A brooding hero, one of the last members of a race of legendary warriors, wanders through a wild, dangerous world, finding nothing but trouble. Violence is his livelihood, and yet his code makes him choosy about his jobs. That means he’s often so desperate for money that he’s forced to take terrible risks. He doesn’t want to connect with anyone, but his world is turned upside down when destiny makes him responsible for a very special child.
That description fits both the Disney Plus Star Wars series The Mandalorian and The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels, which also inspired CD Projeckt Red’s video game series of the same name. But while The Mandalorian is an immensely entertaining exploration of the Star Wars universe and its roots in Westerns and samurai films, The Witcher is a dull, dour mess with no stakes that embodies the worst impulses of post-Game of Thrones television.
Henry Cavill (the DCEU’s Superman) plays the title character, Geralt of Rivia, with a square-jawed terseness so inscrutable, he might as well be wearing the Mandalorian’s signature helmet. While he occasionally shows a bit of charm while making a barbed joke, or reacting to a particularly dramatic revelation with a curt expletive, he mostly spends his time moping over his tragic lot in life, as a monster hunter who’s constantly getting swindled or chased out of generic medieval towns. Witchers owe their combat prowess to magical mutations, which manifest in Geralt as piercing yellow eyes. Many of the small-minded people Geralt is trying to protect think that makes him a monster himself.
That cliché is aggressively hammered home by showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who previously wrote several scripts for Daredevil and The Umbrella Academy. In The Witcher’s first episode, “The End’s Beginning,” scheming sorcerer Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen of Sherlock and House of Cards) asks Geralt to kill a monster for him. When the Witcher asks what kind, Stregobor responds, “The worst kind. The human kind.” (The line feels like it’s pulled right out of Futurama’s Twilight Zone parody.) Other storylines show that seeming monsters can be far nobler than apparent humans, particularly episode 4, “Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials,” which is basically a Beauty and the Beast retelling. The worst of mankind is represented by the Nilfgaardian Empire, whose forces brutally torture and slaughter everyone in their wake in battles that resemble Game of Thrones’ gory grimdark excesses.
Like The Mandalorian, The Witcher mostly consists of episodic adventures, as Geralt gets embroiled in the schemes of powerful men and women who want to use his significant skills for their own purposes. That dynamic works well with The Mandalorian’s short, laser-focused episodes, which keep the spotlight on the title character, with occasional scenes dedicated to Baby Yoda’s adorable antics. The Witcher’s episodes are an hour long at minimum, and they also follow the stories of two other protagonists: the ambitious sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) and Ciri (Freya Allen), a fierce young princess on the run from the Nilfgaardians seeking Geralt’s protection.
These three storylines are almost entirely disconnected through the first half of the show’s eight-episode first season, though Geralt is repeatedly told that Ciri is connected to him through the powerful force of destiny. As a result, it seems both strange and yet inconsequential when one of the triad disappears for a full episode. While Game of Thrones’ large cast and sprawling setting meant many main characters didn’t interact for long periods of time, sharp writing and acting and a strong supporting cast ensured that their individual scenes felt weighty. But The Witcher’s protagonists still feel thinly sketched, with too much time devoted to clunky exposition, or building up even thinner minor characters who are meant to be important later.
Schmidt set the show before the events of Sapkowski’s first novel, Blood of Elves, removing most of the dramatic tension for anyone familiar with the source material or games. While The Mandalorian takes place before the events of the current film trilogy, none of its characters or conflicts to date play a significant role in the films, so there are no guarantees about who survives, and no clarity about which actions actually matter. Even for those who are new to The Witcher, the show’s structure (which Netflix has demanded critics not reveal or discuss) makes it clear that many of the outcomes of the plots are preordained.
While the personalities of the characters and issues explored in the show are true to the books and games, the worldbuilding is presented clunkily, with the writers alternating between under- and overexplaining things. Both the books and game tend to introduce characters and make their connections and importance clear through a few lines of fond reminiscing with Geralt. Netflix’s The Witcher moves most smoothly when it mimics this style, but the prequel setup shows the writers’ unwillingness to trust viewers enough to keep up.
Similarly, not much is spelled out in The Mandalorian, with the assumption that the audience already knows about the fall of the Galactic Empire, or the dangers of the Hutts. The Witcher’s writers seem to expect their audience to be genre-savvy when they introduce halfling and dwarf characters with no explanation, but then they have a character literally lecture about the nature of magic and the dangers of using it. The channeling of Chaos through discipline and study is also straight from the source material, but in the books, readers mostly piece its nature together through cryptic references or conversations about past characters’ fates. The lore about it in the game can be engaged with or ignored at the player’s leisure. The concepts here aren’t particularly novel — they’re similar to how magic works in the Wheel of Time books and Dragon Age games — and hearing them laboriously explained by a character who resembles an even crueler version of Severus Snape adds nothing of value.
The dry lessons about the world’s political powers and racial politics are too rarely broken up by humor. The charm of The Mandalorian’s Baby Yoda is that he can eat a frog to cut the tension of an upcoming life-or-death battle, and he serves as a way for a terse and often violent character to wordlessly show kindness. The Witcher desperately needs something similar. Geralt’s “destiny” connection to Ciri doesn’t fit the bill, but Jaskier (Joey Batey) a bard who follows Geralt around, writing about his exploits and using a shockingly catchy tune to encourage people to pay him, does at least occasionally serve a similar purpose. He’s comic relief and a source of exasperation for the typically unflappable Geralt, but he’s underutilized. There’s also nothing like him lightening the regular brutality found in other characters’ scenes.
While The Witcher features some visually stunning moments in mages’ towers and mystically infused forests, much of the lighting is too dark. It’s meant to make various settings feel oppressive or frightening, but as with the controversial Game of Thrones episode “Battle of Winterfell,” the dim cinematography just makes it hard to tell what’s going on. While Hissrich has said she has no plans to incorporate plots from the video games into the show, the visuals will feel familiar when it comes to the look of the characters, castles, and wooded terrains.
The one place the show does succeed is in its fights, which combine swords and sorcery in thrilling battles against both men and horrifying monsters, testing its protagonists’ might and wits. Some of the scenarios are clichés, like the point where Geralt is effectively locked in a haunted crypt until dawn, or the large-scale brutal battles between noble heroes and nameless villainous invaders who dress in all-black. But at times, the writers show they’ve really thought about how powerful magic would shape everything, from sieges that are really a battle to break the strength of a mage fortifying a castle with his will, to assassination attempts that turn into chase scenes through a series of portals. Those dynamics at least produce some creative, thrilling setpieces.
Those moments aren’t enough to make up for The Witcher’s shortcomings. After all, The Mandalorian also uses its high production values for dramatic alien landscapes and battles, and so far, its weakest episodes would hold up against The Witcher’s strongest. Fans of the IP might find some satisfaction in spending time with the characters and world while waiting for The Witcher 4 to come out, but general genre fans don’t have to settle for this show. A better version of it is already airing.
The full eight-episode first season of The Witcher is streaming on Netflix now.