I wanted to like The Witcher.
I really did.
I swear, I was the stereotypical PTSD Game of Thrones viewer who was looking for something to fill the massive hole in my life since Daenerys burned down King’s Landing. I expected Netflix’s latest series, The Witcher, to fill that gap.
It did not, to say the least.
I had to force myself to watch the entire season because with each passing episode I became more and more dissatisfied with it. I found myself actively waiting for good moments, suffering through endless parts that made me grit my teeth in annoyance.
I mean, I thought the 3rd and 7th episodes were great, but the rest…
I’m a huge fantasy fan, but The Witcher did not tick me off because it was a fantasy story. It was just a terribly-told story, in my below average opinion.
That’s where the blame for my irritation with the show lies, the storytelling/writing aspect. The acting was as good as it could be, and I thoroughly enjoyed the fight scenes.
If you haven’t seen the show, by all means, watch it for yourself and form your own opinion. As for me, I’m about to rail against the four things that brought my esteem for The Witcher so low.
The Confusing Timeline of the Narrative
Normally, I adore time jumps. Flashbacks, flashforwards. Bring ’em on, I say! Christopher Nolan, do your worst.
But The Witcher’s gaggle of timelines left me reeling.
These disparate storylines set in varying times were confusing and unclear. Unless you had a prior understanding for how the story was going to be told, the jumps from one narrative to the next were not intuitive at all.
This is largely because there is no real indication of when the story is set in a different time beyond what characters tell you. Geralt and Yennefer, at some point, just stop aging, so there is no real way to indicate how many years have passed since you saw them in previous episodes.
For example, after Yennefer gleefully obtains a position at Aedirn, the next episode shows her dissatisfied with her position there. And beyond what she says about having been at court for so long, you never actually saw her progress from happy with this position to unhappy with it.
I understand why it’s needed for the show. The creators clearly wanted to tell a certain story, and in order to get to it, they needed characters to have a bit of background without lingering on it for too long. Geralt and Ciri need to find each other at the end, so the whole course of events that lead to that moment have to be shown while simultaneously maintaining an audience’s interest.
But if they were focusing on story elements that they believed mattered, they sacrificed so much to get there. These narrative time jumps, while they do the trick of setting up these “shock value” moments when you realize how the plot puzzle pieces fit together, end up feeling incredibly forced.
When Ned Stark died, you cared.
Because Game of Thrones spent nine whole episodes building up the kind of man he was, the kind of honor he carried within him, so that when you saw him executed, you felt it in your gut. You were shocked. Horrified. Bereaved even.
Did you care when Borch “died” in Episode 6 of The Witcher?
Because you only met the man in that episode.
Geralt himself had only met the man in that episode, so when Borch purportedly fell to his death, Geralt’s horror-stricken expression feels completely undeserved.
True, Geralt is a good person, so that’s probably why he cares.
But as a remote viewer, there is no reason in the world for you to care what happens to Borch.
Thus lies the second problem besetting The Witcher. For all the time-jumping the narrative does, not enough time is spent in character moments. These moments could be incredibly small, but they’re needed to make you care. Geralts is who he is from the start of the show to the end of it, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a tad irksome when you’re trying to connect with a show that’s set in a fantasy world.
It’s already difficult to find something to relate to with a man who is a mutant monster hunter. You know what I mean?
The one character who gets you to care is, funnily enough, Jaskier. He shows up enough times, spreads his humor around Geralt’s surliness like flowers, and sings great catchy songs, so that when his life is imperiled by the djinn, you as a viewer have that, “Oh shit, what’s going to happen to him” moment.
But other characters fail to have their moments.
Take Yennefer as another example. On the surface, you care about her struggle to get power, to escape her past as a deformed and powerless hunchback. But absolutely no time is spent developing her desire to have children, so when she begins to act on her wish to have one, it leaves viewers a little nonplussed. It doesn’t feel like she wants one. In fact, Yennefer has to state that she does for viewers to know she does.
Which leads me to my other grievance with the show…
Show Don’t Tell
“Show don’t tell” is an age-old writing adage that illustrates the necessity of drawing in your readers to conclusions instead of just shoving it in their faces.
The Witcher fails at this completely.
More times than I can count, the show freakin’ just tells you what’s what instead of showing you.
Understandably, the show has a time limit, and it needs to get its story across as much as possible within that time. But if your story can’t be shown to viewers, it has to be told, then there is something wrong with the way you’re conveying the narrative.
The perfect example of this is when the Law of Surprise is first mentioned. The character of Duny shows up in Cintra to profess his love for (and his claim to) Pavetta.
He then embarks on telling this tale of how he saved Pavetta’s father’s life long ago, and in repayment for his actions, the King granted Duny this (stupid) Law of Surprise.
Side note: For those of you who don’t know, the Law of Surprise is this thing where you can just be “Surprise, bitch! Give me something to pay back the debt you owed me.”
When this happened, I wanted to scream.
Duny is freaking telling us very important plot points to our faces instead of, I don’t know, having us see him save Pavetta’s dad’s life?!
Before this episode, we had never met Duny. All we know about him is what is told about him and what he tells us. The episode where he is introduced is like a wormhole of show-don’t-tell mistakes that you can get lost in.
But the entire show suffers from this malady. Too many times are things explained instead of shown.
Let’s take a look at Game of Thrones one more time.
