Adapted from Robert Jordan’s fantasy book series of the same name, The Wheel of Time is amongst many fantasies competing to escape the shadow of HBO’s Game of Thrones and fill the void it left behind. For some, The Wheel of Time is a welcome entry to the bountiful resurgence of fantasy but for others, it will feel all too familiar, lacking the fine quality that makes fantasy so fun.
The Wheel of Time television series has been a long time coming, but since the publication of the books, there have been many fantasies on the big and small screens that have cemented their place amongst the upper echelon of the genre. Many tread the same hero’s journey trope, complete with archetypes, mythical and magical beings, and narrative structures that have become all too common. For those unfamiliar with the book series (like myself), The Wheel of Time simply feels outdated and overdone, by no fault of its own. However, if you are anything like me, the sense of familiarity will bring comfort and the promise of something new yet to come will keep you engaged. Luckily, a second season has already been green-lit and is well into production. So, the thrill of seeing The Wheel of Time develop into something worthy of the wait remains.
For a series to be in gestation for 20 years indicates that there is something particularly transcendent about the book series. Based on the first six episodes Amazon provided me, I can only surmise that the talent behind the camera has a lot to work with and will have a difficult road ahead to plot out the 14-volume series throughout maybe eight seasons. So, what do the first six episodes give me? A whole lot of promises and very high expectations.
The series follows four young adults, one of whom may possess a great power. In this world, there is an understanding that time is a wheel, as the title suggests, and that this life is one of many one will live. Amongst these four, one is destined to be the dragon reborn and will either destroy the dark one (totally not Sauron) or join him. Right out of the gate, the series is at a disadvantage on two fronts. One, for the chosen one narrative to unfold we need a clear foundation of what is at stake. There is a great deal of lore that is explained throughout the series but due to poor plotting, it feels like too much and not enough. In particular, the framework of the series depends on gender politics. This is a world that pits men and women against each other based on how they utilize the one power, which brings us to the second disadvantage, the books are key. There is a great deal of exposition that is lost between character building and world-building. For a novice to this world, I had to rely on my knowledge of tropes and other famed fantasies to fill in the gaps that the series left. While there is a lot spelled out to us, none of it feels truly explained or fully realized. For instance, Moraine (Rosamund Pike), a member of the Aes Sedai (a powerful organization of women who can use magic), wields a power known as the one power (not to be confused with the One Ring). At times it appears that this power can do anything and everything, but there is no basis for where it comes from and how one truly channels it. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the world functions and how the characters operate within it.
While the story can leave you scrambling to understand, the show thrives on its characters. While the core four, Rand (Josha Stradowski), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), Mat (Barney Harris) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden) are given special attention, the bulk of the show’s intrigue rests on Moraine, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), al’Lan (Daniel Henney), and the many recurring characters our leads encounter on their journey. It is in these interactions where we get insight into the stakes of the show, how each character is processing these events, but most importantly, these interactions ground the narrative in emotion. Rand, Perrin, Mat and Egwene lack defining qualities beyond being potential chosen ones, but through their interactions with others, we glean a lot about the order of the world and the moral quandary this prophecy has foisted upon them. Meanwhile, Moraine and al’Lan are given greater depth due to their characters being integral to the narrative.
One thing that has become apparent to me is that with many of these recent fantasy shows, namely Netflix’s Cursed, Letter to the King, and Shadow & Bone, there is certainly no shortage of pretty young actors who can pull off British-sounding accents. Perhaps it is due to the limited timeframe of the series or the unfortunate side-effect of the chosen one narrative, but these characters are bland. Aside from Harris as Mat, each character in the core group is your typical young adult fantasy hero, with little defining qualities that give way to memorable personalities. It’s unfortunate that Harris will not be returning for the second season, as he is by far the most compelling actor in the group (not including Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney) and his character the most complex. At a point, the small fellowship that is formed is split apart and the writers of the series don’t take advantage of this by developing these characters’ interior lives.
Pike and Henney do so much heavy lifting, too much in fact. Not only does Pike make exposition sound like poetry, but she also provides Moraine with a layered and nuanced portrayal that has you wondering if she is friend or foe. Pike effortlessly carries the show on her back as Moraine continues to become more mysterious and unreadable, yet with each scene, grows more vibrant and interesting. Henney on the other hand is a steady and stable presence that brings an assuredness that the series hasn’t quite earned. With key moments of intense emotions and quiet confidence, Henney’s al’Lan becomes the series’ much-needed emotional anchor.
The Wheel of Time is a good start, not an excellent one. Many shows have built brilliant and fantastic series off of rocky foundations, and if Amazon trusts in the story and allows it to run its course to the end, then a rocky start will be well worth it. However, with the promise of greatness down the road, it doesn’t make up for poor plotting and pacing. A narrative that relies heavily on a world-ending power grab should be laid out in the least convoluted way, and shouldn’t make viewers feel like they have to devour a 14-part book series to get the basics.
The Wheel of Time premiere on Amazon Prime on November 19, a new episode will drop every Friday