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I Can’t Stop Thinking About The Witcher, Much to My Dismay

O Valley of Plenty

Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher

Something funny happened on the way through my binge-watch of The Witcher. This is by no means a well-written show, and yet I can’t stop thinking about it.

I don’t entirely blame The Witcher’s writers for the overwrought words they make the characters speak. Adapting the sprawling series and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski—which were originally in Polish—is no mean feat. They tried to stay true to Sapkowski’s world-building, which surely is easier to swallow on the page, and perhaps easier to follow there as well. This kind of heavy-handed stuff also goes down better in The Witcher’s video-game form, when you actually get to take part in the action instead of just trying to listen and parse it for meaning.

As it is, many of the TV scenes play out almost like a parody of fantasy, where characters with names that have been high fantasy-ized (I’m looking at you, Yennefer), make head-scratching pronouncements like they’re doing a live-reading of Lord of the Rings on acid.

The worst dialogue comes via The Witcher’s expository exchanges, which are so dense with terms like “Nilfgaard” and “Conjunction of the Spheres” as to be incomprehensible, or else they’re making bombastically declarative statements like, “What you’re missing is still out there. Your legacy. Your destiny. I know it. And you know it.” Oftentimes, I was dazzled by the actors, mostly because they were able to keep a straight face while plowing through this verbal muck.

And yet. And yet. There’s a sort of purity to The Witcher that I found appealing, and after spending nearly eight hours straight with these people, I cared what happened to them (well, most of them. Well, some of them. A couple? I cared somewhat). I don’t mean “purity” as in morals, which are cloudy in this thing at best; I mean that it’s not trying to be masterpiece theater—and it’s best when it’s not styling itself after Game of Thrones. It works when it’s silly on purpose and owns its ridiculousness.

The Witcher is an over-the-top fantasy saga/video game given flesh. As such, it shines when it’s not taking itself too seriously. It’s here to fight slobbering monsters, show us truly inexplicable amounts of flesh, run from giant magical assassin scorpions, and be violent as all get-out. Whenever The Witcher lightens up, it becomes far more watchable and even, dare we say it, fun. This shows us how much better this show could’ve been as a whole if it weren’t trying to cover quite so so much ground and take on so many different storylines and tones.

At its most entertaining, The Witcher has a tongue-in-cheek whimsy, with comedic one-liners that star Henry Cavill, who looks like he’s having the time of his life, manages to pull off. The Witcher can also be somewhat self-aware, willing to poke fun at itself. These are its high points, which usually feature Joey Batey’s delightful bard Jaskier, who provides a sort of meta-commentary via song. Try and tell me you didn’t come away humming “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” You can’t.

It’s a shame that the series didn’t lean even further in this direction and less into trying to fit the mantle all studios are looking for, “the next Game of Thrones.” Far more than Game of ThronesThe Witcher reminded me of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, where an emphasis on rampant fighting was tempered by emotional interactions, comedic interludes, and characters that made a memorable impression. The Witcher had a lot more money to spend than those series, so it looks a lot richer (the costumes are gorgeous, and the effects mostly work), but it feels more directionless, especially as it switches back and forth to different points in time.

A sense of not knowing quite what it wants to be, hamfisted dialogue, and convoluted timelines aren’t the only issues afflicting The Witcher, of course. I could write for days about Yennefer’s problematic motivation of pursuing a baby at all costs, for reasons. Womanly reasons, because she’s a lady, whose life as the most powerful magic-worker in the world is empty without progeny. While this unfortunate subplot is likely due to the source material, it’s the sort of thing where the Netflix production of The Witcher would have done well to go off-book. I could write as long, and at length, about the role of women overall, the roles given to people of color, the apparent lack of any queer people in this vast universe—and I will do these things. But I can also appreciate that what The Witcher did was let me turn off my brain for a while, which was a much-needed escape from everything mundane at the hectic close of 2019.

Despite its many problems, there’s something endearing about The Witcher. You get the sense that it’s striving so very hard. The big gulf between critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes (60%) and the audience’s (93%) shows that viewers have found more to love than professional critics. As for me, I watched the whole thing in one night without coming up for air. I can be extremely annoyed by elements of The Witcher, but I can’t hate it. The truth is that I’m going to listen to “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” on repeat for the rest of the day.

Please talk to me about The Witcher in the comments. What did you think?

(image: Netflix)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.