TV Review: “The Witcher” (Season 1)

Being the contrarian I am, I actually put off watching The Witcher longer than I normally would. Though I am, of course, a huge fan of fantasy series and was in need of something to fill the gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones (which was a huge disappointment) and the season finale of His Dark Materials, for some reason I just found all the hype around The Witcher off-putting. Eventually, however, I gave in to the pressure and watched it.

I have to say, I’m not disappointed. In fact, I found myself more drawn into the show than I thought I would be, which was a pleasant surprise. The action is propulsive, the characters are strangely likable (for the most part), and there are glimpses of a vibrant world with cultures and conflicts that are as compelling and bloody as anything in Game of Thrones. Somehow, The Witcher manages to grab hold of you from the first episode and doesn’t let you go until the very end, when it leaves you dangling on a cliff-hanger.

It’s rather hard to summarize this show without giving away important plot points, but I’ll give it a try. It focuses on three characters. The first is the Witcher Geralt (Henry Cavill), a mutant warrior who goes about fighting monsters and demons for payment. His fate is bound up with Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan), who is forced to flee into exile when her kingdom is invaded by Nilfgaard. The third is the Yennefer of Vengeberg (Anya Chalotra), a powerful mage who has her own series of journeys to undertake as she becomes ever more entwined with the fates of nations.

Narratively, the series is rather a mess, to be quite honest, but the genius of The Witcher is that it somehow just rolls with its own absurdities and encourages us to do the same. It doesn’t get hung up on the mechanics of its magic system (which seems pretty much to be whatever the plot demands), nor do the pieces of the political jigsaw puzzle ever entirely coalesce into some sort of coherent whole. In fact, the show seems to go out of its way to keep us guessing as to why the characters are doing what they’re doing. Part of this has to do with the fact that it’s told out of order, and it actually takes quite a while to figure that out, and even when you do it can take some time to orient yourself within a given episode.

At times, I found myself getting a little frustrated at how underdeveloped both the magic and the politics were. I’m not one of those people who demands that their fantasy series explain everything to them, but it is hard to get a sense of the stakes of The Witcher when it’s so resistant to providing a birds-eye view of the world and its conflicts. I’m hoping that now that the various storylines have come together at the end of the first season that this means that the second one will be a bit more straightforward.

One of the reasons I think the series succeeds despite these flaws is because the performances are so absolutely compelling. Cavill is one of those actors who is both beautiful and strangely flexible in terms of the kinds of characters he can play. He manages to imbue Geralt with both taciturnity and vulnerability, and while the former definitely dominates through much of the show, the moments when the latter appears are some of the best in the series. His feelings for both Yennefer and his lost mother. You get the sense that he’s been through a lot, and that these experiences have shaped him in some unexpected ways. Tough-as-nails he may be, but he also has a powerful sense of right and wrong.

Likewise, I found myself increasingly drawn to Yennefer. Again, performance has a lot to do with this, as Chalotra does so much with what she’s given. We get to see Yennefer grow from a twisted girl to a powerful sorceress, and if I have a complaint about her role it’s that we don’t get more of it. Narratively, her arc doesn’t quite gel until we get to the very end, but her character is arguably as important as Geralt’s, if only because it’s refreshing to see such a powerful woman take center stage in a fantasy series.

Unfortunately, at this point in the series Cirilla is still something of a blank slate. She spends most of the season running from conflict to conflict, and I’m afraid that I just wasn’t drawn to her in the way that I was Yennefer. A number of other secondary characters, however, more than make up for this, and once again the women get the lion’s share. I absolutely loved MyAnna Buring as Tissaia, the Rectoress of Aretuza (the academy for mages). She managed to own every scene that she appeared in, and I sincerely hope that we get to see more of her in the second season. The same goes for Jodhi May as Queen Calanthe, who is about as badass as they come (even if she is rather shortsighted on some key issues). And, of course, there’s Joey Batey as Jaskier, the rascally bard who appears periodically to make Geralt’s life miserable. There’s undeniable chemistry between Batey and Cavill, and I hope that he returns for the second season.

