Both ground-breaking genre TV shows came from the ‘new media’ of internet/streaming services rather than established terrestrial networks. The Witcher was made for Amazon Prime and The Mandalorian by Disney+. Each series is an adaptation of an existing work in another media. The Witcher evolved from a short story by Polish author Andrej Sapkowski and was developed into a game and then other books, while The Mandalorian emerged from the Star Wars cinematic universe with a protagonist whose appearance is based on the hugely popular Boba Fett.
Both characters are enigmatic, solitary males who follow a complex otherworldly code that defines both their professions and their identity. They are morally ambiguous ‘running men’ who owe something to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. They travel across a fantastic landscape and engage in a different story each week. The stories are linked in an arc that inverts the codes the characters follow, often at great personal expense.
They are physically striking individuals. Henry Cavill, who plays the Witcher, is one of the beauties of our age, and his appearance is altered to mark him out further, with long, grey-white hair and glowing amber eyes. The Mandalorian’s armour shines like polished silver, his poise and muscular presence balancing watchfulness and threat.
They are monosyllabic, but not cold. Cavill gives little away at the best of times, but we always know how the Witcher feels. Pedro Pascal as the Mandalorian delivers an incredible performance that is more mask work than anything else. You don’t get to see his face at all, but the tiniest movement is a masterclass of timing, be it comedy or menace.
Both characters are exemplary fighters. They move with astonishing grace, and we feel safe investing our empathy in them because they are the ones most likely to get us out of trouble. They are not bullies, however. They will give you a chance – just don’t be an idiot.
There is a medieval theme running through both stories. The Witcher travels through feudal fiefdoms ruled by kings, queens and barons, while the Mandalorian’s armour resembles that of a knight of old. The civilisations they inhabit are in violent flux, and empires are in the process of falling, or have fallen. Both characters move amid the wreckage, seeking opportunities and answers amid shifting protean landscapes and antagonists.
Their enemies are often defined by fanaticism. The Star Wars Galactic Empire is a creation of chilling power and evergreen relevance, never more so when a renegade Imperial office played by Werner Herzog whispers his terrifying monologue to the Mandalorian near the end of the first season. ‘I do not see freedom,’ he says, his voice a grief-racked sigh as he describes the triumph of the rebel alliance we have loved for nearly fifty years, ‘I see only destruction, and death’. His answer is more destruction and death, but with him in charge. Meanwhile, the Witcher has to tolerate racial prejudice, even from those he is trying to help.
The Witcher and the Mandalorian each have female associates who are their magical or combative equals – and in some cases superiors. They also enjoy the support of non-human allies, be they elves, aliens or robots.
In each case magic comes in to play. The Force in Star Wars enables individual beings to manipulate the fabric of the universe with their minds; a supremely powerful idea that has much in common with detailed and evolved magic systems. Interestingly, the Mandalorian has heard of the Force but neither believes or disbelieves it until it’s used to save his life. Similarly, the technology in the Star Wars universe dispenses with physics in a way that might as well be magic. ‘Witcher’ in the context of the books means male witch.
Both men are adopted father-figures. The Witcher’s journey takes him closer to a girl he has employed an arcane law to become protector of. The Mandalorian saves a tiny juvenile alien who resembles Yoda. Each character faces ultimate duress and sacrifice to perform this invaluable role, using his strength in the cause of protecting the vulnerable in a chaotic, often lawless society.
The Witcher and the Mandalorian are orphans, either because of violence or prejudice. This background compels them to act in ways that seem out of character. The Mandalorian constantly says he doesn’t care about anything except money, then goes up against both his employer and client to save a child who has been abandoned in the same way that he was. The Witcher often says the same, then risks his life to save a jester he doesn’t even like.
Politically, The Witcher is more dubious, probably because of the northern European tropes. An undead child is referred to as a ‘walking abortion’ which is both technically incorrect and genuinely offensive. A female witch with a spinal disfigurement undergoes an agonising transformation to be beautiful at the expense of her fertility – which she then regrets, as if it the true desire of all women to be beautiful mothers.
The Witcher uses a bold and innovative chronological structure, with stories being told at three different times. This structure is not explained, and the audience must work harder to understand it because the magical characters do not age. Rather than being a mere technical exercise to generate plot twists, there is an emotional payoff that exceeds anything in The Mandalorian.
Each show plays with the audience’s genre expectations. The Mandalorian employs every bit part character from the first trilogy with joyous attention to detail. It truly has the feel of the old Star Wars magic, made as it was by people inspired by the 1977 movie rather than the original director himself. The Witcher is a fantasy free-for-all: dragons! Elves! Wizards! There is none of the complex world-building of Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. The whole show takes place somewhere called ‘The Continent’, which is just lazy, although that comes from the source material.
Both characters are poorly served by their scripts for most of their first seasons. The Witcher combines on-the-nose exposition you wouldn’t get away with in a first-year writing course with downright obscurity, while The Mandalorian is predictable. Yet in each case, once the groundwork has been laid and we have stuck with them, we are rewarded by often dizzying levels of invention that finally do their characters justice.