Amazon’s The Wheel of Time was released back in November and has finally wrapped up, which means that now we can look at the season as a whole.
I have to tell you, I liked it a lot. I’ll even go on record and say that I loved it! As the title of this article suggests, it wasn’t perfect, but I think that it has the potential to go even further and bring a lot of justice to Robert Jordan’s original work.
Now, I’ve already spoiled that I had a lot of fun with this show, and I think you will too, but I’m going to keep this review spoiler-free for those of you who may be uninitiated. At the very end, I’ll have some spoilers waiting for you.
Even then, I’ll give you plenty of warning and try to keep spoilers from the books to a minimum.
So, what is The Wheel of Time about, anyway?
This is a notoriously hard question to answer. Robert Jordan wrote a 14 book epic (the last four were written posthumously with the help of Brandon Sanderson), and trying to explain them is a challenge.
Without spoiling anything, this is the best I’ve got:
The story is about five young people from a farming village in a medieval fantasy world. Because of an attack by the forces of evil, they are forced to flee their home in the company of a powerful and mysterious sorceress and her bodyguard.
All five of these young people are special, but one of them, you don’t know who at the beginning, is the reincarnation of a man known as the Dragon, who three thousand years ago almost destroyed the world and this time around is destined to either finish the job or save it.
In a way, this fantasy series is a post-post-apocalyptic story as it takes place long after mankind brought themselves back from Armageddon. That said, the same thing that destroyed the world is still around: a corrupting force of evil known as the Dark One.
Another great way to think about it is that The Wheel of Time, both the books and I would argue the show, are a combination of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Frank Herbert’s Dune saga.
Note that I didn’t say Game of Thrones, but we’ll get back to that later.
The story itself, and certainly the first book, mainly centers around the five young men and women from Eamon’s Field and the Aes Sedai (a woman with magical ability), and her bodyguard.
And an Ogier they meet along the way, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rosamund Pike leads the cast as Moiraine Sedai, a mysterious woman who can channel the One Power (this is The Wheel of Time’s way of saying that she can do magic). Personally, I think she does a fantastic job, especially because her performance always makes it seem like she’s hiding something. Which she usually is.
Next, we have Daniel Henney as her bodyguard Lan Mandragoran. To be completely honest, I have absolutely zero complaints about him. He was perfect.
Now, we have the Two Rivers folk, our main protagonists. Zoë Robins plays Nynaeve al’Meara, an incredibly stubborn and powerful woman with a gift for healing. Madeleine Madden plays Egwene al’Vere, another Two Rivers woman and the love interest of Rand al’Thor.
Among the boys, we have Josha Stradowski as Rand, Marcus Rutherford as Perrin Aybara, and Barney Harris as Mat Cauthon.
In addition to these, we also have Michael McElhatton as Tam al’Thor (you may remember him as Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones), Johann Myers as Padan Fain, Kae Alexander as Min Farshaw, Abdul Salis as “Child” Valda, Sophie Okonedo as Siuan Sanche, and Hammed Animashaun as Loial. I mention these actors for two reasons: while only appearing in a few episodes, they were still very important, and they did fantastic jobs with their characters.
Honestly, everyone did. The actors were probably the show’s best feature. Absolutely wonderful performances and really great chemistry between everyone.
On a scale of one to the main trio on Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop, I’d call it an eight. High praise from me, and I have to say that it really felt like these people cared about each other.
And I just listed 13 different actors and only four of them were not people of color.
How cool is that?
Lights, Camera… And Everything Else…
We talked about the cast, now let’s take a look at the rest of the show’s team.
First of all, we have Rafe Judkins as the creator and executive producer. He’s the man that we can thank and curse for this show, whichever way you feel about it. Naturally, I think he did an overall good job with the show with one caveat that I’ll be talking about in the spoiler section.
Next, I’d like to direct your attention to the two names listed as consulting producers: Harriet McDougal and Brandon Sanderson.
Now, we all know who Brandon Sanderson is (if you don’t, he’s the guy that I mentioned finished the books after Robert Jordan passed away), but you may not know who Harriet McDougal is.
She was the editor for the Wheel of Time books as well as being married to Robert Jordan (his real name is James Rigney). Robert Jordan once said that all of the major female characters—and a few minor ones, too—were at least in part based on Harriet.
My biggest question for her is whether she referred to her husband as being “wool-headed”?
Sorry, little joke for the books’ fans.
But this is really cool since the show is taking the time to talk with the people most closely linked to the books.
