Netflix’s fantasy inches closer to Game of Thrones, but doesn’t sacrifice its weird charm
When The Witcher arrived on Netflix in 2019, it was received by some as an early contender for the title of “next Game of Thrones.” If that translates to “expensive adult fantasy show with prestige TV ambitions,” it’s a field that’s quickly getting crowded. There’s this fall’s The Wheel of Time, which will be joined next fall by a Lord of the Rings series on Amazon, in addition to HBO’s proper follow-up to Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon. The irony here is how poorly The Witcher fit that mold; a show just as interested in pulp Xena: Warrior Princess-style episodic adventure as it was intricate world-building and amoral politicking. This was a good thing! Game of Thrones was pretty great at times, but it was never a particularly fun ride, and it never gave us the hit single “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.”
So it’s a little bit of a disappointment that The Witcher’s second season builds out a more intricate and serialized story in the Game of Thrones mold. While this is partly a reflection of the source material — Andrezj Sapkowski’s Witcher fiction begins with short story collections that eventually give way to a five-novel epic — it’s also a significant retooling of the show’s structure.
The basics are simple enough. Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), genetically enhanced monster hunter, is now the apprehensive adoptive father of Cirilla (Freya Allan), a princess in exile with a mysterious heritage that gives her incredible powers no one fully understands. Ciri, as she’s called, is still motivated by grief and rage stemming from the events of the first season, where the invading empire of Nilfgaard laid siege to her home, the Kingdom of Cintra, killing her family and nearly capturing her. Ciri wants her revenge, and she feels she must become a Witcher to have it.
Meanwhile, the world shakes, literally and figuratively. Structures called Monoliths are causing natural disasters and introducing new monsters to The Continent, and the disparate Northern Kingdoms must contend with the presence of Nilfgaard without, and unrest within that mostly manifests as fantasy racism towards Elves that may inadvertently fuel a violent uprising. Did you remember that the world of the Witcher is racist towards elves? I did not. As the world of The Witcher expands, it attempts to develop a meatier texture that isn’t always elegant.
In fact, so much of season 2 consists of careful plot bricklaying that it highlights how little was explained in the prior season. While The Witcher’s writers made the initially confounding decision to have that first batch of episodes unfold nonlinearly across three timelines, the plot threads were relatively free of knots when laid out in order. In retrospect, it was a good way to blend a serial story about the origin of the sorceress Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) of Vengerberg (the earliest timeline), episodic adventure stories following Geralt (the middle timeline) and meaty world building (the “present” timeline following Ciri). Now that all of these main stories have converged, season 2 spends much of its time spinning them out again, this time in chronological order.
The result is a Witcher series that is a little more conventional and a little less odd. In the first six episodes made available to critics, the monster-of-the-episode morality tales are largely gone (with one wonderful early exception) in favor of fantasy sprawl. Questions that were answered by implication in the previous season are answered more explicitly — namely, what Witchers are, how they’re made, and are there any more — and while these answers are crucial to the plot, there is something lost when a fantasy show stops to explain most of its rules instead of simply showing its strange world at work.
Yet The Witcher is still a pleasure to watch in spite of these substantial shifts, largely because it is so damn charming. The world of the show (along with the books it is based on, as well as the popular video game adaptations) is not one without wit. It playfully reworks fairy tale tropes — for example, what binds Geralt to his love interest Yennefer is effectively a wish he made to a genie — as it actively interrogates them. Old premises are questioned with modern concerns; who possesses power or agency and who does not are just as vital to a Witcher story as is the question of how to kill “a Leshen.”
This playfully thoughtful approach extends to the performances in The Witcher. Star Henry Cavil absolutely disappears into the character of Geralt of Rivea; his gruff mannerisms and carefully hidden but still present wry sense of humor, the weary yet assured way he stalks through the woods in his leather armor. Characters like Yennefer and Jaskier the bard (Joey Batey) weave in and out of the plot facing grave stakes yet their personalities are richly drawn enough that spending time with them never feels dour. And at the end of the day, even if The Witcher spends a hefty amount of time on palace intrigue, it’s still a show where vampires and grumpkins could show up at any moment, and that’ll never get old.
Maybe the problem is simply math. Eight episodes is not a whole lot of time to spend in a fantasy world, nor does it allow The Witcher’s creative team much room to experiment often. While season 2 deviates from the first in structure and focus, it doesn’t necessarily negate it. A third season could theoretically return to the first’s more episodic structure just as easily as it could lean into the serialized elements. In the long run, there’s a powerful versatility in knowing that — something that many other shows in the streaming era could also learn from.
It’s not hard to recommend The Witcher to others, even non-fantasy fans, because at its heart, the show isn’t about lore or world-building or even the trappings of genre fiction that fuels Reddit threads and social media speculation. It’s simply a story about monsters. More specifically, it’s a story about understanding monsters: How they’re made, how to find them, and how to put an end to them. Like a lot of stories about monsters, The Witcher isn’t above trotting out the old saw about how so-called normal folk can be more monstrous than any creature with fangs or tusks. Where The Witcher differs, however, is in the writers’ interest in the conditions that produce what’s monstrous. There’s bigotry and greed, of course, but there’s also control: The desire to exert your will over the fate of others, to limit the possibilities they see for themselves, to demand that the world only be one way. It’s worth noting that these are things that only increase as one obtains more power.
This is a story that can be told in ways both large and small. In its first season, The Witcher was able to do the latter reasonably well, with its one-and-done monster fables and ironic twist endings. In its second season, The Witcher takes its time, but it’s currently unclear if it has any grander insight to offer in exchange for its wider scope — and it might take more than the final two episodes of this season to find out. Fortunately, the show has earned a sizable amount of goodwill in an impressively short time, and even if we can no longer see the destination, The Witcher still feels like a hell of an adventure.
The Witcher season 2 premieres on Netflix Friday, Dec. 17th