Four episodes in, and The Wheel Of Time is keeping pace admirably. The group remains separated, three distinct subsets all working through their own separate adventures as they struggle to find a way to Tar Valon; the show has been using that time to develop the ensemble in clear, if somewhat predictable, ways. That “predictable” is likely a turn-off for some viewers. For all its strengths—and I think “The Dragon Reborn” is a good time—the show’s reliance on familiar fantasy tropes may make its almost shocking competence beside the point. As someone who enjoyed the source material, I’m content to watch a relatively faithful adaptation; but as of yet, the show hasn’t figured out a way to make itself compelling to people outside that particular subset, particularly not in the light of the popularity of Game Of Thrones.
I don’t want to put too much emphasis on a comparison between the two; it’s not The Wheel Of Time’s job to be the “new” Game Of Thrones, and it’s not like GoT had a spotless record of quality to aspire to. But it’s likely that GoT’s success is a big part of why this series got greenlit in the first place, and it’s worth pointing out that the two stories have very different ends in mind. GoT was intended, in part, as a subversion of the very sort of epic fantasy that Wheel of Time is trying to evoke, with George R.R. Martin’s books leaning into grime and misery and chaos, presenting a world where would-be protagonists were abruptly killed regardless of their intentions, and where evil scary monsters and magic were less of a problem than familiar human venality and greed.
There’s grime and misery in Wheel Of Time, to be sure, and plenty of greed and venality as well, but there’s no shocking twist to pull you in at the start; we don’t see, say, a noble brother having sex with his sister, the queen, and then throwing a small child out a tower window. I’m not saying every show needs that kind of intensity to work, but so far at least, WoT’s conventionality, its straightforward good/evil shtick, makes it harder to sell to new eyes. You’re either in the tank for this kind of fantasy nonsense or you’re not, and while I can assure people unfamiliar with the books that it does get a lot more interesting as it goes, that assurance isn’t the same as an honest “Holy shit, did they really just—?”
I’m not really here to discuss what WoT needs to do to become a hit; I’d have no idea where to start, and besides, it looks like it’s doing just fine for itself already. I mention this more because while I’m enjoying the show so far, I’m still not sure how much of that enjoyment comes from seeing a bunch of stuff I remember presented reasonably well in a new format. Thankfully, there are moments in “The Dragon Reborn” where you can start to see something special peak around the edges, as the characters start to move away from being pieces on a board, and start breathing on their own.
“Reborn” opens with a flashback in the city of Ghealdan. Logain, the male channeler we saw caged at the end of last week’s episode, is at the height of his powers, storming the city at the head of an army and laying waste to all before him. It’s a nifty sequence that offers us our first real hint at the horrors of male channeling; Logain seems to have his wits about him, but when he uses magic, dark creatures only he can see appear at his side, whispering in his ears. (This look neat, by the way. The show’s visual style hasn’t really wowed me yet, but I’ve been enjoying how it sells its “magic,” up to and including Rosamund Pike’s endearingly all-in physical contortions.) Logain has enough confidence to win the king of Ghealdan over to his side, but we already know this isn’t going to end well for him. (It doesn’t end well for the king, either.)
All of this is set-up for what proves to be (I think) the show’s first major deviation from the books. While Rand and Mat, and Egwene and Perrin, are off having their own adventures, Lan, Moraine, and Nyneave wind up in a camp of Aes Sedai charged with bringing Logain to the White Tower for trial. As far as I know, none of this is from Eye Of The World, but while the coincidence of Moraine and the others running into a group of sisters just as Moraine desperately needs healing (especially given her interest in the Dragon) is a bit of a brow-raiser, the visit does some good work in filling in our understanding of Aes Sedai culture and in giving Nyneave another chance to show what she can do.
So far at least, WoT has been reluctant to spend too much time on exposition, content instead to offer scraps of information in passing. It’s a brave choice, one that occasionally sacrifices comprehension for the sake of expediency, but I’m honestly not sure this episode would’ve been improved if we’d stopped everything for Moraine or someone else to explain to Nyneave just what each individual color sect of the sisterhood stands for.
Here, we get slightly belabored but still fairly quick snippets to figure out that Liandrin is Red, and that Reds hunt down male channelers; that the Greens have multiple warders; and that Moraine is Blue, in case the colors of various dresses hadn’t already made that clear. If this sounds like I’m talking about M&Ms (or worse, Hogwarts houses), fret not; it’s information that will presumably be more important, and made more clear, further down the line.
As for right now, it’s more important to realize that the Aes Sedai have their fair share of politicking, and that Moraine’s quest to find the Dragon reborn is not one all of her sisters agree with. As Logain explained in the cold open, many fear that the Dragon will “break the world” again, which sounds like an extremely bad thing; given that there are already plenty of good reasons to be scared of male channelers, whichever of the Two Rivers folk turns out to be this story’s version of the Chosen One is going to have their work cut out for them.
I don’t think Nyneave is in the running for the job, but she does have more power behind her than even she realizes. “Reborn” gives us more time with her, reinforcing her distrust of the Aes Sedai in general, but also building her relationship with Lan. Given how fast everything is moving, I’m not convinced the show has really done the necessary to legwork to convey how complicated the Aes Sedai place in the world is; Nyneave’s antipathy is maybe more strong than is typical, but the sisters are still largely mistrusted and feared, especially in smaller communities where magic users are little more than myth. But what does come across clearly here is Nyneave’s greatest single character trait in the source material: her all consuming stubbornness.
