So the hot new Genre show in streaming right now is…well, let’s be real, it’s The Mandalorian, but I haven’t gotten around to subscribing to Disney+ yet. For me the big Genre show I’ve been excited about for months is…well, actually, it was Season 4 of The Expanse.
However, Netflix’s The Witcher is definitely the show this blog post is written about.
I haven’t watched the entire first season yet, just the first three episodes of this book series that turned into a video game franchise that is now a TV show. I also never read the books and only played the third game for about an hour that I don’t remember well, so I’m going in with zero expectations.
I’m watching this with my editor, Laura, who has also never played video games. She did remember halfway through the second episode she’d read the first book, but barely remembered anything about it – which does not bode well. Her ability to recall books is borderline superhuman. Oh, and spoilers ahead that I’m not marking, because it’s the first three episodes and I have no idea what will or won’t be important. I’m writing my thoughts down as I finish each episode, so I’m writing these with no idea what comes next.
Let’s dive in.
Episode 1: Things Start Dull and Lifeless
As harsh as that title is, the opening sequence is off to a strong start. Giant spider monster with a human head. Awesome. I am so here for this. It’s fighting a white-haired guy with yellow eyes, who I am assuming is Geralt, our protagonist.
Geralt kills K-Mart Blue-Light Special Shelob in a pretty badass fight scene, and then the show grinds to a halt as Geralt goes into a generic tavern and encounters Stock Fantasy Bigotry 3, Subtype A: Racism against the Special Awesome Person. He also encounters Stock Fantasy Supporting Character 2, Subtype C: Mysterious Attractive Woman.
Everyone. If there’s one piece of writing advice I could apart to the world, it’s that your opening is the time sequence you set for your book, movie, TV show, anything. If you open with giant monster fight, you are telling your audience to expect high octane action all the time. We don’t get another action sequence until near the end of the episode. It’s like they blew the budget they had in the first thirty seconds.
I’m not going to do a blow by blow of the episode. Geralt is our protagonist, he is from Rivendell, he is a Witcher, and has two magic people trying to recruit him to kill the other one. This leads to him repeating a lesson about not picking the lesser evil. This is what we call a theme, and despite what some shows would have you believe, they are important for more than eighth grade book reports.
Thankfully, when The Witcher was stealing the cinematography, tone, and grimdark from Game of Thones, it didn’t steal that particular philosophy. Unfortunately, it also didn’t steal the quality writing, detailed characterization, and narrative cohesion. Geralt of Rocheworld is dull and lifeless but very, very good at being stoic. So good at being stoic, in fact, that he grunts noncommittally at least five times in the course of the episode. Given that the episode is about 50 minutes long, and half the episode follows another character, that means he averages a grunt about every five minutes. Oh dear.
While it was stealing stuff from Game of Thrones, the show also stole the nudity. However, while Game of Thrones tried to semi-justify the random boobs, this had the most gratuitous nudity I’ve ever seen in a non pornographic work – felt like the directors were thinking “this dialogue is boring and unengaging, instead of trying to make it interesting, let’s show some boobs.”
There was a B plot with a secondary character that featured a city being attacked by hostile people called the Nif…the Na…screw it. The Knights who say Ni. You’d think a city being attacked and razed to the ground would be interesting, but without anyone to care about in the city, it was really just mindless action. There was a princess. The show made sure we know we are supposed to care about the princess. The show did not bother, however, to establish why we should care about her. She’s super nice and super special.
If it sounds like I’m being overly harsh on the show for comedic effect, it’s because I am. The show so far is not bad. It’s…average. The show was trying to set up an intrigue to draw the viewer in, but mostly just obfuscates the plot. Confusing, frustrating, and not all that interesting. Both the apparent leads – the Princess whose name I can’t remember and don’t care to look up and Geralt of Romulus – are boring me, which is a really bad sign in the first episode.
