It took me some time to unravel my feelings about the first season of this Netflix series, because they are as complicated as the story shown on screen. Certainly it did not help that my attempt at reading what is considered the prequel book, The Last Wish, ended in a DNF since I found this collection of stories to be somewhat oblivious of the “show, don’t tell” rule I prefer to encounter in my reading material, and leaning heavily on long-winded, exhausting exposition – not to mention what I perceived as the strong whiff of sexism that is apparent from the very beginning of the first story…
Still, I was curious about this saga, and the enthusiasm of an acquaintance, who read the books, played the games based on them and encouraged me to give the series a chance, fueled that curiosity: after all, I reasoned, it would not be the first time in which a failed reading experience turned into an entertaining visual one. Now that I’ve watched the first season I can see the potential in this story, while being still on the fence about the way it will turn out: only time will tell, of course, but that initial curiosity is still driving me to keep watching.
In short, and trying to avoid any kind of spoiler, the saga revolves around Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher – a cross between a bounty hunter for monsters and a wizard, a man of gruff disposition, long silences and a distinctive moral code. Other main players are the sorceress Yennefer, who is introduced as a deformed pariah whose unforeseen magical skills will gain her access to the magical academy of Aretuza and the fullness of her powers; and young princess Cirilla, last survivor of the ruling dynasty of Cintra, who is on the run from the invaders who ravaged her realm and looking for Geralt on the strength of her grandmother’s dying plea.
What struck me from the beginning was the feeling of disconnect between these narrative threads, not to mention my lack of understanding about how they were linked, and it was only through some web search that I understood they happen in different timelines that manage to merge only at the end of the last episode. I’m never bothered by the need to “work” through a complex story, gathering the various pieces of the puzzle, but The Witcher requires the keenest concentration from its viewers and gives the distinct impression that it does not care for stragglers: one either manages to go with the flow, or is left behind. Well, if that’s a challenge, I’m more than ready to accept it 😉
Once understanding about the different timelines dawned on me, the progress became easier, and I could concentrate more on the characters, which are always the strongest element in any story, no matter the medium they live in. Geralt is indeed an intriguing character, especially because he’s introduced in medias res, with almost no background offered: he’s taciturn, blunt, uncaring of the scorn mixed with fear that follows him – on the contrary he seems to welcome being spurned by the rest of humanity because he does not look very keen on company. As a monster killer for hire, he should be callous and unscrupulous, but he soon reveals a personal form of integrity that compensates for the ferocity and brusqueness he wears as a coat of armor.
Princess Cirilla, on the other hand, looks like a piece of floatsam at the mercy of the tides, spending the good part of this first season being hunted and running away in fright, which does not help much in forming a connection to her – much of it is due to her youth, inexperience and the chain of events that destroyed her somewhat sheltered life, so I have great hopes that she might come into her own and turn into a character to root for. The few hints about something special about her, something that might place her on a different path than that of the victim, make me look forward to her future development.
Still, it’s Yennefer the one that most intrigued me and who holds the highest promise of turning into the kind of character I enjoy watching or reading about: when first she appears she is deformed, mistreated, shunned by her own family and even the enrollment in the magical academy of Aretuza does not seem to greatly change her status – that is, until she comes into the fullness of her talents and the transformation, mental and physical, begins. There is an intriguing duality in Yennefer, a powerless and unloved creature who comes into amazing, unearthly skills but at her core still retains part of that wretch who only wanted to be loved: the later Yennefer is not an entirely likable person, but when glimpses of her heartbreak become visible it’s impossibile not to feel for her and to forget that she can be a villain as well.
Where these characters drive the story, especially once it appears that they are fated to meet and – probably – to form some sort of alliance, the story itself could have been a little clearer, a little more… viewer-friendly in my opinion: granted, going into it with no previous notions gained either from books or video games might have made my journey more difficult in terms of understanding, but also much easier since I had no expectations of any sort. What I can see, so far, is that this TV series calls out to viewers who are not afraid of making an effort in concentration and attention, promising to lay the whole picture along the way and doing it with a leisurely but steady pace.
I can’t say that I liked this first handful of episodes, but on the other hand I did not dislike it: I’m intrigued, and this might be enough to carry me forward to the next seasons.
My Rating for Season 1: