“The Witcher” is baffling to the uninitiated, but diehards swear by its throwback fantasy charms

The campy franchise has its shortcomings, but Netflix's uneven adaptation manages to improve in later episodes

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 21, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Henry Cavill in "The Witcher" (Katalin Vermes/Netflix)
Henry Cavill in "The Witcher" (Katalin Vermes/Netflix)

Immediately "The Witcher" will either turn you on or turn you off for more or less precisely the same reasons. To wit: within the series' very first moments the title character, Geralt of Rivia (a silver bewigged Henry Cavill) triumphs over a monster, and in doing so has inadvertently injured an innocent. Our hero makes a choice that is understandable but not exactly tenderhearted.

Barely half an hour afterward, he stumbles into what looks like a party hosted by Lord Boobula of Tittyvale and engages in solemn conversation with another man about Manly Endeavors as naked women flit hither, thither, and yon. The maidens fair and bare pay the men no attention because they themselves are the objects of attention.

By the end of hour, series showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who wrote this episode, commits several sins for which "Game of Thrones" was raked over the coals many times over – including sacrificing a woman to motivate a man who cares about her. That's just the primary plot. We haven't even gotten to the dramatic suicide of one of the more intriguing people in this show.

Like I said, it's a turn-on or a turn-off. And Netflix is banking on its hunch that most of us are coming to its series with our switches already flipped and stuck in the "on" position, which is why it has already picked up "The Witcher" for a second season.

Honestly that's a pretty solid wager.

Season 1 of "The Witcher" is  a mess at first before revealing itself to be a fine case study of Netflix-itis, also known as "Keep Watching, It Gets Better" Syndrome. That first episode is stuffed to the ears with exposition while establishing little to the uninitiated about who Geralt is. The second is marginally better and introduces one of the best women in these novels, Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra). To anyone who doesn't understand what she has to do with the previously introduced central characters . . . good luck. (And keep watching.)

The writers also breeze through certain aspects of this world that only make sense if you've read Andrzej Sapkowski's short stories and novels or played the video games based on them. Even if you have some basis of knowledge, at least one major structural choice may irritate you to the point of distraction.

By the end of its eight-episode first season, you'll also realize that the entirety of what you've been watching is setup. The real adventure really doesn't start to kick in until Season 2.

I can't wait to see more of it.

It's true: I enjoy "The Witcher" even as I fully acknowledge its many flaws, including those I described above and others I'll not mention to prevent spoilage, Netflix forfend. Is its sales pitch of destiny and chaos basic pandering to people who miss a certain HBO drama with dragons? Certainly.

It also happens to be an exciting and at times intoxicating and downright confusing good time. Decent production values burnish its watchability. Sure, the script veers into ridiculous territory, but the costumes are spectacular, and the cast's chemistry compensates for a great deal.

It also helps to accept what kind of fantasy "The Witcher" is, which is to say it is very appealing, consumable second-tier genre. No reason to get your hackles up at that description; I've put in some time devouring such page-turners and enjoy them  immensely.

Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that to a broader audience hooked on J.R.R. Tolkien by way of Peter Jackson, or George R.R. Martin by way of HBO, or any wizarding adventures associated with J.K. Rowling, the simplicity of Sapkowski's tales of monster hunting and lost princesses will feel familiar at best. Less charitable perspectives will call it derivative.

Whatever the view, people who have spent time with "The Witcher" stories are bound to fall for Netflix's series. Nothing that offended others in the pilot is beyond what I already expected, and everything that works about Cavill's take on Geralt is drawn directly from the game's star avatar, down to Geralt's monotone growl and grunts.

Depending on how you feel about such a pretty, pretty actor playing the role of a ruffian with a heart of gold, that might be considered a compliment to his performance.

"The Witcher" follows the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slayer of great renown thanks to some nifty PR work by the bard Jaskier (the highly entertaining Joey Batey). (Stans know him as Dandelion in the English translations of the story.) Although Geralt would rather be rid of him, the bard tags along, records details of his exploits and transforms them into catchy songs that spread from town to town and great hall to great hall, painting Geralt as a champion, a hero and a protector of the weak.

This is only partly true, and Geralt knows it. While he adheres to a firm code that usually puts him on the side of good, Geralt also operates within a morally grey society that places him in many unenviable positions in a land on the verge of war.