However, it did have that sweet spider monster at the beginning, an interesting character that they did kill off but showed the writers can make an engaging character – that was Mysterious Attractive Woman – and an action scene that, while it felt so much like a video game I commented to Laura, “Oh good, he pressed X in time”, had some really slick choreography. Seriously, I kind of want to go back and rewatch that fight scene.
Overall, the first episode was certainly not bland, but did not engage the viewer the way it’s clear the directors thought it would. Instead, it mostly confused and annoyed, substituting plot development and character establishment for the two Bs that have spread across the fantasy genre like a cancerous growth: blood and boobs. As a cancer survivor, you can bet I know exactly what I mean here.
In spite of how scathing that came across, I did not hate the first episode entirely, and there was just enough that I decided to soldier on and give the second episode a shot, after we had a good laugh of Geralt of Rio de Janeiro’s grunting.
Also, Laura suspects that these story lines are happening in different timelines. I think it’s just confusing writing. We bet ten bucks on it. Hopefully, we’ll see which of us is right before this show puts me to sleep.
Episode 2: Things Get Interesting
The second episode introduced two new characters that, thank God, I cared about.
There was a Bard. The bard has a name, I’m certain of it, but I cannot remember it in spite of writing this section literally 5 minutes after seeing the episode, and while I cared about him, I don’t care enough to look it up. This should probably tell you something about my level of engagement with the show. It doesn’t tell you anything good about my level of engagement, but it does tell you something.
The bard is a comic relief character. Normally those drive me absolutely bonkers. Half the time, I end up praying for the protagonist to get sick of the comic relief and stab them in the face until it stops being funny. However, the Bard’s humor was on point, and Geralt of Rimworld desperately needed someone to take the piss out of him. I am praying that he sticks around to provide a much needed contrast to Geralt’s stoic broodiness. The Bard also allowed Geralt of Riverrun to show a new part of his personality. He’s stoic, he’s broody, and he’s irritable. That, for those of you keeping track at home, gives the protagonist a grand total of three personality traits.
We probably would have stopped watching after this episode, if not for the third character, and that was Yennifer.
Now, as I mentioned, I haven’t played the games, and I definitely haven’t read the books, but I do know enough to know Yennifer is a character that exists in the games. Maybe the books, I’m not sure. I think she’s a love interest for Geralt, and I do remember seeing some pictures of Yennifer cosplays (by very beautiful women) floating around Reddit awhile back.
So imagine my surprise when Yennefer has a severe physical deformity. She also has an aptitude for magic, and that aptitude brings her to be trained as part of a coven of witches led by Tissaia, a character whose name I didn’t remember but was interested enough to look up. Tissaia is a magnificent bitch who is just…just glorious to see as she berates her students. Every word out of her mouth is pure gold.
On top of that, Yennifer’s struggle with her physical difficulties, and insecurities that came from them, was actually interesting. This is extra noticeable when contrasted with Geralt’s “Oh people hate me because I am awesome at everything and have yellow eyes, and one time I had to choose between evils and that made me feel bad.” Like…struggling to overcome insecurities that stem from an external factor is a character arc pretty much anyone can understand. It’s compelling, it’s human. It’s good writing. It’s also nice to see a fantasy woman whose central character arc isn’t about a man, although that feeling is soured by her arc still being tied to her appearance.
On top of that, Yennifer also drawn into the internal politics of the witches and a group of sorcerers, which is actually intriguing. I’m entirely interested in watching the third episode because I want to see more of her storyline. Seriously, can we cancel the show we have and instead get “Yennefer and The Scheming Mages’ Funtime Hour?”
Oh, and also, Geralt of Remulak and Princess Probably-Has-A-Name are definitely in this episode. Geralt broods. The princess finds herself in peril. I waited for the show to get back to Yennefer. There were also some elves. They were very elven. Laura and I, in our post episode discussion, agree – we are on team Yennefer. I ask Laura why this show cannot just be all about her. Laura points out that it would make the show far too good, and they’re clearly aiming for “inoffensively palpable.” I agree. We decide to watch more Yennifer and tolerate the other two characters.
