The first season of The Witcher on Netflix provided much of what I expected: monsters, sorceresses, beefy Henry Cavill grunting a lot. But by the end of the titular witcher’s journey, I also felt something I didn’t expect going in: kinship.
Yes, Geralt of Rivia is a spell-casting monster-hunter in a world full of crazy fantasy stuff, and I am … well, not that. But Geralt is also basically just a fantasy-flavored version of a real-world figure you probably encounter every day: a freelancer, doing his best to survive in a highly competitive gig economy, stringing together a series of genuinely odd jobs as the world around him teeters on the brink of collapse. Geralt spends the entire first season of The Witcher underpaid, underappreciated, and underemployed, and none of his triumphs and failures do anything to change that. Who can relate?
This earthy quality is what separates The Witcher from the dozen or so “next Game of Thrones” shows in various stages of development, and what makes it such a uniquely enjoyable, weirdly approachable show in 2020. A hard-luck guy like Geralt is rarer in fantasy fiction than you might think. Harry Potter was marked by Voldemort, and therefore by destiny, from the time he was a baby. Frodo Baggins is a regular hobbit, but he still ends up at the center of a quest to save the world. And despite the sprawl of its ensemble, Game of Thrones is almost entirely centered on the high-level political squabbles between the most powerful families of Westeros. A Game of Thrones character may occasionally spare a thought for the the common people who “pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends,” but no one is actually all that interested in spending time with them.
This is where The Witcher’s unusual episodic structure comes into play. Geralt does not spend any of season one on an epic quest. He spends it wandering around and drumming up work wherever he can find it. That’s how the gig economy works in The Witcher: One day you’re hanging out with a queen at a fancy ball, the next day you’re camping out with dwarves and saving a dragon.
As it turns out, being a freelancer in the Witcher world — like being a freelancer in the real world — can be both unglamorous and unrewarding. Geralt’s first adventure ends with him getting chased out of town by a bunch of jeering commoners. His second adventure ends with him barely walking away alive (and exactly as broke as he was when the episode began). His third adventure actually ends with him saving the day … and discovering, in the end, that all the credit went to some dead guy. Even when he finds a spot of luck — like, I don’t know, a djinni’s lamp — he doesn’t figure it out until he’s accidentally blown two of his wishes on stuff he never even wanted.
And the stress of that freelancer’s life has clearly taken a toll on our witcher. Even at the best of times, Geralt can barely find work. He can’t sleep. He drinks too much. His relationship is an on-again, off-again mess. He may be ageless, and you can blame mutation for the white hair — but those premature grays wouldn’t surprise anybody who sees the stress of his day-to-day-life. The grind of it all has hardened him: He’s caustic, and surly, and even with an unnaturally elongated life span he hasn’t really made any real friends. (Well, almost no real friends. Jaskier — with his endless, exaggerated ballads about Geralt’s glories — is like that one doggedly loyal buddy who enthusiastically faves and shares everything you post.)
But even with that mountain of evidence, I wasn’t sure if The Witcher really understood what it was doing with Geralt until the season-one finale. As the show’s three timelines converge into one, the episode is the culmination of an entire season’s worth of stories. Most of it centers on an extremely elaborate battle that will determine whether the Nilfgaardian Empire can sack the rest of the North.
In short: It’s a big deal — the kind of epic, world-altering event around which fantasy stories like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have pivoted their entire narratives. And where is Geralt when this climactic battle is taking place? Passed out in the back of a wagon, dreaming about his mom, because his previous gig — ham-handedly fighting a pack of zombies that he literally stumbled into — didn’t go so well. Rarely has television provided so apt a metaphor for the plight of the freelancer: losing a day in a dead-eyed stupor and missing everything important happening around you, because some random errand popped up and sucked out all the energy you had left in the tank.
So if you enjoyed the first season of The Witcher, take its message to heart: Spare a thought for your fellow human beings who are, like Geralt, grinding it out every day in this often-nightmarish gig economy. Better yet, toss them a coin (or pour them some ale). “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” isn’t just a belated but legitimate contender for the best song of 2019. It’s a message we should all resolve to put into action in 2020. Taking a Lyft to the airport? Toss a tip to your driver. Kids being unusually obnoxious? Toss a ten to your sitter. Enjoy reading this story? Toss a tweet to your writer.