The review contains spoilers for The Witcher, episode 1, “The End’s Beginning.”
With a trilogy of well-received video games, The Witcher is a franchise that has become synonymous with high-quality fantasy action. Not many people outside of the gaming hobby are familiar with Geralt of Rivia’s exploits though. Andrzej Sapkowski’s original novels of the same name have far less impact here in America than series like Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter.
When Netflix announced that it would be producing a television show based on the novels, fan expectations were high. If the series maintained the quality of the novels and games, then Netflix could have another critically acclaimed feather to add to its cap. To add fuel to the fire, a second season was already approved last month, with the overall plan to produce a seven-season fantasy epic. Speaking just for the first episode of The Witcher, “The End’s Beginning,” I think it’s fair to say that Netflix has good reason to be so confident in its latest project.
The premiere splits its focus between two central characters in two very different plotlines. The first plot follows Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill of Man of Steel). Geralt is what’s known as a Witcher, a person who hunts monsters and is incapable of feeling emotion. Witchers are generally scorned by the public, with nearly everyone Geralt interacts with either shunning him or trying to manipulate his abilities for their own benefits.
If there’s one thing that The Witcher firmly establishes, it’s how grim and vicious the world is. With roaming monsters, thieves that are quick to kill, and even average civilians who all too swiftly get swept up in a mob mentality, this world is a horribly unpleasant place to live in. It’s almost comical how bitter everyone is, especially once Geralt’s plot concludes and he’s thrown out of the town of Blaviken. All it takes is for a morally bankrupt sorcerer to insinuate that Geralt is a bad man for people to literally take out torches and thrown stones at Geralt.
To his credit, Henry Cavill plays the role wonderfully. Cavill comes across here as a man who is used to the hatred that he receives and seems almost ambivalent towards it. Being despised just comes with the territory of being a Witcher, yet instead of terrifying others around him with his strength, he’s more reserved and enjoys the quiet moments in-between hunts, like when he’s camping in the woods and casually strikes up a conversation with his horse. Geralt also comes with a very strict moral code, not unlike another emotionally guarded hunter whose show is streaming currently, but where Geralt succeeds is that he feels more proactive versus the Mandalorian. When he sees evil being committed, he’ll take it upon himself to defend others, even if they’re already dead.
But that’s only just one half of the Witcher equation. The one that feels more important to the central narrative is the plot involving Princess Cirilla/Ciri (Freya Allan). It’s hard to gauge Allan’s ability as an actress, given how her character honestly doesn’t do much in the premiere. Once her kingdom comes under attack by the Nilfgaardian army, she’s shuffled around by her grandmother, Queen Calanthe (Jodhi May of A Quiet Passion), in order to prevent her from being captured by the invading army. Why they want her so badly isn’t clear, but everyone is willing to put their lives at risk to protect her.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a premiere for any show that has quite as high of a kill count as this one. The stakes feel as high as a season finale to Game of Thrones, and this is just the first episode of The Witcher. Hundreds, if not thousands of people die in some really brutal ways. Arrows in the eye, arrows in the neck, decapitations aplenty, suicide, bludgeoning — you name it and “The End’s Beginning” shows it all in gruesome detail. If you’re adverse to gore you may hate this premiere, but as someone who loves a good fight scene, I couldn’t get enough of it.
Speaking of fight scenes, for the few that we see this episode, they land quite well. The hand-to-hand combat battles between Geralt and a group of thieves is the highlight, followed closely by his fight with the cursed Renfri (Emma Appleton of The End of the F***ing World). Unfortunately, one problem that I could see popping up later down the road is the depiction of the show’s beasts.
In the premiere, Geralt emerges from the waters of a dark swamp to fight a giant spider monster called a kikimora. He struggles to fight it and eventually lands the killing blow before taking its corpse in to sell. Awesome premise, but the monster CGI feels very off. It never feels like Geralt is actually in a life-or-death battle with the creature due to just how obvious it looks that it isn’t there. Here’s hoping that we get more hand-to-hand combat than monster battles.
But getting back to Ciri, while her character will certainly be important as the show progresses, she’s not given a whole lot to do at the moment. In fact, while her grandparents are off fighting the Nilfgaardian army, she sits around complaining that she has nothing to do. It’s apt that as soon as her grandmother returns she’s given a goal — find Geralt — which spurs her into action, but not as an active participant. She gets captured almost immediately after escaping, with her vague/undefined magical powers being the only thing that saves her. Her character does present several questions that will hopefully be answered more as the series progresses, like why she’s so valuable and why she has magical powers, but she’s the true wild card of the show. An unknown actress playing a major character in a long-running series is a bold choice, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.
Outside of some general pacing issues and some dodgy CGI, I was really impressed with “The End’s Beginning.” It may not be the most revolutionary premiere in the world, but it did the job every premiere needs to do; it made me want to watch more. I want to see more of this world, and I want to experience more of The Witcher’s universe. If this is the grand saga of Geralt of Rivia, then I want to follow it from beginning to end.