January 30, 2023

This time last year, Netflix’s Witcher universe was in a state of flux: even with some missteps in Season 2, the series produced one of its best episodes ever, making clever work of even the franchise’s more twisted revelations and spin-offs in abundance. News broke last month: Henry Cavill, the actual Superman who landed the role of Geralt Gravitas, would be replaced by Hunger Games actor Liam Hemsworth.

Still, like so many shows, it seemed possible The witcher could live on – after all, what was a single actor for a multiverse, especially one with a critically acclaimed prequel just over a month away? But the intense research makes each new step into the Witcher universe feel heavier (even if an initial foray has already been made outside the original show with Nightmare of the wolf, the animated movie about Geralt’s mentor). And unfortunately, The Witcher: Blood Origin is the worst-case scenario: a very messy and unappealing series that casts doubt on the world of The Witcher’s potential in a post-Cavill era.

1200 years before Geralt and Ciri’s unorthodox father-daughter relationship. Blood origin covers some of the most important events in the universe, such as the creation of the first Witcher and the Conjunction of the Spheres, “when the worlds of elves, men and monsters merged into one.” For those less invested in Witcher’s lore, the trailers also promised Michelle Yeoh as a sword master, which should dramatically improve the potential of almost any property.

The actual thrust of Blood originHowever, the story lies elsewhere. Éile (Sophia Brown) is an elite elf warrior of the Raven clan who has turned her back on her life of fighting to become a wandering bard. But difficulties on the mainland lure her back to the sword and throw her along with Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain), a warrior elf from the rival Dog clan. As the two untangle the larger war they’ve been thrown into, they assemble a group of fun-loving adventurers, including Meldof (Francesca Mills), a dwarf with a hammer and a proverbial ax to sharpen; Brother Death (Huw Novelli), a warrior with a bloody past; and Yeoh’s Scían, an unparalleled fighter who wants to retrieve a sword sacred to her people. Awaiting them in the capital is the evil Chief Sage Balor (Lenny Henry), who seeks more powerful magic to conquer other worlds, and Princess Merwyn (Mirren Mack), an elven ruler desperate to break the confines of the patriarchal monarchy.

Fjall (Laurence O'Fuarain) and Eile (Sophie Brown) talk while riding horses

Photo: Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix

Empress Merwyn (Mirren Mack) looks to the sky

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Brother Death (Huw Novelli) and Meldof (Francesca Mills) stand looking at something in shock

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

In other words, Blood origin there’s a lot going on, especially for just four episodes (an order cut from the reportedly six that were planned and shot). And yet Élie and Fjall are at the heart of the story, and where the seams become visible, if not completely falling apart: as we watch their relationship grow from uneasy allies to brothers-in-arms, it’s clear the series has no time or care for meaningful interests or emotions. We know absolutely nothing about these characters, and once the backstory is fleshed out, it feels sloppy and late, so removed from the through line of their story that it reveals how few details really matter to the show. When someone close to Élie is threatened or Fjall thinks back to the woman he loves, the feeling is supposedly vital to their story, but also instantly forgotten, leaving no lasting imprint on their arc or character.

Which is the most shocking Blood origin. The series is – perhaps more than anything I’ve ever seen – deeply rooted in exposition. And yet nothing is explained or explored; minute facts are tossed and discarded with the same clumsy care. The warrior clans of Fjall and Éile have no distinguishing features that separate them. There’s a class conflict that keeps being referenced by a song Élie is famous for, but there’s never much thought about what that actually means, in-universe, aside from “lower class people are more hungry than their elite counterparts ‘.

The group of warriors the duo recruits for their cause each have their own backstory as well, but often those seem to exist purely to tell the audience about, and that’s it. Magical twins Syndril and Zacaré (Zach Wyatt and Lizzie Annis) weep over a tragic event in their past and that is the magnitude of its impact. When Élie promises Scían the chance to reclaim the sacred sword from her people, it is introduced into the conversation with no explanation of how Élie would have known it was gone. Meldorf’s entire quest is satisfied in her first two introductory scenes (and it could have been done in one, too).

In a stronger show, these could be fascinating implications of the bigger world and the histories we don’t see, or tell details about how insignificant these conflicts really are, or even just a little mistake to be brushed aside. Here they all just feel like obvious mismanagement, a sign of how much has been confusingly left out to bolster the story to its end point.

