The third, and hopefully final, season of Netflix’s “The Witcher” represents the systematic self-destruction of what arguably was the platform’s most valuable intellectual property. The second half of the season also represents some of the most aggressively awful television ever to grace this reviewer’s eyeballs, a true feat given the standards of televised genre fiction are about as low as the Marianas Trench. If there is any justice, the decision to produce it as-as will be ranked as one of the worst strategic mistakes in streaming history and the decision to break the season up into two parts one of their worst tactical mistakes.
The last time the struggling streamer garnered controversy on this scale, when Netflix was widely accused of aggressively marketing French film “Cuties” to pedophiles with overtly sexualized depictions of prepubescent children, there was no immediate effect on the stock price… until the next quarterly report to investors showed that subscriber growth was below expectations, and then the subsequent one reported the platform’s first net loss in subscribers in ten years.
The stock price cratered 72.14% from $597.37 to $166.37 in 6 months, slowly crawling back up to $440.03 in the year since.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
“The Witcher” was supposed to be Netflix’s answer to “Game of Thrones”, which had just ended on a disastrous Season 8 that was torn to shreds by critics, leaving fans hungry for more violent and thematically-complex low fantasy. “The Witcher” was a cult favorite series of fantasy books and short stories first published under the Iron Curtain by Polish economist Andrzej Sapkowski. That series had boomed in popularity since Warsaw-based game developer CD Projekt Red released “The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt”, which sold over 50 million copies and is considered by many gamers to be the greatest videogame ever made, consistently featured prominently in Top 10 lists. They had cast fan favorite Henry Cavill, who himself is famously a devoted fan of the books and games.
The first season – despite being widely criticized for a lack of world-building, zero-explanation omnipresent diverse casting and confusing non-linear plotline that jumped between three different generations – was a smash hit. According to Parrot Analytics, it was the number 3 all-time “in demand” streaming show on the internet on release, just behind “Stranger Things” and “The Mandalorian”, the latter of which is a Disney property. While “Stranger Things” was a more popular property overall, the sheer variety of Witcher IP meant that it could have been a much bigger cash cow in the long run factoring in spin-offs and sequels. An ambitious 7-season arc was planned.
Then the second season released, to widespread derision. While the nonlinear storytelling device was axed, the writing team severely diverged from the source material in ways that made beloved characters extremely unlikeable. The scarred, soft-hearted Eskel – another fan favorite who features prominently in the last Witcher videogame, which canonically takes place a decade after the events of the show – was portrayed as a cruel misogynist and summarily killed off. Grandmaster monster-hunter Vesemir and stormy sorceress Yennefer – both key characters – decided to sacrifice the life of an orphaned preteen princess for their own selfish ends. This was met with fury by the fandom, because the driving motivation of both characters in the source material is that they are sterile and childless wanderers who find meaning in becoming surrogate parents to that very girl.
And then in October, 2022 Cavill announced – without explanation – that he was leaving the cast. Netflix soon announced – to extreme skepticism – that the series would continue on a 7-season arc with Liam Hemsworth as lead. Shortly afterwards, former “The Witcher” writer Beau DeMayo commented that some writers on the show “actively mocked the source materials”, something he called “a recipe for disaster and bad morale.”
Finally, in December of that year, an anonymous accuser claiming to be one of the show’s writers accused Cavill and Beau DeMayo of being toxic “video game bros” whose slavish devotion to source material accuracy put them at odds with the mostly-female writing staff, implying that both were fired for that reason. Considering that the show had a built-in fanbase of 50 million video game fans who love Cavill and desperately wanted content faithful to the source material, it should be no surprise that Season 3’s viewership numbers would be disastrous.
They called him 'annoying' bc he refused to do a sex scene that was unnecessary to the plot 💀 can't make this shit up https://t.co/HfWBCJ90dm
— Nick (@ItsJustN1ck) June 1, 2023
But is it truly fair to describe Season 3 as “aggressively awful”? Is it perhaps “good” from an alternate perspective? Could this purely be an angry fan reaction to Cavill’s exit? In a word: no.
