261 – The Witcher TV Show
What’s that sound? Is it a striga hiding in the shadows, maybe a werewolf howling at the moon, or a kikimore doing whatever it is kikimore’s do? It’s certainly some kind of monster, because this week we’re talking about Netflix’s latest hit: The Witcher. It’s not, shall we say, our favorite show ever, which probably isn’t a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to the show’s critic/audience split. But what problems do we have, exactly? What has this show done to earn our ire? Listen and find out!
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is Chris and Wes, and today we’re going to have this podcast separated into three separate timelines. We’re not going to tell you which one is which, and in theory we are older and younger in them, but we’re going to sound exactly the same. So good luck figuring out where you are in the podcast as this happens.
So now let’s skip into the future – [makes time-skipping sound] – because today we are talking about The Witcher, the TV show. I already wrote an article about how it’s very sexist, and it is, but I’m not going to dwell on those aspects of it because you could read the article if you want to know about that. Instead, I have a whole bunch of spleen to vent. But first I actually want to hear from Wes, because it sounds like he liked it more than either Chris or I did.
Wes: I mean, there were definitely problems. And I read Oren’s post, I agree with all of it. I edited it and I’m like, yup, okay. I made this point when we were prepping that Oren and Chris have a pretty sharp eye for story structure and you should trust everything they say about that stuff, but with some things I just am like, oh, all right, let’s go along for the ride. I’m pretty basic like that, so that’s fine. [laughs] I don’t know. I mean, the fact that it didn’t flag the time jumps and the things – I really enjoy nonlinear storytelling in general. I just do. So I like seeing someone later in the show, like, oh, we saw that person earlier. And I don’t mind the little mental gymnastics.
But, that being said, and I know you guys have a very fair critique about this, if there’s no real point to it, then why? And that is a legit criticism, but I did like some moments, like in the episode with the striga, and then seeing that king and his sister/lover as children earlier. I’m like, okay, I’m seeing how this all pieces together a little bit as it’s going, but, you know, I was not watching the show very critically. And I copy edit. I do not look at story structure as Chris and Oren do, so I love getting their take on these things. But that’s my thought on the time jumps: I don’t mind being toyed with, mostly, but yeah, you, they could’ve aged them in the different times. They just did the same hair and makeup for all of it.
Chris: Yeah. That was one thing that was weird. Part of me was like, okay, this is an interesting way to show that characters are immortal. Because after, you know, watching Buffy like three times, we have a couple of vampire characters there that are supposed to be immortal, but as the show goes on, they are clearly aging, right? After a while, you can’t get away with the same things anymore. So it was interesting to show immortality by having the actor play different time periods, and you can see that they look exactly the same. But overall, it didn’t seem to work as a good solution because the other actors also don’t change.
Maybe they could have put more effort into that. It also felt like they weren’t really trying, for instance, to make the characters that appear in different timelines as adults look different. The queen of Cintra is the most obvious, she always looks like the same age and it always looks like the wrong age. There’s no way she could be Ciri’s grandmother, for instance, and maybe they could have helped that with a little more age makeup. I know it gets really tacky if you do too much age makeup, but a little bit is pretty effective. So it was interesting from that standpoint, but it was also weird and confusing, and maybe they could’ve done better.
Wes: Well, it’s interesting that there’s three timelines. There’s Ciri, she is the now timeline, and then there’s Geralt and there’s Yennefer. And all the stories have their own linear timeline. The first episode with Geralt, that’s the youngest Geralt is in the story. And it’s the same thing with Yennefer, and they’re all just slowly catching up to Ciri in the now.
But it’s not obvious, right? Because each of Geralt’s adventures is like a little one-off that could be situated anywhere at any time. And Jaskier is there to try and give you a sense that he’s telling the tales and improving his reputation, or whatever. But it’s three separate storylines of playing catch up to the prime line.
I love Henry Cavill, and I will watch him do anything. So I watched a little video of him talking about the Witcher’s sword and his fighting style and things like that. And he brought up stuff that I had no idea about, I didn’t see in the show, but that was happening. Apparently after – you know, we’re obviously going to spoil this whole thing – but in the first episode, he kills Renfri. He doesn’t want to, but he does. And then he fixes her brooch to his sword and carries that with him going forward. I didn’t know that, I missed that detail entirely, but it’s there and it’s explained. I went back and looked in the shows, and yeah, he did mount her brooch on his sword as like… what? A reminder of what happened, I guess?