It could be exasperating to read at times (to put it lightly), but Nyneave’s nearly unbendable willpower, her determination to do things the way she sees fit, can be surprisingly endearing when handled the right way. Here, the show has cut out most of the schoolmarmish condescension that made the original character an occasional chore (no “sniffs” to be found so far), leaving behind someone who is grimly set on doing what she thinks needs to be done, but also also clearly skeptical of both herself and everyone around her. It’s this, plus her growing attachment to Lan, that leads to the best moment in the hour.
After Liandrin tries, and fails, to convince the other sisters to still Logain now and save themselves the trouble of the rest of the trip, Logain’s army attacks the camp, distracting his two Aes Sedai guards (Liandrin herself and Kerene, the sister who healed Moraine’s wound earlier) long enough for him to break free of their hold. As an action setpiece, the scenes that follow are decent enough, but not particularly epic or intense; most of it is just groups of sweaty people stabbing and punching each other in a forest, with a little magic besides, and while the show tries to sell the idea of the Aes Sedai as a fighting force, I’m not really sure the execution of that idea is entirely convincing.
Much better is the smaller scene in the cave where Logain is being held. Kerene is killed when she saves Liandrin from a blast of Logain’s magic; her warder is driven half mad, rushing in and trying to attack Logain through his magical shield, only for Logain to hurl him back, shattering his weapons and flinging the pieces into the crowd. Moraine is hit, and Lan is badly wounded, collapsing to lie in a pool of his own blood. Nyneave sees this and freaks the fuck out, shrieking as a burst of white swallows the entire room.
Someone discovering their magical abilities in the heat of an intensely stressful moment is hardly an original idea, but this one works for me; obviously I knew Nyneave could channel, but the character’s reserve, her partial thaw over the course of the hour, all built to a moment that feels intense even if it’s not all that surprising.
One of my main issues with the show thus far is that in its rush to move forward, it’s not doing a great job selling emotional beats as anything more than, well, beat; things that happen and then we move on to the next thing. Nyneave bursting in a wave of power manages to at least hint at the scope and intensity of what’s to come. As Logain says, taking a line Moraine threw at him earlier, “Like a raging sun.”
While all of this is going on, Egwene and Perrin are still spending time with the Tinkers, learning more about their culture—there’s a certain song they’re looking for, and they are all determined pacifists, refusing to fight even in the face of violence and death. It’s not hard to understand why this would be appealing to Perrin (the last time he tried to defend himself, he landed an axe in his wife’s gut, a only-in-the-show decision that continues to confuse the hell out of me), and there are some cute bits with Egwene getting chatted up by Aram, a young Tinker who may not be quite sold on the lifestyle, but while all of this stuff will be important down the line, it’s not exactly thrilling as of yet. Not bad, but it also shows the potential downfall of being too faithful in an adaptation; just because it happened like this in the book doesn’t mean it works on screen.
Rand and Mat’s adventures are more compelling. A family agrees to let them and Thom take shelter in their barn overnight (more farmwork for Rand), and Mat has a nice moment talking to a little girl about trust and strangers before everything turns sour. Thom is convinced that Mat can channel, and we learn a bit more of the gleeman’s backstory; he had a male relative (Owen) who could use magic, and was driven mad by it.
The Aes Sedai gentled him, and he killed himself soon after. It’s not a great world for men who can channel, is the point, and Mat’s general strangeness has Thom on edge. I’m not sure this is entirely plausible, given that Mat hasn’t been acting that oddly (and besides, what sort of baseline does Thom have to compare this against?), but it’s good to keep the paranoia floating.
There’s some creepy stuff with Mat’s dagger, as he notices a Fade hiding in the darkness of the barn loft before Thom and Rand do. Unfortunately this is too late to save any of the family, and Thom stays behind to fight the monster while Rand and Mat flee. It’s a neat action scene, showing the Fade moving almost too fast for Thom to keep up with, and I’m enjoying the monster design on the show thus far even while recognizing it’s not the most original aesthetic in the world.
By the episode’s end, Logain has been defeated, the final rebellion all the excuse Liandrin needs to strip him of his powers. Looks like the Dragon is still one of the Two Rivers folk; and if this is sort of reception a false one received, being the real deal is probably not going to be an easy time for anyone.
- This show could really use more humor. I admire its efficiency, but so far the moments that stand out tend to be smaller, unexpected character beats; I particularly liked Kerene and her warder dishing about Moraine and Lan.
- Is this the first we’ve heard of the Amyrlin Seat?
- The “raging sun” line comes from Moraine’s dismissal of Logain as the true Dragon; he’s too old, and too weak, to be the real deal. (It’s possible his comment about Nyneave’s power is supposed to make us suspect Nyneave may be the Dragon herself, although I read it more as just a stunned response to being so utterly, if briefly, outclassed.)
- Rand had another scary dream. These are also directly from the books, but they’re too perfunctory to really register as more than marking another box on the adaptation checklist.