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Toss a Coin (and Your Respect) to ‘The Witcher’

Season 2 of the Netflix series further proves why it’s one of the best fantasy shows since ‘Game of Thrones’

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the Season 2 premiere of The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia (played by Henry Cavill) and young Ciri (Freya Allan), the princess of the fallen kingdom of Cintra whom he’s been charged to protect, seek refuge in a village—one that’s mysteriously abandoned with the exception of a faint glow emanating from a nearby castle. Once Geralt approaches the castle’s entrance, the doors burst open, and a man with the face of a wild boar attacks him before suddenly stopping. “What the fuck are you doing here?!” the boar-man says, instantly deflating the scene’s dramatic tension. Turns out, Geralt and the boar-man, who goes by Nivellen, are old friends. Among kind company, Nivellen becomes a gracious host: Using magic, he conjures a golden bathtub for Ciri to freshen up in before presenting a lavish feast. (The conjured food drops from the ceiling and lands on their plates with a thud.) Later, Nivellen offers his backstory to Ciri—he didn’t always bear the likeness of a boar—but stops himself from revealing too much with the greatest wordplay in all the realm: “I’m being a bore.”

Nivellen’s bonkers introduction lays out the appeal of The Witcher in miniature: equal parts goofy, intriguing, and somewhat unsettling. (Why is he a boar, and where did all those villagers go?) The character is also a product of smart casting from the Netflix series. Beneath the furry exteriors, Nivellen is played by none other than Kristofer Hivju, the Norwegian actor renowned for his scene-stealing turn in Game of Thrones as the wildling warrior and noted Brienne of Tarth admirer Tormund Giantsbane. (If Hivju’s booming voice doesn’t give it away, don’t worry, Nivellen won’t stay a boar-man for the entirety of the episode.)

Beyond being a smart casting of a charismatic actor, employing Hivju seems like The Witcher explicitly nodding to its larger intentions. Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels of the same name, which have already been turned into a popular video game franchise, The Witcher feels earmarked to fill the void left by Thrones and become TV’s next fantasy megahit. (Most streamers have been looking for the “next Game of Thrones” ever since the original ended, with mixed results.) The Witcher was already popular in multiple different iterations, and its Thrones-leaning fantasy tropes make it a no-brainer candidate for TV adaptation. But Hivju’s boisterous presence is where the similarities between Thrones and The Witcher end—for the better.

Despite Thrones becoming one of the biggest television phenomenons of all time—and being legitimately good-to-great for most of its run—there was a fascinating friction to the show’s relationship with the fantasy genre. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss excelled with the political intrigue of Westeros, but when it came to the more fantastical elements of George R.R. Martin’s source material—dragons, White Walkers, and the like—Thrones seemed to flounder. (See: the haphazard conclusion to the White Walkers after the series built them up as an existential threat for eight seasons and one of Daenerys’ dragons being unceremoniously killed because she “kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet.”) It’s as if Benioff and Weiss were ashamed to fully embrace Thrones’ fantasy roots, which in turn debilitated some of the show’s story lines, especially during its contentious final season.

But whereas Thrones shied away from some of its fantasy elements, The Witcher gleefully embraces them. It’s a series that understands the inherent absurdities of its fantasy world while making the silliness integral to its DNA. Consider the misadventures of the show’s titular Witcher. When he isn’t muttering “hmm” or “fuck” under his breath, Geralt meanders through the series as a glorified bounty hunter. (Witchers are humans infused with magic and strength for the sole purpose of eradicating monsters.) Geralt takes to his profession with a combination of solemnity and mild annoyance—so much so that he rarely bothers to explain what’s happening around him, a disorienting experience for both his on-screen companions and the audience watching along at home. Here’s how a typically terse exchange with The Witcher’s reluctant hero goes down:

Geralt: [Hears some rustling in the forest] Hmm.

Geralt’s companion at the time: What’s wrong, Geralt of Rivia?

Geralt: It’s an [insert the ridiculous name of a fantasy monster here].