Overall, The Witcher is tremendously entertaining. If you can look past the flaws in its storytelling, and if you can be patient enough with it to see it through the first several episodes, I think you’ll find it to be a rewarding series to watch. There’s still a long way to go before we get the second season, but I hope that the writers take the chance to iron out a few of the kinks. If they do that, they might just have a truly great show on their hands.

I know that I, for one, will be watching!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Betrayal” (S1, Ep. 8)

Warning: spoilers for the episode follow.

And so we come at last to the season finale of His Dark Materials. All I can say is: wow, what an episode!

Having finally located her father, Lyra realizes that he is not at all the man that she always assumed he was. In fact, he might be as much of a monster (in his own way) as her mother. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter finds that her own loyalties might be hopelessly divided, even as Lord Asriel commits a heinous act in his attempt to undo the centuries of repression by the Magisterium.

In many ways, this episode is a fitting climax to Lyra’s journey to maturity. For the first time since Asriel abandoned her in Oxford for his own journey north, she must confront the fact that he is, in his own way, as twisted in soul as is Mrs. Coulter. Just as importantly, however, the episode also makes it clear that, much as she might come to hate both of her parents, Lyra is in many ways the perfect mix of her two parents, for both good and ill.

Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this first season has been its ability to show Lyra’s growth as a character. By the end of this first season, we’ve seen Lyra truly mature from a headstrong girl to a headstrong and intelligent young woman, one who is fully conscious of the choices that she’s made and how that has affected the lives around her. When, at the end of the episode, she steps through that beam of light into an uncertain future, it marks the culmination of all of the choices that she’s made during the season.

Just as importantly, for the first time since the series began, we finally get to see Asriel and Mrs. Coulter in the same scene, and the chemistry is off the charts. Of course, it helps that the two of them are portrayed by actors at the top of their game, but it’s undeniable that the two actors have a similar sort of energy to their characters. I’m truly glad that they decided to include this scene, as it allows us to get a glimpse at the strange, unsettling energy that exists between these two characters, and it really sets up some of the conflicts that will arise between them in the future.

I was particularly impressed by the way that this scene shows us the change that has come over Mrs. Coulter through the course of this season. As much of a monster as she is, there can be no doubt by now that her feelings for Lyra are genuine. She truly loves her daughter, and it is that love that keeps her from going after Asriel and joining in his war against the Authority. And, of course, it goes without saying that Ruth Wilson absolutely shines in this scene, as she has throughout the course of the season.

Of course, this episode is truly heartbreaking, and I say that as someone who has read the book and thus knew about Asriel’s intentions for Roger. Still, to see that poor boy–captured so charmingly Lewin Lloyd–forcibly severed from his daemon is one of the most painful incidents to occur in the entire season, made all the more so by Lyra’s thwarted attempts to rescue him. This incident forces us to recognize the true darkness that lies at Asriel’s heart, a darkness that will have profound consequences not only for all of humanity, but in particular for his daughter.

All in all, I’ve really enjoyed this first season of the show. It’s done an excellent job of adapting Pullman’s work, and I think the decision to start introducing elements from the second book in the first season will work out to the benefit of the second one. I also think that the expansion of Boreal’s role is one of the better choices, though I’m sure that it will upset some fans of the book. However, he has to have something to do through these early episodes, so that his sporadic appearances in the second don’t feel so random. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what season two will bring, and I hope you’ll join me for my reviews when it finally arrives!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Fight to the Death” (S1, Ep. 7)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials, Lyra finds herself taken prisoner by the armored bears, who are led by the villainous Iofur. Because of his fundamentally crooked nature, however, she is able to trick him into engaging Iorek in a vicious battle to the death. Having helped Iorek to ascend his throne, Lyra sets off in search of her father Lord Asriel, who is also being sought by the Magisterium, particularly Mrs. Coulter.

