Every network wants a Game of Thrones. It’s why Amazon paid a truly absurd amount of money for Lord of the Rings; why HBO developed four distinct Game of Thrones spinoffs before picking one; and why the rights of properties like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time have all been snapped up with an eye toward a splashy debut on the small screen.
But Game of Thrones wasn’t always Game of Thrones. The show’s original pilot was famously disastrous, requiring extensive recasting and reshoots just to be comprehensible to audiences. Even the Game of Thrones premiere that did finally air — while reportedly much improved — isn’t exactly the show’s finest hour, with reams of clunky exposition designed to define the boundaries of a whole sprawling world for an audience that will likely have no context for it.
My point? It’s rare that a TV show knocks it out of the park with its first episode — but it’s especially tricky for a fantasy show like Netflix’s own attempt at the “next Game of Thrones,” The Witcher, which has to introduce a bunch of characters and an entire fantasy world with its own history and rules and politics. Good or bad, this show will require the kind of patience that cancel-happy Netflix hasn’t recently seemed inclined to give (which is why it’s a hopeful sign that it’s already green-lit a second season).
For better or worse, “The End’s Beginning” is surprisingly light on exposition, throwing a bunch of weird-sounding fantasy names at the audience and expecting us to keep up. Given the complexity of The Witcher’s world, it’s probably for the best that the show’s actual introduction is so simple. Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) — a white-haired, cat-eyed, spell-casting vagabond who carries two swords, and is quick and deadly with both of them — is squaring off against some kind of giant spider monster we’ll later discover is called a kikimora. The fight is going badly for Geralt until it isn’t; he stabs the kikimora in the head and wanders off to a town called Blaviken to collect a bounty for it.
You see, Geralt is a witcher. (The witcher, even.) The premiere doesn’t quite come out and explain this, but witchers are essentially monster hunters for hire, raised for the job from childhood and granted extraordinary supernatural powers that included super strength, night vision, and an extended lifespan. The trade-off is that everybody hates them, even as they reluctantly rely on them for difficult jobs a regular person couldn’t do.
Unfortunately for Geralt, he killed the wrong monster; the bounty was actually for a graveir (which looks nothing like a kikimora, but whatever). But as he quickly learns, there’s other work to be had if he doesn’t mind getting his hands a little dirty.
It’s here that The Witcher basically becomes a fantasy take on Yojimbo, with Geralt caught between two sides that are similarly morally compromised. On one end, you have Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen, Sherlock star and brother of Mads). Stregobor is a weird, shady wizard who uses magic to populate his secret lair with fake naked women. He’s also deeply paranoid about some prophecy called the Curse of the Black Sun, which says that 60 women born during a full eclipse will grow up and be servants of a demon named Lilit, who will destroy the world.
Is this true? Probably not, but who knows? We just jumped into the Witcher universe and it’s not quite clear what the rules are yet. Either way, the path takes Geralt back to Renfri (Emma Appleton), a woman Stregobor claims is afflicted with the curse, and whom he wants Geralt to kill.
The moral distinction here, which I suspect will be woven throughout the series, is what exactly separates a “monster” — which Geralt is trained and paid to hunt — from a person, whom Geralt earnestly tries to spare from violence (even when it seems like they deserve it). Geralt himself is judged by many others to be a monster, and his subsequent conversation reveals the horrifying humanity of the “curse” Stregobor described from Renfri’s perspective: She’s a former princess who was robbed and raped by a man Stregobor sent to kill her, and she killed him in self-defense. Renfri also wants revenge on Stregobor, and she wants Geralt to help her get it.
Here, Geralt again refuses, still doing his best to not kill anybody despite everybody wanting him to kill somebody. Instead, he counsels Renfri to give up on revenge and begin a new life somewhere outside Blaviken. And then they hook up (after such a long, loaded pause before they kiss that I started to expect a Joss Whedon–style meta-joke about how corny it is to have fantasy sex in a forest).
The next day, Geralt wakes up alone, after a weird dream that sort of implies Renfri is actually a succubus who has ensnared Geralt with her feminine charms. (Frankly: kind of gross!) She also dream-warns him that he’ll eventually end up in the marketplace in Blaviken, bloodied and stoned. For the record: She means the bad kind of stoned.
Undaunted, Geralt rushes back to Blaviken and — in a very well-choreographed fight scene with some truly unfortunate CGI blood — Geralt kills a bunch of guys who are in cahoots with Renfri, and prevents her from murdering a girl named Marilka in an attempt to draw out Stregobor. As Geralt pleads with Renfri to stand down, she suggests that he use his silver sword — which is specifically designed for fighting monsters, not people. They fight, Geralt wins, Renfri dies, and Stregobor comes down and condemns Geralt anyway, inciting the gathered crowd to toss rocks at Geralt until he leaves town. That Stregobor just sees monsters everywhere, doesn’t he?