Chris: Well, because she’s supposed to be a woman in the fridge, and that’s weird because he barely knows her. She’s in only one episode.
Wes: She’s in one episode, but that is the youngest Geralt we have, which is why she’s supposed to be – and there’s wrongness for all the reasons that Oren definitely goes into – the inciting incident that forces him into things, which is its own thing. But that’s why he carries her talisman forward with him. And that’s why she’s not in anything else, because it’s the youngest Geralt killing her.
Oren: One of the many things about this that confused me was that I swear that later in life, later in the timeline, he doesn’t have her brooch on his sword.
Wes: I think he has two swords. Yeah, he does, Henry Cavill told me that he has two swords. There’s like his human sword, and his monster sword that’s made of silver, that he keeps mounted in the horse’s saddle. So if there’s no horse that swords not with – I don’t know. I don’t need this meta commentary! Just put it in the show!
Oren: This is just part of my first real beef with the Witcher, it’s that it is not only confusing, it feels like it is confusing on purpose. They don’t put timestamps on the multiple timelines, which wouldn’t have fixed everything, but it would at least have given me some idea of what was happening…
Chris: And as further evidence that it might be on purpose, the showrunner of The Witcher, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, was also a writer, I believe, on The Umbrella Academy, which has the same issues.
Oren: I think she was also the showrunner for Umbrella Academy.
Chris: I don’t think she was, I looked it up before this podcast.
Oren: Fair enough.
Chris: But she was involved. She might’ve been a producer, I wasn’t able to find out her exact role, I don’t think she was actually a showrunner on Umbrella Academy. But she worked on it.
Oren: So one, we have the timelines jumping around. We also have the two human characters who we see the most of who are not immortal, Jaskier and Calanthe, they don’t age either. They never actually established that Geralt is immortal, they just assume you’ll know that from the games or the books, I guess. So that happens.
At the very beginning of the first episode, when we’re still sort of trying to get our bearings, they have Calanthe and Mousesack I think is his name – Mousesack also doesn’t age incidentally, but he’s a druid, maybe they don’t, who knows? – they have them exchange some dialogue about a person and we don’t know what that is and we have to wait until episode eight to find out. But it’s like, are we supposed to know what that was? Because this is the first episode, we’re still getting our bearings. And they don’t mention the law of surprise until the moment it becomes plot critical, which is just… I refuse to believe they’re that bad at storytelling that they don’t understand what foreshadowing is, or establishing things ahead of time.
Wes: They clearly were like, we’re going to do this thing. And we’re just gonna spring it on everybody.
Oren: They were like, hey, the law of surprise! The moment it became critical to the plot! It’s like, the what? You know, it would be like if in Star Wars we just didn’t hear about the death star until suddenly it was attacking the rebel base and it was like, oh, hey, the death star. And then they just exposited a bunch at us about what the death star was.
Chris: It would’ve really helped if we’d seen the law of surprise in action for something other than some dude claiming somebody else’s daughter as property.
Wes: But that’s the thing that I don’t understand. So the law of surprise is: guy that gets cursed comes to claim his bride like, “I claim law of surprise and you’re going to be my wife”, or whatever. And then Geralt off-handedly is like, “as the payment, I’ll accept it in kind: Law of surprise”. And then they were like, “oh my God, she’s pregnant”. And everybody looks at Geralt and I want him to be like, “I’m not using it for that”, right?
I thought the point of the law of surprise is that you can just claim something, you know, he could return later and be like, “I really like those shoes. Law of surprise, they’re mine!”
Oren: Yeah. Okay. So like many things, they don’t explain this properly in the show because they want you to be confused, but the way it’s supposed to work apparently, is that the law of surprise is supposed to apply to the next thing that the person who offered it gets that he didn’t know he had before.
