The Witcher is a strange beast: A show that is at once a nod to late-1990s, young adult fantasy adventure shows—think Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules—and a drama that demands to be taken seriously. The Witcher’s abundance of swearing, nudity, sex, violence, and complicated political machinations leave little doubt that the success of Game of Thrones loomed like a mountain over the scrappy village that Netflix was building for the series. Perhaps daunted by GoT’s large shadow, however, the first season stumbled more often than not. Despite Henry Cavill’s superb interpretation of the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia—somehow balancing gritty warrior, gentle partner and comedic grump—over the course of the first season’s eight episodes, the show suffered from inexplicable character explanation, as well as time and location jumps, with little earmarking to make such transitions comprehensible to the average viewer. It ended up strange and bloated, something that could never stand up to the mountainous Game of Thrones it so badly wanted to match, and as hyped-up and highly watched as Netflix claimed it to be.
What propelled The Witcher to that high viewership is, in part, its skeleton: It’s based upon a beloved franchise (in this case, a long-running Polish book series and subsequent set of acclaimed video games). The Witcher is set in a fantasy world called the Continent, the creation of author Andrzej Sapkowski. It centers on Geralt, who is a professional monster hunter and something of a monster himself; he’s a mutated human that’s also known as “a witcher.” Most of the stories from the book series are fun “monster of the week” scenarios, letting Sapkowski give a dark twist to classic fairy tales, like Beauty and the Beast and Snow White. Like Sherlock Holmes, Geralt is well-placed to do short adventures and long, epic tales as well; there are also major plot threads that expand the lore, and entire books involving other central characters, like Ciri, Geralt’s adopted daughter, and Yennefer, Geralt’s great love.
That first season felt like the creators had torn pages from the shorter stories and bigger epics, scrunched them into a large ball and thrown it at a production machine. What was left was a mish-mash that failed to grasp what makes The Witcher as a series so engrossing: a mostly straight-forward story, with an endearing main character, fascinating monsters, and a dark edge to its familiar plot. While politics exist beneath the surface, they never overwhelm The Witcher’s focus on Geralt and his adventures. Thankfully, the second season has smoothed out those pages. It finds a chronology of events, setting them out as such for the viewer to offer a much clearer sense of grounding. And that 1990s Xena feel that made up half of the homunculus that was Season One is no more, thanks to a much higher quality production. While the CGI monsters still aren’t anything to write home about, the make-up effects are extraordinary, the sets intricate and beautiful – all heightened by extraordinary cinematography.
The first episode of the second season starts with a party caught in a blizzard, trying to find shelter. They find an apparently abandoned village—or so they think. When they call out to confirm that no one is around, they are all soon ripped to shreds; even the child among them is not spared by these mysterious beasts that quickly hunt them down. Brutality, confusion, darkness and cold—these are aspects viewers come to see much more of throughout Season Two, establishing themselves as core themes to this much more cohesive set of episodes. The first episode is an adaptation of the Witcher story “A Grain of Truth,” a classic example of a good Witcher tale. It’s a dark retelling of Beauty and the Beast, with said Beast portrayed perfectly by Game of Thrones’ big woman-seeker Kristofer Hivju. So far, so good for season two.
As the season continues on, it finds an intimate central focus on Geralt’s adopted home, Kaer Morhen, the school for Witchers. It is here that Ciri, his new ward and soon-to-be stepdaughter, begins insisting that she receive training to become a Witcher. And, look, I’m not going to lie: The moment that Geralt begins training Ciri, I had a rush of emotions. Geralt began Season One as a fairly rote, reluctant hero, who grunted more than spoke; to see him emerge in Season Two as a wholesome, supportive, Good Dad is a delight. He’s protective, encouraging, and complimentary, neverundermining Ciri based on her gender, as others may be inclined to do. Instead, Geralt takes her to task for her stubbornness, which might put her —and others — in danger. Nary an episode goes by without Geralt telling Ciri how proud he is of her, how impressed he is of her intelligence, or how brave she may be. What more could you want from your old man?
In the first season, before Ciri was even born, Geralt saves Ciri’s father, Duny, from being butchered in front of her mother, Pavetta, during a betrothal party for suitors seeking Pavetta’s hand. Duny was, at the time, cursed with a beastly appearance, and Ciri’s grandmother—who also happened to be the Queen—ordered Geralt to strike Duny down for daring to ask her daughter to marry him. Geralt refused, defending Duny when others attempted to strike him down. There’s no coin involved, yet Geralt steps up to do what he believes is right.. Despite Geralt’s friends always calling out Geralt’s attempts to remain neutral and stoic when defending the defenseless, the show is keen on reminding us that deep-down, our long-haired hero is a caring guy. Add to that Geralt’s newfound paternal instincts, and we have a genuinely unique, supportive lead in a genre some may not often think of as wholesome.
As much as this is Geralt’s show, The Witcher is also willing to cede the floor to other perspectives. Most of the season is dedicated to Ciri trying to discover her true self and powers. Everyone, from every realm, wants her power—both her royal title and her innate abilities, which could destroy the world. Ciri is perhaps the only character aside from Geralt I enjoyed my time with. Not everyone the story throws a bone to, however, is as exciting to follow. Even now, I cannot tell you why the Nilfgaard Empire, one of the many nations involved in some kind of ongoing war, is bad. Or maybe good? I consider myself a fan of the franchise, and I’m not even sure which factions are against Nilfgaard, or why one of the sorceresses is … fighting against other nations, or something to that effect? I have always found the political side of the storylines incomprehensible, especially as the show does little to identify which city or place a scene takes place within. The season also tries to establish the rebirth of the Elven/Elvish (whatever, nerds) nation, another element that detracts from the good stuff—that is, the adventures of Ciri and Geralt. When it shifts focus onto lesser characters, especially in the season’s back half, The Witcher stumbles back into the kind of storytelling that dragged down too much of Season One.
For all its strengths in developing Ciri and Geralt, the wider universe, and the deeper lore, The Witcher’s second season stumbles over this same ol’ block far too many times. We have seemingly millions of characters who are in random castles or keeps or mansions, supporting players with ambiguous motivations, and a love story (between Geralt and Yennefer) that’s appears nothing more than a classic example of “they’re in love because they’re both hot and single.” But when these nagging points make up so much of the show, even into this stronger second season, I remain left to wonder: What does everyone else want from The Witcher? Do they want an increasingly tangled web of side characters who leave a much lighter imprint on the story than our two main heroes? Do they want sexy romance for the sake of sexy romance, a la Game of Thrones? Do they want to watch Geralt and Ciri pick off creepy monsters and boring villains? The show vacillates between all of the above, and that messiness and confusion that permeated Season One rears its head once more every time Season Two dives into these territories.
As a fan of the franchise—I’ve played hundreds of hours of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which follows an older Geralt across a huge open world—I know what I want. I want more of what The Witcher tantalizes viewers with in the second season premiere: introspection into Ciri and Geralt’s relationship; Ciri’s development into a Witcher; wistful flashbacks to Geralt’s days as a lone monster hunter. During those moments where The Witcher slows down and zeroes in on these aspects, I was hooked. If only the rest of the season could keep its eyes on these same prizes.
I can’t quit The Witcher—someone who’s invested as much time as I have into the series across multiple media is incapable of that. And I don’t want to give up on it, either. But I hope whatever Season Three and beyond look like resembles the good stuff that Season Two had and doles it out in excess.