That absence makes the heart grow fonder is an old cliché, as true of TV shows as it is of former prime ministers. And if the two years since the high fantasy epic The Witcher first aired on Netflix haven’t exactly canonised the show, they’ve certainly added distance between it and its most obvious comparison. Perhaps it’s the absence of Game of Thrones that makes the heart grow fonder…
The new series of The Witcher picks up where the first left off: on the corpse-strewn battlefield of Sodden, where Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) has just incinerated several thousand people, and with a wounded Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) attempting to escort his young charge Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan) to safety. If the first series caught fire once it got Geralt and Yennefer in a room together, the new episodes are determined to keep them apart. For all its monsters, gore, and hallucinogenic wizardry, the show is underpinned by that age-old will-they-won’t-they dynamic. Geralt and Yennefer as medieval Sam and Diane, blood-soaked Jim and Pam, dark-magic Hawkeye and Hot Lips.
Henry Cavill’s professional Witcher, Geralt, is, once again, the stony heart of the show. While Netflix’s adaptation is notionally based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s sequence of novels, it can be hard to forget that the lore was popularised by a series of video games, where Geralt was almost exclusively viewed in third-person mode from behind his head. Taciturn and stoical, Geralt has something of the uncanniness of a video game avatar codified into his very being. “I’ve lived through a whole dark age and three supposed end of days,” he announces in the first episode of the new series, with typically bleak cynicism, “It’s all horseshit.”
Witchers – specially trained monster slayers – are supposed to be drained of all human emotions. In order to protect Cirilla (whose company he has gained through a baffling plot mechanic called “the Law of Surprise”), Geralt takes her to Kaer Morhen – a sort-of Witcher Butlins, where the bounty hunters spend their winters drinking, healing and avoiding the cold. Kaer Morhen exposes that Geralt, even among Witchers, is singularly monomaniacal about his calling. Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia appears there as Witcher-in-Chief Vesemir and brings all the jollity that Geralt is missing, with a character whose physical appearance seems heavily based on Asterix’s sidekick, Obelix.
Throughout all this, Geralt is pining for Yennefer, who he believes to be dead. “How are you not heartbroken?” he’s asked by Beast from Beauty and the Beast (aka Nivellen, played by Kristofer Hivju, the first major Game of Thrones alum to cross the franchise Rubicon). “Who says I’m not?” Geralt replies, with the dead eyes of a shark.
Yennefer, who fairly quickly falls into captivity with a gang of renegade elves, is continuing her obsession with fertility. In order to graduate from magic school, Yennefer sold out her ability to conceive; an act which she spent much of the first series seeking to undo. She dreams of domestic bliss with Geralt, of pregnancy, of a child in a bassinet vaporised by magic fire (naturally). But for all that Geralt and Yennefer cling to the concept of monogamous cohabitation, they remain separated by the wide chasm of narrative. And the temptation, in this enforced separation, to allow them to get their leg over with a handful of new partners must surely prevail – after all, this is a series where even the vampiric banshee, a “bruxa”, is oddly sexy and very naked.
As Yennefer sets off on her new path, her witchy colleague Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni) pursues an alliance between the villainous Nilfgaard and the persecuted elves. The elves – who strum lyres and sing minor-chord songs featuring lyrics such as “let man-blood flood our fields” – make Geralt seem like Bill Hicks. This is as close as The Witcher gets, early doors, to the political tectonics that drive the plots of great sci-fi and fantasy, from Dune to Lord of the Rings, and, yes, Game of Thrones.
And while The Witcher forswears much of that deal-brokering and succession-planning we all enjoy so much, it does manage to translate the quest structure of a video game fairly successfully to TV. Each episode seemingly features Geralt slaying some hideous, murderous creature, until the boss level season finale where the narratives converge, and the show’s existential question – who are the real monsters? – resurfaces. But along the road, the show keeps stakes low and spirits high.
That panache is visible in the very design of The Witcher. The colours have a brightness that at times feel almost like a comic book. Every character is lit with the audience’s eyesight in mind (more than can be said for the raft of shows so dark they need to be watched with head torch equipped). All of this allows the viewers to see the beautiful, expensive landscapes, and the equally beautiful, expensive cast, who seem to have been assembled as a supergroup of high cheekbones, the Cream of bone structure. For all that the acting and writing is frequently ropey – “You’d be married off to the nearest Lord of Bad Breath” and “They lick the boots of humans, the same boots that will eventually crush their necks” are two of the main offenders – it has the pleasantly self-effacing air of a show that knows its first season wasn’t a home run.
In a world where high fantasy needs to take itself seriously in order to be taken seriously, The Witcher just about manages to be something quite rare: fun.