Game of Thrones changed television. Across its eight seasons, the world went Thrones crazy, with viewers obsessing over every detail and prophecy. There had never been a fantasy show so engaging, wonderfully realised, and with such great characters. That’s not to mention the scale of the battles, with their epic size and supreme CGI.
With such success comes imitators. Already, when discussing new television shows, the phrase “the next Game of Thrones” has become a cliché – shorthand for anything that’s adult-orientated with fantastical elements. Yet, the Witcher Netflix series cries out for the comparison. There’s the gratuitous violence, a royal family at war, huge battles, and a few naked people walking around for good measure. One of the lead actresses even appeared in HBO’s epic (Jodhi May plays Queen Calanthe in Witcher and Maggy the Frog in Game of Throne). The question is: can The Witcher Netflix series outgrow the all-too-easy comparison?
The first episode certainly tries to, yet the result is messy, confusing, and cumbersome. We’re introduced to a half dozen main character with peculiar names (each one pronounced differently by multiple characters), given a few history lessons, and witness more brutal fatalities than in any single Thrones episode. This may all sound good, but unfortunately, for the most part, rings hollow.
We start with Geralt, played by Henry Cavill, fighting a spider-like monster. After beating the creature with ease, he travels into town, goes to a bar, meets a woman, meets a wizard, and all is not as it seems. The wizard and the woman, named Stregobor and Princess Renfri, wish each other dead (something book readers will certainly know). After some double-crossing, the story comes to a heated, unexpected conclusion as Geralt tears through some warriors like a warm knife through the softest butter. It’s gross and glorious: the episode’s highlight. The problem, though, is that getting there is a chore.
Let’s put it bluntly: Cavill’s not an engaging Geralt. The Superman actor uses a gravelly Batman-type voice, with slow pauses between sentences. His comic timing is off by a few country miles (the delivery of one joke about how prophecies are supposed to rhyme is particularly awkward), and the only real acting done is by his chiseled jawline. Even when Geralt speaks to Roach, his horse, the exercise is laboured rather than endearing (which was presumably the desired effect). That’s a major issue – The Witcher’s going to need a charismatic leading man to keep us engaged through each episode’s hour runtime, not the robotic superhuman on display in the first episode.
The Witcher Netflix series also tells the tale of another character: Princess Ciri of Cintra. We witness her Grandmother’s city fall to the Nilfgaardian Empire. Why the two armies are at war, we don’t really know. Despite a whole lot of exposition – which takes place at a banquet, then in a castle’s chamber rooms – it’s never clear what’s going on, except that Ciri’s somehow at the centre of it. These scenes end up becoming over-encumbered by name dropping, and even a barbaric battle scene can’t inject enough adrenaline to make these any more interesting – though it certainly makes us afraid of Nilfgaardian people, that’s for sure.
There’s one thing tying Geralt and Ciri’s disparate storylines together: destiny. Both characters are told that they are bound to each other. Again, there’s no explanation or real drive as to why, which doesn’t exactly make you want to press ahead with the next episode, but it’s enough of a promise to have me intrigued.
The opening episode of The Witcher, then, is a mixed bag. It reaches out to be called “the next Game of Thrones”, but falls short. Cavill’s Geralt fails to make a lasting impression, while the overarching questions being posed aren’t engaging just yet. However, with such bloody battles, and the promise of an epic journey, I’m certainly intrigued to see where this goes.