During the first part of the show, you hear the term “Valyrian steel” dropped more than once. It’s not initially told to viewers what Valyrian steel is, but you get the idea that it is very valuable. Swords made of the stuff carry extra value and seem rare.
Later, it’s dropped that Valyria is the place where dragons came from.
After that, it is revealed that Valyrian steel swords were forged using dragon fire.
Even further after that, it is shown that Valyrian steel can be used to kill White Walkers.
These revelations happened over the course of five seasons. It wasn’t just an info dump done in a single episode.
The Exact Rules of Magic
The price of using magic in the world of The Witcher is initially made very clear. During a lesson that Yennefer attends, young mages are shown trying to levitate a rock. When a girl succeeds at this, her hand withers and drys in front of them. Their instructor then reminds them that magic comes at a cost. She advises the students to pick up flowers on the desk before attempting to move the rock. Once the flower is in their hands, when the students lift the rocks, the flowers wither instead of their hands.
Simple, right? Magic uses energy, and you have to give an appropriate amount or else it will take a lot from you.
But immediately after that episode, the cost of using magic is never mentioned much again or adhered to in any fashion.
Yennefer creates portals to other countries without losing so much as a fingertip.
A sorceress is able to kill a group of men with a gesture, and all she gets is a bloody nose.
Another mage moves a fog around over a wide space, and I guess that fog came at a hefty cost, ’cause he just keeled over and died.
There is no explanation for why magic works the way it does.
Maybe I have been spoiled by the Harry Potter and Eragon series, but I very much like it when there are rules to how magic works.
I prefer the rules for spells to be spelled out.
In The Witcher, magic does what it does seemingly for the sake of the plot.
I feel like I’m the only one who got massively annoyed by The Witcher, and I don’t know why it’s bothered me so much. The last time I got this peeved at something I watched, I had just seen The Crimes of Grindelwald. (Huh, maybe bad stories with unexplained magic are my Achilles heel.)
But in case you liked it despite my tirade against it, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. I have friends ready to figuratively die to defend it.
Plus, I enjoyed the hell out of The Rise of Skywalker, so who am I to judge someone for liking The Witcher. This is yet another example of how diverse everyone’s tastes are.
I rate the first season of The Witcher an I’m-still-going-to-watch-it-because-I-desperately-need-another-fantasy-show-in-my-life-but-I’m-not-particularly-thrilled-about-having-to-sit-through-more-contrived-plot-devices-so-here’s-hoping-the-next-season-is-better-narratively-speaking-or-includes-enough-sword-fights-and-naked-Geralt-to-hold-me-over.
6 thoughts on “Lose a Coin to Your Witcher: The Witcher Season 1 Review”
I feel like I should give Game of Thrones another shot some time. I’ve heard many great things about it 🙂
What turned you off from it in the first place?
I enjoyed The Witcher but your criticisms are spot on. I’d played a bit of The Witcher 2 and had done a fair bit of background reading, so I was able to follow along well enough. Still, the timelines were all over the place and I can easily how viewers without prior knowledge would get frustrated.
In addition to not knowing when particular events were taking place, I also felt the show did a poor job of world-building. Game of Thrones very clearly defined its different locations and explored the relationships the various kingdoms had with each other. The Witcher… did not (at least not yet).
I’m sure you know this, but the reason The Witcher S01 is such a mess is because the creator chose to cherry-pick adventures from a collection of short stories that pre-date the first actual Witcher novel (let alone the games, which come even later). They did this to show scenes that provide important context (such as how Yennifer’s rough beginning informs her rise to power, and Geralt’s relationship with Jaskier). The issue was they couldn’t just open the show with all these small-scale adventures or kill the pacing with a bunch of bottle episodes, so they tried to open with the story with the highest stakes (Ciri and the war between kingdoms) and then sprinkle in all the random backstory stuff as they went. I get *why* they did this, as they probably feared they wouldn’t hook viewers without some early high drama, but the timelines weren’t clearly delineated (especially since Yen and Geralt seemingly don’t age, lol).
The good news is I think they’re now caught up with where Book 1 Proper begins, so we should be in for a more linear, easier to follow second season. The showrunner really seems to understand the criticisms about the timeline so I’m hopeful it will improve. That doesn’t necessarily address all your other (valid!) complaints, but maybe they’ll have more time to devote to things like a more consistent magic system if they aren’t juggling so many balls in the air.
Sorry. I wrote another novel on your blog. Keep doing that!
Dude, I totally love the fact that you write gargantuan comments. One, it gives me more to read, and two, it shows that you were interested in what I wrote. Win-win!
I did know that the original source material for a lot of these episodes came from short stories, like one-shots. But I’ve never actually picked up a Witcher book. Do you think I should?
My only experience of the Witcher universe is what I know from Wild Hunt, but I refuse to let love of characters from one medium just translate over to another. The TV show has got to earn my love 😉
I love that you watch and review things I’m interested in but also ambivalent about. It allows me to make better choices. I, too, wanted to watch “The Witcher”. I wanted a good fantasy, a nice epic battle between dark and light. I haven’t jumped on board for the shallowest of reasons – I find blonde Henry Cavill slightly off-putting. Thus, your review is a relief. I can continue to avoid it and now be content that I’m not missing out on much beyond frustration. An excellent review; thank you.
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Girl, you’re missing some awesome Henry Cavill bath scenes. But thanks for your kind words 😊
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