The target demographic for this series simply does not exist. In functioning entertainment companies with sane marketing departments, executives identify a core group of fans they want to entice and greenlight content that they would actually want to see. But “The Witcher” departs too much from the source material to appeal to core fans, while being too inscrutable with oblique references to said source material to appeal to casual fans. The target demo for “The Witcher” would have to be into Polish folklore, intersectional feminism, graphic ultraviolence, diverse casting and gay sex.
For the sake of our readers’ time, we will dispense entirely with opinions – such as the mountains of explosively-negative reviews – and stick to the numbers:
“The Witcher” is supposed to be a show about a stoic professional monster-hunter who acrobatically eviscerates man and beast as his day job, then celebrates his victories with hard drinking and passionate sex with beautiful women.
Season 3 of “The Witcher” averages less than one fight scene and one actual monster per episode (excepting Episode 6), but averages 7.75 scenes per episode where two characters gaze deeply into each others’ eyes and talk intensely about their feelings. There are three sex scenes in the season, and two of those are gay sex. The season bears all the hallmarks of a show where the writers desperately wanted to write a clunky relationship drama with fantasy stylings, but were forced at gunpoint by their studio to include a token amount of violence to meet a bare minimum quota.
To make matters worse, this season reinforced fan perceptions that Cavill was sidelined – in a show where he is theoretically the lead – by giving him scarce screen time.
“Total running time for episodes 1-5, not counting credits, is four hours and 35 minutes. Geralt’s screen time was 73 minutes, 24.8 seconds. Henry Cavill is only on screen for 27.9% of Season 3: Part 1,” bemoaned beloved nerd culture commentator Gary Buechler of Nerdrotic. “As far as Season 3: Part 2 is concerned, it’s even worse. Total runtime for episodes 6-8, not counting credits, is two hours, thirty minutes and 31 seconds. Henry Cavill’s total screen time: 25 minutes and 3 seconds. That means Henry Cavill is only in 16.67% of the final three episodes.”
And, despite, early promises from showrunner Lauren Hissrich that she would not compromise storytelling for diverse casting, the third season leans into it relentlessly. In the books and games, different nations and regions roughly correspond to real-world Middle Ages localities: Niilfgard represents the Holy Roman Empire, Ofier is Ottoman, Zerrikania is African, Skellige is Scandinavian and various northern countries represent regions of Sapkowski’s native Poland as well as other Eastern European nations.
If “The Witcher” had followed in the example of “Game of Thrones” by leveraging diverse casting to represent peoples from these different regions, virtually nobody would have complained because diversity is indeed well-represented in the source material. However, Hissrich cast people of different ethnicities in a shotgun approach where every region and every people are equally scattershot with a hodgepodge of different races absent any explanation. And the ironic thing is that the “diverse” casting doesn’t actually give equal weight to all ethnicities: in Season 3’s fifth episode, over half of the characters on the screen at any given time are black women. Of the eight members of the Lodge of Sorceresses: five are black, two are South Asian and one is white. To be clear: this is supposed to represent Middle Ages Poland.
But will there be minorities? Yes. A man would be a minority in Brokilon Forest. A person of color would be a minority in a small village. An islander would be an minority in Cintra. Mr. Sapkowski has said — publicly, and to me — that the Continent is big and diverse —
— Lauren S. Hissrich (@LHissrich) May 11, 2018
— Redanian Intelligence (@RedanianIntel) August 27, 2022
The most frustrating thing about Season 3 is that the first four episodes were exactly what the fans were asking for. The plot hewed as closely as they could to the source material, while doing much-needed character work to rehabilitate Yennefer after she barely resisted the temptation to commit infanticide in Season 2. The episodes average one monster and one fight scene each. All in all, it was not ideal but not terrible either. If Netlfix had decided to cut Part 1 of the season off at Episode 4, they would have saved themselves a lot of grief and probably would have salvaged quite a few viewers for the last four episodes.
They instead chose to end the first-half cliffhanger on Episode 5, which is by far the worst episode in the entire series. After giving the fans (mostly) what they asked for in the first four episodes, the writers chose to return in force to their much-maligned non-linear storytelling from Season 1. The episode takes place in a conclave of mages, Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer and Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia are lying in bed while discussing the events of a banquet, flashing back multiple times. Often these flashbacks are of the exact same conversations, with slightly different camera angles or a couple extra lines of dialogue.
