This review contains full spoilers for The Witcher Season 1, episode 1, titled "The End's Beginning".
Anyone who has read Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski’s plethora of novels, or played through the gargantuan trilogy of CD Projekt Red video games, will know that the world of The Witcher is a sprawling, knotty landscape. It’s a place of conflicting kingdoms, tragic families, and murky politics. To describe the saga’s plot to a newcomer without getting caught up in its many overlapping strands is a difficult task. Smartly circumnavigating this issue, Netflix’s The Witcher show starts small, and exactly where it needs to: with Geralt.While the first episode of The Witcher – “The End’s Beginning” – has one eye on the larger picture, it is predominantly a small-scale introduction to Henry Cavill’s slayer of beasts, Geralt of Rivia. Stripping the story back to essentials is a sensible choice, and by the episode’s conclusion we have a pretty solid understanding of who he is, what drives him, and where he stands in the greater narrative. His destiny to meet Ciri helps anchor him in the episode’s ‘B plot’, and it’s clear where the character needs to go both in narrative and personal development.The episode, which retells Sapkowski’s The Lesser Evil short story, is able to cut right to the heart of Geralt’s almost Batman-like rule of his trade: he kills only monsters, not people. His refusal to take on either Renfri or Stregobor’s contracts, despite their well-reasoned arguments, demonstrates that Geralt has no interest in nuance or motives. His world-view remains starkly – almost naively – black and white. This is delivered by some rather clunky dialogue that hammers the point home a few too many times, but at least we’re left clear on Geralt’s flawed logic.Those flaws are addressed through both Renfri and Stregobor’s betrayal, and repeated utterances of “the lesser evil.” (Just in case you didn’t get it, things often aren’t as simple as they first seem!) While the dialogue is on-the-nose, the situation does work as a clean and simple story about how morality and consequence aren’t quite as clean and simple as they ideally would be. Showrunner and episode writer Lauren Schmidt Hissrich spins these circumstances into natural growth for Geralt, and provides an excellent starting point for the Witcher’s journey ahead.Speaking of what lies ahead, Stregobor’s final words to Geralt – “You made a choice and you’ll never know if it was the right one” – feels very much like a forced episode summary, but does act as foreshadowing for essentially the entirely of Geralt’s journey ahead (and is perhaps also a nod to the frequent branching narrative choices the video games are so famous for).Hissrich and team have the murky morality of The Witcher in the right place, then, but what of Geralt’s actual abilities as a badass force of nature? Thankfully Cavill is as comfortable with a blade as he is wearing a cape, and this first episode features some of the most striking swordplay seen on the small screen. Where Game of Thrones largely kept its action gritty and almost historical, The Witcher is happy to revel in fantasy.The final fight of the episode shows Geralt to be lighting quick, gouging great bloody wounds in multiple assailants. The choreography is openly flashy, with swords being utilized more like Star Wars’ lightsabers than heavy blades of steel. It’s clear a lot of fun was had putting the sequence together, and it proves a real highlight of the episode, despite some Stargate-grade CGI used for Geralt’s magical signs.It’s disappointing that the episode’s best action scene is kept until last, since that means the show doesn’t open with its best foot forward. While it makes perfect sense to open on a fight with a monster to quickly establish Geralt’s profession, the fight with the kikimora is underwhelming. The multi-limbed, crustacean-like horror is realised through visual effects that don’t match up to creatures such as Stranger Things’ mind flayer or Umbrella Academy’s Pogo. While not network TV bad, it does feel closer to the worlds created by The CW than Netflix, and so putting it right at the forefront doesn’t give the best first impression. Furthermore, the swamp-based nature of the fight makes for less impressive choreography. I’m not against fights which show Geralt struggling, but human-scale opponents would have helped start the episode with a bigger bang.Juxtaposing the episode’s most violent moments is a lovely quiet, reflective minute in which Geralt talks with his horse, Roach. Cavill’s line delivery throughout the episode is notably curt and can feel a bit cosplay Doug Cockle at times, but it does help make clear he doesn’t have much time nor patience for most humans around him. Yet his one-way dialogue with Roach is lightly humorous and notably more detailed, demonstrating a depth that he’s only willing to expose with his hooved friend. It’s rather sweet, really, and teases another dimension to a character who could easily be just a sword and a wig.“The End's Beginning” acts as a somewhat blunt but nonetheless successful introduction to Geralt, then, and if that were all it offered then it would be a respectable start for Netflix’s fantasy saga. But there’s a second story brewing in the background that points to the greater events of this world, indicating that this is most definitely more than a monster-of-the-week style affair. This B-story – based on the first core Witcher novel, Blood of Elves – introduces Freya Allan’s Ciri, a Princess of the kingdom of Cintra, who is destined to become a huge part of Geralt’s life.Cintra is portrayed as a glorious nation, with its soldiers decked out in beautiful steel plate armour, and a capital city made of white stone. It acts as a fun, albeit very fantasy cliche, visual contrast to the invading soldiers of the Nilfgaard empire, who are evidently Lannister-grade evil thanks to their ugly wrinkled black armour and fondness for torture, fire, and sometimes both at the same time. The clash between Cintra and Nilfgaard on the fields outside the city walls lacks bite (despite the frequent head wounds) due to a somewhat stagey performance that's accentuated by a sparse and artificial-feeling backdrop, but by the time the forces have pushed their way into the city the danger is well and truly established.Unfortunately Ciri herself doesn’t get quite the loving introduction that Geralt does, with her personality traits more so hinted at rather than established. She’s impatient, inquisitive, and definitely the MacGuffin of the show thanks to a forceful magic that shows itself when she screams in anger. More time needs to be spent building her into a vital character, but considering her elements of this episode appear to be a warm-up for a much larger event, what’s here is an acceptable foundation.Also muddled is the episode’s sense of time and place. With no establishing title cards to detail the years Geralt and Ciri’s stories are set, it’s easy to assume the two are set in tandem, especially considering they both conclude with the characters looking for each other. Yet offhand comments that are easily missed suggest there’s multiple years – even decades – separating these plots, such as when Ciri discusses how Calanthe won her first battle that took place when she was a young girl, while a few minutes later Renfri explains to Geralt about Calanthe’s recent first victory. Unless the show is being purposefully unclear in order to deliver an interesting reveal later down the line, this muddy presentation only hinders the storytelling.More clear is the direction where the show is heading, thanks to Ciri’s final scenes and the destiny link between her and Geralt. In a world where many TV shows have become reliant on the “mystery box” approach, that’s very welcome. And with the addition of a major villain in the form of the Empire of Nilfgaard, it feels as if the key pieces are all on the board, ideally positioned to begin their moves.
“The End’s Beginning” makes a smart choice by keeping the focus largely on Geralt and establishing who he is, rather than plunging viewers into the deep end of a complex new fantasy universe. Ciri’s story informs us that this world is much larger than one mutant sellsword alone, but The Witcher’s first episode is content to make the White Wolf of Rivia its key concern. The show is definitely starting in the right place, but an underwhelming monster battle and a script that bluntly delivers its message prevents episode 1 from being a fully fantastic introduction.
For more, check out our review of The Witcher Season 1, episode 2.