Reviews Too Late: Witcher

by wjw on February 2, 2020

the_witcherThis is probably the most gratuitous review ever, because if you gave a damn about Witcher you’ve already seen it and formed your own opinion.  Probably a lot of you never got past the first episode, which had by far the worst writing of any episode of the series, and made no attempt to clarify the series’ three separate timelines.  So if you hated that first episode, you had every right to do so.

(And why three separate timelines, you ask?  Because another show had three separate timelines and was very successful, so now every show has to have three separate timelines.)

Anyway, the Netflix series is based on a series of stories and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, who I believe I met twenty years ago and found quite genial.  I haven’t read any of his books, though I’ve played Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, which I recommend to any of you interested in action-oriented console RPGs.

The Witcher in The Witcher is Geralt of Rivia, who despite having long white hair, weird eyes, magical powers, “White Wolf” as a nickname, and a sword is not Elric of Melniboné, mainly because Geralt is actually useful in his world, and all Elric does is bring doom to everybody.

But still this is sword and sorcery, not high fantasy, and so far as I can tell the rules to sword and sorcery are the More, the Louder, the Better.

Witchers are a caste of warriors who are chosen at an early age, trained brutally, subjected to mutagenic chemicals and magic, and who mostly die well before they attain their majority.  After which the lucky few venture into the world to fight monsters for money, which they do until they die, unless they go back to their home castle to torture the next generation of witchers.

Why?  Because this is Child Torture World.  Also Misogyny World.  Also Brutal Conquest World.  And Pointless Violence World.

Witchers are hated and despised, and I’m not sure why.  After all they show up, solve your problem, take your money, and leave, unlike every other sword-swinger in this world, who wants to kill you, burn your house, conquer your town, abuse the women, and perform graphic experiments on the children.

By the time the story opens Geralt has been fighting monsters for decades, since apparently being a witcher grants you long life.  He’s become extremely cynical about humanity by this time, and he’s beginning to sympathize with the monsters’ point of view.  Carrie Vaughn has argued that, behind the fantasy world’s raging misogyny, is a sneaky feminist subtext.  Many of the monsters that Geralt encounters are women who have been neglected, tortured, or cursed by men, and he’s inclined to try to save them if he can.  (Usually he can’t.)  Becoming a monster is one of the ways women can gain power in their world.

But Geralt is only one of the series’ three timelines, and the others belong to two of the series’ abused females.  Yennefer of Vengerberg is a deformed hunchback who nevertheless has latent magical powers which cause her to be sent to a magic school that might as well be named Hellwarts.  Under their headmistress (who could teach Maleficent a thing or two) the students are encouraged to brutalize, betray, and even kill each other, and young Yennefer is willing to do just about anything to earn a degree of agency.  Though, having been reared on treachery, it should come as no surprise that she eventually betrays her teachers and strikes out on her own— after first having a bit of work done, and getting herself transformed from a deformed hunchback into someone with a more conventional appearance and a rather protean identity.

The third timeline is that of Cirilla, known as Ciri, a girl-child who is the granddaughter of royalty, and with a strand of elven blood that gives her the power to destroy, or save, the world.  Although I don’t think we find that out in this series, all we know is that all sorts of bad people want Ciri for some reason, and she spends most of the series running away from things.

All three timelines collapse into one in the final episode, where the three heroes find themselves at an Alamo-like last stand.

The writing achieved its nadir in the first episode, and got better afterwards, though it still had its shaky moments, in which otherwise intelligent actors are compelled to intone lines like, “The Time of the Sword and the Axe is nigh.”  By the third episode I felt quite engaged with the story, though by the eighth I felt it had gone on an hour or two too long.

But I noticed one thing that I haven’t seen mentioned in any of the reviews, which is that this series is a prologue.  By the end of the first series the actual story hasn’t started yet.  All we’ve got is the backstory of the three main characters, and they have barely begun the process of forming their weird, alienated, world-saving little family.

For the actual story, you have to wait till Season 2.  Season 1 wasn’t even necessary, because any backstory could have been told in flashback.  You didn’t need eight whole hours of it.

Huh.  I’ve never seen a series in which the prequel appeared first.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Witcher, because it’s rocky in places and you have to like the sort of thing that it is.  But for what it’s worth, I’ll check out Season 2 when it drops, because then it has the potential to be sort of amazing.

Michael Grosber February 2, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Lost in Space also had a first season that’s basically a prequel – they spend an entire season on a planet with many other people, and their location is basically known, and only in the very last episode do they get “lost”.

You\re right about the needlessness of the backstory. Yenneffer’s story could have been doled out in pieces over a couple of seasons. Ciri’s could have been scrapped altogether.

Privateiron February 17, 2020 at 2:41 pm

The first two books of short stories are pretty good. I haven’t read the novels yet, but of course, the show makes a lot more sense if you read the books and/or played the game. So I cannot judge it from the perspective of a newcomer. The critics were extremely harsh, even given the bad writing in the first episode.

I don’t think there is a “sneaky” feminist subtext; I think the text is upfront about the idea that women have always dealt with more shit than men. And women use any power they get, sort of like men in that regard.

It’s not perfect; there is some male wish fulfillment embodied by Geralt, who is buffer than Superman (literally: Cavil got into better shape to play him than he did for Clark Kent.), cannot catch STDs; cannot get anyone pregnant and can expect to be healthy up to his 200th birthday if he makes it there. But I would argue it is no more misogynistic than any other popular fantasy movie/series and actually contains that subversive element that most of them lack.

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