Though she only appears briefly in this episode, Ruth Wilson as always turns in an intense performance as Mrs. Coulter. Though she has been momentarily defeated by Lyra and company (a cause of no small consternation), she is nevertheless determined to regain what credibility she can with the Magisterium. It never ceases to amaze me how powerfully Mrs. Coulter has managed to embody this character. One can almost feel the scene crackling with her magnetism and rage, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series treats her in the second (and hopefully third) seasons.

As I’ve said before, I heartily approve of the way that the series is handling the character of Will. Rather than abruptly introducing him in the second season, they’re bringing him in quite early. And, in another adept move, they’ve given Boreal something active to do rather than simply having him appear now and then to plague Lyra and Will with his seemingly petty activities. Though it’s not clear yet to me why he’s so intent on finding John Parry, one hopes that this will at least be somewhat resolved in the second season.

Overall, I enjoyed the scenes with the bears a great deal. The CGI version of Iofur is really quite good, and he really comes across as a bear that is both cunning and power-hungry. However, I have to say that the titanic battle between Iorek and Iofur was a bit anticlimactic, largely because its conclusion occurs out of focus as Lyra kneels on the ground in near-despair at what she thinks is Iorek’s impending death. I’m frankly a little puzzled about why they chose to have this happen almost out-of-frame, unless it was to make the scene more palatable to some of the series presumably younger viewers. That seems like an odd decision to take for a network like HBO, but then again this is one of the few times I can recall that the network has decided to produce a series that was originally intended largely for children and young adults.

While this wasn’t necessarily the best episode that the series has produced thus far, it did what it needed to do (set up the climax of the finale), while also hitting some nice grace notes along the way. I’m definitely looking forward to the final episode, even though I’m sure that, like the novel, it will absolutely break my heart. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can think that you can tell from Asriel’s dismay at Lyra’s arrival and his effusiveness at Roger’s, that something is not quite right and that something very terrible indeed is about to happen).

Now that we’ve almost reached the end of the season, I have to say that I’m pretty pleased with the way that the series has chosen to adapt Pullman’s work. Though I liked the earlier film adaptation, I felt that it took too much of the anti-dogmatic bite out of the books, leaving a rather bland epic outing that looked good but didn’t seem to have much to say. This series has kept most of the religious criticism intact, and I disagree with some of the critics who argue that it’s too blandly presented to be effective.

The casting has also been uniformly excellent, and both Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ruth Wilson deserve great credit, as does Dafne Keen. They’ve all done a great deal to bring these characters to life, to make us feel as if we’re invested in them and what happens to them, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how they grow and develop as the series advances. Things are about to get very strange and very dark for these people, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the series handles the second book.

Until next week!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Daemon Cages” (S1, Ep. 6)

Let me begin by saying…wow.

That was, without doubt, the best episode that this series has produced by far. And it’s not just that it was a great episode of His Dark Materials; it was a great episode of television, period.

In this episode, Lyra finally discovers what it is that’s being down at Bovangar: human children are being forcibly separated from their dæmons. Being Lyra, she immediately begins to hatch a plan to escape, and while she eventually does so, it’s only after she is almost subjected to the cruel process itself and is only saved by the intercession of Mrs. Coulter. At the end, Lyra tumbles out of the hot-air balloon, her fate uncertain.

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Ruth Wilson threatened to walk away with the entire series in her back pocket, and this episode reveals why that’s a very real threat. She manages to combine in her person a steely, firm power while also conveying a unique vulnerability, particularly when it comes to Lyra. This comes to the fore in their tense and emotional conversation immediately after she saves her from intercision. This is a master class in the power of the face to convey contradictory emotions, and it reveals the extent to which Wilson has a tremendous command over her facial expressions.