Now, how much they listened to them is anyone’s guess. Brandon Sanderson released a statement on Reddit talking about his own take on [redacted] and how he felt [redacted] should have [redacted] [redacted] instead. Unfortunately, this post of his draws into question how much Rafe Judkins is listening to his consultants.
We’ll talk more about this later.
Moving on to costumes, we have a great amount of diversity that is easy to see at a glance. You’re not going to mistake Two Rivers folk for a Shienaran or a resident of Tar Valon. And you definitely won’t mistake a Tuatha ‘an for an Aiel.
This is great because this is one of the things that Robert Jordan went to great lengths to get across, how different all of these various groups of people are. But not only that, but in the costumes, we also see the differences in the characters.
At a single glance, we know that Mat is the poorest one in the group. We know instantly that he’s struggling. It doesn’t detract from Barney Harris’ acting but it gives us a whole new layer and a constant reminder—for both him and us—of where he came from.
And at the same time, we also have Rand and that stupid coat of his. While it is cut in a “heroic” fashion, we recognize that it’s made of sheepskin and that this is the type of warm woolen coat that he would have worn. It values functionality over fashion, which is something that the character—as a sheepherder—would have chosen.
But the costumes weren’t all great.
I’m going to be a little nit-picky on this, but I think it is warranted.
Rand’s… chaps? I’m not sure what you would call them except that they looked like leather booty shorts worn over his pants. They serve no purpose and kind of look like a bad fantasy costume.
(That said, I will admit that a lot of actual historical clothes, as in the kind worn by real people, were sometimes so ridiculous looking that even bad fantasy tropes wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.)
Another nit-pick is Siuan Sanche’s dress as the Amyrlin Seat. It was… ugly. Honestly, it really was a crime against nature to make that woman look so frumpy. A little frumpy is fine and even looks dignified but, I mean, this was a Queen Victoria level of frumpiness.
But I will say this about the Amyrlin’s dress: the neckline was all Siuan Sanche! That was the neckline of a woman proudly showing the whole world the tattoos of her humble origins and daring everyone to think less of her for it. That was the neckline of someone who still makes fishing analogies and keeps her office looking like a tackle shop.
I do also need to complain about the Children of Light outfits. Only, and I want to stress this, only because they look like an Angel-obsessed punk band. I would have much rather had the Children not wear any armor (which would make sense because they’re not on a warpath at the moment) rather than have them wear plate armor on one arm.
That literally doesn’t help at all.
(Especially when it’s your right arm, aka the sword arm, that you literally need to be able to move fast and that if you’re ever not going to armor-plate one arm it’ll be that one.)
And, last but not least, I do have to whine (albeit just slightly) about Lord Angelmar’s raven outfit. I loved the Japanese warlord lines to his look but the bird itself was… a bit much.
Sets and Setting
I don’t have a lot to say about the sets or the art direction of the setting because I really liked it.
Like with the costumes, the art department really showed very clear differences between the different countries and locations. Eamon’s Field would never be confused with Fal Dara. But, if you look closely, you can tell that Tar Valon was built at roughly the same time as Shadar Lagoth.
Now, with fantasies of all kinds, you can easily see them falling back on historical artistic tropes. We recognize that the Two Rivers looks like England, Ghealdan looks an awful lot like Spain, and Shienar looks a lot like… well, actually the fortress of Fal Dara is a bit all over the place.
But my favorite is that they very clearly took Constantinople (or Istanbul) as the inspiration for Tar Valon. And if you want beautiful architecture, then Constantinople is the place to go.
I could kiss the lighting designers.
You know, in a friendly non-creepy kind of way.
But seriously, I am so tired of shows trying to hide their budget by using dark lighting. And of high budget shows and movies doing the same thing despite a massive budget (lookin’ at you Dune).
The times when they used dark lighting made sense (except for the last episode when it confused what time of day it was), but otherwise, we could actually see everything!
It’s about time!
So, this is the part that, to be perfectly honest, I have the biggest gripe with but also the part that I know the least about.
The problem is that, while they did a good job, there were a couple of moments that glared out at me. The biggest one was the Trollocs. I’d have to take a much harder look at the scenes in question, but the Visual Effects-ness of them was glaringly obvious. The end result is they ended up looking like the Trolls from Lord of the Rings.
This is, of course, in terms of it being obvious computer animation. But while I understand that they are obviously very talented and worked really hard on it, it still was not up to the level that I was expecting.
The writing was good… with a few exceptions.
