My ten-word review

Not enough monsters but lots of potential for future seasons.


My much longer review

Amazon’s The Wheel of Time released a few weeks ago, and the entire season is now available to stream via Prime. These books were fantasy bestsellers but they always seemed a step beyond normal fantasy dork fare, at least within my tiny world. Everyone I knew had read Tolkien, Anne Rice, Stephen King, CS Lewis, George RR Martin, and those slightly younger were into Harry Potter, but there were only a few people who read Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. I am hoping that the TV series prompts rediscovery of the books, as they are engrossing and wild and deeply, deeply weird at times. And they also have a ton of swords and magic and villains, something that this first season of the show struggles with in its need to set the table for (hopefully) many seasons to come.

So most people will ask: what is The Wheel of Time?  It’s a sword-and-sorcery TV series with lots of interfactional intrigue, a unique take on standard messiah tropes, and some incredible locations (shot in the Czech Republic). There are eight-foot orc monsters and eyeless spirits that can teleport between shadows. There is a dead city consumed by its own paranoia and cursed for eternity. There’s a bunch of hot people of all ages in kickass costume design. There are pacifist nomads and anti-magic zealots and ominous dreams.

The Wheel of Time backstory is this: the world is in a medieval stasis millennia after a cataclysmic event destroyed all of the high technology and wonders of human civilization. In this diminished present, everyone lives in terror of The Dragon being reborn, a powerful magician who accidentally tainted half of all magic and caused that cataclysm. Men who use magic now go mad, so the power structure has tilted to where female magicians (Aes Sedai) have inordinate sway over the nation-states of the continent… and a sect of these female magicians actively hunt down male magicians. Not everyone believes that the Dragon being reborn is a bad thing, though, and the main character, Moraine, is searching for the Dragon Reborn to help this person in their prophesied fight with the Dark One. And after decades of searching, Moraine believes that the Dragon is one of five bumpkins from a backwater called The Two Rivers*.

This first season of the The Wheel of Time is Moraine protecting those youngsters as she susses out if one truly is the Dragon Reborn.

The show’s baseline is pretty high, but its best parts are not mass pop cultural moments like in Game of Thrones or The Witcher or other recent fantasy/science fiction fare. There is a lot of promise here but also a long distance to catch other genre notables, which makes sense, given that this first season had to adapt the consensus weakest book in a 15-book series.

Let’s get this out of the way or I’ll spend the whole review repeating it: you’ll try The Wheel of Time for a myriad of reasons, but the main reason you’ll keep watching episodes is Rosamund Pike as Moraine. This is both a godsend and a problem for this series that such a talented actor is involved. Let’s unpack that sentence and it should lead to other, non-Rosamund Pike points. (I’ll do my best, anyway.)

First, we will talk the godsend. Pike and Daniel Henney (who plays her bodyguard Lan) do most of the show’s heavy lifitng. They are the moral center of the story, the main characters, the badasses, the ones holding the secrets, and they both cut a fine figure in the aforementioned awesome costumes. The rest of the main cast are the five bumpkins thrust into the larger world, and these other actors mostly lean into wide-eyed or sulking, so there is not much for them to do but be ushered from calamity to calamity. Hopefully, their performances gain nuance as their characters level up in future seasons. Pike and Henney know the stakes and know the world so, like with Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, we have a guide and a source of exposition. Moraine is a bit of a bad girl and outcast among her fellow Aes Sedai, so we also get the friction of her keeping her life’s mission a secret even if damages her reputation and career. This first season is mostly table-setting and its ending is weak, but none of that is due to Moraine and Lan.

Which brings us to the problem. It is not a spoiler to say that things do not go as planned for the characters. That is just how these soap opera-style stories unfold. In the first season, the party are split up for multiple episodes, and in future stories, each of the Two Rivers folk will have their own personal growth and setbacks. There are five of them plus Moraine and Lan (plus, in the books at least, storylines dedicated to Elayne, Aviendha, Elaida, Faile, and more). So the show can only lean on Pike and Henney when it focuses on their storyline. And when those two are not on screen, things feel lessened. With no insult meant to the actors, Perrin, Rand, and Egwene can’t carry their own stories as currently written. Nynaeve is intersting but it might be because most of her scenes are with Lan. Most unfortunately, Mat has been recast despite being a very compelling performance.

I’ve mentioned this on social media, but the reason that I was hesitant to write about or recommend The Wheel of Time is because it is one of those rare stories for which I am surely in the top decile of fandom. Your Captains America and Lukes Skywalker and Harrys Potter? I can talk about those with some impartiality because when I engage with the stories, I’m engaging with them for the first time and with no knowledge of the comics or animated webisodes or vidya games or anything adjacent. But while I was watching The Wheel of Time, I could not tell if the show was effectively telling its story or if I was filling in gaps because I’ve read the books so many times. Is this a show that one can jump into blindly, like Game of Thrones? I don’t know. I would recommend it to my parents, as an example, and think that they’d get a kick out of the world-building and the monsters and magic, but does the show drop too much exposition all at once? Maybe. The Witcher’s second season released this past week and I have no familiarity with the games or books, and I never felt lost… but I was certainly bored by long stretches. The Wheel of Time, conversely, became more interesting as its plot slowed down.

I am interested to hear what a non-WoT reader thought of the end of this season of The Wheel of Time. My familiarity with the books is most apparent when the series headed for the Eye of the World. I knew the motivations for this from the book but I couldn’t recall if it was explained in the show. It felt like the story jumped from Point A to Point C. Was anyone confused as to why they needed to go to the Blight and find The Eye? It sure seemed like it was not mentioned at all and then was suddenly the most important thing in the world.

So overall, yes, I enjoyed The Wheel of Time far more than I did its Netflix rival, The Witcher, and recommend the show. The locations, especially ruins, mountains, and valleys, look wholly different from what we are used to out of New Zealand’s Middle-Earth. And Pike and Henney rule, and the messy scheming of the Aes Sedai was very enjoyable. I hope that the show gets a second season, as Book 2, The Great Hunt, is one of the best of the entire series.


For those who’ve read the books

I heartily recommend the show. The creators have done a fine job of navigating Jordan’s worst impulses. The relationship between Aes Sedai and Warders and between the various ajahs is the highlight of the season. The Trollocs look awesome, if a little underused, and the animation for channeling the One Power is perfect, even down to showing various threads of color (and the Dark One’s taint of saidin creeping in when men channel). I love that the story is about adults with backstories and difficult jobs, focusing on Moraine and Lan and other power brokers, whereas it could have easily been told from the point-of-view of the Two Rivers folk and been a Harry Potter analogue.

I think that the Whitecloaks are perfectly employed as terrifying villains. Liandrin Sedai has seemingly been moved up to chief antagonist among the Red Ajah; the actress has a great villian face, so this is fine with me. The Dragon Reborn is one of the five duopotamians* (instead of one of the three boys as in the books), which adds additional mystery. This season avoids Caemlyn (no Elayne, Elaida, Gawyn, Galad, Gareth Bryne, blah blah), and I wonder if they will excise those characters entirely or roll them into others. Thom Merrilin and Min, you should be happy to hear, are well cast and really fun.

My chief criticism is that the writers did not create a better ending. What happens at The Eye of the World in the series is just as boring and vague as in the novel, and some notable differences raise many questions.



*As a resident of the real-world Three Rivers, the Two Rivers trips me up every single time. For sanity’s sake, I mentally refer to the Two Rivers folk by their nickname in Leigh Butler’s reread series, Duopotamians.