However, the scene wouldn’t have nearly the resonance that it does without Dafne Keen, who is her match, both in character and as an actress. The scene allows Keen to bring to the fore Lyra’s complicated feelings about her mother, for though there is much about Coulter that is worthy of revulsion, one suspects that even Lyra cannot fully deny the fact that her mother loves her and wants to protect her from the ravages of the world.

The fraught relationship between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter is one of the most emotionally resonant and complex parts of the books, and I’m really glad to see that they’ve translated it so successfully to the screen. When they are each screaming on opposite sides of a doorway–Lyra out of rage and hurt and pain, Mrs. Coulter out of anguish that her daughter reviles her–it’s impossible not to feel caught up in the emotion of the scene. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s by far and away the best one that this season has produced.

Nor is the episode all action and emotion (as important as those two axes are to its ultimate success). No, for we finally begin to see the deep philosophical underpinnings that have, up until now, existed somewhat at the margins of the narrative. Now that we know that the Magisterium is attempting to sever children from their dæmons in order to eradicate sin, we are confronted with the same moral conundrum as the characters: is it worth […] In putting this argument in the mouth of Mrs. Coulter, certainly one of the most ambiguous characters in this drama, the series also makes us wrestle with our inner demons and our own complicity in these sorts of atrocities.

For make no mistake, it is an absolute atrocity. In their relentless desire to do away with sin, the Magisterium has perpetrated a serious atrocity upon these children, who have committed no other sin except being born on the outskirts of society. It’s hard not to feel immense sorrow and anger at what has been done to them, all so that those in power can continue to exert a stronger hold over the souls over whom they already hold worldly dominion. (It’s also worth noting that, though she only appears for a few moments, Anne-Marie Duff continues to work miracles as Ma Costa)

Truly, this was almost a perfect episode. The writers made a canny decision in focusing almost exclusively on Lyra and her interactions with the other characters. The exception to this is Lee, who have a very revealing conversation with the witch Serafina, who informs him that he now has a role to play as Lyra’s protector. I am now completely sold on Lin-Manuel Miranda in the role, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best that he’s ever conjured.

That’s all for this week. Stay tuned!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Lost Boy” (S1, Ep. 5)

In this episode, things begin to take some interesting turns, as Lyra at last discovers for certain what exactly the Magisterium has been doing to the captured children: separating them from their dæmons. Meanwhile, in our world, we are finally introduced to the character Will Parry and his troubled mother, both of whom are being pursued by Boreal in his efforts to discover what it was that Stanlislaus Grumman managed to discover. In the final moments of the episode, Lyra is captured by unnamed persons and taken to the terrible Bolvangar.

Even though I’ve read the book and knew what to expect, the death of Billy Costa was still like an emotional punch to the gut, and it serves as an important reminder of the stakes of the journey to regain the children from the hands of the Magisterium. When his mother tells him that he can go and be with Ratter, it’s hard not to feel as if your own heart is being torn out at having to watch this woman who has already suffered so much have to stand by and watch her son die as well.

Since the beginning, I’ve thought that Duff was one of the strongest parts of this series, even if she wasn’t one of the main characters, and her performance in this episode was truly the stuff of awards season. The same can also be said James Cosmo as Farder Coram. Those who saw him as Ser Jeor in Game of Thrones would be forgiven for thinking that he was only capable of playing bluff, bear-like characters, but here he shows that he has a sensitive side as well. His scene with the witch Serafina was as heartbreaking in its own way as Ma Costa’s was with Billy, for it reminds us just how much he’s had to give up as he grows older.

Of course, the most noteworthy part of this episode was the introduction of Will. I’ve been wondering for some time how deeply they were going to go into Will Parry’s backstory in the first season of the series, given that he doesn’t even make an appearance until the second book. Here, we learn that he takes care of his mother, who clearly suffers from some form of anxiety and OCD. The scenes between the two of them also pack an emotional punch, as it’s clear that Will loves his mother, even as he’s consumed with the same conflicted feelings that most adolescents feel toward their parents (the bonds between mothers and their children is one of the themes from the books that the series has chosen to emphasize).