In terms of character development, I feel that they did a good job. Ideas were conveyed to the audience quickly and efficiently and, while the pacing was a little slow, it did not fall into the typical streaming service trap of incredibly slow pacing (lookin’ at you, previous seasons of The Expanse).
That said, they were hampered by the slow pacing of their source material, The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time book series. I love Robert Jordan, but there was basically an entire chapter of that book that was shortened down to the show saying “One month later.” And, basically, nothing was lost.
That said, there were a couple of things they didn’t explain very well. Some of it I understand perfectly, and some of it I don’t.
The first thing was that they did not adequately convey the fear everyone has for male channelers. They mentioned the Dark One’s taint of the male half of the One Power and that it drives them mad, but they really buried the lead that it often results in the male channeler killing everyone they love. In fact, they only mentioned it at the end of the last episode.
But I also didn’t get the feeling from everyone that male channelers, quite literally, destroyed the world.
I also confess that I did not like them changing the idea of the Dragon Reborn either saving the world or destroying it. In the books, it is very clear that they are going to save the world from the Dark One… but at what cost?
Part of the Prophecies of the Dragon reads as follows:
“His [the Dragon Reborn’s] coming shall be like the sharp edge of the plow, turning our lives in furrows from out of the places where we lie in our silence. The breaker of bonds; the forger of chains. The maker of futures; the unshaper of destiny.”
I would have liked to have seen some of that complexity in the show, but I do understand why they didn’t add it.
There is also one scene in the first episode that I need to talk about. Brandon Sanderson sure did. But, I’m going to wait until the spoiler section to discuss it. It’s a problem, for sure, but I understand why they did it. I—I’ll talk about it more later, I promise.
Final note: a lot of people have complained about the dialogue, particularly in the first episode. It’s very possible that I am just so desperate for a fantasy series that I will overlook some lines, but I honestly had no problems with it. That said, I’ve also read a lot of Robert Jordan’s work and, while he’s not as stilted as Frank Herbert, he’s still not the best at dialogue.
Okay, time to nit-pick
I absolutely hated Moiraine’s speech at the very beginning of episode one. It didn’t help anything that the speech was used for the promotional material so I honestly felt like it was still a commercial for The Wheel of Time as it was going on.
There was also no real discussion of the seven Ajahs, or even that there were seven of them, so people unconnected with the books wouldn’t realize that’s what we were seeing during the opening credits.
And then there was the last episode. There were a lot of problems going on behind the scenes, so I understand why those problems happened (spoiler alert: it’s mostly because of the pandemic), but it still led to a few contradictory lines.
Those are the big ones, but honestly, I am impressed at how much they were able to do. Robert Jordan had a mountain’s worth of world-building in his novels and he really is second only to Tolkien in that regard.
Really, not a bad job at all.
Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time does justice to Robert Jordan’s story if not the book itself. More importantly, I think it did a good job of setting us up for things to really take off with next season.
The first book in The Wheel of Time, the book that this season was based on, is really the weakest one in the series. The showrunners made an excellent choice to make the season more of an ensemble story rather than focusing primarily on one person, especially when the rest of the books are really good at telling multiple stories.
If you liked this show, just wait for next season! And if you didn’t like this show, I’m still going to ask you to just wait. Next season is when we’re really going to get into the world’s political maneuverings. We’re going to meet the Aiel and the Seanchan, two of the craziest cultures that Robert Jordan created. We’re going to meet the Forsaken and learn more about the Dark One.
And we’re going to see Mat get his superpowers.
I’m not joking. It’s wonderful.
And all of it without the grimdark, “don’t get too attached” vibe that we got from Game of Thrones (besides, this series has already been finished). So, stick with it, please. I’m very excited to share this with you all, and I hope you’ll like it.
And if they keep the Aiel humor, we’ll be golden.
Why this isn’t Game of Thrones
So, one of the biggest complaints, or more accurately one of the biggest fears, of the show is that it is just another rendition of Game of Thrones. This is a valid concern: Game of Thrones, after all, kinda broke our hearts as the showrunners seemed to stop caring about it. Not to mention you have many die-hard fans with severe nostalgia-itosis and the stepdad-syndrom shouting “You’re not my real High Fantasy series!”
That said, the two shows and the two book series themselves have a lot in common. Both have Chosen One heroes, an absolutely enormous cast of characters (seriously, I read Icelandic sagas and historical texts for fun and these books have too many characters), and a similar plot structure.