Meanwhile, in a seemingly disconnected B plot, The Witcher pivots to a kingdom called Cintra, ruled by Queen Calanthe. (We don’t get a clear onscreen timeline, but a couple of contextual clues in the dialogue indicate that this Cintra story line takes place decades after Geralt’s adventure in Blaviken, for a reason that will presumably become clear in future episodes.)
Our POV character in Cintra is Princess Cirilla, more often called Ciri. Ciri is being groomed by Queen Calanthe, her grandmother, to rule the kingdom someday, with all the boring royal duties that entails (including going to a ball and dancing with a drippy boy named Martin). Calanthe eventually rides off with her husband Eist to confront a massive invading army from a kingdom called Nilfgaard. They’ve come to conquer Cintra and slaughter its people, and there’s not a lot Calanthe can do to stop it — except tell Ciri to run off and find Geralt of Rivia.
Here’s where The Witcher drops its first big surprise: One by one, pretty much every Cintra resident we’ve come to know over the course of the first episode ends up dead. Eist takes an arrow through the head. Martin is poisoned by his parents in what they clearly view as a mercy killing. A newly minted knight named Lazlo is shot while attempting to ride off with Ciri to safety. And Queen Calanthe herself leaps from the tower of her castle, preferring to die on her own terms instead of at the hands of an army that takes no prisoners.
And that leaves Ciri, who is briefly captured by a Nilfgaardian soldier before her terror and rage triggers some kind of dormant magical ability. She lets out an ear-piercing scream, which emits a wave that knocks down the soldier and his horse. A second scream knocks down a rock, opening a massive chasm between them, and Ciri runs off to … well, we don’t know where yet, but it looks like there are some trees.
Usually, a TV show doesn’t introduce two “disconnected” parallel plots unless it intends to connect them pretty quickly. And just in case Queen Calanthe’s directive wasn’t clear, Renfri also uses her dying breaths to tell Geralt that “the girl in the woods” is his destiny. Prophecies may be maddeningly vague, but that certainly sounds like our orphaned princess.
• A little housekeeping up front: These recaps will largely approach The Witcher as if it’s an original, stand-alone story. If you’ve read the novels (or played the hit video games), feel free to chime in with interesting observations about the similarities and differences to the TV show — but please don’t drop any unmarked spoilers in the comments for those who are experiencing this story with fresh eyes. Just be cool.
• That said, if you just watched the pilot and want to go deep on all things Witcher, you can start with the Andrzej Sapkowski short-story collection The Last Wish, which is chronologically the first set of Witcher stories, or the video game The Witcher 3, which is set many years after the TV show but offers a uniquely absorbing way to throw yourself into Geralt’s world.
• “The End’s Beginning” was directed by Alik Sakharov, who was DP on the first and last two episodes of Game of Thrones’ first season, and an occasional director on the seasons after that. If you’re going to do your own Game of Thrones, you might as well draw some talent from the Game of Thrones well.
• For some reason, lots of dead cute animal talk in the first 15 minutes of this episode: Geralt slaughters a fawn, Marilka barely disguises that she killed a “yappy mutt” to sell to Stregobor, and Stregobor claims Renfri “strangled two puppies” as a child.
• At one point Geralt quotes his friend Vesemir, who doesn’t appear here but will be very familiar to longtime fans of the Witcher franchise.
• One big difference between The Witcher and Game of Thrones is the prevalence of magic, which was fairly limited in the latter but could lead to some truly nutty battle scenes in the former. In particular, I loved the image of thousands of fire arrows bouncing off the invisible magic barrier Mousesack erected to protect Cintra. More stuff like that, please!
• If you’re going to have a running gag about how your protagonist needs to buy some new clothes, they should probably look at least a little different than the straight–out–of–the–Renaissance Faire tunics worn by most of your extras.
• Lilit is probably named after Lilith, a sexually charged demon from Jewish folklore who is sometimes described as the first wife of the biblical Adam.
• Clichés I don’t ever want to see again: A whole bar getting quiet when a cool badass walks in.
• Clichés I don’t ever want to hear again: A villain saying, “We’re not so different” during a fight with the hero.
• If you listen closely, there’s some pretty funny punch-up dialogue in the climactic stoning scene, including a random woman screaming, “HE’S A BAD ONE!” from just offscreen.
• Knucklebones is apparently a real and very ancient game. It’s kind of like jacks. Looks fun!