Though I’m sure that some annoying fans of the books (who just happen to be racist) will start bitching because they cast people of color in the roles of Will and his mother, to me that matters less than the talent that we see from both Amir Wilson and Nina Sosanaya. Between the two of them, they manage to convey a great deal of emotional richness of these two characters and their deep bond with one another.

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Ruth Wilson didn’t put in an appearance as Mrs. Coulter, I still felt her presence looming in the background. I have to be honest, I rather missed seeing her striding across this stage, and I’m looking forward to seeing her certain return next week, particularly since it will involve her confronting the fact that her own heartless experiments on children have now caught Lyra.

Overall, I thought this was a very strong episode. Though there weren’t any truly big set pieces, there were a few moments–such as Lyra’s journey atop Iorek–that were breathtaking. And, as always, the scenery continues to be one of the highlights of the series. And, of course, Iorek himself continues to fascinate, and I’m really impressed with how well the CGI has been handled. His conversation with Lyra, in which he explains his shame, is also one of the highlights of the episode.

Now that there are only three episodes left, I’m finding myself wondering where they’ll decide to make the cut off. There are a number of climaxes that occur just within the first book, so they have a lot to choose from.

See you next week!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “Armour” (S1, Ep. 4)

First of all, let me start off by saying…wow, what an episode! Lyra finally meets both Lee Scoresby and the formidable armored bear Iorek and, by the end of the episode, they have all begun their trek to the place known to the witches as Bolvangar, where they hope to at last find and rescue the missing children. All of that is quite a lot of action to pack into an episode, but somehow it manages to feel perfectly paced.

I’ll confess that I had some serious doubts about Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby. I guess I had a certain image of him (okay, it’s Sam Elliott from the film version), and I just wasn’t sold that the man most famous for playing Alexander Hamilton could conform to what I saw in the character. Say what you will about LMM, but he does have a certain rakish charm, and that comes across in his interpretation of Lee. He’s less the crusty old western cowboy and more the rakish adventurer, and let me tell you, it works.

The real star of this episode was, of course, Iorek Byrnison, arguably one of Pullman’s finest creations. The armored bears (also known as the panserbjørne) have always been one of my favourite parts about this series, a reminder of just how strange this world is (despite its surface resemblance to our own). The animation makes him appear both visually compelling and also more than a little terrifying, and the voice adds to the overall effect. Likewise, Iorek’s nemesis Iofur (thank goodness they kept the name, rather than changing it, as they did in the film) is in many ways his polar opposite, possessed of an obsession with outward appearance that manifests as an ornate golden helmet. I will be very interested indeed to see what happens with those two as the series progresses.

This episode, I think, shows signs that the series is at last beginning to find its legs and its voice. The narrative itself took a great, strong step forward, and it definitely looks as if the conflict that’s been brewing will finally come to pass, though it remains to be seen who will be the ultimate victor between the Magisterium and those who chafe under their restrictions. At the same time, it kept enough just out of our sight to keep us wanting more. The witches, for example, have yet to make an appearance, but it appears that they will at last make their entrance in next week’s episode.

A friend of mine also pointed out that Lyra is also beginning to mature in this episode, and I agree. In fact, I think that the series’ choice to show her as a little more mature than her novel counterpart was one of the wiser creative decisions, as it shortcuts some of the more laborious parts of the novel that focus on her emotional maturation. It also helps that Dafne Keen is just so compelling as a young actress, and I’m so glad that she was chosen to bring Lyra to visual life.