But this also happens to be a world that despises and distrusts special beings. So although Geralt's calling is to kill monsters that pose a threat to humans, he's thanked as often with contempt and rejection as he is with coin.

In a parallel tale that isn't quite parallel – shuffling timelines without warning is apparently feature of Sapkowski's books and a significant frustration the series springs on us – we tag along with Ciri (Freya Allan), a princess forced to flee her kingdom and dash into the wild where she knows and can trust no one. Naturally she's no ordinary princess, and her flight is accompanied with the directive to find Geralt of Rivia, a man she's never met. Why? To what end? Keep watching!

Yennefer, meanwhile, comes to know power of a different kind via the world of magic, chaos, and its political split between male wizards and female sorceresses. The series' exploration of her origin story is one of the show's better choices, and Chalotra ably captures her combination of vulnerability, cynicism, and pride.

Each episode contains just enough camp to keep it from taking itself too seriously, and the combat sequences are elegantly choreographed to a silken precision. Besides all that, Cavill does well enough as a grim reluctant hero who is rough around the edges and has a protective instinct for misunderstood creatures of the world. I still question his casting in the role, but he's a shave above good enough and anyway, he's what we've got.

Bear witness, ye streaming viewers all, to a prime example of the new world of franchise storytelling. Welcome to new entertainment gold rush – the sprint to claim and mine established and underutilized intellectual property. Or I should say, welcome to the next major chapter of it. You're already experiencing it by way of Baby Yoda, star of "The Mandalorian."

As a cohesive story, "The Mandalorian" rates as uneven, but the character officially named "The Child"? Everybody loves that kid, even though Baby Yoda hasn't done very much except toddle around adorably. He doesn't have to: Disney knows we love Baby Yoda because we loved Yoda. More to the point, we know who Yoda is: a being of profound wisdom, endless patience, emanating gentleness that belies extreme levels of power and ability. However, the difference between exploiting our culture-wide endearment for a teeny green Force conduit and betting that the passion of a select group of fans will successfully carry a title most people haven't heard of is gigantic.

Then again, the same could have been said of "Game of Thrones" about a decade ago. We may not love the show at this very moment, but we did once, right? That's why HBO is making more. For the similar reasons, Amazon is belching up somewhere in the realm of $1 billion to bring us its "Lord of the Rings" series.  The story takes place before the time of Aragorn and Legolas, and possibly other legendary characters mentioned in the movies; no matter. We know this world, so we're already predisposed to be at least somewhat excited about the series.

So it goes with "The Witcher" which, as I said, exist as a series of best-selling books and games and for a very short time, a European TV series.  Much of my enjoyment for the Netflix show is rooted in my affection for the characters of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, and what I know of them comes by way of the video games, specifically "The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt."

That campaign amounts to a handsomely designed playable movie that's as generous with its narrative as it is with its action and gratuitous cleavage, and the occasional titillating sex cinematic. The thing is obviously written with a male audience in mind.

The series honors that,  although Hissrich, to her credit, eventually makes the female gaze more representative as the season evolves. More than half the episodes are written by women – she wrote the premiere and the finale –  with Charlotte Brändström directing two of them. That already puts Hissrich and "Witcher" ahead of "Game of Thrones" in the gender inclusion department, and it buys her a bit of rope with me.

That still doesn't excuse the lack of narrative clarity and skips and jumps over important pieces of the plot puzzle. The millions already steeped in "Witcher" lore likely and happily will fill in those plot and character development gaps, because that is what we love to do.

It is we who can look at this world with an understanding of why Geralt is so grumpy or other things presented with no explanation. And all sorts of "whys" whiz right on by without being addressed, many of them involving the main character.  That is a strange sort of failure for a series that jams a great deal of set-up into its first episode.

As someone who knows what it's like to be outside a franchise fan club and therefore unable to benefit from efforts to service the in-crowd, I empathize with the newcomer's frustration. This presumptive approach to story progression also gets in the way of contemplating some of the more thought-provoking, culturally resonant elements of Sapkowski's plot.

The uninitiated would do well to have a committed "Witcher" fan on speed dial to explain to you why any irritants are actually on brand, and to shove filler in the fields' worth of plot holes. Truly "The Witcher" is for the stans – but if we want it to thrive and continue, be ready to play the bard and evangelize for Geralt of Rivia, because it feels like Netflix is leaving that quest up his believers.

"The Witcher" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland