The Witcher—a new fantasy series airing on Netflix—opens with Geralt, the eponymous Witcher, fighting a giant CGI spider-beast. He rends it limb from limb and stabs it in the face. As the beast shudders its last breath, the camera gives us our first good look at hero Geralt of Rivia. His eyes are dark and black lines run underneath his skin, as if he’s infected with something terrible. The Witcher signals in its opening moments that viewers need to shrug off comparisons. This is not Game of Thrones. That’s a good thing.
Game of Thrones was a once in a generation phenomenon. A courtly drama with dragons and ice zombies captivated the world and sold more HBO subscriptions than The Sopranos. Game of Thrones is gone now and studios are scrambling to find a replacement. To hear the media tell it, The Witcher is Netflix’s attempt to fill the void left behind by Game of Thrones.
Comparing the two franchises betrays a lack of imagination. The fantasy genre is weird, deep, and filled with variety and saying The Witcher is the next Game of Thrones is like saying Law and Order is a replacement for The Wire. Both are crime dramas but both are telling very different stories in very different worlds.
Game of Thrones took several seasons to build out its more fantastical elements. The White Walkers and dragons came later. Its first few seasons swirled around distinct characters and the courtly intrigue that kept the plot moving and all our favorite characters dying. I’ve already seen that show and read those books. I don’t need to see it again.
Spoilers for the first episode of ‘The Witcher’ follow.
The Witcher is a high fantasy. It wears its weird magic and strange monsters on its sleeve. In the first episode we see a mutant slay a great beast, a wizard defend a castle from a siege, a force push used in a sword fight, and a morally conflicted hero navigating a twisted take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The Witcher is a grim story with complicated politics and a cynical view of the world. That it manages to work these themes through a world of high magic, prophecy, and monster hunters is one of its core charms.
It’s not that The Witcher isn’t a political story, just that it’s politics are radically different than Game of Thrones. Thrones is a story about the upper classes, the landed gentry who move the world. The Witcher is a story about the lower classes, the people oppressed by prophecy and power. For all his supernatural strength, Geralt of Rivia is a dog catcher. He’s a working class guy who hunts monsters for a living. More often than not, the society he works for despises him and sees him as no better than the monsters he’s hunting.The elves too (this show has eleves), are an oppressed class with complicated politics that diverge along generational lines.
The Witcher isn’t a replacement for Game of Thrones and it was never meant to be. It’s its own thing. A story about a guy who just wants to do his job but gets swept up in an odd story about prophecy and class divides. My favorite moment from the books involves a lengthy carriage ride where Geralt and a friend discuss trade wars, economic conflict, and guerrilla warfare in the radicalization of elvish youth. It’s a long philosophical discussion punctuated by a moment of staggering and predictable violence.
There’s room for that moment in The Witcher’s TV series. The set up makes it clear that it’s interested in the little people as much as the kings and queens. Game of Thrones never gave us the stories of Flea Bottom. The Witcher just might.