Just as importantly, this episode also showed that, beneath their powerful and implacable exterior, the members of the Magisterium are as divided and dangerous to one another as they are to their enemies. Marisa Coulter has everyone, even a cardinal and the king of the bears, wrapped around her finger, and she isn’t afraid to use every tool at her disposal to get what she wants. Evil as she might be, she continues to dominate every scene in which she appears. Speaking of Mrs. Coulter…if the costume designer for this series isn’t at the very least nominated for an Emmy for their costuming of Mrs. C. during this episode, then there is truly no justice in this world. When she appears in that maroon sheath in the heart of the Magisterium, drawing every eye to herself, it’s clear that she knows exactly what it takes to get what she wants.

I continue to be very pleased with the way that HBO has chosen to adapt one of my favuorite fantasy series, and I have very high hopes for the remainder of the season and for the already-filming second one. Stay tuned for next week’s review!

TV Review: His Dark Materials: “The Spies” (S1, Ep. 3)

In the most recent episode of His Dark Materials Lyra, having escaped from Mrs. Coulter’s clutches and those of the Gobblers, finds herself taken in by the Gyptians who, we know, are on their own mission to rescue their children. Though much remains unclear, it is becoming increasingly obvious to her that she is part of a much greater destiny than she ever suspected. Meanwhile, the Magisterium–particularly Mrs. Coulter and Boreal–continue their own investigations.

At this point, the series has begun to take some liberties with the original novel, fleshing out some of the behind-the-scenes action that we don’t get in the book. For example, in this episode we see Mrs. Coulter ransack Jordan College, under the mistaken belief that Lyra has fled back to them. And of course we also see Boreal making continued forays into our world in order to track down the man she knows as Stanislaus Grumman (known as John Parry in our world). This expanded frame allows us to get more insight into the characters and their actions, a necessary bid of expansion when you adapt a relatively slender novel into a full-fledged television series.

One of the most conspicuous expansions, however, deals with Lyra herself. Whereas in the novels it takes some time for Lyra to find out that Mrs. Coulter and Lord Azriel are her parents, here we learn that out already and, just as importantly, we find out that Ma Costa is the Gyptian nurse who protected her from the man who wanted to take her life. This important change allows us to get a firmer look into her background and how this will shape her perspective on the world and the actions that she takes as the Gyptians make their way north and she embarks on the path to her destiny. (It’s worth noting that some of this material is drawn not just from the later books of His Dark Materials but also from The Book of Dust).

Naturally, Ruth Wilson continues to captivate as Mrs. Coulter. She positively seethes with a powerful energy, and while she is capable of absolute ruthlessness (though her monkey is the more terrifying of the two), it’s equally clear that she truly loves Lyra and is torn apart by the fact that she has left her. I’ve always thought that she was one of the best things about the books, and I’m glad that the series has opted to give her quite a lot of screen time to develop her character, to show that she’s not just a faceless villain. At the same time, I also appreciate that they’re leaving just enough out of the frame, leaving her something of an enigma that will continue to draw us in (particularly as she sets out to reclaim Lyra for herself).

This episode also featured some of the best cinematography that we’ve seen so far. There were a number of shots that were truly beautiful, particularly the emotional confrontation between Ma Costa and Lyra. The way in which it was staged not only showed the exquisite scenery but also used it to show the gradual drawing back together of Lyra and Ma Costa. Speaking of…I’m a little bit in love with Anne-Marie Duff. She brings to her performance of Costa the perfect blend of vulnerability and strength and makes her a surprisingly central character to the series’ narrative.

The actions of Boreal raises some significant questions, most notably whether the series will opt to introduce Will Parry in this season, or whether it will wait until season two. In any case, bringing him into the frame, even if just by reference, ensures that his introduction won’t be nearly as jarring as it is in the books, where he suddenly becomes a main character in the second book without any warning at all.

Overall, I thought this was a fine episode. The series is finally starting to build up some momentum and I, for one, cannot wait for the chance to finally see the North and, of course, the armoured bears. While some might begrudge the series its rather slow movement, I personally find it a pleasure to let it build up slowly.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for next week’s review.