'The Witcher': 'Game of Thrones' Antidote

I love a good pulp fantasy. Swords, magic, heroism, journey's of self-discovery, gravelly voiced warriors, bearded wizards, proto-feminist witches, silliness enjoyed for its own sake with a few generally applicable ideas about how to relate to the world. The Witcher quickly recovers from the melodramatic seriousness of its pilot (and even here, its monologues make for some great camp entertainment) to deliver a mythos as farcically enjoyable as it is still grimly relevant. 

Much has been made of the show replacing Game of Thrones premier place as the essential fantasy of the day. This is misguided. The two series are so opposing in their basic sensibility, it is difficult not to watch The Witcher as a wilful repudiation of the HBO hit. Game of Thrones was a self-serious meditation on history that went awry the moment it had to stop loosely retelling the events of the Wars of the Roses. Thereon, it got lost on weird tangents that vainly tried to blend subjects as divergent as the Islamic Hegira with the contemporary threats of global warming and the far right, culminating in the unsatisfying moral that Whiggish compromise is necessary to avoid some kind of early modern version of Dragon-backed fascism. Medieval Blairism/Clintonism proved to be anticlimactic even for the shows centrist fans. 

Rather than attempt to retell history with laborious and ineffectual devotion to specific people and events (albeit with magic), The Witcher's allegories evidence a sweeping brush-stroke approach to the audiences's concerns. This is soft fantasy at its best; the rules are inexact because they are primarily in service to a fairy tale mood, to a melancholic, wistful pathos. The setting feels at once vast with the scope of a religious mythology, and intimately small, concerned with the essential human tragedies, comedies and travails that take place within it. This world's politics are simple if brutal (in keeping with the politics of the fairy tale), and its lessons have more in common with the Sagas of Icelanders than with the boring court intrigue of so many contemporary fantasies. This is a show about breaking cycles of vengeance, the precariousness of political legitimacy and the value of simple stoicism.

The Witcher is also delightful for eschewing the temptation to use cheap reactionary tropes. When the masses are presented as ugly (as in episode one) it is because they resort to scapegoating ignorance. When they are presented as good (as in the finale) they are so for rejecting the appeal of authority. The powerful, almost to a man and woman, are incestuous, genocidal, hypocritical, paranoid, greedy and/or petty. Cunning and adaptability are elevated over rigid traditions, courage is more important than lineage, and misfortune is shown to be, if governed by some principles, arbitrary at root. There is nothing revelatory about The Witcher, but its simplicity is refreshing after so many years of charmless, didactic nonsense.  

Brief Thoughts on Characterisation
Writing & Editing Goals: 2020


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Thursday, 02 July 2020

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