Episode 3: Things Get Hella Uncomfortable
We were wrong. Inoffensive was not their goal.
Okay, so the episode opens – after a prologue where a something kills a someone and no one cares because everything is new to the episode so there are no stakes – by making sure we see a prostitute’s bare breasts, as if afraid that after fifty boobless minutes in the last episode we’re going to turn off our TV’s, cancel Netflix, and mail burning dog turds to corporate offices if we don’t get some naked women stat. The prostitute is in bed with Geralt of Reno, Nevada, because it’s also vitally important we know our hero totally has sex. Frequently. With hot women. In spite of being a freak who has been shunned everywhere he’s gone so far, we must know he has a functioning dick.
The Bard is nowhere to be seen. This does not bode well. Geralt is going to kill the something from the beginning of the episode. We also get to see Yennefer, who is having sex with her love interest. Note that when we saw male character topless, the camera lingered on his sick scars, not his abs. This helps cement him as a badass who does badass things. When we see Yennefer topless, the camera lingers on her breasts. This helps cement that she is a woman who has boobs.
Wait, is that a crowd? Watching them? Or is it just bad editing?
Holy shit, that is a crowd. They are having sex in front of a group of strange people who are smiling and clapping and yo, this just got hella weird. Like, I’m down people getting into their kinks, but these people are so emotionless it’s almost like they’re…
At that realization is when the show had them start clapping in unison before vanishing, revealing they were just an illusion all along. Okay, that’s…less uncomfortable, and does establish Yennefer wants to be seen as beautiful. I can think of three hundred and twelve ways to establish that without being weird about women, but don’t worry! This show is by no means done being weird about women.
Before we go any further, I should mention that this is not the first time the show has been weird about women. I glossed over it before, but in the first episode, Mysterious Woman who Geralt of Cavill had to kill made sure we knew that she had been raped, and that is what made her become a monster. I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s essentially what happened. She would become a monster if she sought revenge for the assault, and she did seek revenge, which lead to her death. I…I should have given that more attention, but I was too bored to pick up on it.
So this episode revolves around two of the three story lines, leaving fans of Princess I-Am-So-Special holding their hats until she returns at the very end of the episode to blindly stumbles through the story with the same lack of agency she’s had so far.
It focuses on Yennefer (yay) and Geralt of Riverdale (boo.) Yennefer is going to finally become a full member of the super interesting wizard council, and Geralt is off to Witcher a monster to death. In the face. With swords.
Why is this show about him again?
I will say this episode did a lot to endear me to Geralt of The Reach (although not enough to want to look up where he’s actually from). He showed a level of compassion, empathy, and a sense of humor that had been lacking up to this point. Our new side character is Triss Marigold, a character who is tied into the magic council from Yennfer’s storyline and therefore inherently interests me. She didn’t really do much besides be kind and pretty at Geralt of Rome, but at least I have hopes she’ll be interesting. But, the development for Geralt was welcome and very much needed, so I’m glad we got it.
Oh, and the monster he had to fight this episode was a striga, which was brought to life with some beautiful practical effects. Seeing a neglected creature from Slavic mythology brought to life made me happy.
It’s a shame about everything else in the episode.
So, you know what else The Witcher stole from Game of Thrones, apparently? Incest. It stole the incest. Because I was absolutely thinking “you know, what this show really needs is some good old fashioned siblings porking to liven it up.” It was even royal siblings doing the dirty. Blond royal siblings.
And before some fan of these books hops into the comments section to tell me that this happened in The Witcher before it happened in A Song of Ice and Fire, know that I, truly, from the bottom of my heart, do not care. I could have avoided typing this comment by looking up when the books were written to see which was written first, but that would require me to care, and as I established last sentence, I do not.
