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The Wheel Of Time offers new fantasy with some familiar trappings

The adaption of Robert Jordan's long-running book series is fast-paced but still unsure of its own identity

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“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legends. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”

I’ll admit—I don’t have that memorized. Maybe when I was sixteen, although likely not even then. Every book in Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time series, all nine hundred of them, opens with those two sentences; it is, in a sense, the primary thesis of an ever-expanding document. Other fantasy series talk about fate, destiny, prophecy, and those are all present in WOT, but few take it quite so literally. The idea of death and rebirth is a constant companion; the story we’re reading is just an iteration on a battle that has been fought many, many times before, and will be fought again. Many of the characters we meet are literal reincarnations of heroes and villains who died a millenia ago, and that past, as distant as it is, remains relevant. Sooner or later, it always finds them. As do the monsters.


It’s a neat idea, and one of several reasons I enjoyed the books. Jordan takes some big swings, and while not everything connects, the ambition and scope of the series were easy for teenage me to get lost in. But, again, I didn’t have that opening memorized. I remembered okay, but I never made an effort to hold it in my head the same way I memorized the poem at the start of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. I’ve read The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn several times, and much of the rest of them twice or three times over, but it was never the sort of series that I had to put an effort into. It was massive and complicated and had hundreds, if not thousands, of characters, but it was also the kind of escapism that people turn to genre for. “Junk food” is overstating it, but, like a pizza from the corner store and a big glass of orange soda? That’s the stuff. Comfort food for days.


In many ways, television feels like a natural fit for this kind of material, especially now that Game Of Thrones has proven you can adapt long-running fantasy without it being a catastrophe. A TV show can take a pre-existing narrative and, ideally, streamline it to its purest, using the hundreds of pages of world-building and flavor as a blueprint for the best possible version of the story. It can provide spectacle, give depth to two-dimensional figures, provide interesting angles to material that fans already know by heart. And it can also be an even more accessible kind of comfort, the sort you can put on and let run while you let your mind wander.

It’s too early to tell if the new Wheel Of Time TV series is going to achieve the medium’s loftier aims, but as escapism goes—and just in terms of pure faithfulness to the text—these first three episodes are surprisingly not terrible. They’re pretty good. Hell, I’d even go so far as “good” for some of it, especially as the show moves forward and starts to get its legs underneath it. I’ve seen several reviews from critics I trust who didn’t much care for any of this, so hopefully you’ll take this and every recap to come with the usual helping of salt; my fondness for the source material (nostalgic or otherwise) is likely influencing my judgment. Still, I was prepared for complete disaster here, or else something that took a lot of familiar elements and jumbled them beyond recognition. That’s not what I got at all.

Maybe part of the reason some critics have been cold on the show is a flaw already endemic to the first novel being adapted, The Eye Of The World: the clear Lord Of The Rings influence is difficult to unsee. Not that the show shies away from that—the very first scene has Rosamund Pike doing her best Cate Blanchett voice over impression, intoning “The world is broken,” in a way that’s not quite actionably “”The world is changed,” but, uh, well.

Things don’t immediately improve. Morain quickly explains about the Dragon, a savior who she believes has been reborn to save the world from the Dark One, and then the episode cuts abruptly to a group of imperious women chasing down a pair of terrified men. One of them escapes; the other is less lucky. Something awful happens to him, and on the cliffs above, Lan and Moraine observe at a distance. “It’s not him,” Moraine says, in case we were under the impression that the chosen one had been caught and ruined in the opening three minutes.


All of this is, more or less, from the books (I’ll admit to never reading New Spring, the prequel novel, but I’m guessing a rough version of this scene appears in it), but it’s not handled in a way to inspire much confidence. There’s no elegance here, no clear hook, just some seemingly generic fantasy bullshit and a scene of scary ladies doing a scary thing. Nothing about this opening suggests a show, or a story, with anything interesting to say; worse, nothing about it is immediately engaging or compelling. It feels like a “Previously On” sequence, which is not something you really want as the first scene of the first episode of your show.

