“The wheel weaves as the wheel wills,” and for Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy series, it wills it quickly. Running an economic eight hourlong episodes, The Wheel of Time is a brisk entry to Robert Jordan’s massive novel series, which evidently contains 2782 distinct characters. Amazon’s version doesn’t have quite that many, not yet, but I can genuinely say that as a newbie to the franchise it took me several episodes and many tabs to understand what anyone’s name actually was (from what I can tell, Jordan just drew letters out of hat to conjure them). And yet, this adaptation—developed by Rafe Judkins—does everything it can to be accessible to viewers unfamiliar with the source material.
What effect that has on book readers’ enjoyment of the series is not for me to say. However, for fantasy fans in general, the setup for The Wheel of Time will feel exceptionally familiar. There is a Chosen One (with a twist—more on that in a moment), radical followers of The Light, scholarly ogre-types, trollocs (scary Orc-like beings), wraiths, and powerful sorceresses who can “channel The One Power” to help humans in the forever battle against The Dark One. The names here aren’t that unique—Jordan saves that for everyone and everything else—but it establishes a traditional fantasy foundation on which to build an adventure story steeped in lore that the show is, surprisingly, in no hurry to reveal (despite its rush in every other aspect).
On the one hand, maybe it’s a smart play. Lore and exposition drops are very tricky in fantasy series. Too much of it and you’ll overload viewers with things they don’t understand without context, and possibly don’t care about regardless. Too little, and your world will feel flat. The Wheel of Time errs towards the latter, hence my careful Googling and Wiki tabs to fill in the blanks without spoilers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s more to explore if you want it, but for casual viewers, much of the ancillary information is either doled out when it’s important to know, or is glossed over because it would otherwise bog things down. Again, for fantasy series based on well-established novels (Shadow and Bone, Game of Thrones), that’s not a new storytelling tactic.
What does feel new is that the Chosen One in The Wheel of Time is not obvious to us or to the powerful Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) who seeks them out. Moiraine and her sisters of the Aes Sedai (which something of a magic-wielding women’s counsel, as only women can harness this power) have been looking for “the Dragon reborn” for a long time, waiting for the “Wheel” to spit that spirit back out. Essentially, this Dragon will be the one to ultimately defeat The Dark One—or destroy the world. You know how it goes.
But in her travels, Moiraine and her bodyguard/protector Lan (Daniel Henney) discover not one but four or five potential young adults who fit the bill, all from a single village. This gives the series an interesting twist, as does the gut-wrenching violence that punctuates the story from time to time, starting—rather interestingly—in the very first episode. As such, what begins as a pretty standard, even stiff, fantasy setup quickly throws us (and these confused friends) into the action, hurtling towards destiny.
The costumes and sets aren’t lavish, even sometimes sterile, but they mostly do the trick in establishing this world. Still, further budget was undoubtedly saved by having only one recognizable actor as a lead in Rosamund Pike. It was a fair gamble; Pike’s performance is layered and staid, grounding the show alongside other veteran TV actors, which helps the younger set of mostly unknown candidates for the Chosen One. This includes Joshua Stradowski as Rand, a typical good guy/hero type; Marcus Rutherford as Perrin, a strong blacksmith with a gentle heart; Madeleine Madden as Egwene, a soulful healer; and Barney Harris as Mat, a sarcastic rogue who is fiercely protective of his loved ones. Any one of these could be the Dragon Reborn, as each is more or less “Force sensitive,” but none of them come off as leading the pack.
After a few episodes the young actors do start to come into their own, but there’s a lot about the performances that feels hesitant or even tropey. That’s not helped by the fact that we don’t really get to know any of them with any depth, even when they split off into pairs. Within one episode, we’ll see a character enter the same room someone else did just 10 minutes earlier, but be told that months have passed without any other visual sign or story update. For a show about time, The Wheel of Time wields it fairly willy-nilly.
What that means in terms of this first season is that The Wheel of Time sets up a lot of interesting things without necessarily giving us the space to process them, or even the pleasure of simply spending more time with various peoples and factions met along the way, such as a New Age-y group of nomads, a fascinating (if socially-awkward) Ogier, a “gleeman” (bard) who could have his own adventure show, and a city that has fallen to darkness—not to mention the color-coded political brokers of the Aes Sedai.
Feeling something like CliffNotes, Amazon’s production doesn’t seem to trust viewers to stay invested without moving at a breakneck pace, preferring instead to just skip along to the good stuff during this limited runtime. Maybe the books do the same thing—it certainly makes the show fun to watch. But when I felt anxious that a character I like might perish, it wasn’t because I felt I knew this character so well that I couldn’t imagine the show without them, it’s that I was disappointed their potential wasn’t more fully explored.
Driven by a desire to see how this world would expand and the Chosen One(s) narrative would play out, I easily binged through the six episodes that were provided for review and now eagerly await the final two. But again, it’s less that I’m truly invested in the characters and the lore as much as I’m hopeful to become invested. The Wheel of Time teases out so much, but whether or not it eventually fills that out—or if its surface-level telling of this story will lead viewers to a deeper connection with the series itself—is uncertain. If the books are the first Dragon and the TV show is the Dragon Reborn, the question of whether the latter will fulfill its promised destiny currently remains a similarly muddled hope.
The Wheel of Time premieres with three episodes on Friday, November 19th, with subsequent episodes airing weekly through December 24th.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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