Rafe Judkins adapts Robert Jordan’s beloved, gargantuan novel cycle to television with joy and style.
Amazon Prime’s new high fantasy series, The Wheel of Time has arrived, and already a major part of the critical conversation seems to be “how much like Game of Thrones is this?” The answer is “not much,” which will undoubtedly disappoint some. For others (myself included) its differences from HBO’s leviathan dragons-and-politics series are welcome. Firstly, in the six episodes that were made available to reviewers, I didn’t spot a single sexual assault and only two women were tortured, so that’s something. Here, women don’t gain power through marriage or dragon-riding because they don’t have to. If there is anything you should bear in mind heading into The Wheel of Time, it’s the knowledge that this is a world where women already hold most of the power, in every sense of the word.
Based on Robert Jordan’s very, very lengthy series (14 books and a prequel, each with an average of 826 pages) The Wheel of Time boasts a massive world, complete with myths and prophecies of chosen ones. The density may be a hindrance to some viewers, especially when Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) starts throwing around terms like “the true source” and “saidin,” but if audiences don’t mind going with the flow, they may find something that can fill that Witcher-sized hole in their hearts.
The ‘Wheel’ is a shorthand description for the show’s cosmology—a mix of fate and prophecy with reincarnation thrown in for good measure. As previously mentioned, women are the ones who wield the power here, in this case, The One Power, an ephemeral force that men can’t touch without going full-tilt bonkers crazy. Like the Bene Gesserit of Dune, female channelers have an order of their own—the Aes Sedai. They serve as the law, the peacemakers, the foot soldiers, and the general movers and shakers.
For all of its extensive setup and world-building, the momentum of the series is relatively straightforward, less of a heroic quest and more of a high fantasy Are We There Yet?, with Moiraine—an Aes Sedai sister—and her Warder (think companion/bodyguard) Lan (Daniel Henny) arriving at the mountain village of The Two Rivers to suss out who among its youth might be the Dragon Reborn. There’s the lovely innkeeper’s daughter Egwene (Madeleine Madden) and her sweetheart Rand (Josha Stradowski) who are old enough, along with Rand’s two best friends Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris, who parted ways with the show at the end of season 1). Lastly, there’s the fiery Nynaeve, who serves as the village Wisdom—a sort of head doctor/mayoral role.
Open-minded viewers will find a great deal to dig here: romance, sword fights, monsters, magic.
After The Two Rivers is attacked by dark forces, Moiraine and Lan have no choice but to escort the handful of potential chosen ones to the safety of her order. Their adventure takes them through some truly spectacular scenery–lush forests and desolate, windswept plains—and set pieces. Unlike Game of Thrones, this is a world where the monsters don’t take four seasons to start making real trouble for the good guys. Within the first few episodes, the cogs are turning swiftly on Wheel, with orc-like Trollocs, haunted cities, religious cults, and cursed objects that poison the possessor.
All of this makes for a rollicking good adventure minus some brattiness from the chosen ones. Rand especially feels bitter over Egwene’s desire for something bigger than a domestic life in The Two Rivers. But for all that he’s hurting, Rand’s disappointment never becomes toxic. After all, this is a world in which men are taught to follow women’s leads, and if Egwene says that’s what she wants, well, that must be okay.
While the first few episodes drag a bit, things get a lot more exciting when Moiraine links up with a group of Aes Sedai on a mission of their own. It’s fascinating—a peek into the world of this order, into the interplay and rivalries between factions (here called Ajahs) and the political machinations taking place quite literally behind the scenes. If The Wheel of Time were nothing but the plots and assignations of the Aes Sedai, that would be plenty entertaining enough in and of itself. But what creator Rafe Judkins has made is a vast, sprawling epic fantasy, the surface of which the first six episodes have just barely scratched.
Open-minded viewers will find a great deal to dig here: romance, sword fights, monsters, magic. Those expecting to walk into a prestige drama may be disappointed to find only the full-throated exaltation of paperback fantasy here. There’s an earnestness about the whole endeavor that will appeal to those of us who grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons every weekend and Magic: The Gathering after school. No, The Wheel of Time is not Game of Thrones. That is for the best.
The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time are now on Amazon Prime.