Spoiler warning: we talk about the entire season below, including the ending and some of the plot threads set up for season two.
Phil: The Witcher, then. James likes it. Andy likes it. I had a lot of fun with it. But also the wider critical reception has been… mixed. Leaving aside perhaps narrow expectations from TV critics about what a fantasy series should be, let's dig into what we like, what we don't, and what we'd like to see from the already commissioned second series.
Fraser: I finished up the last couple of episodes when I returned home from Christmas, and it's probably the first time a Netflix series has left me wanting more. The first season probably wouldn't benefit from more episodes, but it would certainly make me happy. I've been itching for more of The Witcher since I finished up Blood and Wine, and this was almost like dipping back into the games again, but now I'm left with even more of a craving. Yes, I have started playing The Wild Hunt all over again.
Robin: I did a bit of a binge this weekend, so I’m all caught up. I think I’m a bit more mixed on it. There’s a lot of really fun moments and very likeable characters, and I really enjoyed the slightly off-kilter tone of it—at its best it feels like a weird slice of Polish mythology rather than your standard fantasy yarn. But at the same time, for a relatively straightforward setting (in terms of what viewers actually need to know moment-to-moment), it’s more often than not really confusingly presented. Even as someone who played the hell out of The Witcher 3, I was often lost, sometimes at big, climactic moments. My partner, who’s never experienced the setting before, just got frustrated and gave up after episode three, and I do wonder how many other people out there have done the same.
Andy K: Because I was writing recaps of each episode, I watched the series in a weird way: pausing constantly to take notes, pulling up the Witcher wiki whenever a name or weird fantasy term was mentioned. But despite that, I still really enjoyed it. I think it would’ve suffered without a strong Geralt, but Henry Cavill absolutely kills it. I loved the show most when it was telling a smaller, more self-contained story, especially if it involved a weird monster. I’d like more of that, less grand prophecies about destiny.
Tom: I've watched the series twice now, and it's much better the second time round, when you know who everyone is, and what timeframe you're in. I think episode one is a legit good hour of television. It introduces all the major players, has some spectacular war scenes, and the best Geralt combat sequence of the whole series. I think we all agree that Henry Cavill nails the role, but to me it feels like Yennefer is the main character. We spend a lot of time with her struggle, while Ciri is mostly lost in a forest somewhere.
Phil: I found it pretty weird that Geralt spends basically the whole last episode of the season lying down, feeling poorly. Yennefer was the star of the finale, for sure.
Andy K: Ciri was definitely underused. She spends most of the season lost in the woods, occasionally meeting someone nice, then getting lost in the woods again. I’m guessing season 2 will give her more to do. As much as I like the series, I can understand why someone coming into it without the games or books as a cushion might find it to be a slightly rubbish attempt at making a Game of Thrones type show. But I do think its roots in Polish folklore make it slightly more interesting than Thrones.
Phil: I agree that the show is better once you know how the timeline fits together. Someone told me before I started watching, and that knowledge both made things clearer and didn't diminish the impact of episode seven when the plots all converge. I'm not sure what the point of hiding it was? Sometimes just telling the audience what's going on is fine.
Robin: I feel like the only reason for the multiple simultaneous time periods was so they could have all three characters present in every episode, and I don’t think it’s worth how it distorts the structure. I’d have cut Yennefer’s lengthy backstory and had Ciri introduced in the final two episodes, I think.
Fraser: The structure made it feel like I was listening to Dandelion (or Jaskier as he's known in the books and the show) telling unbelievable stories in the pub. It also meant I was able to watch a whole lifetime in just eight episodes, so I really knew Geralt and Yennefer by the time Ciri bumped into the witcher. Though I wouldn’t have minded if we’d waited a bit to see Ciri, as her story often seems a bit disconnected from the other stuff going. I confess I did have to pause it once or twice, too, as I tried to figure out where in the timeline the episode was taking place, but it's not a demanding task.
Andy K: I was initially baffled by some of the time-hopping, but I got used to it fairly quickly. I do think a few 'X years earlier' cards might’ve lessened the confusion a little. I know some viewers, both fans of the games and not, who couldn’t keep track of what was happening or when. And trying to explain the Law of Surprise is like trying to explain the offside rule to someone. I think in general the show could have been better when it comes to explaining things. It doesn’t even say what a witcher actually is—except for a few hints about mutations—which I think is a fairly big omission.
Phil: I've seen a few people point to the Law of Surprise as one of the setting's more confusing concepts, but Geralt's deadpan "Fuck" after he invokes it is a payoff worth sitting through the exposition for.
Robin: Speaking of Jaskier, I thought he was fantastic. I’m sure he’ll be a divisive character, but I thought he was excellent light relief for a show like this, never letting things get too po-faced and proving the perfect foil to a character as gruff as Geralt. I really missed him in the episodes where he didn’t appear.