Thankfully, things improve from there, as the episode heads into the opening (past the prologue) of Eye Of The World and then just goes about adapting the book in a TV show. Which sounds like a tautology from an idiot, but I really can’t stress enough just how faithful it is. There are changes, of course, and not all of them are for the better, but a lot of what I remembered from Eye is here, which is especially impressive given that I haven’t read Eye in years.


That unfortunately means that the Tolkien parallels are going to be with us for a bit longer. Instead of the Shire, we have the Two Rivers, a vibrant (and surprisingly ethnically diverse) small town community of farmers and blacksmiths and innkeepers all going around doing “small town before electricity” sort of things. And instead of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, we have Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), local redheaded lummox; Egwene al’Vere (Madeline Madden), potential Wisdom apprentice; Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), the sarcastic one; Nyneave al’Meara (Zoe Robins), the aforementioned Wisdom; and Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), a good-natured blacksmith.

As they say on the old CD compilation ads, all the hits are here. Slightly altered in some places, at least in terms of backstory: Mat has a philandering father and a drunken mom, which gives some early pathos to his cynicism, and Perrin has a wife who he can inadvertently kill when everything goes to hell—but the characters are all faithful to their original selves, and as we get to know them better over the first three episodes, that faithfulness becomes even more apparent. I doubt it makes much of an impression to anyone unfamiliar with the source material, but after decades of watching beloved genre novels being mangled beyond recognition on the big and small screen alike, it was a genuine thrill to, say, watch Rand’s father Tam pull out a sword with heron mark on it and know instantly what that meant. Or here Moraine refer to the three young men and one young women as “ta’veren,” a word of particular importance in the book series—albeit one the show doesn’t slow down to explain here.


That does raise a potential issue. In its first three episodes, at least, Wheel Of Time drops a fair bit of terminology, and rarely stops to explain any of it. Most of the ideas can be easily understood in context (we see Moraine in action soon enough to know what it means to be an “Aes Sedai,” and it’s not like “Dark One” needs a lot of unpacking), and name drops in conversation can just as easily function as texture and world-building without needing a glossary definition. But one of the challenges facing the show is that it’s arriving on television after Game Of Thones already subverted a lot of the tropes Jordan is directly engaging with. A lot of what makes Wheel Of Time interesting is the almost staggering level of detail in its world-building. When that world-building is pushed to the background in favor of more immediate action, it means the story could potentially lose a large portion of its particular charm.

But that’s a concern for later. For right now, there are Trollocs to worry about. So: Moraine and her warder, Lan Mondragoran (Daniel Henney) arrive in the Two Rivers just in time for a festival. Moraine sets her sights on Mat, Perrin, Rand, and Egwene, but before she can make contact, the village is attacked by Trollocs (the WoT equivalent of orcs) led by a Fade (not exactly a ring-wraith, but close enough to, again, feel derivative). After the slaughter is over, and after Moraine wipes out the army and gets stabbed in the shoulder for her troubles, the Aes Sedai explains to the group that the Dark One is hunting them, and they need to run away with her to the White Tower in Tar Valon, where the rest of her sisters can decide how to proceed.


She also tells them that she believes one of them to be the Dragon reborn, which I’m pretty sure didn’t come up quite so early in the novel. One of the more unfortunate aspects of the streamlined narrative is that, for now at least, it de-emphasizes what was one of my favorite aspects of the original series: that while the Dragon is supposed to save the world from the coming apocalypse, most people only know the name as the stuff of nightmares. I won’t get into the full story here, as the show hasn’t revealed it yet, but they have a good reason to be afraid—it’s the sort of situation where the cure could be worse than the disease, and there’s little sense here of any of the Two Rivers folk being frightened or unsettled by their potential fate.

