And here we go: the first episode of the Netflix TV series of The Witcher. There was actually a 13-episode Polish series in 2002, but hardly anyone outside Poland saw it.
The show hits the ground running with hero Geralt fighting a giant spider creature in the woods. He wears the same leather armour featured in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt game, so the show references the games after all.
Then Geralt heads to the nearest town to collect his pay. He encounters racist taunts from the locals at the pub. Witchers are feared and shunned in this world. A tough but kind woman named Renfri defuses the situation and buys him a drink.
The Lesser Evil
Geralt meets a wizard named Stregobor who's obsessed with something called the Curse of the Black Sun. He believes all the girls born under the curse will serve a demon named Lilit and destroy the world. Stregobor offers to pay Geralt to kill one of the last girls, a former princess named Renfri. Stegobor is utterly convinced she is evil incarnate. Renfri in turn wants Geralt to kill Stregobor. The last man Stregobor sent to kill her had raped and robbed her before she killed him. Now she wants revenge. Stregobor is convinced Renfri is a creature of dark magic who can cloud men's minds. Surely killing her would be the lesser evil? Renfri offers Geralt a counteroffer: kill Stregobor and she won't have to kill a whole bunch of people to get to him herself.
Geralt refuses to pick a side. He doesn't kill people for money, only monsters. His code demands that he stay neutral. He feels a kinship with Renfri as another person who's suffered injustice and misunderstanding. Geralt implores her to leave Blaviken and live a life without revenge or violence. She refuses and takes off after Stregobor. If one side is threatening mass murder and the other side isn't, it's not really a contest what side Geralt should pick here. Renfri, who has the power of prophecy, tells Geralt the girl in the forest will be his destiny.
Henry Cavill is living his best life here. He's gone from fan of the games and books to full-on authorized Geralt cosplayer. It's interesting that they cast an actress who's inherently likable to play Renfri. As a fallen princess driven by revenge to threaten mass murder, Emma Appleton didn't play Renfri as a sneering baddie but a person who refuses to back down.
"The Witcher": Meanwhile, in "Not-'Game of Thrones'"…
Geralt's story is intercut with scenes from the kingdom of Cintra. Queen Calanthe is grooming her granddaughter Princess Cirilla – Ciri – to rule one day. Then the kingdom of Niilfgard invades and slaughters everyone in the kingdom. Ciri (Freya Allan) goes on the run after she reveals a superpower that can drop a whole mountain on people. The only thing she has now is what her grandmother told her: to find Geralt of Rivia.
It's during the Ciri segment that I got the feeling the executives were wringing their hands and saying, "Can we be more like Game of Thrones here?" The imagery and tropes – medieval court politics, epic, brutal battles – feel thrown into the show to make viewers think of Game of Thrones.
Ciri's storyline actually takes place years after Geralt's story here. They revealed that in a few throwaway lines of dialogue. That means Ciri is going to run into an older Geralt hopefully by end of this season. I just hope they don't indulge in the "Netflix bloat" and draw things out unnecessarily.
Pilots are tough. They have to set up the main characters, the world and why we should care about any of them. Geralt's story is adapted from The Last Wish but the other segments were created for the show and gives it an odd pace. It's hard to tell if people who aren't fans of the books or games would be into it. If you're into the darkest end of Fantasy with moral dilemmas, lots of magic, mythical creatures and shagging, then this should hit all your buttons. The question is how this show will sustain its format and pacing in its first season.