Why the Witcher’s “monster of the week” model works
Two of the largest scale television releases of 2019 with respect to budget, hype, and reception, were the Netflix adaptation of the Witcher and the Disney+ original, The Mandalorian. Now, before I continue, I would like to point out that this will not be a side by side comparison of the shows. Rather, I believe that the simultaneous fame of these series highlights a subtle but essential similarity between the two projects. In their internal narrative structure (as broken down by episode) the Witcher and the Mandalorian both engage in what many call the “adventure of the week” format. This structure can be described loosely as a series of episodes that are composed of self contained stories, each of which involves new places, settings, and characters, united by a single protagonist or peripheral plot. Though this format often leads to accusations of “filler”, I believe that, with the success of these two shows, it is likely to make a comeback, and for good reason. It is a smart and effective way to introduce a world. It’s engrossing, it’s modular, and, most importantly, it’s effective.
Turning to the first half of the Witcher season specifically, the adventure of the week (or perhaps “monster of the week”) format is made effective because of the source material. For this point, it is important to only consider Geralt’s narratives throughout the first four episodes of the season (the threads of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri in the first season are relatively modular until the later half of the season). The first season of the show was primarily based off of Sapkowski’s books The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny. These are both collections of short stories. So, basing plots off of these books lends itself to episodic storytelling. In a sense, by limiting itself to one closed narrative per episode, the show creates a format more likely to embody the dense profundity that made those Sapkowski’s books so compelling in the first place. Moreover, such self contained stories reflect the progression of sub narratives and side quests in the other, even more popular Witcher outings, the video games. In short, this format is ideal for an adaptation of the Witcher’s world.
However, attributing the Witcher’s first half-season design to its literary and digital inspiration might seem like it is designating this internal structure as mere “fan service”. It is essential to realize that the adventure of the week model has value in and of itself. This value is worldbuilding. The key to establishing a believable and inviting fictional worldspace is a combination of scope and detail. Like our own world, you want to walk into a fiction with the feeling that you could strike off in any direction to find real stories and real people. The monster of the week format did that for season one of the Witcher. By hopping around geographically and temporally for the first four episodes, Geralt led viewers on a grand tour of the continent. But more than that, by limiting the weekly adventures to a few repeat characters and shifting the focus to the world itself, The Witcher displayed to viewers that these places were deep and thought out. From Blaviken to Psoda to Temeria, viewers were shown meaningful snapshots of the corners of this world that lasted longer than a few scenes from a larger story. For this reason, the adventure of the week format was the strongest worldbuilding tool the Netflix adaptation employed in season one. For the new fan, it is a paced introduction to their new world, for previous fans, it is a retread of what made them fall in love with the series to begin with. It isn’t filler, it’s effective.