It’s a strange and uncertain time for streaming; audiences have become wise to the futility of building loyalty for programs that may be canceled after two or three seasons (and/or wiped from existence entirely to pad an executive’s bank account).
The third season of “The Witcher,” one of Netflix’s last major hits, reminds us that there was once a genuine streaming blockbuster that wasn’t titled “Stranger Things.”
Indeed, much like Netflix’s other major genre success, the third season of The Witcher is split in two by Geralt of Rivia’s (Henry Cavill’s) hefty sword. Specifically, Netflix has just released the first five episodes of the season, with the remaining ten episodes arriving one month later.
It is an acceptable compromise between the consumption model that Netflix pioneered and the weekly cadence that has kept some of pop culture’s longest-running shows in the public consciousness.
The issue is that “The Witcher” has evolved so much as a series that it will be difficult for that kind of momentum to really build, particularly considering that this season is just as frustrating as the last.
To its advantage (and detriment), showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich maintains Season Two’s more straightforward structure, eschewing the disorienting chronology-jumping of Season One in favor of a much more linear progression.
Geralt and Yennefer of Vengerberg (Anya Chalotra) realize that their young charge, Ciri (Freya Allan), is too powerful to remain at Kaer Morhen; there are too many people chasing her, from “Fire-F*cker” Rience (Chris Fulton) to the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, all of whom want to kill her or harness her powers for their own purposes. The three flee, forming an impromptu family while Yen teaches Ciri how to control her Chaos magic.
Therefore, the first five episodes of the season focus on Geralt and Yen’s ongoing efforts to keep Ciri secure and/or neutralize the known and unknown threats to her life. It’s a good format at this stage in the show; it’s comparable to Season 3 of “The Mandalorian” in this regard, with Yen serving as the Bo-Katan analog, the fierce mother figure who balances out the grumpy, reluctant father and the chaotic young charge.
However, similar to that unstable season of “Star Wars,” “The Witcher” has an unsteady balance between the campy fun that made the show so endearing in the first place and the ponderous lore-building that halts the show’s giddy momentum.
For starters, the palace intrigue feels almost doubled this season, what with all the ‘thee’s and thous and the cast of self-important characters in overdesigned robes babbling in council chambers. Politics abound among the representatives of Redania, Temeria, and Aretuza; two characters named Vesemir and Vizimir are featured in this program.
The double-crossing and behind-the-scenes plotting become so prodigious and repetitive that, if you care about it at all, you’ll need a journal to keep track of it all.
“The Witcher” remains watchable (watchable?) when the camera returns to our happy witching family; the show is at its finest when it resembles “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” rather than “Game of Thrones.”
The dialogue remains delightfully archaic, most of the humor still lands (fear not, dear reader, comic relief bard Jaskier [Joey Batey] is back and wittier than ever), and the half-season concludes with a fancy-dress gala—reminiscent of Netflix sibling “Bridgerton”—that finally traps Geralt in a situation from which he cannot hack and slash his way out.
The monster then battles. Oh, the creature is violent. Each episode pauses at least once to let Cavill and Allen swing swords and cast spells, and these are the most exhilarating moments of the show.
The monster designs are appropriately eerie, ranging from a jackapace to an enigmatic cave creature that absorbs the flesh of three victims and puppets it like a giant man-rat king, with the heads of its terrified victims screaming in agony and pleading for mercy.
The heart of the show still beats in this dirt-covered pulp action; if there’s one thing I regret about Season One, it’s how the fractured narrative sold the plot’s superfluousness so well that you didn’t feel bad about not knowing which kingdom you were actually in.
Until Cavill unsheathed that sword and launched himself at yet another eldritch creature, your eyes were likely to glaze over.
Now, you receive a portion of that, but deciphering the tedious plotting surrounding it feels like homework.
“The Witcher” is a relic of the halcyon days of streaming, a last gasp of the era when high-budget prestige streaming series were able to break through and discover their identity. Perhaps we should count our blessings that the show is already losing momentum, even before Liam Hemsworth assumes the role of Cavill in Season Four.
In the meantime, however, there’s still plenty of high-camp energy to get by on—Cavill’s arched eyebrow and grunts, his rapport with the scene-stealing Chalotra, Batey’s frazzled comic relief, and the big-budget creature brawls that keep you clicking “Next Episode.”
All five episodes of Volume One of Season Three were screened for evaluation. Netflix will release Volume Two on July 27.