Geralt’s companion at the time: So, uh, what does that mean?

Geralt: We’re fucked.

[Geralt proceeds to fight the monster and kill it in some creatively gruesome way.]

This all-in approach, and the fact that the show doesn’t handhold its audience as much as throw them into the deep end with multiple timelines, explains why The Witcher’s first season endured mixed reviews from critics—Entertainment Weekly went so far as to give it an F grade. If you’re in, you’re in; if you’re out, well, you’re really out. The Witcher’s uncompromising weirdness is likely to handicap its broad appeal, at least on the level of monocultural popularity like Thrones—but that may very well be an impossible bar for any show to clear. For all intents and purposes, Netflix still has a sizable hit on their hands. Since Netflix’s in-house viewership numbers shouldn’t be taken at face value, it’s easier to measure an original series’ success by how much the streamer supports it, and ahead of its second season premiere, The Witcher has already been renewed for Season 3 to go with additional offshoots of its universe.

The Witcher getting three seasons (and counting?) is all the more encouraging because Netflix has shown that it isn’t afraid to pull the plug early on buzzy genre shows that fail to catch on, like the live-action Cowboy Bebop. And as the show eases into its own chaotic rhythm in Season 2, The Witcher doubles down on all the things that made it a hit with fantasy enthusiasts—and a difficult barrier to entry for everyone else.

After spending much of the first season running away from his destiny to protect Ciri—thanks to a bizarre in-universe custom known, incredibly, as the “Law of Surprise”—Geralt takes her to the only place he believes that she’ll be safe: Kaer Morhen, the decrepit keep that all Witchers call home. Meanwhile, the powerful sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra), who also happens to have a steamy on-again, off-again relationship with Geralt, must contend with being a prisoner of the villainous Empire of Nilfgaard that seeks to invade the Northern Kingdoms. (It was the Nilfgaardians who ran Ciri out of her home and killed her family in Season 1.) As Ciri’s mysterious fate becomes intertwined with the future of the realm—she’s a child of destiny in the vein of Luke Skywalker or Paul Atreides—The Witcher’s universe approaches significant change.

The larger stakes mean that there’s fewer monster-of-the-week detours for Geralt this season; reuniting with his boar-man buddy is more of an exception than a norm. But by expanding its scope, The Witcher lays out its fundamental themes—who are the real monsters when humanity is in conflict with itself?—on a wider canvas that leaves even more WTF world-building in its wake. Kaer Morhen, Nilfgaard, and the Law of Surprise are just a drop in the bucket in The Witcher’s glossary of fantasy terms, which in its second season adds everything from the customs of Elves to the “Right of Hospitality” to hulking tree monsters that can be killed only by being pierced in the heart with a flaming sword. (The tree monsters are called Leshens, per The Witcher’s fan Wiki, which makes a lot more sense than my original assumption that Geralt was calling them “legends.”) If Thrones was effectively a beginner’s guide to embracing the fantasy genre, The Witcher feels like a show in which, to keep in the spirit of its eponymous video games, the difficulty settings have been maxed out.

It might make The Witcher tricky to explain on a pure plot level—there’s a reason my colleague Alison Herman filed a review last season as a series of questions—but learning how its bizarre world operates is part of the unique viewing experience. Given that Netflix deployed a similar “figure it out” philosophy this year with Shadow and Bone, it seems like the streamer’s biggest mandate with fantasy adaptations is to make them faithful to die-hard fans. Anyone else who goes along for the ride is a welcome bonus.

This kind of approach may ensure that The Witcher never reaches as wide an audience as Thrones, but that’s precisely what makes the show so great. Unlike the vast majority of big-budget fantasy series, The Witcher isn’t really trying to be the next Thrones. Instead, The Witcher is content to exist in its own unapologetically weird, frequently charming, and constantly baffling universe where the series follows Geralt’s lead: assured in its own abilities and without any fucks to give—unless they’re coming right out of his mouth.