So far at least, The Wheel Of Time has been solidly, even admirably, competent. We can quibble over some of the monster designs (I think the Trollocs look endearingly old-school, but maybe you find them tedious) or the action setpieces (that wolf attack has me worried about how the show will handle attacks by other packs of animals in the future, if and when the need arises), but even at its worst, the show hasn’t been embarrassing. That might not sound like a lot, and I’ll admit that fantasy television has improved considerably in the past couple of decades, but it’s still an excellent place to start from. You get the casting right, you make sure the costumes and sets are convincing, you don’t fuck up any of the core concepts–you got yourself a stew right there.
What you don’t have is a show that demands viewers keep watching it. I’m in for the ride at this point, partly because I’m getting paid, and partly because I have enough fondness for the book series that I’m already getting excited to see how the adaptation handles later events. (The Forsaken! The Wastes! …Other things that I either can’t remember right now or are too spoiler-y to mention!) But not everyone is reviewing The Wheel Of Time, and not everyone has pleasant memories of the Robert Jordan novels. And once you separate out nostalgia and competence, well–there’s something there, but for the first few episodes, the show was so intent on making sure its feet barely touched the ground that it couldn’t quite seem to decide what that something was.
“The Flame Of Tar Valon” is a turning point, I think. Probably not the turning point; there’s nothing like Ned Stark’s [REDACTED] here to make headlines. But this episode feels in many ways like the culmination of what the show has been working towards all along, a sudden heightening of stakes and intensifying of relationships that helps to clarify why all of this matters. Maybe that’s really all a fantasy show, or any show, has to accomplish: it has to find a way to get past cliches and routine, and give us a reason to keep watching beyond “well, it’s not like my brain is going to muffle itself.” Last week, “Blood Calls Blood” attempted to demonstrate the deep bond between Warder and Aes Sedai. It was effective in that regard, but that effectiveness didn’t carry over to the larger narrative; I’m sure everyone watching definitely believes that the gruff guys with the swords will be upset if a gruff lady with a colorful dress is killed, but I’m not sure that really gives us more of a reason to give a damn why Moraine is intent on finding the Dragon Reborn.
Here, though, we get a glimpse of just how dangerous a game she’s playing, and how deeply she’s planned, and the risk to her and Lan if her plans go awry. This doesn’t tell us anything specifically about the Dark One, or even much about the Dragon themselves, but it does tell us how far Moraine is willing to go in order to achieve her goals; and, thanks to the transitive property, because the show (and Pike) have done an excellent job at making us trust Moraine, it makes it that much easier to care about the outcome of her quest. Knowing there’s an ancient force of evil plotting to destroy the world is all well and good, but it’s not a personal threat, and it’s been done so many times before that it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm beyond a tepid appreciate for a classic.
“Flame” makes things more visceral, and it’s all the more impressive that it accomplishes this without violence or excessive audience manipulation. No one dies this week, and there are no monsters, unless you count Liandrin, and she just sucks. Instead, we get more information about the politics of the Tower, about just how hard Moraine has had to work to continue her mission in the face of those politics, and how long she’s been planning and working to achieve her ends. And we also find out just who she’s been working with all these years.
It’s a terrific reveal. The show has done a decent job building up the arrival of the Amyrlin Seat, and Siuan Sanche (Sophie Okonedo) is an excellent addition to the series’ world, imposing and mysterious as the leader of the Aes Sedai, and equally warm and charming speaking in private with her lover. I’d be curious to know if people who were unfamiliar with the source materials knew the twist was coming before it landed; I don’t think it was overly telegraphed, and I admired how long it took for the reveal, but it’s always possible that audiences are familiar enough with this kind of reversal (especially after the cold open) that they could sense it coming without any serious clues at all.
Regardless, I think it works extremely well–pretty much all of the politicking at the Tower worked for me, from Logain’s attempted at suicide by sorceress, to Liandrin’s efforts to throw Moraine in front of the bus. I loved watching Moraine talk with the head of the Blue; the meeting is set in a bath house, but while there’s nudity, it’s discrete and never comes across as exploitative. It’s more about establishing the place these women need to go to guarantee some level of privacy, and the fact that Moraine on the outs with her Aja as she’s on the outs with seemingly everyone else at the Tower makes the vulnerability of the moment all the more compelling.
The real heart of the hour, though, is the discovery that Moraine and Siuan are lovers–and, even more dangerous, that they’ve been searching for the Dragon together for the past two decades. In the books, which (so far as I can remember) were pretty much bereft of LGBT representation, Moraine and Siuan were co-conspirators but just friends, and I’ll admit the change caught me off guard at first. It changes the dynamic somewhat, but in a way that makes it more, rather than less, interesting; it raises the stakes if they’re caught (given how casually Rand and Mat were mistaken for lovers, I doubt gay relationships are verboten in this world; but being the Amyrlin Seat has responsibilities, as Siuan herself points out, and no one would be happy to hear about the whole “We’re trying to find a male channeler” thing), and allows for more emotionally intimate scenes for two characters who typically don’t let their guards down.
I’ll be honest–while Okonedo is fine in the role, Pike is still by far the series MVP, and watching her get the chance to sink her teeth into these scenes is deeply, deeply satisfying. The crux of the episode, at least in terms of the Tar Valon plotting, is that Moraine has to be “punished” for her wandering, and she asks to be exiled so that she can continue her work with the Dragon hunt. (Well “asks” is not quite the right word–while I’m fine with the change from a platonic to a romantic relationship, this Siuan seems a bit more of a pushover than the book version, although that could just be me misreading the relationship.) The sequence in which she is exiled, swearing a very particular oath before the Amyrlin before leaving the hall as all the sisters turn their back on her, is very well done. She’s getting what she wants, but there’s a cost. There’s always a cost.
“Tar Valon” ends with our main cast reunited (Egwene and Perrin arrived in town early, Perrin still recovering from his injuries), and a prophetic dream from Siuan sending them towards the Eye of the World to try and stop the Dark One once and for all. It’s a good, propulsive ending, as the group (minus Mat) heads through a Waygate into the shadows beyond, but it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the show hadn’t briefly slowed down to let us get to know its world and personalities a bit better. Not all of that learning was as effective as this week’s, but I’m encouraged to see that the writers’ value character as much as they clearly value pacing and plot. The Wheel Of Time is turning out to be one of the most pleasant television surprises of the year. Fingers crossed that the surprises stay pleasant.
- Nice moment when Moraine “lies” to Egwene about Rand and Mat being in town; as has been noted on the show, the Aes Sedai can’t lie, but that doesn’t mean they have to tell the truth.
- Speaking of, did Moraine’s oath to the Amyrlin feel a little too specific? It’s possible I missed something, but while I understand that it’s important to try and come up with a promise you can work with, there were some personal comments in there about Siuan that sounded like they might give the game away.
- I continue to enjoy Moraine and Lan’s friendship. She mutes their bond (Aes Sedai and Warders have a bond that lets them feel what the other is feeling) before she visits Siuan; Lan notes this, and tells her, “Give her my love” before he leaves for the night.
- All that talk about Moraine, I forgot to mention that she discovers the dagger Mat stole from Shadar Logoth. There’s some initial confusion, as Rand and Mat are both convinced that Mat can channel and that Moraine is there to gentle him, but once the dagger is revealed, Moraine is apparently able to heal him quickly enough. Still, Mat stays behind when everyone leaves, which is surprising.