Again, part of the issue is the idea that this child is his property, that’s really ugly and I hate it. But it’s supposed to be like, if the first thing that he gets is, he finds an apple in his yard – all right, now the apple applies to the law of surprise. I dunno what happens if that apple rots before the guy comes back to claim it.
Chris: But it can’t because it’s destiny, right?
Chris: It’s endorsed by the laws of the universe, so that apple is gonna stay perfectly fresh. Because it’s destiny that it ends up in the hands of the person who claims it.
Oren: Or, I mean, maybe it’ll rot and there will just be terrible, horrible accidents and bad things will happen. Because that seems to be what happens if you don’t follow the law of surprise child trafficking rules. Destiny decides to mess with you.
There’s just a lot of that. They also have Geralt and Yennefer, who meet in one episode and then the next time we see them together, they’ve had a bunch of romances offscreen, so their relationship to each other is totally different, but they don’t tell us that until they’ve already been together for about half the episode and they’re acting super different than they were before.
And it’s like, what is happening?
Chris: That also is an issue with Geralt and Jaskier because we jump forward. We see them meet and Geralt never acts anything but annoyed with Jaskier, but we’re supposed to know that they’re like an old married couple that bickers or something. But we haven’t seen them be together for that long. So then it’s like, oh wait, Geralt is actually supposed to value Jaskier a lot. Again, we don’t see the relationship develop. We jump forward and it doesn’t even do anything to reestablish the relationship. It’s just confusing when it’s different than what we saw last episode.
Wes: Yeah, who knows if they’d plotted that out. They probably didn’t. But it’d be unfortunate if it was due to budget cuts and like, well, we don’t have time, so we’re not doing that. We’re just jumping forward another episode or two. And you could have had more scenes like that developing relationships, but instead we had – there are only eight episodes in the first season, right?
Chris: Yeah. But I don’t think it’s because of budget cuts. I think that that’s a deliberate tactic because they think that’s cool. A lot of storytellers don’t realize at first that “what the hell is happening” is not a good mystery. Your mystery should be based on the actual story and understanding of what is happening, so that the mysteries are actually mysteries for the characters too, because that’s what gives them drama and emotion and meaning.
And making a mystery out of the audience trying to sort out what’s going on while all of the characters know about it, it’s just not a genuine mystery. And it feels disingenuous. It feels like it’s something that the storyteller’s forcing on you, not something that’s naturally occurring and it just doesn’t have the same meaning. But a lot of storytellers think that that’s a good mystery. They don’t realize that it’s not. And that’s what this feels like to me.
Wes: So should we talk about what the heck Nilfgaard is doing? [laughter] Because no one knows!
Chris: Yeah, let’s talk about the worldbuilding.
Wes: They’re like religious communists, maybe? They destroy everything, but also give everybody beer?
Chris: They’re whatever the show needs them to be at any given moment.
Wes: Okay. All right.
Oren: I hate Nilfgaard so much. They’re at the root of a lot of what is wrong with this show. Not everything, but… so first of all, we have these bad guys who we know basically nothing about. We just know they’re bad guys and apparently they had some kind of succession problem that one of the sorcerers has fixed and now they’re an evil empire, I guess. That’s all we know about them. And then in some scenes they’re so over the top murderous that I’m just rolling my eyes. Like, they kill everyone?
Chris: Yeah. They take over Cintra and then they just murder everyone in the city. Just absolutely everyone, apparently. That sounds like a lot of effort for no point.
Oren: And they don’t even say this is a special case, right? They don’t say, well, this is what they do to cities that resist them to set an example to others. They just say that they kill everyone, which is both a lot of work and also just really obviously a bad policy. And then later they have a sequence with Yennefer and some rando maid she just met, who talk about how actually Nilfgaard gives everyone bread and ale when they come through and it’s bad ale, but it’s better than what some of these people had before. And this is the opposite of what they did the first time we saw them. What is happening with these guys?
Wes: Well, and then you learn right around the last episode that they’re also religious zealots. So you would think that they would be trying to get people to convert, too. They wouldn’t kill everybody. It’s like, come join our religion or we’ll kill you. Right? And also their outfits are terrible.
