The Witcher season 3, volume 1 review: "Henry Cavill’s long goodbye carries plenty of promise"

An image from The Witcher season 3
(Image: © Netflix)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

The beginning of Henry Cavill’s Geralt swan song both starts and ends strongly, but this inconsistent volume's continual preoccupation with The Continent’s politics does little to excite

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The Witcher always gets off to a strong start. The first season wowed audiences with a brutal pilot as Geralt emphatically earned the moniker of the Butcher of Blaviken. The second season, meanwhile, arguably peaked too soon with its adaptation of The Last Wish, which saw Henry Cavill’s monster hunter cross paths – and almost swords – with friend-turned-beast Nivellen.

The opening entry of the third season continues that fast-out-the-blocks trend and is, in many ways, the volume at the height of its powers – but sets a standard that is rarely reached again in the remaining episodes.

The Witcher season 3, then, begins with a relatively self-contained story involving Geralt, Ciri (Freya Allan), and Yen (Anya Chalotra) flitting about the Continent, aiming to keep one step ahead of those power-hungry pursuers who wish to use (and abuse) the Lion Cub of Cintra to their own ends. 

It’s a taste of a more measured, relaxed approach – for both the show and Geralt: Ciri attends a fair and learns to ice skate, while Yennefer is all white-hot passion in a series of brilliantly-penned letters that helps soften The White Wolf’s many edges. It’s a promising start, yet the Netflix show can’t help itself and soon falls into some of the same tried-and-tested rhythms that have proved so frustrating in the past.

That is, in part, due to how quickly Geralt’s fuzzy family dynamic crumbles. Domestic bliss is not Geralt’s strong point, after all. And so the story dictates that the trio must separate, dampening any sort of spark that would have undoubtedly carried the remaining episodes.

The witching hour

An image from The Witcher season 3

(Image credit: Netflix)

Much of this five-episode volume is instead concerned with the power players who have Ciri in their sights. Spymaster Dijkstra (Graham McTavish) and sorceress Philippa’s (Cassie Clare) plans in Redania are the most compelling, with the latter bringing into greater focus the delicious story beat of mages as kingmakers and king whisperers. There are also Game of Thrones-style twists aplenty, with King Vizimir’s (Ed Birch) multi-faceted brother Radovid (Hugh Skinner) being an intriguing addition to proceedings, aiding in a fun sub-plot which has already been described by Joey Batey – perfectly, I may add – as Jaskier’s "hot girl summer."

The Witcher’s increased time with the wider cast does little to set the pulses racing, however. Emhyr (Bart Edwards) – Ciri’s father, re-introduced during the closing moments of the second season – is the biggest offender. Perhaps the greatest victim of what is an abrupt-feeling mini-season, the Nilfgaardian Emperor should be grasping these episodes by the throat, but never once threatens to do so.

Similarly, Francesca (Mecia Simson) and Filandravel’s (Tom Canton) aim to unite the elven clans – including newcomer Gallatin (a gravelly-voiced Robbie Amell, seemingly doing his best Batman impression) – leaves the show mired in the sort of turgid politics that grinds a significant portion of the first volume to a halt. If it’s wrong to want an entire season of Geralt, Yen, and Ciri roaming around the Continent, I don’t want to be right. 

The Witcher quickly becomes bogged down in warring kingdoms and a battle that never dares make its way on-screen. The show often struggles under the weight of juggling these plots, with the continual back-and-forth between Geralt’s protection of Ciri and the attention given to the world around them gifting the season an uneven shape. Worse still, it calls to mind the first season’s needlessly convoluted timeline debacle with how scattered (and scatterbrained) everything feels.

Instead, it’s when the Netflix series heads off on a diversion away from the main narrative where it really plays to its strengths.

The fourth episode, in particular, feels like classic Witcher: a return to the monster-of-the-week adventures (a format that better suits the series, in truth) that sees Geralt and Ciri hunt down a particularly fearsome beast on a boat surrounded by Jaskier’s even-more-obnoxious rivals. It’s silly, joyous – and a welcome reprieve from the stodgy pacing that punctuates parts of the third season.

The last dance

An image from The Witcher season 3

(Image credit: Netflix)

The Witcher season 3’s first volume does at least end with a bang – and one of the show’s finest hours. An intricately-poised, clockwork-like sequence leaves rivalries and warring agendas to bubble up in the background as simmering emotions come to the fore. The experimentation with structure, too, certainly makes the mid-season finale stand out as this batch’s most striking episode, if nothing else.

There’s even a memorable dance scene that may not rival Wednesday’s viral sensation, but at least highlights the series’ growing sense of fun in putting Geralt in witcher-out-of-water situations. Again, the solutions to turn a good show into a great one appear achingly obvious: more playfulness, more monsters, more time spent with the family unit together, and less politics. No one likes politics – as someone of Geralt’s neutral disposition might say.

Despite the pressure cooker of a mid-season finale ending in dramatic fashion, it’s worth pointing out that Henry Cavill’s exit won’t be addressed in the show. Filmed before news of his departure, there’s no air of finality around these episodes – though Cavill, whose Geralt has been a steady presence throughout, will certainly be missed. 

Cavill’s sizzling chemistry with Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer is almost worth the price of admission alone, while the burgeoning relationship he strikes up with an ever-improving Freya Allan as Ciri is, tragically, going to be cut down before it really blossoms.

That long goodbye, though, carries plenty of promise. The combat has gone up a notch, no doubt bolstered by the return of fight coordinator Wolfgang Stegemann. The fantasy series also sets up plenty of fearsome roadblocks that viewers will surely delight in seeing Geralt eagerly crash through when the second volume drops in July. 

For now, everything is teetering on a knife-edge: The Witcher’s traditional strong start is this time bookended by a scintillating dash to the finish. What lands in-between is ordinary at best and tedious at worst – but the highs will make the wait until next month all the more excruciating for many. 

The Witcher season 3, volume 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Volume 2 arrives on July 27. For more from the streamer, check out our best Netflix shows and best Netflix movies.

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Bradley Russell

I'm the Senior Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.