One of the challenges of watching an adaptation of material that you have strong memories of is trying to appreciate the new version for itself, and not get too hung up on the changes. Which isn’t a revolutionary observation on my part, but I mention it here in part as a way to commend The Wheel Of Time for pulling off what I would’ve thought was impossible: putting a version of The Eye Of The World on screen that, so far at least, hasn’t disappointed. “The Dark Along The Ways” continues that trend, but the structure of the episode requires the writers to lean into some ideas that diverge from the original text, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse. So I’m trying to be careful here, is what I’m saying; there are a few conversations in this that didn’t quite ring true, but it’s possible it’s just my memories getting in the way of my, ahem, critical judgment.
Things start quite strong. In the show’s first season, it’s gotten into the habit of using the cold opens to flashback to a particular moment in time that will add some texture or nuance to present day events. It’s an old trick, but a good one, and “Dark” has the best opening scene yet: a terrific action set piece featuring a red-headed pregnant woman laying waste to half a dozen soldiers on a snowy mountainside. It’s the best fight scene the show has pulled off yet, and it’s all the more thrilling because the scene never stops to try and explain itself or justify its presence. If you’ve read the books, you likely know what this is, and “Dark” does offer up an explanation by the end (Rand flashes back to a scene I don’t think we saw in the premiere: him carrying his wounded father into town for help, and Tam muttering about a woman giving birth on a mountain—and that baby grew up to be…)(Rand, it grew up to be Rand), but in the moment, it kicks things off with such a visceral edge that it sets a tone of despair and desperation for the whole rest of the episode.
Well… almost. The trip through the Ways is almost shockingly brief, but it’s tense enough; we learn about Machin Shin (the Black Wind), and how the Ways once used to be a fertile, beautiful place. But the Dark One fucked it up like he fucks everything up, and now it’s pitch black and dead, and there’s this evil hurricane that comes along and whispers all the worst things you ever thought about yourself. It tells Nyneave that she’ll fail everyone she loves; it tells Perrin that he never loved his wife; it tells Moraine she’ll get everyone killed. It tells Rand that Egwene doesn’t love him as much as he loves her, and that she’s going to leave him for someone else.
Oh, and while we don’t see this at the time, it also tells Rand he’s the Dragon Reborn. Which, unless the show diverges wildly from the novels, is the absolute truth.
There’s a lot to enjoy in “The Dark.” We get the introduction of Min, one of my favorite characters from the books, a young woman who can see people’s auras, finding hints and omens of their future in the visions that surround them; we see Lan spending time with people he grew up with, and learn that he’s heir to a throne that no longer exists; and there’s a general effort to deepen the relationships between the characters, to find some fault lines and apply pressure and see what happens. This is very much a penultimate episode, a breath held before next week’s big finale at the Eye, and on the whole, it does what it needs to do: remind us who all these people are, and why they matter to each other, and why all of this should matter to us.
What holds it back a little, for me, is that some of those fault lines aren’t quite as interesting as the show seems to think they are. The main point of stress among the Two Rivers folk, apart from Moraine flat out telling them that any of them who aren’t the Dragon will die when they go to the Eye, is Mat leaving the group. At least, that’s where the tension starts. When the episode starts, Rand is upset and wants to go back to get Mat, but it’s impossible; later he uses that as a reason to get angry at everyone, which only leads to further complications when he turns his distrust on Egwene. In theory, all of this makes sense: Rand and Egwene were lovers, now the world has gotten a lot bigger and a lot scarier, and the situation between them has become a lot more complicated. It’s like when you date someone in high school and then one of you goes off to college, only with magic women and large monsters with horns.
The problem is that while I buy these two as a couple, I’m not invested enough in that relationship to spend this much time on it; nor is the awkward attempt to introduce a love triangle all that effective. It turns out Perrin is also in love with Egwene, something Nyneave inadvertently lets slip in a moment of anger (this Nyneave is significantly more in control of herself than her book counterpart, although we did get some classic braid tugging here). Juxtaposing personal relationships against a larger threat isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but there’s something a little goofy about everyone going full teen angst in the face of apparently inevitable death.
If Moraine hadn’t issued the “if you aren’t the Dragon, you will die” threat, or if we’d had more time with the group together to build these relationships out more, this could’ve worked. As is, it’s certainly not terrible, but Rand and Perrin growling at one another rings slightly hollow at a time when the show needs to be reinforcing their bonds. You can even see how this should have worked: Nyneave follows Lan around, spends time with his friends, and eventually sleeps with him. (I’m still a little taken aback at how much sex the show has added to the books–it’s not exploitive at all, and it’s an excellent way to make the show’s world feel more grounded and real, but fourteen year-old Zack is absolutely shocked.) Their romance has been a running thread for much of the season, and there’s a pleasant resonance to watching them hook up. It doesn’t change anything, not really, but it makes them more human, in a way that the Rand/Egwene/Perrin triangle doesn’t quite pull off.
The biggest “...huh” for me in “Dark,” though, was the reveal of the Dragon’s identity. If it even was a reveal. Three-quarters through the episode, Rand starts remembering some important details; he goes to see Min, and gets a kind of confirmation (the first aura Min ever saw was on Tam, helping the woman give birth on the side of Dragonmount, that mountain that looked familiar to Rand when he and Mat arrived at Tar Valon), and then decides to save his friends by going to Moraine and telling her he’s the Dragon directly, so that the two can head off into the Blight on their own.
All of this makes sense on a plot level, and again, at least in the books, Rand al’Thor is absolutely the Dragon. But the execution here is odd, and I can’t tell if that’s just a result of the show’s ruthless “get to the point” efficiency, or if it’s setting something else up. The scene where he talks to Min has weight and intensity behind it, but his confession to Moraine feels strangely anti-climactic, especially after we’ve seemingly spent the rest of the season building to this moment. It’s odd that the show wouldn’t wait until next week’s finale to reveal the truth, and the fact that Moraine just nods and goes along with Rand’s assertion is… I don’t even know, really. It’s not completely absurd, but after this much, I could’ve used a bit more resolution than “a man thinks for a bit and realizes something.”
It’s possible that this is all some kind of feint; maybe the TV adaptation will swerve and make someone else the Dragon. I doubt it, though. Mostly this just feels like an unfortunate side effect of having only eight episodes to spend on a long novel; it’s a curious season length, and it’s probably difficult to position climactic moments to their best advantage. Given that Rand’s identity was a five second Google search, maybe the writers figured it was best to lean into it more than was absolutely necessary. Regardless, it’s a minor flaw in a generally good hour of television, one that ends with a strong cliffhanger to pull us into next week’s finale. The Dragon is reborn! Now things get interesting.
- I won’t lie, I’ll be disappointed if the show does decide to change things up and make someone else the Dragon. I can’t imagine it happening (by all accounts, the showrunner seems to be a fan of the book series), but I’m still a little nervous going into the end of the season.
- It’s interesting how much the episode stresses the idea that the confrontation at the Eye is likely to be a fatal one. I’m curious how that pans out.
- The Blight is extremely cool looking, and not at all how I pictured it.
- If the cold open is any indication, I cannot wait to see how this show handles the Aiel.
- Moraine sends a message back to the Tower for the Red Aja to hunt Mat, which is about as ruthless as we’ve seen her be, I think. (Given that Mat can’t channel, it’s not that ruthless, but still.)
- Anyone want to bet the season finale cold open is some version of the prologue from The Eye Of The World?