The Striga, by the way, is the product of the Blue-Bin Lannisters’ union, and is technically the heir to the throne. However, she’s a monster because the woman’s other lover tried to curse the King, and somehow it hit her for reasons the show doesn’t bother explaining because it’s too busy killing off a woman in the background to advance the plot. The show makes a point of letting us know that the princess/monster had to eat her way out of her mother’s womb. I can think of one hundred and two ways to establish this monster without being weird about women’s reproductive organs, but don’t worry! This show is by no means done being weird about women’s reproductive organs.
Meanwhile, Yennefer is going to become a full witch and, in the process, be made beautiful. Because God forbid an unattractive woman have power. Laura does point out this is probably a blessing for the actress’s poor spine, since holding that pose had to be uncomfortable, and she has a good point.
Yennefer is betrayed by her lover, which is an interesting development. Well, technically she was betrayed last episode, and we see the fruits of that betrayal this episode. It costs her an important and desirable role advising the king of her homeland, and instead means she’s going to be advising the king of the Knights who Say Ni from the first episode. I almost care enough to look up their name. Almost.
Oh, we see the incest siblings as small children here, which proves this show is happening on different timelines. I hand Laura ten bucks. She’s never looked less pleased to win a bet.
Because Yennefer is dealing with that betrayal, she misses the initiation and her chance to become beautiful. Powerful, too, but the show focuses on the beauty because God forbid a woman has interests beyond how bangable she is.
As the two narratives run towards their conclusion, Yennefer gets a wizard guy to still make her beautiful anyway with the clever ruse of “Could you just like, do it anyway?” which works. Geralt confronts the Striga and makes Laura and I both laugh with him as opposed to at him for the first time in the show. Then we get the most disturbing parallel it has been my displeasure to witness.
The fight against the Striga and Yennefer’s transformation – which, by the way, will cost her the ability to bear children because what else could possibly be important to a woman – happen side by side. While Geralt of Rohan does awesome actiony things against the Striga, Yennefer has her uterus graphically removed and ground up so she can be painted with it for spellcasting purposes. Every time the Striga screams in its fight with Geralt, we cut to Yennefer screaming in the agony of her transformation into someone hot.
So yeah, the show basically frames the Striga being reborn as a human woman as a contrast to Yennefer being reborn as a beautiful woman, which both implies that Yennefer was a monster when she was deformed and that Yennefer is now a different kind of monster. Which is an impressive double “screw you” to our favorite character, so….well done. I’m appalled.
I don’t know if I’ll be watching more of The Witcher. I am even less certain of if I’ll be watching more with Laura, who enjoyed it less than I did. We agreed the show wasn’t actually bad, except for the tonal nightmare that was the third episode, but it had some major problems and after the third episode we were really not certain if we wanted to continue.
I did learn three interesting things from talking about this show with some writers I know.
First of all, apparently the books treat women even worse than the show and have a super bad case of male gaze going on, so…awesome. Glad I didn’t waste money on those.
Second of all, in the book’s canon, Witchers are unable to have children, which would have been nice to know in the show as it would have both established “ability to have children is a price for power” as something that happens to both genders as opposed to fantasy being weird about women again. I would have preferred if it just wasn’t a thing, but if they had to do it (which they didn’t), at least it would have been unisex.
Third…there is an outrage on the internet about the show. Is it from kindred spirits, who are appalled that every woman on the show has either been murdered or had weird sex stuff happen to her (or both) except for the Princess of Blandtown?
It’s people upset that a book series that had nothing but white people before now has people of color appearing. They are furious that Yennefer isn’t as pasty as she was in the games and book.
Remember when fantasy wasn’t weird about women? When POC appearing in shows wasn’t a cause for fanboy outrage?
Wait, you do? Then please, let me visit your timeline – I want off this one.
Want something to read? Check out Weird Theology. I promise nothing weird happens to a woman’s reproductive organs throughout the entire series. The only thing I get weird about is physics.