Season One Review – The Wheel of Time

Amazon's long-awaited adaptation offers fresh takes on its daunting source material

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

Overview

Directing Uta Briesewitz, Ciaran Donnelly, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Wayne Yip, Sanaa Hamri

Producing Rafe Judkins, Rick Selvage, Larry Mondragon, Ted Field, Mike Weben, Darren Lemke, Rosamund Pike, Brandon Sanderson, Harriet McDougal

Writing Robert Jordan, Michael Clarkson, Paul Clarkson, Rafe Judkins, Celine Song, Amanda Kate Shuman, Justine Juel Gillmer, Dave Hill, Katherine B. McKenna, Kameron Hood

Starring Rosamund Pike, Daniel Henney, Zoë Robins, Madeleine Madden, Josha Stradowski, Marcus Rutherford, Barney Harris

Genre Fantasy

Platforms Amazon Prime

Release Date November 19, 2021

Overview

Amazon’s Wheel of Time adapts Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series for the screen at last. A large budget, impressive cast, and beautiful production design make for a stunning viewing experience. Adapting the lengthy series of books proves no small challenge, and there are moments the show stumbles and falters. A promised second season and larger budget hopefully mean Wheel of Time will find its footing and become one of the defining epic fantasy series on modern television.

Content

Violence: There is blood and gore aplenty. Characters are maimed, disemboweled, stabbed, and meet all manner of gruesome ends. The Trollocs are prone to ripping people and each other apart. The Children of the Light torture suspected channelers, which includes cruel acts such as cutting off women’s hands.

Sexual Content: No graphic sex scenes, though it is implied in several episodes. There are two instances of nudity. One in which a male character is climbing into a bath and seen from behind. The other is in a women’s bathhouse, where attendants are seen nude from the waist up. Both scenes are brief and non-sexual. Sexual orientation is a non-issue, and there is open discussion and depiction of heterosexual, bi-sexual, and homosexual relationships.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink in bars and taverns.

Spiritual Content: Reincarnation is a heavy theme in the story. The Wheel is constantly reincarnating all of humanity. There isn’t any practiced religion, per se. There are people who can channel the One Power, which is the force that drives the Wheel of Time. This is a natural ability rather than relying on spells or incantations. There is a Creator who created the Wheel, and the Dark One who is akin to the devil. 

Language/Crude Humor: Mild language such as sh*t or d*mn, occasional discussion of sexual escapades, but nothing crude.

Other Negative Content: The Aes Sedai are secretive and manipulative. While Moraine is on a noble quest to discover the Dragon Reborn, she is not above resorting to trickery to get what she needs. She is bound by the One Power to tell the truth, but often finds ways to deceive even while speaking true words.

Positive Themes: Friendship, loyalty, the triumph of light over darkness.

Premise

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

Unknown ages ago, the Creator set the Wheel of Time in motion. The Wheel has seven spokes, representing seven ages. A giant loom, it constantly turns, weaving the Pattern of the Ages with all lives as the threads. It is turned by the two halves of the One Power, a male half and a female half, working together and against each other. The Wheel cycles through the ages, reincarnating the souls of all of humanity in each age. 

Those who can touch the One Power are known as channelers. Channelers can weave the threads of the One Power to do things like heal, light fires, or control the weather. In a previous age, a group of channelers known as Aes Sedai accidentally unleashed the Dark One from the prison the Creator had locked him in outside of the pattern of the Wheel. The Dark One lured many Aes Sedai to his cause: to break the Wheel and remake creation in his own image. One Aes Sedai, Lews Therin, leading a group of male channelers succeeded in temporarily imprisoning the Dark One once more. However, in the process, the Dark One tainted the male half of the One Power. All male Aes Sedai went mad, some instantly and others slowly, including Lews Therin.

Over the course of a century, they used the One Power to reshape the face of the earth, destroying civilizations and driving humanity to the brink of extinction. Much of humanity’s knowledge and technological advances were lost. This catastrophic time became known as the Breaking of the World. It was only the efforts of the female Aes Sedai, to gentle male channelers and cut them off from the One Power, that eventually stopped the Breaking.

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

Since then, any man who touches the One Power eventually goes insane, and only female Aes Sedai are permitted to wield it. For his actions in bringing about the Breaking, Lews Therin was named the Dragon, and all live in fear of the day the Wheel will weave him into the pattern again. Now, thousands of years later, rumor has surfaced that the Dragon has been reborn. That person will either finish the work he failed to accomplish before or side with the Dark One and destroy the world anew.

Story

Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve are five friends from Emond’s Field; a small, remote mountain village of no importance. One spring night as the town prepares for its annual spring festival, Aes Sedai Lady Moiraine and her bonded Warder Lan arrive in Emond’s Field, which immediately causes a stir. Emond’s Field is so far removed from the rest of the world that they have little knowledge of the Aes Sedai, save horror stories from the Breaking of the World. They do not know it is men who broke the world, and women who stopped it. Thus, all Aes Sedai are feared.

