Even if you haven’t seen The Witcher, you’ve probably kind of seen The Witcher. Netflix’s highly meme-able high-fantasy series has been clawing its way into Twitter timelines and Reddit threads with the tenacity of a Baby Yoda, and it shows no signs of relenting. Based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s popular Polish book series that became an even more popular video game franchise, The Witcher is Netflix’s most successful series launch to date, according to Netflix, and has already been renewed for a second season, plus an animated tie-in movie.
But what is it that draws people to the series like wandering princesses to a magical dryad forest? Is it The Witcher’s lone-wolf antihero, Geralt of Rivia, played with gruff, one-note bluster by ex-Superman Henry Cavill, whose most common lines of dialogue are “Hmm” and “Fuck”? Is it that earworm of a song, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” which now has its own Know Your Meme page? Is it that one batshit scene where Geralt interrupts an orgy to deliver a pitcher of apple juice?
In the wake of the passing of Game of Thrones, TV audiences have developed a taste for morally gray fantasy worlds for grown-ups — the kind where, yeah, there’s dragons and shit, but also everyone makes brutal political choices and has lots of explicit sex. And while The Witcher is the heir apparent to the space left vacant when Drogon melted the Iron Throne down to scrap last summer, it’s nowhere near as thoughtful, complex, or fully realized as Game of Thrones was at its best. But the show still scratches an itch — the kind that can only be reached with a longsword.
For those who haven’t yet drunk deep of the local grog (and if you haven’t, don’t worry, the peer pressure will get to you soon enough), Lauren Schmidt Hissrich’s series, which takes place in a land called the Continent, follows a traveling beefcake (Cavill) who is at once in-demand and shunned by society for his ability to slay monsters that no one else dares take on. There’s also Ciri (Freya Allen), a teen princess who goes on the run after her kingdom is destroyed; Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), an abused farm girl who grows to become a powerful mage; and Jaskier (Joey Batey), a cheeky bard who’s mostly there to provide comic relief and hit singles. Along the way, these four cross paths with corrupt nobles, gross wizards, embittered elves, and people with names like Stregobor and, um… Mousesack.
By turns delightful, tedious, and infuriating, The Witcher is all over the place. The dialogue swings from portentous and highfalutin (“Temeria reeks of secrets. I can sense them.”) to self-consciously silly (“Leave the very sexy but insane witch to her inevitable demise!”) and gleefully vulgar (“You’re a dick. With balls.”). Large swaths of world-building are done without explanation, and entire plot threads are abandoned while others carry on for far too long. One episode will be gloriously unhinged, while the next will be rote and dull. And the less said about The Witcher’s deeply creepy ideas about women’s bodies, the better; at one point, a character agrees to a very graphic and medically unsound magical hysterectomy (yes, you heard right) for the sake of physical beauty.
But it may be the sheer mess of The Witcher that’s the key to its runaway success. (A friend recommended the show to me with the text: “It’s so bad. I really enjoy it!”) For all its Polish roots and mostly British cast, The Witcher offers a mishmash of elements that appeal uniquely to the American entertainment appetite. The series has the feel of a role-playing video game, complete with easily digestible missions, predictable character types, badass fight scenes, and gnarly gore. Geralt is the kind of stoic, itinerant, loner protagonist that fans of Westerns (or, for that matter, The Mandalorian) will eat up. And for all its problematic elements when it comes to depicting women, the show does offer some complex, powerful female characters that at least somewhat fill the void left behind by Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen.
And even when the plot barely makes sense, The Witcher most certainly knows how to have fun — the kind of fun that involves, among other things, genie bottle-fishing, intersecting timelines, surprise adoptions, giant spider monsters, and falling-through-the-floor-of-a-house sex.
And then there’s that song. My God, that song. Sonya Belousova, Giona Ostinelli, and Jenny Klein’s “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” has taken up residence in all of our heads, and shows no sign of leaving before the spring thaw. With its catchy melody, dubious rhymes, and eminently belt-able refrain (O’ valley of plentyyyy!), “Toss a Coin” runs where, say, Thrones’ “The Rains of Castamere” merely walked. Before Netflix finally released the song on Spotify a few weeks back, enterprising fans took to YouTube with covers in styles ranging from classical guitar to heavy metal. There’s nothing like an over-the-top musical moment to galvanize the internet.
For my own part, I watched The Witcher the way Geralt of Rivia does everything: with great annoyance that accidentally blooms into grudging devotion. After eight-plus hours of monster slaying, courtly scheming, magical portents, gruesome battles, and writhing bodies, all set to the dulcet tones of Cavill’s basso grunt, I wasn’t so much a convert as a victim of quasi-medieval Stockholm syndrome. Maybe we all are. But, hey, there are worse ways to spend the winter.