Phil: He was a highlight, yeah—immediately forming a great double act with Geralt acting as the straight man. I disagree slightly with Fraser's claim earlier that the show wouldn't be better with more episodes. I kinda wish we had more of Geralt and Jaskier's adventures, or just more witchering in general. The show focuses on select moments from a span of many years, and I'd have loved an episode that wasn't about the broad swell of destiny, but rather just Geralt doing his job: hunting a monster for some ungrateful jerks that hate him. The games have likely spoiled me, though, with their many great hunts and sidequests. CD Projekt Red managed to spin plenty of compelling stories out of the basic act of monster hunting. The show felt lacking in that respect.
Tom: I totally agree with that. The great thing about the games is that most of your tasks are mundane everyday Witcher work, but occasionally Geralt can't help but get sucked into the orbit of powerful, broken people during main quests. The show acknowledges this, but rarely reflects Geralt's actual job. Episode three is probably the purest version of a proper Witcher 'monster of the week' episode, with echoes of the Bloody Baron quest. As for Jaskier, I didn't mind him, and I like that 'toss a coin to your Witcher' has become a bit of a meme.
Fraser: The introduction of Jaskier is where it really started to give out Xena vibes, which has proved to be a welcome palate cleanser after the great—but also kinda exhausting—decade of Game of Thrones. It's silly sword and sorcery stuff and, unlike GoT, embraces the tackiness of fantasy instead of dressing it up in the trappings of prestige TV. The acting and budget far surpasses Xena, however, so we get the best of both worlds. OK, most of the acting—Jaskier’s level of cheese is an acquired taste.
Andy K: I found Jaskier quite charming, but I do not like his singing style at all. It sounds too… modern? I know The Witcher is a fantasy show and not a medieval historical drama, but couldn’t he have tried to sound a bit more, er, bard-ish? That said, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher is very catchy. I thought the music in the show was decent overall, and quite clearly inspired by the score from the games. There are traces of the games all over this thing, even if the showrunners won’t admit it. I mean, Henry Cavill is essentially doing a Doug Cockle impression, right? But I’m cool with that. Episode three in particular felt like a Witcher 3 quest come to life, as many have said, and I loved that about it.
Phil: The 'hunt' of episode three is also the opening cutscene for the first game. I suspect it, in particular, was a key point in establishing the tone and mystery of quests in that series. The snake is eating its tail, basically.
Robin: How do we feel about where this series leaves things? It’s certainly gotten a lot of backstory and set-up out of the way, which I think could lead into a pacier second season—and one where the three central characters are together rather more. There’s a lot of hints and what’s coming next—particularly in Geralt’s delirium dream in the last episode, which points to Geralt’s mother and mentor both playing roles. And they’ve still got to do the big twist of who’s ruling Nilfgaard and why they want Ciri so badly, which I imagine will be a climactic moment.
Andy K: I found the way Cahir and co. danced around the reason why Nilfgaard wants Ciri a bit annoying towards the end. It’s obvious they want people speculating; same with all the references to the White Flame, whatever that is. When Geralt’s about to kill that soldier in episode seven, he starts spouting some religious-sounding prophecy stuff, which I presume the Nilfgaardians are all hopped up on. So I’m sure we’ll get a lot more of that in the second season. Honestly, I’m not as interested in the grand story as the world itself, the role of witchers, the monsters, and so on. I’ve seen enough fantasy stories about prophecies, heroes, destiny, and all the rest of it. I’d rather be told smaller, more grounded tale in this world. But that’s just me. Give me a Witcher anthology series, you cowards.
Tom: Geralt has met up with Ciri now, which means he has to be a more important character in series two. He has to train her and protect her, and help her discover her talents. I wonder if season two will introduce the Wild Hunt to give the series some proper villains, and therefore a little bit more focus. As much as I'd like to see The Witcher become more of a procedural show about Geralt hunting monsters, I think his connection with Ciri, and Geralt's pending connection with Triss (and ongoing affection for Yennefer), will occupy most of the show. I think the showrunners will take onboard the criticisms of the time-jumping structure of series one, and deliver something a bit more conventional for season two.
But! At some point the show needs to explain why Ciri matters. Or why anything matters. It's easy to understand the plight of a mercenary monster hunter like Geralt, but it's hard to make worthy themes like 'great ordained destiny' matter to viewers. Especially when the world is so horrible. Cintra's fall is tragic, but did we really care about it in this series? I don't think I did. 'Stakes' get talked about a lot in TV. Meaningful stakes doesn't mean a big siege scene and some fire, you have to care about the characters involved. I'm not sure the Witcher is there yet in season one, but I hope it builds on that in season two.
Phil: If I cared at all it was because Calanthe was one of the show's most consistently entertaining characters, and, in revisiting Nilfgaard's attack in episode seven, we get a better sense of her role (and, in avoiding destiny, her culpability). Alas!
As much as an anthology format appeals, I'm looking forward to seeing the relationship between Ciri and Geralt develop—as well as other familiar elements emerging. The finale teases Vesemir, so no doubt we'll be spending at least some time in Kaer Morhen.
Fraser: My hopes for season two include more monster slaying, that unicorn scene, maybe some witcher wang? Also, we're all agreed that we need a musical episode, right? Hell, a whole Witcher rock opera. C'mon Netflix, milk this cow.