There’s arguably never been a better time for fantasy television. The success of HBO’s Game of Thrones demonstrated that there’s an enormous appetite for seeing epic fantasy sagas brought to life on the small screen, and each of the major streaming services are angling to be home to the next blockbuster fantasy series.
Netflix has several such shows in its lineup, three of which are based either on novels or graphic novels: The Witcher (based on the series of books and short stories by Andrej Sapkowski), Shadow and Bone (based on the works in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse), and Cursed (based on the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler).
Like Game of Thrones, all three series focus to some degree on young people trying to make their way in a world that grows increasingly chaotic and dangerous as the plot develops. Unlike their predecessor, however, each of these series lack a definitive map.
As any fantasy fan knows, maps give a fictional world a texture and heft that allows readers and viewers the chance to fully immerse themselves in an alternate reality. Furthermore, maps allow us to spatially orient ourselves and to understand the relationships between different locations and the characters within them. It’s doubtful viewers would have been able to keep track of the numerous geopolitical conflicts that motivate the plot of Game of Thrones if they hadn’t been provided a map in the show’s opening credits.
Given the centrality of maps to the pleasure of fantasy, and how much Netflix is clearly looking to follow in HBO’s GoT footsteps, it’s puzzling why so few of its shows provide this seemingly fundamental element.
Take Shadow and Bone. The series centers on conflicts that are both geopolitical and supernatural in nature, with most of the tension and drama focused on an anomaly known as the Fold, a massive wall of darkness inhabited by demonic creatures called Volcra. As if monsters weren’t enough, it turns out that this massive scar has split the country of Ravka in two, and that a growing separatist movement threatens to make the disunity permanent. A map would help viewers understand where the two parts of Ravka are located, to say nothing of the many other places the characters reference as the drama unfolds.
Shadow and Bone even goes so far as to tease the existence of a map, with a fragment appearing very briefly in the first episode and General Kirigan, the major antagonist, repeatedly posturing in front of a large map set in the middle of the floor (much like the one that appears on Dragonstone in Game of Thrones). But instead of sharing these with viewers, the show’s audience is left to muddle along as best they can to try to figure out where the characters are in relation to one another.
Then there’s The Witcher. Upon its premiere in 2019, it was clear this was a show that was going to demand a lot of its audience, in large part because it jumps between different points in time, forcing viewers to either pay scrupulous attention to its dizzying array of characters and their relationships, or to simply go with the flow and hope that everything becomes clear in the end. Compounding the narrative confusion is the fact that there’s no canonical map in the books upon which the series is based. It may be that the show’s producers and/or someone at Netflix flagged this as an issue, because there is an interactive map on the streamer’s web site.
The lack of a map is even more distressing in Cursed. Unlike Shadow and Bone and The Witcher, which take place in made-up locations, Cursed is set in a fictional version of England, so one would think that this would make it easier to include a map to help show where the action takes place. Making matters more confusing, the locations that the characters refer to don’t match up with locations in the real world.
Why the reluctance to show maps in these shows? Perhaps some of it stems from a desire to not be Game of Thrones. Every fantasy series that’s come out in the wake of the HBO phenom has had to thread the needle between attempting to capitalize on the things that made that GoT so enduringly popular — its engagement with the thorny questions of politics, sex, and power — and looking like a clone. Perhaps it's telling that none of these three shows have achieved anything near the level of cultural saturation as Thrones. In a strange way, they seem designed to appeal only to those who are either already fans of the literary series upon which they’re based, or those who don’t want to truly lose themselves in a fictional fantasy world.
Certainly both The Witcher and Shadow and Bone have devoted fan bases, and with new content on the way for both, they may still become the ratings and critical boons for Netflix that Game of Thrones was for HBO. Including a map to help fully immerse viewers in their richly-detailed worlds could go a long way toward helping these epic series reach their full potential.
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: Netflix, Cursed, Game of Thrones, Shadow and Bone, The Witcher, The Witcher: Blood Origin, The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf