What's Up With The Wonky Timeline of The Witcher?
Now that Netflix’s The Witcher is the most in-demand streaming show in the world, surpassing even The Mandalorian on Disney+ and has been greenlit for a third season, can we talk about that wonky timeline?
(Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t watched The Witcher, you can stop reading here.)
Esquire Philippines sat down with showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich when she was here last December to promote the show and so we asked the most important question: What’s up with that confusing multiple timeline narrative?
The Witcher is set concurrently in at least three different timelines and the events can be confusing to viewers until around episode four where it all starts to make sense. Hissrich spent the most time in Manila out of all the countries on her tour and was happy to take us through the process of her screenwriting. “So it started out as I needed to solve a logic problem,” she says, “which is that I wanted to start with The Last Wish. I wanted to start with those short stories.”
Although most fans know about The Witcher from the video game—more people are playing The Witcher 3 after the Netflix series started streaming than at the launch of the game—it’s actually based on books written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt of Rivia, was an avid fan of the games and had finished all the games before delving into the books at the suggestion of Hissrich. She was attracted to the family at the center of the story: Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri. But the two female characters, important figures for Hissrich, didn’t have a great presence in The Last Wish.
“You know, obviously, we find out Pavetta is pregnant with Ciri in A Question of Price (one of the short stories in The Last Wish),” Hissrich says. “I knew I wanted Yennefer and Ciri to be big characters. I wanted to give them a foundation and grow them so that they could be as multi-dimensional as Geralt was, and as layered and as deep and have the same sort of backstory and have that given to them.”
Cavill concurs. “What Lauren has done wonderfully with this show is she's taken the characters from the book, specifically Yennefer and Ciri, and she's given them backstories,” he explains, noting how Hissrich has expanded on the origins of the characters.
“From the book, it’s going to be different because when you meet Yennefer, she's a fully fledged sorceress and has been for a while, but when we meet Yennefer in the show it's a very different story. It’s very much her origin. And so, when you're talking about character arcs and stuff, the characters in the show are going to be doubled from the character from the [books and video games],” Cavill says.
“And so I had a logic problem,” Hissrich says, “because those [back stories] don't happen at the same time. So I started to think how do I tell this story with basically some fun in a timeline.”
“I actually had one of those shower moments, while I was like washing my hair, and I jumped out and I said to my husband, ‘I have this thought that I'm going to tell all three stories, and they're all going to take place over different amounts of time,’” she adds.
In the show, Yennefer’s story spans around 70 years while Ciri’s happens over the course of two weeks but they both unfold concurrently alongside Geralt’s story, which intertwines with both of the female leads’ lives. “Is that confusing?,” Hissrich asked her husband, who nodded that it could work.
“I felt like we could do it,” says the rookie showrunner confidently. Although she’d written for various shows in the past, The Witcher is the first time where she was the head honcho. Hissrich has worked on The Witcher for the past two and a half years, finally calling all the shots from casting decisions to what ends up on the cutting room floor. It’s the culmination of having paid her dues in the industry, starting as an unpaid intern who answered phones and fetched coffee. Hissrich earned the right to tell the story in her way, which was a gamble.
“I was influenced very heavily,” she relates, “I went back and watched Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, which also tells a story through three concurrent timelines. And it can also be confusing.” But Hissrich had confidence that it would work, and that audiences would cotton on to the show’s narrative conceit.
“Here's the thing,” she tells us, “I think that audiences are incredibly smart. I think that they are willing to go, ‘Hmm, something's going on here. I'm not quite sure what yet, but I'm going to hang in there and figure it out.’”
The three concurrent timelines are arguably The Witcher’s biggest gamble. It certainly isn’t in casting Cavill, who embodies Geralt so perfectly that its creator Sapkowski has declared that Cavill would forever be the face of his antihero.
Hissrich also expresses her aspirations for the show: “It’s my hope that episode one is enjoyable no matter what.” She explains that fans who are familiar with the books and games would probably have little trouble grasping what’s going on despite everything not happening at the same time. “If you don’t know anything, I think you can still watch it and be fully entertained, and then start to unpeel that mystery as you go.”
“It's my hope that people reach episode four, realize what's happening and go back and watch episode one because there are small hints all throughout that these things are happening in different timelines,” she says.
Considering that The Witcher is now the most in-demand show in the world, it’s probably safe to say that viewers are on board with Hissrich’s storytelling and we’re all looking forward to more.