The episode as a whole was a clumsy attempt to mimic a murder mystery where our heroes slowly discover the true identity of the mysterious arch-villain plotting against them… but the writers had already spoiled the fact that the nefarious battlemage Vilgefortz of Roggeveen was secretly evil in the Season 1 Finale which first streamed in in 2019. There is no demographic that this episode could have possibly appealed to: avid Witcher fans saw the twist coming miles away and casual fans were too confused by the constant flashbacks to know what was going on.
"Vilgefortz of Roggeveen was a mage and a member of the Chapter of Sorcerers, described by Yennefer as "young, but "incredibly talented". He was also described as being very handsome, tall, well built and possessing a lovely voice."
"Show bob and magic portal" pic.twitter.com/WlwkiRphQS
— Vergobret (@YourDudeAedus) June 17, 2020
That already would have made the episode a criminal assault on the senses, but the greater offense was the systematic character destruction of Radovid The Stern, heir to the kingdom of Redania. In the books, Radovid was a young prince whose father was murdered by mages and was then thrust upon the throne as an impressionable puppet. The videogames developed his character further, as he grew to be a mentally-unstable and tyrannical conqueror consumed by a lust for vengeance against all practitioners of magic. He is a major villain in Witcher 3, who the player has the option to assassinate to end his reign of terror.
But, for some bizarre reason, Netflix’s finest decided to forego this compelling backstory to make him the foppish adult brother of the king whose wish to run away with the plucky bard Jaskier – culminating in a steamy gay sex scene – is foiled by the assassination of his brother, which thrusts his incompetent tuchus into the seat of power against his will. It doesn’t seem they thought this through, because it means that those who play the videogame will now have an opportunity to murder an LGBTQ+ character in cold blood.
In order to make this scene happen, they have to remove the musical virtuoso – Geralt’s sidekick – from his natural place at the banquet hall and replace him with a rival troubador’s ethnically-diverse musical troupe.
Valdo Marx – who is only mentioned in one throw-away line from the books – leads a band of hip-hop lutists seemingly modeled off of the Black Eyed Peas and plays a song that is even more terrible than you’re already imagining right now. While most of the musical numbers in Season 3 are forgettable, this one left viewers praying in vain to purge it from their memory. The refrain “ALL IS NOT… WHAT IT SEEMS” is supposed to echo the murder-mystery theme of Episode 5, and is mercilessly hammered into the ears of viewers with every flashback.
Fan reaction to this whole episode was so terrible, that Netflix infamously threw Liam Hemsworth under the bus in a desperate attempt to convince fans to watch Part 2.
Just in case you need a reminder. pic.twitter.com/bvV0hYjymU
— The Witcher (@witchernetflix) July 3, 2023
The less said about Part Two, the better.
In Episode 6, there are a number of welcome but relatively forgettable fight scenes – the least of which features a bigoted older wizard who heroically saves the day by charging into battle against a band of elves while shouting racial epithets (yay racism?). They culminate in a fight where Cavill’s Geralt gets beaten to a pulp by the evil battlemage Vilgefortz.
Episode 7 shows the teenage princess Ciri, who escaped the battle through a malfunctioning magic portal, as she lands in the middle of the desert, makes friends with a unicorn and proceeds to have a series of acid-trip visions where she is urged by her villainous ancestor Falka – a bloodthirsty witch – to embrace radical feminism.
In the Episode 8 finale, numerous people have intense emotional dialogues about things that usually don’t matter to the plot, and then Geralt has a training montage where he emerges mostly healed from his Episode 6 beat-down. The episode ends with Cavill massacring a band of no-name goons who have virtually no relevance to the story, which is hardly what fans were expecting when Netflix teased that he would leave the series on a high note.
It’s emblematic of the season as a whole: a subpar product that barely resembles what was promised to fans, as a bare consolation prize on top of what the out-of-touch creators wanted to do anyway.
Even by the lowest standards of genre fiction, “The Witcher” has become an abominable monster that desperately needs to be beheaded, ideally with a silver sword to keep it from regenerating. Absolutely nobody in the world should watch it. The only thing that could possibly redeem this crime against nature is for Netflix to follow the Change.org petition signed by 322,488 fans to fire the entire writing room and rehire Henry Cavill.