Chris: That’s what I was going to say. One of the issues with the whole worldbuilding in general is, it’s like The Witcher is trying to do something like Game of Thrones, right? In Game of Thrones, we have a sense that there’s a large world with a huge variety of different people with their own thing going on. But, for one thing, GOT actually explains and carefully introduces each faction separately, so you have time to get to know them. It’s based on Martin’s worldbuilding, which is really extensive and complex, so every house is distinct and memorable, but not like one dimensional.
But besides just not having that kind of rigorous worldbuilding – or I don’t think it does – The Witcher is not taking time to explain everything. It just throws out random names, and in conversation it talks about, how Cintra has a problem, but we have no idea why, the mages just think Cintra has a problem. But then, it doesn’t have the budget. Medieval fantasy is actually a really high budget endeavor, and you need to do all the clothing and the costumes. And compared to Game of Thrones, Witcher just looks fake and cheap, unfortunately, I think, if you look at the costumes and things.
Oren: I mean, I’ll admit, I didn’t notice that a huge amount. I did think it was really odd when at the beginning in the first episode, they’re telling Geralt he needs to get some nicer clothes when he’s wearing this super nice outfit.
Chris [laughing]: That’s true!
Oren: It’s like, where would he get nicer clothes than that?
Chris: But see, what that tells me is that they don’t have the budget to take nice costumes and then rip them up. Because that means that you not only have medieval costumes, but you have disposable medieval costumes. Or they just want Geralt to look amazing, because I’m pretty sure they do. I mean, have you seen that chin? [laughs]
Wes: It is a dreamy chin.
Chris: But yeah, the worldbuilding just feels very amorphous.
Wes: I just wanted a map. I just didn’t know where everything was. And that was a genius Game of Thrones moment. Like, “What are we going to do with the opening credits?” – “Well, I don’t know. Maybe show people where everything is.” – “Oh yeah, good job!” And obviously the Witcher couldn’t copy that –
Chris: Or it could, honestly, I mean, in a different style.
Wes: I would not have minded it at all. I have no idea where these things are. I don’t know actually if they ended up going farther north or south or if that mattered. I wanted a map.
Oren: I mean, I was able to gauge that Nilfgaard is in the South and Cintra is in the North, but I don’t know what kind of distance separates them. I also don’t know why Cintra, a huge city, is built in what appears to be a blasted wasteland. That’s odd. Yet also, apparently it’s a blasted wasteland you can walk out of in like a day, because somehow Ciri isn’t in a blasted wasteland when we get back to her, she’s in a lush winter forest and okay, I guess she walked there.
Chris: And it changes between winter and summer. It’s always summer in that forest.
Oren: Although that elf forest that she goes to, or the Dryad forest, that was at least supposed to be magic, I think.
Wes: That was cool.
Oren: And, gosh, the first battle is really bad. They have a guy shout –
Chris and Wes [shouting]: “We’re losing!”
Oren: Like that’s a thing anyone would say in a fight. What is happening?
Chris: The queen of Cintra and her consort are having this strategic discussion while they’re cutting people down with their swords, and it’s – this just isn’t what you do. It just doesn’t feel like a real battle. It feels like somebody knew how to make a fight scene between two or three people and just thought, oh, I can do a battle. I’ll just add more people.
Wes: That’s terrible. But the fight choreography at the end of that episode with just Geralt walking through town, I thought that was incredibly well shot and well choreographed. But clearly, they had no idea what to do with battle scenes.
Oren: So yes, the individual fight choreography is usually quite good. The opening battle is terrible. But the battle in episode eight is actually pretty good. It’s actually one of the few things about the show I liked. This battle, not only is it well shot, but it also shows how powerful and advantaged mages are, because basically like 20 mages hold off an entire army and I’m like, yeah, that sounds like a thing.
Wes: But I think that right there is the key. The first fight is just, two armies are going to come together and we’ll just have them do whatever. At least in episode eight they’re thinking, okay, what would be great ways for 20 mages to defend this keep? And it’s like, oh, right. Yeah. That’s why in Dragon Age: Origins, if you recruit the mages, the head guy is like, “There aren’t many of us left, but I think you’ll find that’s more than enough.” Yeah, guy, I trust you.
