“Evil is evil, Stregobor. Lesser, greater, middling. It’s all the same…if I have to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”
The wait, dear friends, is over. After months of anticipation, fans of The Witcher franchise (game or book), Henry Cavill, or the epic nature of the sword and sorcery drama can rest now, for The Witcher has finally gone live on Netflix. The series premiere, “The End’s Beginning” is as good an introduction into a new and fantastical world as one could hope to achieve.
Divided into two narratives destined(!) to coalesce, the “The End’s Beginning” immediately establishes tones of danger, violence, and death, the typical hazards of a witcher’s life. Like most of his kind, Geralt of Rivia stays outside the lines of humanity whenever possible. Aside from it being “hard to make a living on main roads”, there’s also the hate, fear, and prejudice witchers are met with no matter where they go, a truth made painfully clear in only a handful of minutes in Blaviken. In times of monsters and superstition, the idea that people hate and fear what they don’t understand is never more pronounced than Geralt’s experience in the tavern where he’s accosted by a gang of thugs along with the barkeep. The impending violence is calmed by Renfri (Emma Appleton). Even after her words, Renfri displays a quiet calm of authority that doesn’t go unnoticed as assures that she and Geralt will cross paths soon enough.
That encounter is accelerated thanks to, Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen, Sherlock, House of Cards), the wizard inhabiting a tower in the center of Blaviken, who manipulates events to gain an audience with the witcher. Geralt’s disdain for wizardry and fate, which Stregobor uses to rally Geralt to his cause, is evident though it lacks the judgmental derision one would expect to find. Instead, when Stregobor asks Geralt to eliminate Renfri, the witcher declines, citing his belief that there is no such thing as “the lesser evil”.
Soon after, Renfri approaches him with a similar offer, this time to kill Stregobor. She offers a different side than Stregobor’s own tale; whereas Stregobor framed his actions as decision for the good of all, Renfri’s story is simpler, more personal. The suffering she experienced while on the run from death, all for a prophecy (Curse of the Black Sun) that not even Stregobor could say for certainty would come to past, is a more sympathetic cause but it still crosses the line of what Geralt causes necessary. Geralt’s response highlights the episode’s theme of choice. What happened to Renfri was beyond her control but what she does now is not only in her hands but critical if she is to truly live her life and not allow vengeance to rule her. It’s an insightful commentary on the peril of revenge. Allowing something—even an understandable grievance—to run your life prevents you from moving forward, particularly since even should you succeed, the sole accomplishment is the further blackening of your soul.
Despite his position of non-interference, Geralt soon finds that abstaining from a choice is itself a choice. Moreover, when Geralt is forced to choose between Renfri gaining her vengeance at the expense of murdering civilians or killing the wizard himself, he chooses the most immediate threat. In what is some of the most technically amazing and viscerally brutal swordfight choreographies put to film, Geralt butchers his way through Renfri’s men before taking her down, but not without giving her several opportunities to concede defeat. Ignorant of his role in saving them and influenced by Stregobor’s self-serving words, the citizens of Blaviken see Geralt as a murdering beast, no better than an animal. This ungratefulness is the life of a witcher, where people see them as monsters save for when they need the witchers to kill the real monsters creeping from the shadows.
A major aspect of The Witcher story revolves around destiny and how, even if you’d like to ignore its strictures or reality, it has a way of well, being destiny. For Cirilla (Freya Allan, Into the Badlands), Princess of Cintra, her destiny lies with Geralt. Strong-willed and intelligent, Ciri is being raised by her grandparents, Queen Calanthe (Johdi May) and King Eist (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson). In the short time we get with the trio, it’s a sweet and careful creation of a deep kinship which, based on the general strictures of the narrative can only end one way. The love and peace present in Cintra is violently disturbed by the Nilfgaardian invasion who, with far greater numbers (and Cintra’s allies from Skellige prevented from aid due to a storm) annihilates the Cintran army and eventually sacks the city. Before she sends Ciri off to safetly, Calanthe tells her granddaughter to find Geralt of Rivia; proclaiming that he is her destiny. Ciri barely escapes her would-be captor, using her prodigious yet unknown magic to make her escape into the woods and ultimately on her path towards Geralt.
If there is a show that could rival my obsession with The Expanse, it’s The Witcher. In a single episode, this series crafts its dark and foreboding tone of fear, hate, cruelty, destiny and hope. It’s a difficult mix, helped along but strong performances, perfectly queued and haunting music, and some Oscar-worthy swordplay. Over the last few months, Henry Cavill has been a revelation with his enthusiasm for this project and that dedication shines through in his performance. Freya Allan captures the essence of what I imagined for Cirilla—intelligent, witty, headstrong, and compassionate. As two of the major characters, their performances are vital to the series’ success, not just with doing justice to the original material but providing a pathway for viewers to relate to their struggles. Series premieres are notoriously difficult to create without slivers of missteps or overloading viewers with the necessity of immersing them into the world. “The End’s Beginning” is an extremely focused episode, dropping in the breadcrumbs for what is to come with surgical precision. It may be only one episode but if the remainder of this season captures the same artistry and storytelling, The Witcher will be in the running for best show of 2019.
On Being a Witcher
• With the Nilfgaardian rider in pursuit, the Lion Cub of Cintra provides a taste of the power she wields. It’s that power so many covet (including the Wild Hunt, an antagonist for a future season, perhaps?) and will put her in the sights of an entire empire. Breaking the ground like a child would a sandcastle, all the while not understanding her full capabilities, was both incredible and terrifying. I’ll be curious to see how much she grows into that power as the season progresses.
• Though I have been excited for this series, I tempered myself with how much I read about it, instead preferring to be surprised at how events unfolded. In that, I’m not sure if Geralt’s other witchers—Lambert, Eskel, or Vesemir—will pop up this season though, I’m sure they will be a part of the story down the road; especially if the series lasts the initial 5-year projection.