What ‘The Witcher’ Gets Right That ‘Game of Thrones’ Got So Terribly Wrong
The new 8-episode fantasy series, starring Henry Cavill as a monster-killing hero, boasts refreshingly complex female warriors and doesn’t trivialize the horrors of sexual assault.
I probably couldn’t tell you what, exactly, happens in Season 1 of The Witcher, the Netflix fantasy series starring Henry Cavill in an array of frizzy wigs and distracting colored contact lenses. For those unfamiliar with the books or video games in the Witcher franchise, the TV series can be near-maddening to follow. It jumps back and forth through time over a period of about 70 years, often with only quick, throwaway lines to indicate that this scene takes place while the characters who suffered horrible deaths in the last scene were still alive. The narrative is ill-paced, confusingly staged, and dense with exposition that, miraculously, never seems to actually clarify what’s happening onscreen. It’s a mess.
Yet I devoured all eight nonsensical episodes in two days, and immediately ordered the books they are based on for more. Based on recent reports, I’m far from the only one: the books are currently sold out on Amazon; The Witcher is suddenly the most in-demand TV show in the world, according to Parrot Analytics; the game The Witcher 3 is enjoying a stronger boost in sales than at any time since its launch. And I can tell you the exact moment I knew the show would sucker me in. It was when a woman drew a sword.
Loosely adapted from Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s bestselling Witcher saga, the Netflix series employs the novels’ same basic conceit: Geralt of Rivia, a magic-enhanced monster-hunter-for-hire, travels a medieval-ish landscape in search of his next payday, along the way colliding with the forces reshaping the world. His destiny, we are told again and again (and again), is to find and protect a small blond princess named Cirilla whom he accidentally adopted a few years back through something called the “Law of Surprise.” The premise only barely makes more sense in practice than it does on paper. Anyway, it’s only the dry meat of Geralt’s plot. The real appeal of Geralt is in the strangely offbeat persona inhabiting the outline of a conventional fantasy hero.
Onscreen, Geralt’s story is that of a large and handsome man relentlessly negged by almost everyone he comes in contact with. His hair, his clothes, the indignities of freelancing—dunking on everything about him transcends race and class lines across kingdoms. He’s a man of few words—mostly “hmm” and “fuck”—and he has a debilitating weakness for beautiful women who are especially mean to him. He claims to “avoid” “getting involved” in other people’s lives, yet continually finds himself at the center of strangers’ personal affairs—because he cares. And while he can split a guy’s skull open in one smooth hack, Geralt is never driven by bloodlust; he just wants to make a living wage. Geralt, should it still need to be said, is an absolute delight.
This portrait of a hulking weirdo emerges slowly over the course of several episodes, however. (The charm of Geralt’s gruffness comes into especially stark relief with the introduction of a chatty bard named Jaskier, who adores him. Geralt pretends to loathe his company, even as he risks life and limb to save him; they make a cute couple.) The Witcher more immediately announces its distinctness minutes after its cold open—the first time a woman speaks.
Her voice carries swagger, exasperation, and authority all at once, cutting through the din of hyper-masculine threats aimed at Geralt in a tavern. Her name is Renfri (played by Emma Appleton), and it’s through her that The Witcher first demonstrates its strongest advantage over the fantasy franchises it aims to compete with: its surprisingly complex female characters.
There’s an unexpected matter-of-factness with which many of the show’s women engage in combat, pursue power, and indulge their anger and flaws. When Renfri picks up a sword and attacks, her movements are filmed with the same cinematic momentum and ingenuity as Geralt’s in the previous set piece; she rips and tears with a nimble viciousness that shocked me, then thrilled me. Then I felt ridiculous for being surprised at all. I had watched Henry Cavill in a silver half-pony slay a gigantic tarantula just 45 minutes before; why should a female antihero with a sword and dagger depicted as a genuine, skilled threat in a fantasy show’s first episode be what made me blink? (I know why.)
The Witcher, for all its convoluted inanity, manages to buck expectations for female characters in a TV fantasy series simply by writing them the way men in the genre normally are: with individual, sometimes selfish, sometimes noble motivations. Renfri is consumed by her thirst for revenge against the sorcerer who destroyed her life; it’s Geralt’s attempt at meddling that keeps her from justice, a mistake he regrets for decades to come. (For all of Game of Thrones’ irresponsible insistence on depicting sexual assault onscreen, The Witcher also notably demonstrates how a show can establish the “brutality” of its world without all that. Renfri is a rape survivor; we see how trauma has warped her and her psyche before she tells us, in her own words and her own time, what happened to her.)
Cirilla’s grandmother, the ruler Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May), is by turns admirable, contemptible, boorish, and loving—often short-sighted in her desire to keep her family close, but only as defined by motherhood as she is by her strength on the battlefield, her ownership over her kingdom, and her fiercely romantic (read: horny) relationship with her husband. Before hailing her as a yas-queen feminist icon, however, the show reveals that Calanthe and her empire are also responsible for the massacre and marginalization of an entire population. When Dara, the survivor who relays this history to Cirilla, finally ditches her (the princess has a lousy habit of bolting whenever there’s danger, leaving him behind), it’s hard to blame him.
Yennefer, a once-disfigured sorceress, meanwhile, is the show’s most complex character so far (and the only lead played by an actor of color, the British-Indian Anya Chalotra). She’s a woman torn between fixations on her ambition and her shortcomings—the closer she comes to what she thinks she wants, the less satisfied she is. She makes painful sacrifices to attain conventional beauty, power, and men’s adoration, though each empty goal brings her little fulfillment. It’s her own magical power, instead, which emboldens her well before her physical transformation to begin expressing who she already is: rash, outspoken, emotional, ambitious, and sexual. (Her first lover, a fellow mage-in-training, falls for her long before she undoes the appearance of her “twisted spine.”)
In the hands of another show, a gorgeous sorceress might be written as a temptress, a woman who uses her sexuality to attain power for her own means. On The Witcher, Yennefer enjoys sex, but relies on her trained magical abilities to get what she wants. She is a protagonist, making her own mistakes and discoveries. The show complicates the refreshing quality of her character in the latter half of the season, in which she’s suddenly driven by a desire to reverse her inability to have children. It’s a groan-worthy turn—at least until she articulates her quest as a reclaiming of “choice.” (It won’t work for everyone, but that phrasing resonated with me.) The show hints that Yennefer desires unconditional love more than she does motherhood; hopefully this is clarified next season.
The teenage Ciri rounds out the show’s cast of main female characters, though she’s still too passive and bland to influence the story much. And while the show does well at crafting meaningful relationships between women, few of its characters of substance have been women of color who stick around for more than an episode. Still, The Witcher is off to a promising start, with a charismatic cast of unconventional male and female characters with fatal flaws and super-abilities, each cast under an equal gaze. In these kinds of shows, women with swords shouldn’t be rarer than dragons. For all its imperfections, The Witcher at least knows that much.