Note: This is an early review of the first six episodes of Wheel of Time. Minor spoilers are present for each.
Since Game of Thrones
was murdered concluded, it seems like each major network and streaming provider has been trying its damndest to create the next “big thing.” With that series having ended in 2019, nothing really has commanded the attention of pop culture in the intervening years. Game of Thrones was truly a unifying series that everyone has seen, if not heard of.
The closest show I can think of that reached a similar universal state of awareness was the astronomical success of Squid Game, but only a little more than a month after its release, it’s not really discussed as often. Game of Thrones had staying power, a sprawling world with a narrative that encouraged investment and discussion even between seasons.
It’s no surprise that Amazon is attempting to replicate that same magic. It’s going all-in on stoking those GoT memories with not only a new Lord of the Rings series but with a new fantasy epic based on a series of novels that actually predate A Song of Ice and Fire. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in terms of scale and scope, is gargantuan. It makes George R.R. Martin’s series look like trashy YA novels in comparison. Throughout the 14 novels, three of which were only completed after his death, Jordan created a unique world and mythology that is on the same level as Dune in terms of difficulty to faithfully adapt to the screen.
I don’t know for certain if Amazon’s gamble is going to pay off, but based purely on the first six episodes, it seems that this series is off to a very strong start. I have hope that it will continue to get even better than it already is.
The Wheel of Time (Season 1)
Showrunner: Rafe Judkins
Release Date: November 19, 2021 (First three episodes. Weekly release following)
Platform: Amazon Prime
So offering up a summary of The Wheel of Time is laughable, but here I go anyway. Be gentle with me you Randlandians.
In an unnamed fantasy world, a being known as the Dark One’s influence is seeping across the world. Monster attacks are on the rise as they are searching for the Dragon Reborn, a reincarnation of a being that once imprisoned the Dark One. According to the legend though, the Dragon Reborn will either save the world from the influence of the Dark One or join them and assist in breaking it. This is why Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) finds herself in the small village of Two Rivers, where she encounters four people that fit the prophecy for being the Dragon Reborn. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know which one it is and thanks to a Trolloc attack, she’s forced to take all of the four with her to figure which one of them will be the one to either save the world or end it.
From here on out I’ll be exclusively talking about the show with minimum references to the books. For as much as hardcore fans may ask me to read the novels, I simply don’t have enough time in my day-to-day life to read 14 novels that have a combined total of 4,410,036 words (yes someone counted them) with audiobooks that can take weeks to listen through. If I wanted to read the books I would have done so by now. I simply want to watch the show. I want to see how the show stands on its own and if it can stand strong without using the novels as a crutch. A good adaptation should be able to stand independent from the source material and not lean on it to mask its own flaws (*Cough* Dune *cough*).
With that being said, color me impressed with how successful the world-building has been so far. Over the course of the first few episodes, the series takes its time to establish just what, exactly, this world is like and how the people of it live their lives. We’re shown in great detail how magic works and the relationship between the Aes Sedai, a group of female magic users who channel an immeasurably powerful force called the One Power. We see what happens to men who attempt to use that power and see-through example not only how awe-inspiring it can be but how corrupting its influence is. As far as magical powers go, I like the slow focus The Wheel of Time is taking to introduce how its systems work.
New elements are presented to the audience at a reasonable pace so as not to overwhelm viewers with too many different terminologies and shifting alliances. At its core, the first six episodes really just follow our cast as they travel from Two Rivers from location to location, trying to stay alive and keep out of harm’s way. It’s during these moments that the show is at its most entertaining with whatever new scenarios our heroes find themselves in. Sadly, it’s also when the show can be at its weakest.
With the exception of Moiraine, who feels fleshed out with interesting relationships and established history, our core cast of Dragon Reborn wannabes don’t have a ton of personality or meaningful development to them yet. A part of this does stem from the script having them act more like strangers in a strange land, witnessing the world for the first time from beyond their small village. It’s everyone around them that feels more developed since their roles, for the moment, are hinging on the mystery of which of the four, technically five, will be the Dragon Reborn. The Wheel of Time is being coy with that revelation, and will for the foreseeable future, but that means not one character is really getting the chance to shine.
Another reason for my lack of connection has to do with the fact that our core cast is all young, relatively unknown actors. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that The Wheel of Time is going out of its way to find new talent to play these characters and not relying on big names and star power. In the long run, it’s probably going to pay off in dividends as these actors gain more of a following and become more comfortable with their characters. As it is now though, some of the early acting isn’t all that stellar. The female characters, like Nynaeve (Zoe Robbins) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden), have some good moments going for them, but the male actors all leave a lot to be desired. Rand (Josha Stradowski), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), and Mat (Barney Harris) all come across as mundane and unremarkable. None of them give off leading man material, but that isn’t as big of an issue now since the show is centered on them as an ensemble cast. Even then, the cast has Rosamund Pike to fall back on and she truly feels in command as Moiraine.
I’m not someone who watches television actively anymore. If I am going to watch a show I tend to wait until there’s a physical release on DVD or Blu-ray to really dive in and watch it all at once. It is rare for me to watch a series as it airs or, in this case, streams. I can see myself watching The Wheel of Time on a weekly basis since it still has sequential storytelling techniques that feel like products of a bygone era in an era of streaming. An era of cliffhangers, of weekly releases that allow people to stop, talk, and process the events of each installment. The jury is still out on if this will generate discussions in the same way Game of Thrones did but it certainly has the potential.
In fact, I would say that this series has a ton of potential. It’s a new stellar example of masterful world-building and may even set the current standard for it. I know I said that I wouldn’t read the books since I wanted to watch the show -and I only care about the show-, but this is the strongest I’ve been tempted to dive headfirst into a new property and that is genuinely exciting to me. Each episode contains enough exciting moments, revelations, and new bits of intrigue that reminded me why television shows have a unique storytelling advantage over movies. I do feel that the problems with the various cast members are only temporary and will be alleviated the longer the show runs.
I’m actually excited for what the future holds for The Wheel of Time. I like to think by now that if you read my articles, you know me and you know my tastes. I don’t really get excited about new movies or shows anymore unless they’re truly something special, and this is something special. A second season is already being produced and Amazon is pumping that Jeff Bezos money into making this as good of a production as it can be. I’m excited to see where The Wheel of Time goes from here and you should be too.