In these polarized and divisive times, fans of the Witcher books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski generally agree on one thing: Sapkowski’s tales of Geralt of Rivia, legendary monster slayer, are almost always better in his short stories rather than his novels.
From its very first episode, The Witcher, Netflix’s adaptation of Sapkowski’s books, has tried to do justice by both, interweaving short stories about Geralt (Henry Cavill) fighting monsters with an ongoing plot involving fantasy nations on the brink of war. The results have always been messy, but also compelling, as the heart of Witcher stories has always been outcasts finding one another and forming a reluctant family.
Yet The Witcher has always felt like its writers have never had enough episodes to tell these stories. This has resulted in prior seasons having convoluted plots, as the show juggled timelines, nations, and prophecies in an effort to do justice to both a fantasy epic and a renowned collection of short stories in one TV series. These warring impulses are now, in the third season, painfully obvious on screen, as big character beats are quickly ironed over in favor of moving the plot along. The Witcher has become a show that demands close reading, but threatens to insult the intelligence of anyone patient enough to do so.
This is immediately apparent in The Witcher’s season 3 premiere, which is almost entirely devoted to smoothing over one of the more devastating moments of season 2: Yennefer’s (Anya Chalotra) betrayal of Ciri (Freya Allan) and Geralt, in which she nearly gave Ciri away to Voleth Meir (Ania Marson), the Baba Yaga, in exchange for getting her lost magic back.
Granted, Yen was being played — she did not know that it was Ciri that she would be sacrificing to Voleth Meir. But she still agreed to give a child to the fucking Baba Yaga, and still very nearly handed Ciri over! This is a very big hurdle for the characters to get over, and it’s narratively delicious that season 3 starts with Geralt, Ciri, and Yen on the run, forced to hide together, the family they didn’t know they wanted turned bitter the moment they realized they wanted it.
Unfortunately, The Witcher doesn’t really make a lot of hay out of this rich setup — or just about anything else. This is provisional, of course; only the first five episodes of the long-awaited third season premiere this week, with a second batch of three episodes due in exactly one month. That’s not a lot of real estate to turn things around, and it doesn’t excuse more than half of the season feeling like nothing but setup.
And setup is all there is to take in here. Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri shuttle from place to place, getting over their difficult grudges in the space of a montage so that they can get wrapped up in the business of politics, hoping that a more stable Continent results in a Continent with fewer people who want Ciri and her world-breaking power for their own devices.
There are flashes of the fun, dark fantasy series that The Witcher can be at its best — notably in its second episode, which features a horrifying flesh monster that also comes with terrible implications for our trio going forward — but ultimately, the third season feels like it has the inverse problem of its predecessors. Namely: The plot is clearer, but its characters make less sense.
A large portion of the blame lies on the politics of the Continent taking a front seat in the narrative. Much of the third season involves a grand attempt to avoid war, as the Brotherhood of Sorcerers works toward uniting the Northern Kingdoms in the face of an increasingly bold Nilfgaard, while the Elves of the Continent, beset on all sides, are once again little more than pawns in the chess game between mages and magistrates.
This requires that viewers spend a lot of time with characters they do not know particularly well, and for whom the writers don’t intend to offer much insight. Season 3 of The Witcher is building toward a monumental twist, but the final reveal is so blunt and the machinations that lead to it are so obscured that it feels like we’re checking in on the Northern Kingdoms’ power players more than we’re understanding them.
There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way the narrative flits from, say, Dijkstra (Graham McTavish) and Philippa (Cassie Clare), who scheme in such an isolated corner of the plot that they might as well not be there at all. Worse, characters on screen debate the motives and nature of many more characters off screen: Rience (Chris Fulton), the fire mage assassin and his mysterious employer, asshole sorcerer Stregobor (Lars Mikkelsen), who no one likes but is ambiently present, and Fringilla (Mimi Ndiweni), now imprisoned after a bloody power play in season 2 but still around for reasons that can only be guessed at.
The Witcher season 3 continually trots out various power players and their selfish aims but in the most weightless way, giving us just enough to know that our heroes’ efforts aren’t going to go as planned. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough time to give said heroes compelling arcs to keep them distracted, which means Geralt, Yen, and their allies all end up looking like chumps.
That in itself isn’t a problem; season 2, as messy as it was, was all about Geralt and Yennefer (and plenty of other people!) getting played, to devastating results. In contrast, this first half of season 3 just happens in front of them, not to them, and the things that we did witness them go through in prior seasons seem to matter less and less all the time.
It all makes the third season feel both hollow and out of step with what came before, if any of it is fresh in your mind. In isolation, this first batch of episodes would probably be fine, if the story started here, and perhaps deserving of a little patience for the rest of the season to drop. Two seasons in, however, it is dumbfounding, a carefully plotted map to nowhere, with characters you thought you liked but no memory of why. Also, there’s not nearly enough monsters.
There’s that tension again: A satisfying ongoing narrative and a satisfying short story are two different things, and in adapting both versions of Sapkowski’s work, The Witcher ends up doing neither any justice.
The Witcher season 3, volume 1 premieres on Netflix on June 29. Volume 2 will arrive July 27.