I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, January 10, 2020

Tossing 2 cents to "The Witcher"

The Witcher is the new popular fantasy series from Netflix. Here is my 2c: if you play D&D, you should at least try it. It has good (sometimes very good) acting, good (sometimes great) production values, and it is FULL of cool ideas and plots you can use for your games.

Want more detail? Here we go.

The first season uses a lot of material from the first book, which I reviewed here. In short, it is a decent "Conan in Middle Earth", with elements of sword and sorcery in an epic setting (but read my review before reading on). There are a few too many modern ("Poughkeepsie") elements, which spoils the "fantasy" feel a bit more than they did in Game of Thrones (I hate comparing it to GoT since the stories are completely different, but as TV series they have a similar audience).

There are two F words that are thrown around liberally, and the second one is "Fate", so there is a nice contrast here: on one hand, the Witcher is gritty and cynical (legends are false, institutions are unreliable, kings are immoral, etc.), but on the other hand the characters are bound by the laws of destiny.

Also, for the dark fantasy part... Well, the world of The Witcher is dark. There are prejudices, oppression, lies, and monsters (human or otherwise). However, the witcher himself is pretty much a decent guy when compared to Conan or Elric, for example. So, not much moral ambiguity there. Still, some of the other characters bring enough shades of gray to the palette.

This seasons mixes episodic tales with no obvious connections (Conan) to an underlining epic narrative (Tolkien). And... it works. Kinda. The show seems to always be a couple of steps from being great. 

The first few episodes are confusing, and NOT because of the parallel narratives. Some scenes are just under-explained (seemingly reeling on information that is to be found in the books, in the first episode). Other times, the tone is a bit off, lacking the proper gravitas or exaggerating it and becoming a bit cringey ("the time of blood and thunder is coming yadda yadda" is repeated with deep voices a few times). We have some moments of Harry Potter-style wizard classes, and some moments of pure soap opera latter on (lots of "true love" talking in this dark fantasy...). 

Fortunately, the ending of the season, while a bit drawn out (especially in the last episode), explains most loose threads in a satisfying manner (the penultimate episode was great), and redeems lots of things that seemed unnecessary at first. In fact, by the end the show sold me on the idea of "Fate" in the series, something I thought would be hard to do.

There are a couple of things I'd like to highlight.

There is lots of deconstructionism of fantasy tropes - knights, monsters, and dragons are not necessarily what you think they are. And it works. The "postmodern" discussion of "false narratives" in episode 2 is very well done. If you thought "Toss a coin to your Witcher" has silly lyrics about putting elves on shelves, you'll soon realize it is meant to sound farcical. The humor also works well.

Another thing is about Henry Cavill's performance as the main character, Geralt of Rivia. Everyone seems to agree he looks and plays the part of tough guy with great success (and great biceps). However, there is more to it than that. His face is always portraying annoyance, mild anger, and, perhaps most of all, fatalism, like he is the only guy who can see things are (obviously) going south soon. Witchers are supposed to feel no emotion (although that, too, might be a lie - how could we know?), and Geralt as a character is obviously smarter and more cynical than the rest, but also a benevolent character with a strict moral code. Because of that, Cavill's acting, with few facial expressions and fewer words, fits perfectly. I didn't think I would be convinced by a Conan-like character... but I was.

The show, however, is far form perfect. Like I said, a few changes to the plot and dialogue would make things a lot better. The tone is too light at times, and there are scenes that feel a bit like "vanilla" fantasy, with wizards are artillery and "healers" that are just doctors with pointy ears. Some characters seem to get gravely wounded/endangered, just to be saved by plot armor. There are awesome ideas that are left underdeveloped. 

Like the book, the show seems to lack a certain depth - I hope we see this depth in future seasons, although I'm not sure how the show will avoid a dramatic "hero saves the world" plot as it moves on.

In short, I like this show and I'll certainly continue watching when second season comes. It is a lot less impressive that GoT's first seasons and a lot better than the latter seasons. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a cool fantasy show or good ideas for your D&D games. It MIGHT be one of the best D&D-like series we ever get.

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