Early in Netflix’s The Witcher, the Nilfgaardian army launches an assault on the outer walls of the Cintran kingdom. In response, Queen Calanthe rallies her troops to defend their homeland. What follows is a key decision by showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich asserting what viewers are about to experience for the remainder of the season.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first four episodes of The Witcher.]
Despite its valiance, Calanthe’s army is overcome by the brutal oppressors, and the queen’s husband, Eist Tuirseach, breathes his last breath. Calanthe dies at the end of episode 1, then takes the stage again in episode 4. The slaying seems a little messy on first viewing: The episode is teeming with action and flits between scenes like a blood-starved bruxa. But it’s with this moment that The Witcher escapes the shadow of its obvious cultural competitor: Game of Thrones.
Although Game of Thrones suffered from what was almost unanimously regarded by critics and fans alike as a cataclysmic denouement, the series was once heralded as one of the great works of TV pop art for most of its run. Revered for its brave storytelling and sheer indifference to established tropes, it was a force to be reckoned with — a stalwart defender of fantasy standing resolute in an age that only knew Lord of the Rings.
However, Thrones’ wick burnt slowly. This was a strength: The drama relied heavily on tension scraped thin across the series’ arcs like not enough butter over too much bread — at least for the first few seasons. Shows seeking to recapture the magic (and attention) of Thrones may try a similar tactic, maintaining suspense right up to the crown and trekking onward at a snail’s pace. The Witcher is not that.
Consider Calanthe’s battle, death, and reappearance against a key Thrones vignette: Ned Stark’s beheading toward the end of season 1. Unprecedented in the contemporary age of plot armor, this shock development helped David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ series wrench tropes out of cliche. He was the main character! How could he die?
The Witcher will obviously earn itself comparisons to the dragon show — it did long before anyone ever saw a single trailer. But if the comparison is to be made now, when the inaugural season is open for viewing, fans of Thrones should recognize that show’s bravery, and The Witcher’s fearlessness in going a step further. By killing Calanthe in the first episode, then reviving her in episode 4 with only the magic of storytelling, Hissrich and her writing team find a more fulfilling reveal than a shocking death: The Witcher is unfolding three primary narrative threads in three different timelines. The result is clarity and exhilaration in retrospect.
Swords are drawn again when Calanthe shows up a second time and yet another battle breaks out, this one in a fancy ballroom instead of at the gates of Cintra’s outer shell. As Geralt of Rivia slaughters her soldiers alongside her husband-to-be, Eist Tuirseach, Calanthe’s troops attempt to overwhelm the witcher and his Skelligan companion. The fight ceases after the intervention of Pavetta — Ciri’s mother — but there’s another issue at hand: Geralt must be paid for saving Duny, Pavetta’s betrothed.
Thus the witcher is afforded his “Child of Surprise,” who comes into play later in the show. Calanthe’s death and reappearance, penned as a flashback, are the first threads that set this, the crux of The Witcher’s story, in motion. And although her untimely demise rivals the brave writing that saw Ned Stark lose his head, far greater significance is attached to her character. Ned’s ghost looms large over the characters in Thrones, often influencing the decisions of his children, but Calanthe’s backstory provides clever and necessary exposition for The Witcher’s overarching narrative. Then time moves on.
When people come to The Witcher, they will stop and say it looks a bit like Thrones: the dimly lit corridors, muddy battlefields, lush forests, and intimidatingly regal castles. But in the Netflix series, lessons have clearly been learned and built upon. Ned Stark changed television. The Witcher recognized that and reworked it on its own terms.