The Witcher is Netflix’s big fantasy adventure, gathering some of the largest numbers of viewers for similar streaming shows. Based off a series of novels that also inspired hit games, the Witcher follows a monster-hunter (the Witcher), a mage and a princess across a fantasy land.
While it may contain one of the catchiest songs of the moment (“Toss a Coin to your Witcher), the way story was told was uncompelling and I didn’t engage until the second half of the series.
I haven’t read the books, which usually makes me more engaged in adaptations as I don’t know what to expect. However, it took me a fortnight to finish an 8 episode series. The episodes in and of themselves I enjoyed, and I will be watching the next series, but the overall series lacked a cohesive central aim and the disparate story lines were not handled well.
This isn’t my usual sort of post, but I wanted to discuss my thoughts. As someone who writes fantasy (when not reading!), it’s been really interesting to digest what didn’t click about the story telling and apply it to what I’m writing.
My thoughts are mainly to do with the story telling style, so I won’t be discussing the plot itself, so no spoilers here!
What was Good about the Witcher?
I did enjoy the episodes as I watched them. It’s a solid fantasy, lacking many of the highly problematic themes and actions so common in comparable European-inspired fantasy shows. There was only one scene (episode 3) that really stood out as terrible (the cost of magical beauty for girls).
The effects are good and the sets (when no a muddy forest!) sumptuous. It doesn’t look like someone’s taping boards together and chucking a pot of paint at it, then calling it done. Netflix hasn’t skimmed on the budget here.
The pacing is good. Once I started an episode, I watched the entire thing rather than pausing to make a drink. In short, the Witcher is fun.
How did it lack a central aim?
With the exception of the final two episodes, you could have picked up Geralt’s part of the story and rearranged them without any real disruption to the plot. It felt like completely separate stories because they didn’t inform the next.
The driving force (or rather, lack thereof) behind this was that Geralt doesn’t have a goal he’s pursuing across the stories. It was hard to care about his story line without knowing his desire, to know if he was closer or further away from it.
There was never a sense that he had a plan to follow, just went from town to town looking for monsters to kill for money. The episodes start with him hired to kill a monster (or encountering on), follow him as he tracked it down and the story behind it, and then killed or saved it. For most episodes, this had no impact on the next episode. If I’d missed an episode, I mostly wouldn’t have noticed in his story line.
This wasn’t so true for the two girls. Ciri’s story is the one with a clear central aim – escape the military leader pursuing her and find Geralt. Yennefer has a less clear aim, more disparate middle, but the chronology is important in most of the episodes.
However, the series is named after Geralt, so he’s the main character. He’s the one I felt I had to connect to, but I couldn’t.
Why are the Story Lines not handled well?
There are three story lines – Geralt’s, Yennefer’s and Ciri’s. On a story telling level, I found two issues with the way they were woven together that confused and frustrated me initially. One of them has the most ridiculously easy solution.
The three stories start years apart and take place of varying timeframes so they end up contemporary to one another. Is this ever explained in the story? No. I didn’t realise until episode 3 that they weren’t contemporary to one another, when a character was middle-aged in Geralt’s story line is shown to be a pre-teen in Yennefer’s. There were also references to a character who died in the first episode in later ones, but it was a minor matter.
This dual-timeline character pulled me from the story and I had to message a friend what was going on. She explained there were three timelines, which then made the series easier to follow. If I hadn’t know that, I’m not sure I’d have made it through episodes 4 and 7. For example, episode 7 shows events from one story line in episode 1 from the perspective of another character now they’ve caught up to that timeline.
The confusion these non-concurrent story lines causes could have easily been solved by the oh-so-simple solution of adding a date to the screen when each story line first arrives in the episode. It’s not hard to do, and would have made my initial watching far more enjoyable.
The second issue was the lack of connections between the three story lines. I understood why they didn’t interact or reference each other only once the timeline had been explained to me. Because Ciri was only linked to Geralt through her goal and Yennefer had no link until about episode 5, I struggled to care about them initially. If I was finding it hard to connect to the main character thanks to no central desire, why would I bother about two other characters unconnected to his story line?
Thankfully, all these issues cleared up towards the end of the series, and that should mean I find the next series far more compelling. It was fun to watch, but did take a while to get into because of story telling was lacking elements crucial for understanding and connection.
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