Each of the five has some special connection to the One Power. Nynaeve is the village Wisdom, despite her young age. She is adept at predicting the weather and healing and senses similar giftedness in the headstrong Egwene. Egwene and Rand are romantically entangled. Should Egwene become a Wisdom, she would have to forsake marriage and family. Moiraine’s arrival also further complicates matters as Egwene is fascinated by the Aes Sedai. The mischievous Mat and gentle giant Perrin are childhood friends of Rand, each with his own sense of duty to family and village.  

As the spring festivities are underway, Emond’s field is attacked by Trollocs; hybrid human and animal monsters that serve the Dark One. Moiraine uses her channeling abilities to defend the village, literally hurling lightning bolts and fireballs at the attackers. She is aided by Lan, who turns out possesses superhuman fighting abilities thanks to his magical bond with Moiraine.

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

In the ensuing chaos, Nynaeve is captured by the Trollocs and there is significant loss of life amongst the villagers. Moiraine is also gravely wounded and, while she does what she can to help the injured, she is unable to use her powers to heal herself. She reveals to Rand, Mat, Perrin, and Egwene that she is seeking the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of Lews Therin, which she has learned is one of them. The Trollocs attacked the village because the Dark One also knows one of them is the Dragon, and the only way to protect those they love is to leave.

Moiraine and Lan take the young villagers on a perilous journey to Tar Valon, the home of the Aes Sedai, where Moiraine hopes they will be able to deduce who the Dragon is. Nynaeve manages to escape her Trolloc captors and pursues the others, determined to protect her four friends and bring them home. She soon discovers her destiny is also connected to the Aes Sedai and the world beyond her small village.

Along the way, Moiraine and her charges must avoid monsters, treacherous servants of the Dark One, and the zealous Children of the Light, who believe all channelers are evil and must be destroyed. Each will discover that, whether they are the Dragon or not, they have a significance to the pattern woven by the Wheel and the prophesied Final Battle.

Review

Like any epic fantasy series, fans have been salivating for an adaptation of the Wheel of Time for decades. Years of development hell were finally brought to an end when Amazon stepped in to take the reins. It’s no small task. The series is known for its length and encompasses some fifteen books and two companion volumes. Each of the books in turn is dense and would give Tolkien a run for his money on word count and world-building.

Because of the books’ collective length, a lot has been condensed and sacrificed to tell the story on screen. I’ve only read half of the first novel, and I don’t envy the writers of this show for having to adapt Robert Jordan’s complex world into eight watchable hours of television. There are bits that are confusing, though the writers employ a variety of clever tricks to tell the story and fill in the complicated backstory without it all feeling tedious. That said, characters who played a significant role are missing, or have their parts greatly reduced. Plot points are rearranged, new ones are added, and others are missing altogether. For the purists who were expecting something akin to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, this production has neither the time nor budget to be that faithful. However, it is undertaken by those with a deeply personal connection to the series. Showrunner Rafe Judkins is a huge fan. Brandon Sanderson who finished the novels after Jordan’s death serves as a consulting producer, as does Jordan’s widow Harriet MacDougal.

At times, the pacing is awkward with so much story to tell in such a small span of time. Some things feel bloated and drawn out, while others feel rushed. Other plot threads seem to be left dangling. Amazon has renewed the series for a second season and promised a larger budget, so maybe this will help create a slightly smoother second season. Judkins has also made it clear he would like extra episodes in each season to give a bit more wiggle room. The groundwork has been laid in this first season so, hopefully, that will free the writers to focus on better pacing and character development.

Flaws aside, it makes for an enjoyable and binge-able bit of television. I watched it with friends and family and invariably we had lengthy, nerdy discussions about the backstory and history of Jordan’s world. To help with the truncated narrative, Amazon has also released a series of animated shorts and a detailed website to allow viewers to explore more of the world on their own. While not necessary, it will answer some questions and help give viewers a better grasp of what is happening on screen.

Robert Jordan was a self-described “high Episcopalian.” Christian concepts such as God and the devil are present in the story. However, God is not actively present or believed to intervene directly. Hence, there is no obvious religion or worship. The exception is perhaps the Children of the Light, an Inquisition-like cult devoted to stamping out all use of the One Power, which they perceive to be evil. They see their quest as divinely ordained and have mercilessly tortured and killed many Aes Sedai to this end.

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

Most characters seem to find a sense of peace in the cycle of the Wheel. The Wheel continually reincarnates people in each age and this plays a vital role in the story. There are seven ages in all, though no one really knows how long it takes for each age to come and go, or for there to be a complete turning of the Wheel. The implication is the world of the Wheel of Time is our distant future, and also our distant past. Everything has happened before and will happen again.

The Dark One, bound outside of Creation until he was unleashed by the unwitting Aes Sedai, seeks to destroy the Wheel and remake creation in his image. For this reason, the Wheel constantly weaves to maintain balance and stop this from happening. It continually weaves the Dragon into the pattern, who is in a perpetual cycle, fighting the Darkness.

