“Evil is evil. Lesser. Greater. Middling. It’s all the same.”
Since the show was announced, lots of people have been very nervous about it. About how the show would handle the dense world of the books, whether the more extreme elements would be toned down, about the casting of Henry Cavill, etc. But judging from the first episode alone, those fears were completely ridiculous. The show is bloody, crazy, fantasy of the highest order.
Geralt of Rivia (Cavill) hunts monsters. The show wastes no time in telling us this; the first scene sees him taking out a disgusting spider creature (a kikimore) in a swamp. It’s a hectic battle, and is a hell of a way to begin a series. From this scene, we also know straight away that the talent involved in this show are very concerned about getting it right. The way Geralt fights (more on that later); the veins and eyes on his face, a result of the toxic potions he consumes before a battle; the atmosphere in the swamp; the kikimore itself. It feels like the word of Andrzej Sapkowski come alive. And for newcomers, it’s a striking and original fantasy world to be dropped into.
We soon learn more about the life of a Witcher. They kill for coin, fulfilling contracts for local town officials. They’re also considered a necessary evil; used to a cull a dangerous beast population, but certainly not welcome in town for any extended period time. We see Geralt suffer taunts and abuse in the town of Blaviken when he returns with the kikimore carcass. A woman comes to his rescue, Renfri (Emma Appleton) and they share a flirty drink together. From there, Geralt is escorted to the local wizard Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen), a man who has built his own garden of Eden-come-prison to protect him from a monster, who he hopes Geralt will kill. The monster is human, a cursed woman. – Renfri. Renfri, a fellow outcast, is a mirror image to Geralt. She’s suffered the same hardships, but deals with them in a completely different way. Geralt faces abuse, hatred, but simply moves on. She kills and butchers her way through her enemies, though she’s not without sympathy. It’s left up to us to decide how evil she might be.
It’s in these initial conversations that we learn about Geralt. With Renfri, we see his stoicism, but also a nicer, potentially more romantic side – as well as a definite world-weariness with the way he’s treated. In the conversation with Stregobor, we get a glimpse of Geralt’s humour. The common idea about witchers is that they’ve had all emotion stripped away, but this isn’t strictly the case. Geralt is a funny guy, anyone who’s played the games can attest to that. The stories often have a witty edge to them too, and he’s known to throw out the odd wisecrack. As well as having the sheer physicality of the character, Cavill juggles all of these often contradicting sides of Geralt. The fact that anyone could doubt the guy looks crazy in hindsight. On top of his serious nerd credentials, the guy was born for this role.
When it comes to the physicality and fighting, this show is in a league of its own. Remember the first time you saw the Daredevil hallway fight? Or the long take in True Detective? It’s a scene in which you realise that you were watching something special. That’s the fight scene in this episode, which sees Geralt cut his way through Renfri’s men, followed by Renfri herself. The fighting in the books has always been described almost as a dance, as Geralt’s style is one of grace and skill and not brute strength. And as a huge fan of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (who spent hundreds of hours dodging and spinning around foes) it was awesome to see that balletic style on the screen. There was even a quick use of the Aard sign, one of the magic abilities of a witcher which sees an opponent sent flying by a wave of energy.
But there’s more to the show than Geralt, as we are introduced to another protagonist. Away from Geralt’s gory fights in the muddy streets of Blaviken, we meet Princess Cirilla (or Ciri) in Cintra. Her grandmother is queen and Ciri is expected to join her and her grandfather for certain diplomatic engagements. She also lives a life of luxury, though it’s clear that Ciri is not comfortable with any of this. We learn a few details about Ciri across her sections of the episode. Something happened to her parents, she’s gifted with some kind of mysterious power, and her destiny is tied to Geralt in some way. But the focus of this storyline is on the war with Nilfgaard, the army that takes Cintra (despite the best efforts of the army of Citra in a bloody and hectic skirmish).
The strange thing about all of this is that they seem to be happening in different times. A throwaway line about the exploits of Queen Calanthe many years earlier are referenced as current by Renfri in the Geralt side of things. A lot of people seemed confused by this, but it will make sense. A story in the first book saw Geralt meeting Queen Calanthe and her young daughter (Ciri’s magical mother). It was this event that tied Geralt to the destiny of Ciri and I can only assume that we’ll see this in the show and the timelines will eventually catch up. In Ciri’s scenes, we witness the fall of Cintra and the death of Calanthe, effectively starting at the end (hence the title) – so it’s a cool, Westworld-esque way of telling the story.
The pilot episode is undoubtedly messy – for good and bad. The casting is perfect, and the eye for detail (as well as an undoubtedly HUGE budget) makes the world feel both realistic and faithful to the previous works. The timelines are a little confusing so far, but I can’t think of a better or clearer way to introduce people into Sapkowski’s sprawling world. People have compared it to Game of Thrones – which is unfair. I don’t think anyone quite remembers how safe that first series was. It’s almost boring in comparison to the later seasons. And the fantasy elements were downplayed to an almost non-existent extent. The Witcher is going all out, blood and guts and full-on fantasy. There’s room for both, so give it a shot.
Reviwed by Jack