The Witching Hour—The Witcher (2019)

Hello all! 

I’m a bit behind on finishing Lady of the Lake unfortunately. So for this month I thought I would share my thoughts about the Netflix Witcher adaptation, which I’ve been trying to catch up on ahead of the second season’s release in December. This will be a bit more casual than past essays have been, so I ask for your patience with that.

First off, I think it’s a smartly written adaptation. Most episodes split their attention between Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri, all at different points in their lives and different places on the in-universe chronology. In this way, it mimics the often convoluted structure of the books. Fortunately, it is much clearer. (Though that might because because I already know these stories and what they are building too). Each segment tells its own story, keeping them brisk and readable. The cuts between them are logical and well paced. None of this is groundbreaking, (Imagine a TV show with multiple plotlines!) but it’s perfectly well-written television. 

It’s also smart in the ways it interrogates and questions the books’ assumptions. Much of the creative team behind the camera are women. Fittingly, the story often cuts against Sapkowski’s most misogynist impulses. The show’s called The Witcher for branding, but it is just as much Ciri and Yennefer’s show as Geralt’s. This is a smart choice. Ciri’s resourcefulness before Geralt takes her to Kaer Morhen is subtextual, but here it all gets vividly rendered. Yennefer becomes a lot more than Geralt’s flightly lover; her desire to regain her capacity of bear children (lost in the process of becoming a sorceress) does not feel cheap or sexist because it is grounded in her own subjectivity. Additionally, much of the cast are people of color, including some major characters (Triss for example). I don’t want to overstate the “power of representation” here, but it is nice to have a TV fantasy series visually work against the genre’s fundamental, racist assumptions. It’s far from a powerful statement on race in fantasy, but it’s better than much of the mainstream work of the last decade or so. Ultimately, it’s refreshing and exciting to watch an adaptation that has many of the same concerns as me about the source material.

The more sensitive reworking of the show does have straightforward limitations, especially when it comes to disability. Yennefer, before her magical transformation into a sorceress, is disabled, with an enlarged back and a strange jaw. This fact is a callous reveal at the end of one short story, a surprise that a woman so beautiful could now be ugly. Fortunately, the show follows her well before her transformation. Her past disability is never treated as a surprise or a gotcha. However, it is also temporary, an obstacle to be overcome so that she can assimilate into nobility. That assimilation comes at a dreadful cost, but it still emphasize her new “normalcy.” It allows her to become the Yennefer Geralt will eventually know. It feels like the work of a writer who is considering feminism, but not disability.

Let’s be clear, it is fucked up to put an able-bodied actress in a disabled costume, even if that character’s transformation is inevitable in the story. There is a visual politics to a disabled person transforming into a conventional beauty that cannot be sidestepped or overcome. Still, Yennefer’s arc as someone as a marginalized person who assimilates into power has weight. It’s messy and ablest, fucked up and resonant in the way an exploitation film can be. It feels astoundingly ill-considered for a large Netflix project. Like exploitation or horror films it is ripe for both righteous condemnation and messy resonance. 

Practically (rather than thematically), the biggest problem with the show is how it looks. Netflix shows have a tendency to look washed out, to color correct into blue-gray oblivion. The Witcher is no exception. The shot competitions often feel pedestrian and bland, often de-emphasizing powerful images for obvious or cloying ones. It doesn’t help that the show is mid-budget but punching above its weight class. Rather than leaning into its limitations, it does its best to hide them. Thus, it lacks any real dreaminess or naturalism.

This is a shame because this is largely an effective and cogent adaptation. I would easily recommend it for folks looking to get into the series, especially as a way to quickly understand appeal of these characters and stories. Still, it’s a shame to see a vivid fantasy world fogged up to a set of hazy grays. Its visual problems hamper the show’s power, which must lean mostly on the writing and, fortunately compelling, performances. Nevertheless, I like this show.  I’m especially excited for them to get to the novels proper, where they can hopefully take a sharpened hand to their excesses. In particular, I think the show gets what it is at the heart of books: The tension between fate and choice, the responsibility we have to care for each other, and the dangers of assimilation into the systems that oppress. I wish it was all rendered more vividly, but the show still does not lose the power of these stories. That’s about all I can ask for.