Is “The Witcher” in crisis? Among a family of intensely serious fantasy fare, TV’s silly, swearing cousin is struggling through an off-year filled with more dread than anticipation. Season 1 premiered in 2019, Season 2 in 2021, and Season 3 is expected sometime next year, but it’s not the wait that’s getting to fans — it’s the wondering. In October, Netflix announced Liam Hemsworth (“The Expendables 2”) will be taking over the lead role in “The Witcher” Season 4, making the upcoming third season the last with Henry Cavill. Initially, people thought Cavill was trading in his sword for spandex, returning to the DC Universe as Superman. But even when those plans were doused in kryptonite, Cavill isn’t climbing back into the warm baths of “The Witcher.”
The loss is concerning. Netflix’s adaptation has always existed as a diverting bit of fun, relying on colloquial F-bombs, violence bordering on body horror, and outrageous monsters to distinguish itself from other fantasy franchises (and to overcome its less imaginative moments, like the groan-inducing names Yennefer and Vilgefortz). But more than any of that, “The Witcher” relied on Cavill to keep its many strange strings tied together. Without him, can a series so reliant on Cavill’s surly, sizable star power survive? Can the messy story and wackadoo CGI step up to carry a show built on the spacious back of one ultra-enthusiastic fan? Or can the burden be adequately shifted onto another actor (or actors), who can strike their own magical concoction of quippy and disquieting, beastly and beautiful, ruffled and raring to go?
“The Witcher: Blood Origin” foretells an unfortunate answer.
Following last year’s animated film, “The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf,” the first live-action spinoff is completely Cavill-less, which makes sense given the limited series is set 1200 years before Geralt first growled — and yet, the derivative origin story still misses its unborn monster hunter, as a simple story about the power of simple stories fails to conjure any power of its own.
Narrated by Seanchai (a shape-shifter played by Minnie Driver who can travel between worlds and time), “Blood Origin” mainly takes place in the Elven Golden Era, before man or monsters roamed the Earth, and frames its telling as an act of preservation — a literal recounting of history from one person to another in order to remember its lessons. “I need you to sing a story back to life,” Seanchai tells Jaskier (Joey Batey), the bard from the original series, who scrawls down her words with the urgency of Moses listening to God. Soon, she’s introducing the core cast, complete with splashy title cards not far removed from NBC’s Sunday Night Football lineups.
There’s Fjall of Dog Clan (from thee Ohio State University), played by Laurence O’Fuarain, a warrior who’s sworn an oath to protect the king, but can’t resist the carnal requests of the princess. Found out and banished, Fjall accepts his fate with curt resignation — until he runs into the Lark (Sophia Brown), another warrior who’s left her post, only she’s done so to become a traveling singer. The first song she shares — “The Black Rose” — is so bad, one has to wonder if she’s meant to give up her dream and return home, but “The Witcher: Blood Origin” insists that everyone who hears the contorted lyrics (she rhymes “rose” with “cause”) finds them not only inspiring, but indelible.
Music, stories, individuals — they’re all tools to galvanize a rebellion, and “Blood Origin’s” central duo quietly courts a workers’ movement as they travel across The Continent to stop a great evil from rising. Once unconditional servants of the powers that be, Fjall and Lark (soon adopting the name Éile) make for fitting mobilizers, as the people seek to take back their power, but this plot line is so flimsy — in both execution and prominence — the welcome real-world parallels mainly serve to remind audiences how much more effective (and affecting) “Andor” was in pursuing similar ends.
Before the hourlong premiere wraps (the remaining three episodes are 50 minutes or less), “The Witcher: Blood Origin” makes sure to introduce what any self-respecting cinephile would expect to be the ace in the hole: soon-to-be-Oscar-nominee and screen legend Michelle Yeoh. As Scian, Yeoh carries her character with intimidating efficiency; she’s touted as the best swordfighter in the world and looks it during a few choice action scenes. Unfortunately, the key word there is “few.” Scian is relegated to a handful of hand-to-hand fights that serves as her overall development; she doesn’t have an arc, so much as a presence. Paried with a foreseeable twist, “Blood Origin’s” limited use of its strongest asset illustrates why the serviceable series never rises any higher — and sets a troubling precedent for what’s next.
Like a mediocre team with one superstar player, TV shows have to adapt to center what’s working. If you have a simmering romance, highlight their chemistry. If your production designer turns in a stunning set, make sure it’s captured in all its glory. And if you have a bonafide action star who’s just flexed her wide array of acting muscles in a hit movie, maybe find a way to highlight her talents beyond a heavily touted backstory. To be fair, Fjall and Éile are the leads, but he’s just a grouchy beefcake and her melody is strictly one-note. Whatever unique attributes each actor can wield aren’t unearthed in “Blood Origin.”
While I don’t want to overreact to a one-off dud in the franchise (or to a franchise that’ll have three seasons of good fun), the spin-off’s lack of curiosity only fuels fear for “The Witcher” in general. Perhaps Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (an executive producer on “Blood Origin,” but the flagship’s showrunner) can uncover Liam Hemsworth’s heretofore unseen magnetism and the next iteration of Geralt will thrive. But in a world where I.P. is valued over bonafide stars, the story of “The Witcher” only emphasizes how backward that thinking can be.
“The Witcher: Blood Origin” premieres Sunday, December 25 on Netflix. All four episodes will be released at once.