The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a very long game, but eventually it has to end. Maybe you, like me, have gone searching everywhere for more: the standalone Gwent card game, the source books, the tabletop RPG. Now, you have Netflix’s The Witcher series. It’s definitely geared toward people familiar with The Witcher, especially its politics, but with enough gory monster battles and bath scenes (two, at least!) to keep people like me, who just want more Geralt, satisfied.
Netflix’s The Witcher is based more on Andrzej Sapkowski’s books than it is the games. The eight-episode season, which was released in its entirety onto Netflix today, primarily stars Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, three of the major characters of Wild Hunt. They begin their stories separately, but in the five episodes that Netflix provided ahead of the premiere, we see their paths slowly begin to cross. Their stories are set against wars and politics, with kingdoms and rulers rising and falling and armies sweeping the land.
I’ve only read the first Witcher book, and I haven’t played the games other than Wild Hunt, which meant that the names and events in the show sounded just familiar enough to be mildly distracting without my knowledge spoiling too much. If you love the politics and power structures of The Witcher’s world—if you, unlike me, are able to remember what all the cards in Gwent are named after—you’ll find a dramatization of the impactful but largely backgrounded story of Wild Hunt.
But if you were scrolling Netflix, came across what looks like a new fantasy show, and ended up on this article after Googling “Witcher Netflix,” you’re in for a rough time. Netflix’s The Witcher doesn’t do the best job explaining things, and seems to presume at least a passing familiarity with its source material. The show mentions key Witcher plot elements like The Conjunction of the Spheres without explaining them to the viewer. It doesn’t get into how Witchers are made, or what exactly being a Witcher means. This is similar to the structure of the books, which are light on background exposition, but I can’t see recommending the show to a friend as a means of entry into the larger Witcher universe.
Then again, even if this approach sent me to a Witcher wiki on a few occasions to look up a particular character or kingdom, it means The Witcher can jump right into the action without getting too bogged down in setup. There’s a “monster of the week” structure to the series, with each episode featuring Geralt being hired to kill some beast that always turns out to be more than meets the eye. The actual monsters pale in comparison to humanity’s violence, greed, and lust for power. An episode three fight against a striga—a human girl who became a monster via a curse—is dramatic, even if the monster isn’t all that visually impressive. Both the striga and Geralt’s contract to kill it get their weight from the human intrigue swirling around them.
Actor Henry Cavill as Geralt balances his character’s weariness with humanity’s foibles with a soft-hearted inability to refuse to help. “You never get involved, except you do, all the time,” the bard Jaskier (better known to Witcher players or English-language book readers as Dandelion) chides Geralt at one point. Geralt regularly insists he isn’t human, but we see that play out more in how other characters treat him than through his own character or actions. In the episodes I watched, the closest Geralt came to feeling truly set apart was a fight against a group of foes in the pilot episode. It was sharply choreographed and had minimal sound, standing in contrast to an earlier scene of an army battle full of graphic gore and clumsy death. That fight scene and the lead-up to it felt like The Witcher I most want as a fan of Wild Hunt—a glimpse into what it might feel like to be a supernatural monster hunter who nevertheless has to deal with the mundanity of work. But these scenes are rare compared to scenes of groups of humans discussing politics.
Ciri and Yennefer have more complicated, slower-burning plotlines than Geralt’s, more concerned with politics than magic or monsters. Freya Allan as Ciri is straightforward and willful, with anger simmering below the surface. Anya Chalotra as Yennefer exhibits the compelling range Witcher readers and players would expect from the character: She cowers one moment and burns the next, and she always seems to be working toward some secret aim.
Women’s place in The Witcher universe comes up often. At one point, Ciri’s grandmother Queen Calanthe bemoans the boorish behaviour of men at a lavish banquet, saying “If I were a man, I could simply tell the whole lot of them to fuck off.” Grappling with sexism and oppression are welcome additions to a canon that doesn’t always address these issues head-on.
That doesn’t stop The Witcher from greeting us with incidental naked women 10 minutes into the pilot, though. Netflix’s show certainly captures the look of the games in this regard. The nudity and sex never felt gratuitous, and men were often naked too, but they rarely felt strictly necessary to me, either. Mostly they contribute to the earthy brutality of The Witcher’s world, where the bodies of kings and peasants alike are ultimately disposable.
The show is quick to indulge in violence, and there are a few bouts of sudden, shocking gore. Rape and torture are commonplace topics. Jaskier adds some levity to things, with actor Joey Batey playing the role with excellent self-centered pomp. The world of The Witcher is a grim one; people are seldom kind and redeeming, and their thirst for sex or power are sometimes too extreme to be relatable. But it feels like The Witcher, even if watching some of these brutal actions or heartless manipulations unfold on television wasn’t always as compelling as taking part in them myself as a character in the game.
The Witcher doesn’t feel like a show about humanising or providing a new look at its source material’s characters. It feels like a dramatic version of the politics and backstory of the game, which I personally find less interesting than Geralt’s adventures on The Continent. I’ve yet to watch the last three episodes, and the show has already been picked up for another season, so there are plenty of places left for it to go and new depths for it to plumb. If you’re a Witcher fan—“fan” is a mild word for what I am, personally—it won’t change your life, but you’ll want to give it a watch.