Adapted from the late Robert Jordan’s massive 14-book fantasy epic, Amazon’s The Wheel of Time tells a story huge in scope with an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of the books know that Jordan had a proclivity for a lot of different points-of-view and the show looks like it might follow in that regard.
The Wheel of Time series has magic and politics, plus excellent worldbuilding and a ton of different cultural representations. Amazon’s adaptation has thus far captured some of the first book’s charm, though not without fault. There are changes made from the first novel, The Eye of the World, and book fans might find themselves ambivalent about the differences as a whole. I’m certainly of two minds about some of them.
For those of you who haven’t read the books, there’s still plenty to love here. The show has a fantastic ensemble cast, beautiful sets and scenery, powerful sound design, and an intriguing story that doesn’t let up once it gets going.
The Wheel of Time review: Episode 1
The Wheel of Time kicks things off with a cold open that establishes that men who can use the One Power, the series’ magic system, are destined to go mad. Only women, called Aes Sedai, can channel magic safely and some have dedicated themselves to finding men who can channel and making sure that they pose no threat. Narratively, this opening is fine, but it struggles to captivate me like a pilot’s first moments should.
In this first episode, the show focuses on Moiraine (played by Rosamund Pike), an Aes Sedai who’s searching for the Dragon Reborn. The Dragon is prophesied to be the savior of the world, or to be one who destroys everything. Moiraine and her companion Lan (Daniel Henney) decide to head for the Two Rivers, an idyllic rural community deep in the mountains.
Episode 1 is a slow burn for the first half or so. There are seven main characters and the episode does its best to introduce them all in their village called Emond’s Field. Nynaeve (Zoe Robbins) is the Wisdom, a healer and sort of leader; Egwene (Madeleine Madden) is a young woman who is considering becoming Nynaeve’s apprentice; Rand (Josha Stadowski) is a farm boy in a relationship with Egwene; Mat (Barney Harris) is a mischievous fellow from a broken home; and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) is a blacksmith in a strained marriage.
Moiraine and Lan eventually arrive in Emond’s Field on their search, with Moiraine convinced that the Dragon is Rand, Mat, Perrin, or Egwene.
The calm life shatters on Winternight as horrific monsters attack the village. Things quickly turn into a slaughter as the monsters — huge, beastial creatures called Trollocs — tear their way through the townsfolk. If not for Moiraine and Lan stepping in to help, no one would have survived. Nynaeve is carried off and presumed dead, and in the aftermath, Egwene does what she can to help care for the wounded. Mat brings his little sisters back after he fled with them, Rand comes into town with his injured father, and Perrin carries the corpse of his wife (that he accidentally killed) to lay among the dead.
The first episode’s pacing is the worst part, as things start off slow, turn suddenly violent and then end with Moiraine telling Egwene, Mat, Rand and Perrin that they need to leave Emond’s Field with her. More Trollocs are on their way and she says that if four of them leave, the monsters will follow because the main bad guy, referred to as the Dark One, also thinks that one of them is the Dragon Reborn. The episode ends with the six of them leaving with no goodbyes or anything of the sort shown on screen. It feels a bit like whiplash.
I’m pretty sure that the pilot was originally written to be longer. The pacing problem reeks of executives enforcing a single one-hour episode limit, despite it needing at least another half-hour. Even with this, however, I really enjoyed the first episode, both as a critic and a Wheel of Time fan. The casting is absolutely spot-on — these actors sell the characters to me almost completely, especially Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, Barney Harris as Mat and Zoe Robbins as Nynaeve.
The costumes just look right to me. The Wheel of Time is technically a post-apocalyptic fantasy, so I think the clothing looking a bit more modern than medieval makes a lot of sense. The scenery stunned me with its beauty and gives an excellent fantastical vibe. The village set looks a bit too clean, but that’s a nitpick. It's a solid episode that left me excited to hit play on episode 2. Overall, I’d give this one a 3.5 out of 5 — the show looks right, it's well-acted and sets things up well.
The Wheel of Time review: Episode 2
Unlike the weak beginning to episode 1, episode 2 has a bone-chillingly good opening. The show introduces the Whitecloaks — the series’ paramilitary religious zealots — and Eamon Valda in particular. He sits watching a captured Aes Sedai burn to death, pocketing her ring among his collection. This scene made me extremely uncomfortable in the best way.
The rest of the episode focuses on Moiraine and Lan taking Rand, Mat, Perrin and Egwene east towards the White Tower, the Aes Sedai seat of power. Along the way we get excellent character development, including some backstory on the history of the Two Rivers. Moiraine also proves she’s willing to do whatever she needs to do to keep the Dark One’s forces from capturing the Dragon Reborn, even if the Emond’s Fielders put up a stubborn resistance to her plans.