That’s probably my biggest criticism of these first three episodes. I appreciate how much the show works to maintain its momentum, with our heroes leaving the Two Rivers with the next Trolloc army fast on their heels; they even have to cross a river to evade pursuit, much like the hobbits once did. (Admittedly, the hobbits didn’t inadvertently kill a ferryman.) There’s no drag here, as the show barrels straight through its “breaking of the fellowship” moment: when Moraine’s injury worsens (poison), Lan takes the group into the cursed city of Shadar Logoth, where they are ultimately separated by some creepy special effects, Rand and Mat going off together, Perrin trying to keep Egwene safe, and Lan and Moraine straggling behind.


This takes up the bulk of the second episode, along with an introduction to the Children of Light (an army of magic haters who we’ll see more of soon, I’m sure), and a few scenes of bad dreams and Moraine’s initial effort to train Egwene in channeling. It’s a thrill to see it play out, no question, but while nothing here feels exactly rushed, nothing lingers. The show is so intent on holding our interest via tension that, at times, the characters and world seem to exist more to serve the forward motion than as entities in and of themselves. It makes for an easy watch, but, unless you’re just enjoying a visual summary of something you previously only knew in text, not a hugely memorable one.

Things don’t change drastically by episode three, which features the return of Nyneave (assumed dead at the end of the first episode when she’s dragged off by a Trolloc), and the adventures of our three separate groups as they struggle to decide what to do next. After an intense flashback where Nyneave manages to first evade, and then kill, the Trollock who kidnapped her, we see her catching Moraine and Lan unawares, leading to some awkwardness when she demands to see the Two Rivers folk. Perrin and Egwene are chased (or herded) by wolves until they meet up with the Traveling Folk, a group of, uh, traveling folk who take them in and feed them.


Meanwhile, Rand and Mat try to make ends meet at a tavern, with Rand chopping wood for their supper and Mat trying (and failing) to seduce the innkeeper. We meet a mysterious fellow named Thom Merrilin (Alexandre Willaume), who sings a song, steals Mat’s purse, and then saves the boys when the innkeeper turns out to be a Dark Friend. The episode ends with the groups still separated, and Moraine, Lan, and Nyneave meeting up with the group of Aes Sedai we saw at the beginning of the episode. Liandrin, their leader, haughtily informs Moraine that they’ve found and caught the “Dragon,” and we see a man in a cage pulled into view.

Like I said, we’re still firmly in the “keep it moving, keep it moving, for god’s sake keep it moving” phase, and it’s possible the show never quite develops the confidence to slow down. But there are scenes scattered throughout that give me hope for what’s to come, like Moraine explaining the true story of a song, or Rand and the innkeeper’s long conversation before the innkeeper reveals her true colors. The performances are, at worst, perfectly fine, with Rosamund Pike being the main standout so far; the way she just absolutely throws herself into channeling magic is a sight to behold.


I promise these write-ups will get more in-depth about individual scenes and characters as we go forward—it’ll be easier when there’s only one episode to talk about at a time. But for right now, I just want to leave you with an impression of pleasant surprise. Of unexpected competence. This isn’t great, not yet, and it’s entirely possible that, given the source and the restrictions of TV adaptations and any other number of reasons, that it will never achieve greatness. But this isn’t a bad start, and that’s more than I was hoping for.

Stray observations

  • I like that the innkeeper initially assumes Rand and Mat are a couple, and Rand doesn’t seem at all put out or bothered by this. In general, the show is more direct about sex than the books ever were; Egwene and Rand childhood sweethearts in the novel, but they certainly didn’t sleep together like they do here. Not a lot of nudity, which is honestly a relief after the stuff we heard out of Game Of Thrones.
  • “This power is meant for women, and women alone. And when you touch it, you make it filthy.” Part of the premise of the original novels depends on narrow view of gender—it wasn’t intended as hateful or explicitly transphobic, but there have been a lot of changes how we talk about the idea of “men” and “women,” and I’m interested to see how the show handles it going forward.
  • I have no idea why Perrin has a wife in the episode, and while I understand conceptually that she had to die, I don’t really know why he had to be the one who killed her. It’s the most upsetting moment in the first episode, and the biggest change from the original text; I’ll give some benefit of the doubt for now, but it feels like a miscalculation at best.