In fact, it’s a similar plot structure to many modern fantasy stories: Chosen One and/or other heroes must deal with political infighting amidst the looming threat of an ancient evil returning to life/waking up/etc. The conquests and political fighting is important but it is ultimately futile compared with the looming threat of evil.
It’s a structure that Game of Thrones used well. And it’s one that The Wheel of Time did first.
That’s right, The Eye of the World came out in 1990, with sequel novels following every year until book six (after which it went to every other year), whereas Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire) was first published in 1996. Well after Robert Jordan had already started changing the game of High Fantasy.
The Wheel of Time books, while never getting as… ahem, explicit as A Song of Ice and Fire, did start exploring themes of Byzantine politics, sex, and sexual politics.
So, the question is: who’s imitating who?
It also behooves the creators to make it seem Game of Thrones-y to draw in fans, only to then show them why it’s different. In much the same way that Robert Jordan started out mimicking the style of Tolkien to draw his fans in. And, consequently, in much the same way that Tolkien started off his story by luring us in with child-like hobbits who like to eat, smoke, and sing songs about taking a bath (and no, I did not make that up).
That’s right, kids, we’re gonna talk spoilers and all about shit that happened and how it went down.
That one scene with Perrin and the fridge
Yeah, I’m talking about the “disposable wife” and the “fridging” trope.
Basically, the love interest (almost always a girl) dies and that motivates the character to do something. Like go on an adventure, get revenge, or rediscover his love of chocolate eclairs.
Lots and lots of stories, books, movies, tv shows, you name it, are guilty of using this trope. I mean, Star Wars fridged Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru. The problem is that the person’s death only exists to motivate the main character. Their entire life’s purpose was to die.
And then, usually, they’re completely forgotten about.
And yeah, that’s exactly what we did to Perrin. And that’s what Brandon Sanderson and many others complained the most about. And they’re right, it is a shitty move.
But I will say that they used it well.
In the books, where we get front row seats to all of the character’s thoughts (to mixed results), we learn that Perrin is hyper-aware of his strength and as a result is very careful about everything he does. This, of course, puts him in contrast with the willy-nilly Mat and the bull-headed and stubborn… well, everyone else.
This is very hard to convey in a visual medium, and I think having him accidentally kill someone he was close to in the heat of battle makes for a very good and clear reason for him to think like that.
It just didn’t need to be his wife.
Brandon Sanderson actually said that he wanted it to be Master Luhan, the smith Perrin was apprenticed to. Again, I agree with what he said but not that he said it. (Sorry Mr. Sanderson, and please don’t send your minions after me).
(While I agree with everything Brandon Sanderson said in that post, I think it was in poor taste for him to make it. I mean, all that the headlines say is “Brandon Sanderson doesn’t like Amazon’s Wheel of Time.” The show that he is a part of. It doesn’t make anyone look good. Compare this with the “radio silence” that we normally get from authors involved in show adaptations–like George R. R. Martin–or the absolute praise that we get from other authors–like Neil Gaiman.)
Now, Perrin didn’t just forget about his wife (though I really HATED the Perrigwene not-quite romance). And in fact, it really seemed to haunt him throughout the show. And it really made that “Have you ever used an ax” line really pop.
They made a mistake but they used it well.
But I also think that Rafe Judkins and the rest of the team learned their lesson from it. And I don’t think that they’ll make that particular mistake again.
I just hope that this hasn’t negatively affected Brandon Sanderson.
The Wheel of Time Reborn
I am very excited to see how they work with this show from here on out.
These really are great characters and while I rag on Robert Jordan’s prose, the personalities that he wrote are some of the best. Especially Mat. And Min, but mostly Mat.
Between the pandemic and one of the actors leaving (we loved you, Barney Harris, and we’re excited to meet you, Dónal Finn) they had a tough time of it and I think they did a damn fine job.
They have already passed the biggest test of making the show their own. It is not an attempt at being a new Game of Thrones, and it doesn’t seem to want to be. This is The Wheel of Time, and while it has some similarities, it is able to stand on its own two feet.
So, grab your heron-marked blade, raven spear, or hammer because there’s a lot more story to tell.
If you liked this article (or at least had the patience to make it this far), then you should definitely check out The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time. It’s not my favorite book (in fact, I have a lot to say about it) but I will say that if you can make it through that, then you are in for one hell of a ride.
Blood and bloody ashes, but you will! (I promise, by the third book, that will be really funny)
Now, I’d like to end this review with the first thing we see on the back jacket of the Wheel of Time books:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass.
What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.
Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.