As the episode closes, Moiraine’s wound from the first episode’s battle has gotten worse and she eventually passes out from the infection. Desperate, Lan leads the party into the abandoned city of Shadar Logoth, where the Trollocs chasing them refuse to go. In the city — which is beautiful and eerie — the party tries to rest, but some creeping black horror attacks them and splits them up.
Episode 2 is by the far the strongest of the first three. It fixes the pacing issues that the first episode had while having plenty of downtime for character development along with action and dread. The end with the party split up from each other really has a lot of weight to it.
Once again, the acting is spot-on with Rosamund Pike highlighting it all. She perfectly portrayed Moiraine’s slow, subtle degradation as the Aes Sedai got sicker and weaker. This was a change from the book, but I’m all for it. I loved how everything played out from beginning to end and, even though I knew what was going to happen, I was on edge during the action sequences.
The episode does a good job of instilling terror in Shadar Logoth without overly explaining things. It ends with you genuinely wondering how these characters are going to get out of the mess they’re in. This episode is a solid 4.5 out of 5 for me.
The Wheel of Time: Episode 3
The party is in dire straits after the disaster at Shadar Logoth in the last episode, which ended with Nynaeve suddenly appearing alive. She tracked the group from the Two Rivers and finds Lan as he’s caring for Moiraine. The third episode opens with showing how she had survived, excellently capturing Nynaeve’s strength of character and will, hinting at why book fans love her.
The third episode splits the characters into three parties: Rand and Mat, Perrin and Egwene and Lan, Moiraine and Nynaeve. Of all three, Rand and Mat's story is the strongest. Through it, we meet Thom Merrilin, another fan favorite character. His introduction here differs from the book, but I think it’s for the best because it matches his character in the later books. (In the first book, Thom arrives in Emond’s Field before the Trollocs attack and leaves the village with Moiraine et al.) He kicks things off with a sorrowful song before taking a liking to Rand and Mat. He saves them from a Darkfriend — a person who has sworn their soul and allegiance to the Dark One — and encourages them to come with him to avoid further trouble.
Perrin and Egwene decide to head east in the hopes of finding their friends. They cross a freezing tundra while wolves chase them. This plotline certainly weighed heaviest for how dour things look for these characters. Perrin is still traumatized from killing his wife and Egwene’s attempts to comfort him don’t seem to help. But then they stumble upon wagon tracks and eventually meet the friendly gypsy-like Tinkers, who offer them food, warmth and shelter. I like this plotline, but most of its arc in this second episode bored me.
With Moiraine incapacitated, Lan managed to convince Nynaeve to apply her herbal healing skills to the Aes Sedai. The tension between Nynaeve and Lan is definitely palpable and it’s wonderfully executed by the actors. Book fans know where this all goes, but the episode does a great job of setting up an interpersonal relationship between the two characters. Nynaeve’s remedy helps Moiraine a little, enough for the Aes Sedai to wake up. Their plotline in this episode ends with them meeting more Aes Sedai, who have captured a man calling himself the Dragon Reborn.
While not as strong as the second episode, episode 3 definitely captures the hopeless tone for the characters. Things are really bad for everyone, and the episode closes with you genuinely wondering how they’re going to get out of this. We book fans know what’s up for the most part, but that hasn’t stopped me from really wanting to see how everyone is going to avoid the Dark One’s forces, especially if they have to contend with Darkfriends along their journey. I give this episode a strong 4 out of 5, so the three episodes average out to 4 out of 5 overall.
The Wheel of Time review: Outlook
The first Wheel of Time episode has issues, notably with pacing, but it picks up towards the end. Episode 2 is the best so far, offering stronger character development and higher stakes for the party’s flight from the Dark One’s servants. Episode 3 is good, too, though the show's trio of plots isn't uniform in quality, with Rand and Mat's plot standing out as the clear best.
As a big fan of The Wheel of Time books, it's a little tough to stop that fandom from informing how I watch the show. It seems that some other book fans face the same struggle. The show is not a one-to-one carbon copy of The Eye of the World — adaptation requires changes for the new medium.
Those with a purist-level dedication to the book — out there saying things like “It’s not my Wheel of Time” and so on — aren’t helping anything. It’s okay to dislike the changes (I certainly don’t love them all) and it’s okay to level constructive criticism based on our knowledge of later events.
Ignore the critics out there lazily comparing The Wheel of Time to Game of Thrones. Using Game of Thrones as your sole lens to view the series shows an innate misunderstanding of what’s on screen. While Robert Jordan and George Martin were friends, the two stories are vastly different.
It stands to reason that the shows would also be different. For those of you reading this that know video games, this comparison is akin to games journalists likening every difficult game to Dark Souls.
The Wheel of Time’s first three episodes are certainly above average and show a lot of promise, despite a somewhat weak start. Episode 4 releases on November 26 and I can’t wait to see it.