The Wheel of Time Season 2 Squanders Too Much of the Series’ Original Potential

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The Wheel of Time Season 2 Squanders Too Much of the Series’ Original Potential

Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time is one of the latest entries in television’s decade-long attempt to embrace high fantasy in the wake of Game of Thrones’ success, adapting a popular series of novels that boasts a sprawling cast of characters, dense internal mythology, complex prophecies, literal magic, and a cyclical timeline that repeats itself over and over again through the ages. And while the series’ first season wasn’t perfect, it had serious potential, thanks to its charming young cast of would-be chosen ones and unique dedication to building a high fantasy world that effortlessly centered female perspectives and agency. Here, only women can safely channel the magical One Power, and, as a result, drive much of the story’s action. And it’s hard to overstate how truly refreshing that feels in a genre that can often forget more than one female character even exists in any given story.

Unfortunately, The Wheel of Time’s sophomore season struggles to build on the promise of its first, abandoning its brisk pace and established connections in favor of a broader, more sprawling narrative that ends up feeling more like homework than an adventure. Season 1 had the advantage of a propulsive narrative hook that kept its episodes all moving toward a singular goal: Find the prophesied Dragon Reborn, a being destined to face the Dark One and either save or doom humanity in the process. Sure, there were a whole lot of other problems that various characters needed to solve to keep the world from falling apart, but this primary quest gave the show (and its viewers!) a much-needed narrative focal point. Now that the Dragon Reborn has been found, though, The Wheel of Time seems to spend an awful lot of time, pardon the pun, spinning its wheels. 

The primary group we spent most of Season 1 watching has been separated, often literally sent to different corners of the world, in a move that severely undercuts the various dynamics and relationships the previous outing spent so much time building. New locations and characters are introduced with little time to breathe or develop beyond a quick listing of the most perfunctory details about who they are. (If you’re lucky! Ask me about desperately googling whatever’s up with the conquest-happy Seanchan!) And it’s not as though these new faces and situations aren’t intriguing; far from it, in fact. But the show’s generally surface-level focus means that it’s difficult to get truly invested in the events playing out onscreen and its suddenly plodding pace feels particularly jarring after Season 1’s brisk storytelling.

As Season 2 opens, Aes Sedai Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) is still unable to use the One Power in the wake of last season’s finale, a loss that has made her even more icy and standoffish than usual to those around her. Her Warder L’an bears the brunt of her sudden bitchiness, and the fact that the series’ strongest relationship is now struggling to even speak to one another is just one of the many twists that may well leave viewers feeling unmoored in this rapidly expanding narrative. For her part, Moiraine is busy searching for information, mostly concerning the fact that the being at the Eye of the World wasn’t the Dark One at all, but Ishamael (Fares Fares), the strongest of the Forsaken, powerful dark lieutenants who have apparently now been unleashed upon the world. 

Elsewhere, Egwene (Madeleine Madden) and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) are now novices at the White Tower, officially training to be Aes Sedai themselves. Nynaeve, despite constantly being told how powerful she is, struggles to use her abilities in even the simplest of ways and increasingly turns to Red Ajah Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood) for advice and guidance. Egwene, though she feels increasing jealousy over Nynaeve’s superior abilities, still puts in long hours of thankless work in order to prove herself, and even manages to make a new friend in the posh Lady Elayne Trakand (Ceara Coveney), a fellow novice who also happens to be the Daughter-Heir of Andor (a.k.a a future queen).

As for the boys from the Two Rivers, Matt Cauthon (now played by Donal Finn) is being held prisoner in the White Tower and is frequently visited by Liandrin, who’s curious about why Moiraine sent the Red Ajah a message to find him. Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) is traveling with a party of Shienarans on the hunt for Padan Fain (Johann Myers) when a local village is attacked by a foreign army from a totalitarian empire known as the Seanchan, who seem to keep their channelers in chains. And Dragon Reborn Rand (Josha Stradowski) is trying to start a new life in Cairhein, where he’s now in a relationship with an innkeeper named Selene (Natasha O’Keeffe) and trying to hide that not only is he able to channel, but he’s actually a prophesied herald of the end times.

On the plus side, the rapid expansion of the series’ scope does allow it to explore Jordan’s massive fantasy world in greater detail, taking us to new realms, introducing over a half dozen new characters, and raising the profiles of several supporting figures from the first season. We’re given fascinating glimpses into the world behind the scenes at the White Tower, as well as hints at what life is like in communities beyond the Two Rivers. The series is still strongest when it’s focused on the small moments underneath the battle for the future of humanity—a scene in which Moiraine and L’an’s uncomfortable frostiness briefly thaws as they recount the story of how they met, a quiet moment in which Egwene lets her guard down to Elayne, an unexpected confession from an Aes Sedai who isn’t always at peace with their order’s long-lived nature.

But, on the whole, The Wheel of Time continues to struggle when it comes to giving its characters and/or their relationships anything like real emotional depth or interiority across the first four episodes of Season 2 that were available to screen for critics (out of a total of eight). As a result, when big moments happen—and there are several shocking betrayals and dramatic plot twists that promise even bigger things to come—they don’t always feel as earned or as impactful as they should. Hopefully, the back half of the season will delve more fully into the complex issues raised here, or at least show us how these characters we have come to care about are being affected by the varied trials they must face. But it’s rapidly running out of runway to do so. 

The thing is—I want to love The Wheel of Time. There’s so much potential in this world, from its complex history and politics to its unapologetically feminist worldview. The show’s strange reluctance to let its characters become more than people-shaped plot points is so frustrating precisely because it’s so darn easy to see how much more it could become. The Wheel may weave as the Wheel wills, but until this series figures out how to treat is story with the genuine depth it and its characters deserve, it can’t help but feel like an also-ran. 

The Wheel of Time Season 2 premieres Friday, September 1 on Prime Video.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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