Chris: Overall, I would say that even though it seems like Witcher wants to go in a Game of Thrones direction, I think that the show is much better at camp and it would do a much better job if it actually embraced to being campy. Right? One of the funniest things in the show is the Jaskier-Geralt relationship, and it’s because Geralt is so over the top that it’s fun to watch Jaskier poke fun and be self aware. It’s like, yeah, we know this is over the top and seems serious, but we’re not actually taking ourselves seriously because we have this bard to poke fun at the things that are over the top and serious. So it’s that campiness that I think is the best in the show. If I were to choose where it would go with season two – I don’t think this is what they’ll do – but I would choose to actually make it like, no, this is going to be a campy show. It’s going to be a romp.
Oren: Yeah. I just feel like the epic politics are a bit beyond their ability to pull off properly. The show is probably at its best when it’s just Geralt doing monster of the week stuff. Sure, Ciri and Yennefer can be there with him if that’s what we want, that’s fine. But the politics and these mass battles, those are just too complicated. They just don’t seem to be able to do them properly. I haven’t even listed half of the things that I wrote down where I was like, I don’t understand what any of this means. Like that line where Ciri describes the knight chasing her as having a bird on his head. Someone wrote that line. Why? What does that mean? How could she possibly think that’s a good way to describe him?
Chris: I did a critique on one of the Witcher books that is going to come out, and I do think that that must come from the book. Because in the book at least, Siri has a dream where the feathers on his helmet turn into a bird. Well, it’s very confusing actually, but that seems to be what’s supposed to be happening in that scene. It must come from something in the book somewhere because, yeah, it’s a bizarre thing for her to say in the context of the show. I do think it captures the mood of the book very well.
Oren: Moving on beyond all the little things that don’t make sense, it was very frustrating as I watched and realized that most of the early episodes are just unnecessary backstory. I was watching them like, okay, when does the story actually start? And then all the stuff with Yennefer, none of that matters. Basically none of her backstory is important. All you need to know, as gross and sexist as this is, is that she wants a baby. That’s all. That’s all you need for most of Yennefer, we didn’t need this extremely long drawn out backstory.
We didn’t need the battle in the first episode. All we needed with Ciri was to know that she was running from a kingdom that had been conquered. And there’s just no reason to have any of this. Frankly, we don’t even really need to know about Renfri because Geralt forgets about her immediately. The moment he meets Yennefer, it’s like, all right, Renfri is gone now.
Chris: Renfri to me feels like the perfect example of a woman who briefly appears at the beginning of the story, just to head straight to the fridge so that the main male character can be all tortured.
Wes: Which is a shame too! I think I’m not alone, I loved that character. She was great. The vibe, the outfit, the fighting style… I needed more.
Chris: I liked her too, and I was upset when she died at the beginning of that first episode. But she’s just in one episode, only the first one, and then later he’s moaning over her in his sleep. You just barely knew her. You slept with her once. You had like one conversation with her and then one fight with her. Yeah, she was a cool character. But she was fridged.
Oren: Oh, so the show also does the oppressed mages thing in one of the most ridiculous ways I’ve ever seen it. It’s where Geralt, who is like a walking murder machine with superpowers, walks into a bar and a bunch of randos try to pick a fight with him. It’s like, really? That’s the guy you’re going to pick a fight with? He’s got a giant sword? – Yeah. That guy. That’s the one.
Wes: Such confidence, right? [laughs]
Oren: And then they try to do this thing where it’s like, oh man, Geralt is hard up because he’s a freelancer and no one pays him. And I’m just like, oh my god, you guys, I’m a freelancer. I have a lot of problems because I don’t have the things Geralt has, which are: one, inflexible demand. Because people need Geralt’s services, they can’t just choose not to pay him: They’ll die. Two, he has almost no competition. We see one other Witcher, and the implication is that there are very few of them left. So it’s not like he has to undercut his prices to try to compete.
And also, he’s super strong. So on the off chance that someone did try to withhold payment from him, he could just take the money. Or charge in advance. If I had all those things, I would be sitting pretty, but I’m an actual freelancer who has problems and it really pissed me off. I was not into it.
Wes: He kills monsters for you. Then you give him money and he makes you safer. It’s like, come on.