None of this has to be a death sentence for a franchise. The Star Wars prequel series has its defenders, who appreciate the interesting ideas one can discover in George Lucas’ messy execution. But Blood origin doesn’t offer the same joys, even from a prequel perspective. It gives so much to tell that it forgets to show why the major events of the Witcher universe are important to the story. Most of his revelations are sidelined or edited to shreds, forcing the beats to be explained through a voiceover narrated to Jaskier (Joey Batey) in The witcher‘s timeline. As a result, characters can’t argue for themselves, and the bigger prequel implications never add anything new or substantive to the world we’re supposed to see its origins from.

Even worse, it shows how little audiences need of this, and how damaging it can be to mine the nooks and crannies of the franchise too deeply – how thin the universe of The Witcher’s high fantasy can feel if it’s not anchored by a greater intensity. Sure, there are elves and dwarfs and goblins and mages. There are scary monsters that want to eat you, and magical prophecies. In The witcher we get the feeling that our understanding of these things is limited and serves the parts of it that we need to know. They are a smaller piece of a larger, more expansive world, suggesting a richer story if only we had the time to look that way.

Balor (Lenny Henry) talks to Syndril (Zach Wyatt) in a cell

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

But when Blood origin‘s creators use elves interchangeably with humans, the corner of the universe loses any remaining distinction. What’s the difference between an elf and a human in The Witcher – magic? Power? Ears? Inside Blood origin it seems… to be nothing. And if there is nothing fundamentally different about these beings, their world, or their problems, what does it matter if their sphere gets conjunction with that of the main world?

There may be deeper answers in the wider Witcher lore, but Blood origin is so interested in a self-contained story that it seems actively unable to sit next to the other properties. While Nightmare of the wolf felt a bit insignificant when restrained The witcher‘s consideration of monstrosity or Yennefer’s desire for motherhood, it still struggles coherently with the deeper conundrums of Witcher lore. And in the end, it manages to at least provide the window into an important chapter of The Witcher’s history.

Blood origin, on the other hand, only seems to be able to make that conversation poorly at best, loosening the rules of the universe to the point of incoherence. In a fantasy world like The Witcher’s, those boundaries are what sets it apart; we should know that chaos magic has an extreme cost. But nothing in the text of Blood origin explain what makes Balor’s invocation of it different from what he did before. While his greater ambitions of conquering other cultures are standard enough, the finer points of his perspective fall by the wayside, flattening his – and everyone else’s – fights.

Balor (Lenny Henry) stands with his staff

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Whatever there is to be said about power and who wields it just can’t be considered that deeply because Blood origin is so tightly packed with meaningless exposition and toothless backstory. There are clearly bigger ambitions there – like the way Merwyn feels trapped in her role – but they can’t amount to much when each scene is tasked with simultaneously introducing and delivering new motivations. Merwyn is ostensibly a power player, but she never feels like it, as her choices feel fleeting at best. And this fast, disjointed pace is the backbone of every story. There’s no time to savor the calmer, smarter moments that define the best scenes of the Witcher universe.

And so the conflicts of Blood origin becoming remarkably frictionless, moving vertiginously and robotically along tracks simply because the story demands it. At best, they make the conflict inside The witcher actually looks crazy, and at worst – well, it makes you question whether there’s much steam at all in broadening this universe onto the screen (a ridiculous notion for a story that spanned decades of books, short stories, and video games propelled!).

Art is experimental by nature and experiments can fail. But Blood origin booms loudly, each echo of its impact more disturbing than the last. This show doesn’t have to answer or The witcher can exist without Henry Cavill – but it’s a disturbing look at what the universe could be without a stable presence like his. Cavill isn’t the only thing making The witcher; some of the most interesting things in the universe have nothing to do with him at all. But he’s a defining feature of it, a constantly devoted fanboy who finds such depth in a character that it would be so easy to make really boring. As our perspective character, he (or the people who care about him) set the tone of the show, and the poignancy he delivers shines through in stories that don’t even feature him.

Blood origin exists as the opposite of that: a world with no defining fantasy features, a multiverse that not even Michelle Yeoh can save. It’s a textureless world populated by generic archetypes fighting to get from point A to point B because the plot wants it to. The problems are deeper than not having a star to root the world in. The Witcher: Blood Origin eventually falls victim to the risk that every multiverse (and there are many) runs when it expands too eagerly and loses what makes it special. Blood origin doesn’t have time to think about what makes the Witcher universe unique or meaningful, leaving it just a confused, reckless attempt to get more Witcher stuff out the door. If there is hope The witcher to survive the loss of a star and build itself into a larger universe, it will have to make a better case than this.

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