While Jordan’s Christianity presents in some parts of the narrative, this is not an overtly Christian tale. Eastern philosophies are a heavy influence. Moral absolutes are at times anything but. The Aes Sedai claim to be devoted to the service and protection of mankind; nevertheless, they have their own secrets and hidden agendas. This means most people don’t trust them. They are bound by three oaths: to never lie, create a weapon with the One Power, or use the One Power to kill. However, Moiraine is quick to point out the truth an Aes Sedai speaks may not be the truth you think you hear. The Aes Sedai are known for finding ways around the oaths, and for working toward their own ends with every word and interaction.

Moiraine has her own hidden reasons for what she does. However, she is at heart trying to save the world. In the first few episodes, she suffers from a wound inflicted by the Trollocs that is slowly poisoning her. Despite this, she uses her powers to strengthen the others and protect them as much as she can, all while her own health fades. She tackles what needs to be done without hesitation, even when she knows the end could likely be her death. In this world, there is no other place for channelers outside of the Aes Sedai. Touching the One Power is inevitable. Without training, most will grow sick and die, as the One Power literally drains their life away. Bound as she is to the ways of the Aes Sedai, Moiraine still tries to work within the system to accomplish what she knows to be right.

On the technical side of things, the production values for The Wheel of Time are high, thanks to a reported eighty million dollar budget. There are moments where it’s clear a few extra dollars would have been helpful. That’s not to say the production feels cheap. The costumes and sets are lush and the special effects dazzling. There are moments that feel less awe-inspiring than they did on the page. I wonder if this had to do with very selective, frugal placement of the flashiest scenes. It all builds to a satisfying CGI-laced climax in the finale.

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

The series has drawn comparisons to Game of Thrones, both good and bad, and that seems a disservice. HBO’s iconic series seems to be the show against which all fantasy is now judged. Granted, the success of GOT paved the way for a slew of fantasy and sci-fi shows to get made; but it also created a formula others try to copy, namely fantasy laced with titillating sex and gore.

Violence and gore are present here, and in some cases disturbingly so. Characters die gruesome deaths, being stabbed in truly cringe-worthy ways, or being literally disemboweled in some cases. Thankfully, this is not in every episode. The production team seems especially enamored of the disemboweling and also showing people being stabbed through the back of the head. Dialing up the violence increases the maturity rating and the chances of viewership from modern audiences who seem to thrive on gore. It’s unfortunate, and a lot of these gruesome deaths do seem gratuitous. Also gratuitous are two instances of nudity. Both happen in bathing situations and are completely unnecessary. Though, I suppose they could be conveying platonic intimacy or vulnerability. Sex thankfully happens off-screen. Multiple characters are engaged in sexual relationships in every permutation of sexual orientation. Where GOT was graphically sexual, the camera cuts away in The Wheel of Time

The casting is mostly solid, with a number of stellar performers lending their talents. The production team chose to cast racially blind and this works exceedingly well. The main characters in the books were all distinctly white European, but here we get a diverse mix. This makes sense as the Breaking of the World reshaped the face of the earth, so a range of ethnicities makes sense for the various regions.

Some of the younger cast struggles to find their footing in the early episodes, but this levels out by the end of the season. Rafe Judkins boiled a great deal of the story down to its essence, so perhaps the actors can’t be faulted for not having as much to work with in this first outing. Barney Harris creates a truly conflicted Mat Cauthon. Sadly, Mat has been recast for next season. Madeleine Madden is also excellent as Egwene. Zoe Robbins’ Nynaeve is every bit as irritating as she is in the book, but she wins us over by the end. Marcus Rutherford as Perrin delivers some of the most heartfelt and heart-wrenching moments on screen. Josha Stradowski is not the standout as Rand, but I’m eager to see what he does with the role in the next season.

The Wheel of Time, Amazon Prime 2021

Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine and Daniel Henney’s Lan Mandragoran have a beautiful on-screen chemistry, in a friendship that is deeply intimate, but purely platonic. Kate Fleetwood, who is so good at playing villains, makes us loathe the manipulative and duplicitous Liandrin. Sophie Okonedo shines alternating cold, regal grace with maternal warmth in her single episode as Siuan Sanche, the most powerful Aes Sedai in the world.

Conclusion

Fans of the books may be disappointed with the changes needed to adapt the show for television. Having read some of Jordan’s work, I was happy to let the show be its own thing. There are still plenty of Easter eggs for those who know what to look for. While this isn’t a tame series I would call family-friendly, it’s not as graphic as other fantasy offerings these days. There’s a lot to like, despite a few bumps and flaws. There’s also a massive world to explore while we wait for the next installment. Enjoy it for what it is, and look forward to the next seasons.

The Bottom Line

 

A stunning adaptation that at times struggles with the immense story it is trying to tell. The series offers a rich and complex world for fantasy fans to explore and is worth the watch.

 

8

Timothy Taylor

Timothy Taylor is a lifelong creative, nerd and story teller. He spent more time reading and drawing as a kid than being outside. He is an artist, a teacher and a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional play. He continues to devour books, plays tabletop games and video games, and obsesses over the minutiae of made up worlds, including his own.

1 Comment

  1. lisa222 on January 11, 2022 at 3:10 pm

    ”A stunning adaptation” Ah I see Satire is not dead.

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