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The Subversive Pleasures of The Witcher

What fans see (and critics miss) in Netflix's wildly popular fantasy series.
  • Henry Cavill stars in The Witcher (Photo: Jay Maidment/Netflix)
    Henry Cavill stars in The Witcher (Photo: Jay Maidment/Netflix)

    It’s a storyline the industry press can’t seem to stop writing. Ever since Game of Thrones became an international phenomenon for HBO, networks and streamers have been on the hunt for television's next epic fantasy. One of the first out of the gate was Netflix, which dropped the first season of The Witcher in September 2019. The series was dragged by critics upon its release (its "Top Critics Score" at Rotten Tomatoes is currently 42%), but a curious thing happened after viewers got their hands on the first season: they loved it — to the tune of 76 million-plus households (according to Netflix).

    What did viewers see in The Witcher that critics missed? Based on the series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, at first glance the series would seem to be — as many critics argued — a pale imitation of Thrones, with its cynicism, its grittiness, and its story of continent-spanning conflict. But The Witcher has an ethos that is all its own. While it uses cynical characters and dark humor to subvert the tropes and assumptions that undergird much of epic fantasy, it does so not in the service of dismissing the genre but instead to offer new avenues for taking pleasure in it.

    To be sure, the world of The Witcher is one in which fantastical things happen: young maidens are turned into murderous monsters; golden dragons attempt to protect their mates and their eggs; and vengeful djinns inhabit the bodies of feckless singers. In each case, however, there’s a moment that punctures the patina of myth. The young woman isn’t miraculously saved but must instead be reintroduced to the world of human beings, the golden dragon has had to watch his beloved mate slain by the cruelty and mendacity of humans, and the djinn tries to destroy everyone who isn’t its master.

    The Witcher is remarkably bleak, and there are few unambiguous heroes. The Continent – the setting of the action – is dominated by unscrupulous rulers who care little for honor. Queen Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, one of the series’ three main characters, is quite willing to stab a man in cold blood because she doesn’t want him to marry her daughter. Calanthe, like almost every other monarch, is stubborn and at times cruel, which goes a long way toward explaining why her people, fleeing the depredations of Nilfgaard, express hostility toward her and her family.

    Even the Elves, so often a beautiful and noble race in other fantastic iterations (most notably Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings), have been driven into exile by the mendacious humans, reduced to little more than beggars. Their king is dressed mostly in rags, forced to subsist on whatever meager food can be stolen from the human colonizers.

    The series’ heroes are no less compromised. Yennefer of Vengerberg, the powerful sorceress, cares about nothing so much as power, at least for much of her first-season arc. When, early on, another sorcerer asks her what she wants, she says simply: “everything.” She relentlessly pursues her own ambitions, no matter how much damage she causes, and it’s not until the season finale that she seems to abandon her bitterness at the shortcomings of her life and joins with a renegade band of sorcerers to defend the North from the rampaging armies of Nilfgaard.

    But no character in The Witcher is more emblematic of the series’ fatalistic and darkly humorous ethos than its hero, Geralt of Rivia. Henry Cavill imbues Geralt with a hard-bitten attitude in keeping with his status as a killer-for-hire, a mutant born of dark magic and sinister sorcery, both feared and hated by the very people that hire him to do their dirty work. Given the painful circumstances of his creation and his itinerant life, he doesn’t put a great deal of stock in notions of chivalry or romance, nor does he have much loyalty to a higher calling. Even his devotion to Princess Ciri stems more from his commitment to her specifically – they are bound by destiny – than because she is this series’ chosen one.

    Another way The Witcher subverts expectations stems from the obvious chemistry and complicated dynamic between Geralt and Yennefer, whose feelings for one another straddle the line between hate and love. They remain conflicted about almost every aspect of their relationship, especially the essential nature of their lives. While Geralt wants to accept their limitations – including their sterility – Yennefer strives and yearns for more. Though they clearly have a strong connection, their pride constantly drives them apart, and it’s this push and pull that drives their story and undermines the traditional romantic arc common in much fantasy fiction.

    Then, of course, there’s the first season’s fragmented narrative. Rather than being told in chronological order, most episodes follow roughly three different temporal tracks: one, in the distant past, follows Geralt and Yennefer as they first encounter each other and go on their separate adventures; the second, in the immediate past, shows the conquest of Cintra by Nilfgaard; and the third follows Yennefer, Geralt, and Ciri as destiny brings them together in the present.

    Though this fragmented narrative makes for confusing viewing at first, ultimately there’s pleasure in seeing how the pieces fit together, in working out the relationships between characters and time periods. When it all becomes clear in the end, the rest of the season’s events click into place. What some critics saw as a source of the series’ fundamental incoherence should instead be seen as another way in which it seeks to subvert and ironize the conventions of epic narrative.

    At the height of its success, Game of Thrones was often celebrated for being a fantasy series for people that don’t like fantasy. The Witcher, by contrast, is for genre aficionados who enjoy seeing new takes on the established formulae of epic fantasy. There’s just enough of the unexpected to keep viewers guessing and, as readers of the books know, the chosen one Ciri isn’t quite as willing to follow the traditional hero’s journey as she might appear. While the series will no doubt take liberties with Sapkowski’s novels as it returns for Season 2 and beyond, it’s past time critics embraced its ironic take on epic fantasy. Viewers already have.

    Netflix premieres the second season of The Witcher Friday December 17th.

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    Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.

    TOPICS: The Witcher, Netflix, Game of Thrones