Where Nothing Happens and No One Cares
The Witcher: Season 3, Part 1
It's sad to see how far this show has fallen. When it came out the first season of The Witcher was a brilliant, tightly plotted, enjoyable paced bit of fantasy action. Since then, though? It has taken a steady march right off that cliff. Anime film Nightmare of the Wolf was slight and hardly added anything. Season two lacked the propulsive power of the first season. And the less said about the horribly written and terrible crafted Blood Origin, the better. This was a series that took all its good will and steadily threw it in the trash.
This was clearly evidenced by the ratings for the series. Although the first season was a smash hit success, becoming one of the top performers for NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it).. But then, as the successive works have come out ratings for the main series have diminished. Ratings are down 30% even over the less kindly reviewed season two, and there's little expectation for them to rise back up with lead actor Henry Cavill leaving and the series having to retool. What happened to this series?
I think the blame can honestly be laid a the feet of executive meddling. The first season is a solid adventure series, combining three timelines across the ages of the world of The Witcher, all while telling fun case-of-the-week tales. Cavill's witcher, Geralt of Rivia, would go to a place, find a town in need of a monster slayer, and then would slay that monster. Along the way he's trade barbs with bard Jaskier (Joey Batey), run into mage Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) -- who was on her own timeline for a while there -- and then eventually would find himself wrapped up in the battle for the fate of the world against the evil Nilfgaardian army. That was all easy to handle and fun to watch.
But once the show became a smash, it changed. Netflix went from having a fun fantasy series to having a blockbuster and their corporate gears started spinning. They needed spin-offs. They needed a kid-friendly show. They needed to sanitize and change the main series to make it even more palatable to the viewing public. Gone were the simple case of the week, and jumbling timelines, and, yes, all the graphic violence and nudity. In its place was something safer, easier, corporate. It doesn't feel like the same show anymore.
The second season was fine. It wasn't great, but it was fine. It did lack the energy of the first season, and the show already felt like it was changing. But watching Geralt take care of Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), raising to be a little mini-witcher, was fun. It led to some basic adventures and there were moments of life in the series. It did feel like Netflix was trying to craft this show into their own Game of Thrones, with one long, epic storyline when the core of the show was built to resist that with its every fiber. But still, the second season was watchable enough.
Not so with this third season, at least in this first part. All the magic of the series has been lost at this point, replaced with a slog of five episodes where nothing happens and I, as a viewer, frankly stopped caring altogether. Oh, it starts off okay, with Geralt, Yen, and Ciri going from place to place, training and hiding and trying to avoid anyone finding them. But quickly, within that first episode, things go off the rails. Many different factions all show up, all wanting Ciri because... reasons. She's magical. She's special. She's elven. They all want her because she can do some vague thing, they think, and power is power.
So the heroes all go wandering, meandering around the world (via fast travel). Ciri has power, so she could be trained by the mages, we're told. But she doesn't want them. Geralt hears tell about some mage trying to grab Ciri, so he goes off on a quest to find the mage. He doesn't, and in fact that mage is basically forgotten after the first episode, but he does find some other weird magical things that never get explained and feel superfluous to the plot. The characters do a whole lot these five episodes without ever actually accomplishing anything and it's hard to say that, after this first half of a season we're any further along with the story than we were before.
Look, I've not read the Witcher books. I don't know how the series evolves and if, over time, it becomes some larger, A Song of Ice and Fire continuous epic. But whatever it is in book form, the show that was promised from the first season isn't the one we're getting now and it feels like the creative team is struggling to figure out this new version of the show. They had the fun, amusing adventures of a gruff hero and his bard and they nailed it. This other version, with one large, twist, central story with all kinds of parties fighting over some vague power, they absolutely don't understand how to make that work.
A big part of the issue is that Geralt himself doesn't work in the context of a bigger, massive, multi-season storyline. He's an adventurer, stoic and gruff as he is, and his primary motivation is going from place to place, killing monsters and saving smaller towns. He's good with a bad guy in front of him and a quest to complete. That's how he's built. To take that character and place him in a different storyline makes for an awkward fit. It feels like, for much of this season, Geralt wants to go off and do Witcher things but he keeps getting dragged over to a different kind of fantasy tale, one where he's awkward and grumpy and has nothing to do.
If the show could get a handle of Ciri and her power, actually letting us know specifically what she can do and what's coming for her, that would help. That would create finite and predictable rules. But, more to the point, that would give us a monster, and a quest, and a target. Then they could unleash Geralt and let him do what he does best: be a witcher. This is his show, it's in the title, and yet it feels like the series really doesn't know what to do with him much of the time. And since he's the central character, losing the focus on him leaves the show wandering around without any point or purpose.
That isn't to say there's no plot. There's a ton of plot, confused and twisting and looping on itself. So many characters competing for attention. So many petty squabbles and royal machinations. I've watched the first two seasons a couple of times and still I struggle to keep everyone and their wants and desires straight. I don't care about most of the people here because they all feel so... superfluous. The show could trim half its stories, and most of its characters, and nothing of value would be lost.
But this just gets us back to the main point: the show has lost its way. It started as one thing and then morphed into something else, but that new version of itself isn't the show that works. Geralt has his adventures and we go along for the ride. The first part of season three is lacking in adventures as well as any reason to care or want to go along for the ride. And, if the back half is just as dire, I'm going to start wondering why we're bothering to stick around for The Witcher at all.