A scene I really liked – I mean, them not going into how he’s basically an alchemist, Oren, I think you called that out, is a missed opportunity. But the episode where he fights the striga and when he finally realizes that he has to fight the thing until dawn and he starts chugging potions – I’m just like, yup, we’ve all been there, in every video game, that’s the case. It’s like, boss fight time. And he just whips out his satchel of potions and starts guzzling them so he can keep fighting and do magic and stuff. I thought that was hilarious.
Chris: Yeah. As Oren has said, I really want to see a scene where he’s distilling all of those potions.
Wes: Yeah, how is he making them?
Oren: He’s an alchemist, and the show doesn’t think that’s neat or worth exploring. That would actually add a lot of depth to his character. It’s very irritating to me.
Wes: While he’s getting to know Jaskier better, he could be foraging for reagents or something like that. Come on.
Chris: We need some Skyrim scenes. So when he’s just trekking over the mountains finding plants and putting them in his inventory and then going somewhere, and doing some distillation… [laughs]
Wes: [doing Geralt’s voice] “Ah, yes, milk thistle, perfect!” [laughs]That’d be great.
Chris: So I don’t remember the name of this character, but I was sad when elf boy was no longer –
Oren: Dara is his name.
Wes: Dara was a good addition and I hope he comes back. The whole time I was like, they’re going to kill this guy.
Chris: He was the most likable character in the show!
Wes: Yes, easily. He really helped bring my attention back into Ciri’s scenes, because I was like, ugh, Ciri, come on. And Dara was great. I really liked him.
Chris: I want them to bring him back. Because with a lot of these characters – Ciri acts selfish, Yennefer acts selfish – it’s hard to get attached to them. For all Geralt’s over-the-top oppressed-mageness, he at least has morals that he generally sticks to and is stubborn about, which I think helps with him. But a lot of the other characters are not necessarily likable, and so Dara was just really refreshing.
Oren: I was really confused that the show thought I was going to root for Yennefer after she was like, “Yeah, it’s great that my fellow classmates got turned into eels. That seems like a great thing because it wasn’t me. So, you know, eff them, I guess.” I’m supposed to like this character after that? Okay, sure.
Wes: Also, this is probably petty, but after they decide to, I’m air quoting, “make her hot”, I was just not buying it. The haircut, the whole aesthetic. I was like, no. Better before. I’m sorry, this isn’t working at all. It just seems like they turned her into this really angsty teen – and I mean, she kind of is. Because she’s not endearing at all. The make-over was A, unnecessary, B, sexist and C, just poorly executed.
Oren: Right. Well, clearly, they made her into a male gaze hot lady character, as opposed to, this is maybe what she would want to look like. You know, because they call it the true self. And it’s like, okay, by true self, we apparently mean for the guys.
Wes: And also, remembering the setup to that, when she basically says, “Leave my eyes the way they are”, I was ready to have an entirely different actress come in. But instead I’m like, okay, so she kind of looks the same, but they’ve hottified her. I was expecting more transformation, I guess.
Oren: Nope. That’s all. That’s all it is.
Since we are nearly out of time, I should mention one of the things that I did like. I thought episode six was actually fairly good, the one where Geralt goes and gets invited to a dragon hunt. I saw the twist coming, but that’s fine. It’s the kind of twist that works well even if you knew it was going to happen. I was like, yeah, that guy’s totally a dragon. And when he was, I was like, awesome, I’m glad I called that. A pretty good episode. The first time it felt like something actually mattered, because before that I was just like, yeah, whatever, I guess they’re all doing things, but I don’t really care if they succeed or not.
Wes: And Jaskier is getting that catchy, catchy song stuck in my head. [sings] “Toss a coin to your Witcher…”
Chris: Yeah, I like that song.
Oren: That little jingle. Yeah, I enjoy it. I mean, it’s not like high art or anything, but it’s fine. It’s catchy.
Wes: It is catchy.
Oren: Speaking of things that are catchy… um, I actually don’t have a segue for that.
Chris [laughing]: I was wondering how you were going to pull that one off.
Wes: I was like, where is he going with this?
Oren: No, but it is time to end the episode. So before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. We will see you next week.