Netflix’s The Witcher is a show a lot like its protagonist: large, rugged, and not fond of explaining a damn thing. The fantasy epic stars Henry Cavill as silver-haired hunk Geralt of Rivia, a gruff wanderer and the eponymous Witcher. For some of us, that will be enough: Henry Cavill can Geralt our Rivias all day long. Unfortunately, The Witcher is not as straightforward an adventure as, say, The Mandalorian. There’s a lot of action happening around Geralt, and everything about it is understated to the point where it feels like you’re expected to know what everyone’s talking about.
While some shows use this confusion to good effect, explaining things in due time, The Witcher … does not. Which is a shame, because the show is fun! So let’s remedy that, in a handy Q&A that’ll fill you in on the important stuff — and more importantly, let you know what not to worry about.
So, what’s a witcher?
Wow, we’re really starting at the beginning, huh? A witcher is a monster hunter for hire.
*A* witcher? There’s more than one?
Yes! Witchers are rare, but Geralt is not the only one. An early episode begins with Geralt hunting a monster that killed another witcher, and you will hear Geralt mention someone named Vesemir at one point — that’s the name of the witcher who trained him. Despite the fact that other witchers are out there, generally speaking, The Witcher almost exclusively deals with the adventures of Geralt of Rivia and the people he encounters.
Why are witchers rare? Can I be a witcher?
Probably not. Witchers are once-normal humans who got mutated by a combination of medieval science and magic, which made them superhuman (more Captain America than Superman) and able to take potions too toxic for normal people. Turning into a witcher is a grueling process called the Trial of the Grasses, and only about a third of those who undergo it survive.
You sound like you’re making this up.
I’m not! The Witcher is based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Geralt’s print adventures are very popular in Poland — there have been comics, a TV show, movie, and tabletop role-playing game all based on Sapkowski’s work. The most successful and famous adaptation, however, is The Witcher trilogy of video games by the studio CD Projekt Red.
How similar is the show to the games?
Quite similar, since both the show and the games are clearly made by people who revere the source material. One of the main elements taken straight from the games is Henry Cavill’s performance — specifically his voice, which is heavily inspired by voice actor Doug Cockle’s take on Geralt. If you haven’t tried playing the games, you should: Most of Cavill’s acting choices will make much more sense once you’ve seen that version of the character.
Neat. So where does all this stuff take place?
The Witcher takes place on a continent called … the Continent.
Beg your pardon?
Look, if you thought your continent was the only one, would you name it?
Good point. So there’s a continent and there’s monsters?
Right! What makes the world of The Witcher interesting is that the Continent is full of your standard fantasy peoples — elves and dwarves and such — but some time long ago, an event called the Conjunction of Spheres brought its world into contact with other worlds where creatures of myth lived. So you’ve got monsters like vampires and werewolves, but also folkloric stuff like faeries and grumpkins, as well as less familiar creatures drawn from Slavic myth.
And there’s magic too, right?
Yup! Witchers are able to use basic magic — simple stuff comparable to the Force from Star Wars. But The Witcher is also concerned with sorceresses, who, like witchers, undergo arduous trials to become what they are. This is a big source of tension in Witcher stories, which are largely about societal outcasts. Many monsters are the result of curses that come from normal people acting monstrous, and while curses can be lifted, witchers and sorceresses cannot undo what was done to them. They’re regarded as useful freaks who live nomadic lives. Sometimes this makes them allies (Witchers and sorceresses are sterile, which is definitely an excuse for these stories to be very horny, but also relevant to the running theme of legacy), and sometimes this puts them at odds with each other.
I heard this show is like Game of Thrones, though. Is it like Game of Thrones?
Kind of. The Continent is populated by numerous kingdoms and factions, each with their own petty squabbles and grand rivalries both within and without. Keeping track of them is … well, I wouldn’t recommend trying to sort all of them out. (Except Nilfgaard, one of the Southern Kingdoms, which is almost unilaterally full of jerks who do bad things. You can tell by their scary-looking black armor.) Maybe Game of Thrones isn’t the best comparison: That show was careful to make sure you knew each house and characters, so the betrayals and power plays became just as thrilling as the battles. In The Witcher, all those machinations are just an engine to get its main characters from one place to another.
What show is it like, then?
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
Say more, please.
A pretty consistent thing in all adaptations of The Witcher stories is Geralt’s characterization: He’s short in the personality department, mostly because he’s a vehicle for short stories in a way that echoes Hercules and other ’90s adventure series. It’s easy to ding Geralt for being boring, but that’s the point! Like Hercules in that show, he’s got a backstory that’s occasionally delved into, but he’s mostly a big, hunky wall for characters with moral dilemmas to bounce off of. Geralt comes to a town and is hired for a job, that job ends up to be more complicated than we’re led to believe, and Geralt — who lies to himself every day about never getting involved — gets involved. There’s usually a climactic fight and an ironic twist and then Geralt moves on, usually because someone is pissed at him. People don’t like witchers, despite needing them.
So I should ignore all the politicking and courtly intrigue?
Not exactly. It’s not the main draw, but knowing where and when you are at a given moment will give you more context on Geralt’s adventures and the importance of the people he comes across.
Excuse me, when?
Yes, when. The show doesn’t ever explicitly state this, but for the bulk of its first season, The Witcher takes place across three timelines. The earliest timeline follows Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) on her journey to become a sorceress; the middle timeline takes place decades later and follows Geralt on his various adventures; and the latest timeline follows Cirilla (Freya Allan), a princess on the run after her home, the Kingdom of Cintra, is invaded by the Nilfgaardian Empire.
That sounds unnecessarily complicated.
That’s because it is! The show signals these timelines poorly: You get abrupt clues when you see someone who died earlier show up just fine, or discover a previously razed kingdom still standing. The show’s long game is uniting its central trio of Geralt, Yennefer, and Cirilla, but it also wants to dive into Yennefer’s backstory and have Geralt go on some adventures of his own. The split timelines are an attempt for The Witcher to have its cake and eat it too.
I’m very confused. Is there a cheat sheet?
Frankly, the show’s world-building is a little too skewed towards people familiar with The Witcher, but its best stuff is squarely focused on Geralt and Yennefer, who both have straightforward stories. If you’re confused, read this. If you’re really confused, just pay attention whenever the kingdom of Cintra (a.k.a. Ciri’s home) is mentioned, as well as Temeria and Nilfgaard. Recognizing those places will help you figure out what’s happening in the grand scheme of things. But if you still feel totally lost, just remember there’s always going to be a fun story about Geralt and a monster to enjoy, one that isn’t too concerned with the wider state of the world — at least until the very last episode, where everything collides in a messy but entertaining fashion.
You sure know a lot about this stuff. Are you a witcher?
No, I talk far too much and I’m paid way less.