powers; Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a mage-in-training with elvish blood; and Triss (Anna Shaffer), a confident sorceress—all get origin stories adjacent to a man that’s more a force-of-nature than fairy tale hero. Their magical dealings dabble in political puppetry, self-discovery, and backstabbing romances. On the whole, the series’ interest in diverse aspects of feminine mysticality is a welcome difference from, say, a series where a witch gives birth to a shadow murderer. Juicy body horror (everyone’s always bleeding or puking or wading through muck) and deft performances (Allan is perfectly understated while Chalotra nails her bold role by letting loose) make the overarching plots just as fun as the hunts.
The monsters themselves range from silly-spooky to endearingly Doctor Who alien-esque—which is all part of the show’s imperfect charm. Excellent fights with them blend character-driven moments and gestures with a brutality generated by smart effects and killer, quick choreography. Eschewing realism for the prickly, spooky, overtly crafted world of high fantasy fairy tales, The Witcher’s aesthetic is less like Video Game of Thrones and more like Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s heightened, grisly, and a hell of a good time.
A few creative setpieces (dances, rituals, rebirths), as much achievements of production design as direction, also help sprinkle unique flashes throughout a show that could easily be too rote to register. The costumes—and Cavill’s surprisingly decent wig—also do some heavy lifting in a show that’s subdued scale keeps it focused. It knows when to pick its battles, by which I mean it’s not giving us “Battle of the Bastards.” The directorial choices often keep framing tight, allowing for well-decorated and intimate locales, and don’t waste time with establishing shots. The twisted tales of monsters and magic can sometimes feel unnaturally stitched together, but they’re never dull.
Written with a confidence that weathers quite a bit of confusion in order to cleverly forge past exposition (in both the workings of the narrative’s magic system, geopolitics, and timeline), it rewards sticking through conversations that, on first listen, are as meaningless as Star Trek technobabble. It’s a ballsy move that can sometimes leave your brain muddled for a few scenes, but it’s always better than the exposition-drenched alternative. And it’s funny. Really!
Cavill’s deadpan deliveries go a long way, but so does the exuberance of Jaskier (Joey Batey). He’s an annoying bard who gives Geralt’s adventures a bit of a “Donkey and Shrek” vibe, only semi-entertaining because of Cavill’s unflappably brickish mean mug. Jaskier’s a franchise favorite (English-speaking fans will know him as Dandelion), and his sub-Galavant songs are amusingly off-putting, but he’s still less fun than what he represents: a fantasy series that’s not afraid to be goofy and grim in equal measure. With a writing staff whose résumés are loaded with action-packed superhero shows, that genre’s balance of seriousness and self-effacing commentary comes through with refreshing energy and sharpness.
If you can circumnavigate or weather the quick and unforgiving narrative beginnings—like if you have a background with fantasy, a knack for rolling with crazy shit, or a general love for Witchery things—and buy into the tone, The Witcher has lots to love. It can be campy, with life-or-death conversations taking place at a magically-induced Eyes Wide Shut orgy. It can be badass, with a powerful mage blending gender politics, fantasy lore, and deep characterization when telling Geralt to “fuck off” in the middle of a magical battle. These two can mix like werewolves and silver, but when they work together, The Witcher is a wildly entertaining treat for newcomers and long-time fans alike.
The Witcher premieres Friday, December 20th on Netflix
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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