In late 2019, it was by some measures the most popular television show in the world, and it was Netflix’s second most-viewed TV debut to that point. Then Covid-19 set in, and two years passed without more “Witcher.” A few shows, notably “Squid Game,” overtook it in the all-time Netflix rankings. But Season 1 of “The Witcher” is still hanging in there, comfortably in fifth place.
That’s impressive, and a little surprising, for a “Game of Thrones”-on-a-budget sword-and-sorcery adventure whose visual and dramatic quality ranged from “hey, not bad” to “[helpless giggle].” Maybe it was a testament to the popularity of the source material, a cycle of stories and novels by the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski that has also inspired a successful video-game franchise. Maybe the audience for sprawling medieval fantasy, even when it’s medium grade, is simply that large.
Or maybe people were just drawn in by the show’s charms, of which it had several: a playful sense of humor (an area in which it scored quite a bit higher than “Game of Thrones”); a refreshingly straightforward episodic structure; and an amusing, minimalist performance by Henry Cavill as the witcher, Geralt, a mutant mercenary charged with hunting down all manner of C.G.I. beasts.
Now the show’s pandemic-delayed second season is here, premiering Friday on Netflix, and based on six of the eight episodes, a lot of what made the series charming has been set aside. But that may not stop it from racking up equally impressive viewership numbers this time around.
Picking up in the wake of the scorched-earth battle between kingdoms that ended Season 1, the show takes Geralt away from peripatetic monster-slaying for hire and puts him on a narrower path, as bodyguard and teacher to Ciri (Freya Allan), the refugee princess with mysterious powers. The third major character, the mage Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), has lost her magic and is also on the run. Jaskier (Joey Batey), the traveling bard — the 13th century’s version of a fabulous cabaret star — who was responsible for much of the sniping humor is offstage in the early episodes.
It feels as if, after the good times of Season 1, the series’s creator and showrunner, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, decided it was time to get serious — to start incorporating more of the elaborate mythology and terminology of Sapkowski’s books.
Now there are more and longer conversations filling in the history of the story’s setting, called the Continent, and of the various species who inhabit it, including elves, dwarves and humans. Geralt and Ciri come off the road and hunker down in a witcher fortress where she trains to be a warrior, leading to discussions of whether she’s a savior or a destroyer. (There’s also a sheen of topicality, with elves representing an oppressed Indigenous population.)
We also get a raft of new characters, some of whom seem to pop up out of nowhere; keeping track of all the faces and folklore, not to mention beasts — a grisly central European menagerie of wyverns, strzygas, chernobogs and the like — starts to feel like studying for a final exam without any notes.
On the positive side, the influx of new cast members includes Simon Callow and Liz Carr as a pair of paranormal investigators, Kim Bodnia of “The Bridge” as a veteran witcher and the “Game of Thrones” alumnus Kristofer Hivju as a tusked nobleman in a subplot recalling “Beauty and the Beast.” The story lines begin to coalesce, and the action begins to pick up, around the fifth episode.
Cavill, who’s as lethal with a disappointed sigh or a sidelong glance as Geralt is with a dagger, is still a steady, engaging presence at the center of the action. Geralt’s scenes with his new sidekick, the somewhat grim young Ciri, don’t have the kick of his banter in Season 1 with Jaskier, though. The new season also finds less time for heart-to-hearts between Geralt and the one character who really understands him, his horse, Roach.
Overall, you probably know whether you’re the kind of viewer who’s willing to add another complicated Brothers Grimm-meets-Middle Earth saga to your schedule. And if you like your costumed fantasies mythology-forward and you find the mechanics of world building to be an end in themselves, then this new, more mysterious and portentous season of “The Witcher” may be for you. Plan accordingly.