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STREAMING WARS: Is The Witcher the next big fantasy franchise? Netflix sure hopes so

Henry Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, the main character of The Witcher, a mutant monster hunter who gets whipped up into a continent-spanning conflict.
Henry Cavill plays Geralt of Rivia, the main character of The Witcher, a mutant monster hunter who gets whipped up into a continent-spanning conflict. - Courtesy of Netflix

The Witcher’s story structure is a bit of a hot mess, throwing you right into the fray with very little explanation of, well, anything.

Just bam! Swords, magic, queens and war. It’s a lot to take in.

It doesn’t help that as the episodes go on, the plot keeps jumping around, forward and backward in time, split between three protagonists.

But, despite its plot and pacing problems, The Witcher remains so damn watchable. That’s thanks to some compelling character work by the lead actors and the larger universe that surrounds them.

The fantastical, medieval world of The Witcher is an immensely cruel and unforgiving one. Monsters lurk around every corner, often manifestations of humanity’s worst impulses.

Geralt of Rivia (played by Henry Cavill), the title character of the show, exterminates these creatures for a fee, brooding and scowling all the while and providing some of the best sword fighting choreography ever seen.

He’s thrust into a larger continent-spanning conflict as the fortunes of Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) and Ciri (Freya Allan) become slowly intertwined with his.

CONDUIT OF CHAOS

A major standout of the show is Yennefer of Vengerberg’s origin story, which actually manages to outshine Geralt’s monster-of-the-week flow.

Yennefer’s arc is one of betrayal, doubt, and finding agency amidst terrifying circumstances. Despite everything she goes through, sacrificing everything, she finds power and has her own aspirations beyond those who seek to control or confine her.

Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) is a major standout of The Witcher and probably the best reason to actually watch Netflix’s new series.
Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) is a major standout of The Witcher and probably the best reason to actually watch Netflix’s new series.

Geralt, on the other hand, seems to stumble into and swashbuckle his way from one situation to the next, often beside his travelling companion Jaskier (Joey Batey), a bard who provides some much-needed humour and levity.

And with Ciri, it feels like her story is just getting started and has been relegated to the back burner for now.

What’s clear is that Netflix is hoping the series, with its mature themes and grim-dark tone, will be the next Game of Thrones. With tons of story left to tell after the conclusion of the first season, I’m excited to see where the show goes next.

But, I feel like I have a bit of an unfair advantage.

I know a lot more of the background and context of what’s actually happening because I happened to play (and really enjoy) the video games, which tread a lot of the same ground. Both the games and the show are based on books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

That being said, I still felt a sense of disorientation as the first episode wrapped up. I knew the main characters, but nothing was really cohesive or sticking.

It’s really not until the first season start to wrap up that you realize the show is split into three (or more) timelines and it’s up to the viewer to sort things out from there.

Again, despite that, I kept wanting more.

Whether or not The Witcher will hit the level of cultural hegemony that Game of Thrones enjoyed is hard to say at this point, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for something to scratch that itch.

Season two is filming now and is expected to release in 2021.

The Witcher has already been rated as one of Netflix’s most-watched shows of 2019, despite middling reviews, and there’s definitely potential for the show to hit the ‘everyone’s talking about it’ levels of cache. This is despite its all-at-once season dump format, rather than a slower, weekly release schedule, like Disney’s  The Mandalorian.

But Netflix won’t be alone in the big-budget Fantasy genre for long.

HBO has announced spin-offs of its flagship fantasy franchise (GOT) called House of Dragons, focusing on the history of House Targaryen.

And Amazon is already working on their big-budget adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which remains the king of the genre.

THINGS TO KNOW

Some tidbits about The Witcher that might make the series easier to digest for newcomers:

  • The series is roughly split up into multiple timelines, basically broken down into Pre-Pavetta (Ciri’s mother), Pre-Ciri and the invasion of Cintra by Nilfgaard. Netflix has created a helpful map/timeline here
  • Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a mutant monster hunter with magical abilities who consumes potions and salves to bolster his strength and resistance to specific beasts. This sometimes makes his eyes go black. The mutation also turned his hair silver.  
  • The Northern Kingdoms are a loose alliance of monarchies, including Cintra, Temeria and Skellige that have united against Nilfgaard, a southern kingdom that is threatening to conquer the entire continent.
  • Magic and monsters are a very real threat in this medieval-esque landscape. During the ‘conjunction of the spheres,’ which precedes the events of the series, monsters and humans arrived on the continent. Shortly after, elves taught humans how to use chaos and harness it into magic. The elves were then slaughtered or forced to flee their lands. 

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