You learn nearly everything you need to know about The Witcher hero Geralt (Henry Cavill) a few minutes into the first episode. The titular witcher — a work-for-hire monster hunter with some helpful superpowers — is first seen in a swamp, nearly killed by a giant spider monster, beaten and almost drowned. In the next scene, Geralt heads to a local pub for information on his next quest, only to be subjected to ridicule and scorn from villagers who are scared of his supernatural nature. Ultimately, he’s saved from a barroom brawl thanks to a helpful young woman, who very quickly becomes a romantic partner.
The Netflix adaptation captures the enigmatic hero perfectly. He’s struggling to survive in a world that hates him, stubbornly sticking to a moral code that forces him into dangerous situations. He’s gruff and sarcastic, always down for a fight, impossibly charming, and frequently irresistible. It’s a premise that worked well in book and video game form — and now it’s one of the best series on Netflix.
This review contains light spoilers.
The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy novels from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which reached a new level of global popularity thanks to a series of video games. 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, in particular, propelled the franchise to blockbuster status. Every iteration follows Geralt, part of an ancient and dwindling line of monster hunters known as witchers. They’re mutated from a young age to be stronger and faster, and the process also gives them limited magical abilities and prolonged life spans. Geralt is a gunslinger type, moseying into a town in trouble, slaying the inevitable magical beast, collecting his pay, and moving on.
In this way, The Witcher is different than most fantasy stories, including obvious contemporaries like Game of Thrones. It does have the elements of a vast epic tale — including plenty of political machinations and lots of warring kingdoms — but at its best, The Witcher is like a fantastical detective series, with Geralt investigating dangerous magical creatures and inevitably being pulled into much bigger conspiracies.
What makes the new show work so well is the way it seamlessly blends together these two types of storytelling. There is an interesting overarching story. In addition to Geralt, the show also follows Ciri, a young princess with mysterious powers who is on the run from a rival kingdom, and Yennefer, a fiercely independent sorceress with grand ambitions. Viewers follow along as their three paths inevitably intertwine. But instead of the serialized approach favored by prestige television, for much of its runtime The Witcher has more of a “creature of the week” structure. (This changes in the final two episodes as the season rushes towards a conclusion that very clearly sets up the second season.)
Each episode — many of which are based explicitly on short stories from the books — tasks Geralt with solving a different monster-related problem, whether that’s a princess turned into a beast, or a vengeful djinn who has cursed his best friend, the bard Dandelion (who primarily goes by Jaskier in the show). The structure feels true to the spirit of the series, while also making it work well for television.
It also means that the show demands a bit more from viewers. Events in The Witcher don’t always unfold in chronological order, and there’s no explicit indication of whether you’re watching a scene in the past or present. Instead, you have to sort out the timing based on contextual clues: a line about an event you’ve already seen, or how close two characters have become. (Figuring out the timing isn’t helped by the fact that witchers and sorcerers barely age.) It took me a few episodes to get a solid sense of things. This also means The Witcher benefits from repeat viewings, where you can pick up on small details you may have missed the first time.
The most important part of The Witcher, though, is Geralt himself. I’ll admit: I was nervous after seeing the initial photos of Henry Cavill in a Party City-esque white wig, but he absolutely nails the role. His Geralt is the exact right blend of scary, sexy, and sarcastic. Even his gravelly voice is perfect. The wig may look strange at times, but ultimately it doesn’t distract from what makes Geralt interesting. You even get to see him in multiple bath scenes.
As a TV show, The Witcher is particularly refreshing in an era full of nihilistic fantasy stories inspired by Game of Thrones. Yes, the show gets brutal at times. The wonderfully choreographed fight scenes are extremely violent, as is one very particular and hard-to-watch magical transformation. It’s a show where — shock! — the bad guys are usually humans, not monsters. What makes The Witcher feel different, though, is in the details. These stories aren’t full of people being awful for the sake of it; they’re making choices based on love or survival, and then things go wrong. What makes The Witcher so compelling is how it delves into these gray areas, exploring why people do what they do. By the end, you’ll have some measure of sympathy for almost everyone, no matter how irredeemable they might seem at first.
Crucially, The Witcher has a sense of humor. It’s not all dark and dire. Jaskier (Joey Batey) frequently plays the comedy relief, following Geralt around despite not being welcome, in order to turn Geralt’s exploits into song, sometimes breaking the fourth wall in the process. “There I go again,” he says at one point, “just delivering exposition.” When he meets the witcher for the first time, the bard tells him “I love the way you just sit in a corner and brood.” Meanwhile, Geralt’s quietly sarcastic nature is on full display. He can cut through any situation, no matter how awkward or horrible, with a frustrated “fuck.” And one of the show’s most dramatic sex scenes is accompanied by a playful jig and gawking onlookers making jokes.
The Witcher could’ve very easily turned out wrong. It’s not hard to misinterpret what it is that actually makes the series interesting, but the TV adaptation gets it. The Witcher is funny, intense, and uncomfortable, and it balances out those disparate emotions almost perfectly. Yes, it stars Henry Cavill in a bad white wig, but you’ll forget about all of that as soon as he starts talking.