First of all, let me get something off my chest that has been bothering me for weeks: why the hell are the episodes of The Mandalorian so short? I know a lot of focus has been on how pants-shittingly adorable Baby Yoda is but if you subtract that one little guy how compelling has the show been, really? I finally lost my cool after this week’s episode, Chapter 7, which was a grand total of 35 minutes long. I believe that Jon Favreau is a first time showrunner, which is understandable but this is Star Wars, hire some more guys, flesh the thing out, take your time. If you add to the fact that the show’s a Western, you’re already padding out the runtime with lots of landscapes and staring into the middle distance. Through a helmet. Disney Plus’ catalogue of original content is already pretty anemic and I almost found myself actually asking for some filler episodes until I realized that they are almost all filler episodes. It’s the second to the last episode of the season and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, for all of two minutes. With the flak that The Rise of Skywalker is getting I find myself truly dumbfounded, how is it so hard to do a Star War? It was invented by a guy that went on to make Howard the Duck and had the balls to release it to the public, for heaven’s sake, on purpose. And these muppets can’t crack the code.
So The Witcher, despite the critical consensus, is a very good show but I understand some of the opinions to the contrary. The first issue is with the pilot, which has a similar problem as the first novel, which I tried and failed to get invested in and that problem is an absence of world-building. Characters just start talking about the different kingdoms and locales as if this the third or fourth season instead of the first, so there is no sense of geography. This is something, and I’ll apologize now because the comparisons are inevitable, that Game Of Thrones did very well from the outset, we start beyond the wall, we travel to Winterfell, then further south. Maps are shown. Allegiances explained. The whole of Westeros and beyond felt lived in, real and palpable.
I have no idea what the layout of what has only peripherally been referred to as ‘The Continent’ is, and this is including any knowledge I gleaned from the book. I have no idea where Rivia is relative to the show’s events. And worse, the names of places are very stupid, that’s just inarguable, they seem like someone stuck their hand in a bag of Scrabble pieces, grabbed a bunch and threw them at the wall. Again, Winterfell, that makes sense to me, King’s Landing, must be important, what in the ever-loving hell is a Blaviken? Uh oh, Cintra is under attack, even though it sounds like the name of an off-brand household cleaning product, it’s curious that the showrunners didn’t pick up on this disorienting, even alienating misstep by the narrative that very probably dissuaded some viewers right out of the gate.
However, like any decent show with a capable showrunner, as the episodes progress the writing staff get better and better at figuring out what kind of thing they are making and this is clearly the case with The Witcher. What that thing is, exactly, is closer in tone to an R-Rated big budget clone of Hercules/Xena: Warrior Princess, and if you for some reason interpret that observation as pejorative or insulting to The Witcher, what’s it like growing up with no joy, having had a shitty, friendless childhood? Those shows were terrifically entertaining if you could look past the production value and some of the acting and the same can be said of this new series, it’s a lot of fun disguised as a Dark Fantasy, grown-up softcore romance novel.
Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has a great track record with Netflix and her resume goes back as far as The West Wing, so you know I’m on board. What she has brought to the story is something that I felt was missing from that first book and that thing was a female perspective. I don’t mean there aren’t some strong female characters in the book, sort of, and I don’t mean this in a social justice kind of way, I mean that The Last Wish, the first in the series, is a book in a category of Fantasy that I just don’t get behind.
Take the Lord of the Rings books, for example, those were written by a guy who invented a language first and then wrote a story around that language until it became a fully realized world. A Song of Ice and Fire was written by an historian who cribbed the real life War of the Roses to create a story that was full of rich characters and dynamic alliances. The Witcher books appear to have been written by a man who saw a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies in the 80s and thought, I gotta get a character like that fighting witches and ghouls and things. So that’s a bit reductive and rude, I would apologize to Andrej Sapkowski but I doubt he’d hear me through the Scrooge McDuck-style mountains of cash he’s made from his terrifically successful series of novels, so, good for that man but he can take it.
Although the action scenes are well-written, something that is very hard to do, I was sort of put-off by this character, who, while laying injured and barely conscious in bed, gets mounted by some super sexy nurse within the very first scene of the book. I get that this is some people’s fantasy style, it’s just not mine, and if anyone is curious about my contemporary taste in the genre, I’m fully on-board with the Wheel of Time series which was as brilliant as it was loooong, I’ve dipped my toe in the Kingkiller Chronicle, got all the way through Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series before waking up to the wretched, derivative Ayn Randian fan-fic it really is, and have some real affection for the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I also have a Dark Tower tattoo but that’s kind of a different animal all together.
So when I say that The Witcher needed a female perspective I’m not trying to impress some liberal chicks, I literally mean that it’s narrative is missing that other perspective to feel like a more complete story and that’s, again, where the TV series succeeds. The equal time given to developing the character of Yennefer is so much more interesting, I barely registered her in the book but here she’s a living breathing part of that world.
Also, good for Henry Cavill. As a nerdy kid and a pretty nerdy adult I don’t usually empathize with guys who are that fucking handsome but I really do feel for the dude. He’s a full on nerd himself, he plays WoW, he was obsessed with Geralt of Rivia and lobbied relentlessly to get the role and he really owns it in a way that is rarely seen, it’s absolutely pitch-perfect casting. Why do I feel bad for him? Well, his Superman was just fine in a series of movies that were really, really not fine and that role may be lost to him finally. Also, The Man from UNCLE is one of the best action/spy films of the last decade that no one saw and established, for me at least, how incredibly charming and funny he can be when he’s not being directed by Zach Snyder.
It’s nice to see the guy get a role that he clearly loves this much and I think that it shows in his physicality and raw enthusiasm. Usually I prefer a bit of wacky Whedon-esque turns of phrases in my fiction but the man lands a frustrated, defeated, “……..fuck.” so perfectly that I can excuse the brevity. The action sequences are as thrilling and well executed as I would have hoped for, I was a little concerned that not much of them were revealed in the trailers but that appears to have been intentional, as a treat rather than a selling point.
The rest of the cast is…good. Anya Chalotra is a great new find and I’m thoroughly enjoying the other newcomer Joey Batey as Jaskier (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!), who brings much much needed levity and humor to a story that is dangerously close to being swallowed up in it’s own seriousness and self-importance. Beyond that I need a rewatch to remember the rest of the cast, sometimes they just kind of come and go without being well-explained. This comes back to that first problem and geography, the same thing happens with the drama, no effort is made to establish who or what the hell is happening until after it’s taken place. This is troublesome.
The big question everyone is asking and joking about on Reddit, is this the next Game of Thrones and I’ll take that one if you don’t mind: no, no it’s not and it never will be. And that’s okay. The thing is, what made GoT so fantastic and intricate, so unpredictable and shocking, so affecting is because of one George R.R. Martin. Now that the series collapsed under the weight of the showrunner’s incompetence, laziness, and I’d argue contempt for their audience, it’s clear that he was the one and only thing that made that story tick.
And there’s not going to be another George Martin, it’s just not happening. Maybe someday another will rise but he was the big love of our pop culture lives, folks, the real thing for this generation and now that that’s over we should stop asking for the next one. Instead, we’ll have to be content with things like The Witcher, which may not be true love, but it might just undo it’s nurses uniform and slide into bed with us while we convalesce over Jon and Dany and Arya and give us a good, stupid romance novel-style snog and that’s fine. That’s going to have to be enough.