Among many of the sci-fi and fantasy properties finally tackled in 2021 on both the big and small screens, The Wheel of Time has long been regarded as one that could possibly be “unadaptable” — and since the rights were first optioned back in 2000, it’s been a long and winding journey for the sprawling world of the late Robert Jordan‘s novels to finally become translated into a series format. With showrunner Rafe Judkins (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) now behind the wheel, so to speak, both long-time readers of the books and anyone who was even mildly intrigued from trailers and scene teases have been waiting to see whether the upcoming Prime Video adaptation is fully worth tuning in for. The good news? Those of you who found yourselves more than a little burned by the ending of another epic genre series (and I’m including myself within that group) may have just found your latest fantasy obsession to succumb to.
First, the overarching summary: The Wheel of Time is set in a world that is inherently matriarchal in its construction — a group of women known as the Aes Sedai wields the “One Power,” wherein they channel saidar (aka magic) to access various elements and draw them together to create weaves that can be used for battle, shields, or other various means. Men are forbidden from channeling because every previous attempt has been known to drive the wielder insane, so over the years, the Aes Sedai became a female-only institution, with a particular division (or Ajah) tasked with tracking down male channelers and effectively neutralizing the potential threat.
It’s through this powerful group of women that we’re first introduced to Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), an Aes Sedai who has been on a secret search of her own for many years for someone called the Dragon Reborn, an immensely powerful individual who is prophesized to either save the world or lead it into destruction. Accompanied by her loyal Warder, or bodyguard, Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), Moiraine makes her way to the small mountain region known as the Two Rivers, where it’s possible that the reincarnation of the Dragon might exist from among a quintet of characters — sheepherder Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), blacksmith Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), innkeepers’ daughter Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), gambler and thief Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), and Wisdom (or healer) Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins). Within the first season, tracking them down is actually the easy part for Moiraine; taking them all back to the White Tower, where the Aes Sedai reside in the city of Tar Valon, proves to be a lot more complicated — but as any fantasy lover will tell you, the quest is an essential part of any good story, and The Wheel of Time delivers on that front.
Everything I’ve taken time to explain already might seem like a lot to wrap your head around, but the truth is that The Wheel of Time doesn’t necessarily feel like a show where you have to be absolutely caught up on the source material before diving in. I’ll admit to not having been very familiar with the books at all myself prior to my watch, and maybe the fact that I’m a big genre reader and grew up on thick sci-fi and fantasy doorstoppers makes me somewhat more predisposed to enjoy a certain amount of worldbuilding and lore with these types of shows. But The Wheel of Time also doesn’t get bogged down in too many confusing made-up terms or overly complicated politics, and once our small group of heroes begins their trip to Tar Valon, it’s actually fairly easy to just follow along with them, uncovering much of the story as they themselves do.
Although The Wheel of Time boasts a broad main and supporting cast, it is Pike’s shoulders on which a large amount of the story rests — and while the first season does take significant time to explore many different relationships, much of its emotional center revolves around Moiraine herself. In the world of the series, the bond between an Aes Sedai and her Warder is described several times as being closer than anything romantic or familial that exists, and Pike and Henney commit wholeheartedly in giving their characters both the unspoken weight and affection that two people who have been fighting side-by-side for years would possess. It’s this connection that we see echoed in multiple Aes Sedai/Warder pairs (and at least one apparent instance of a throuple) that becomes one of the season’s most poignant as well as heartwrenching threads: when you’re magically bonded to a person and can feel everything they’re feeling, from pain to grief, it makes the stakes that much higher and the threat of loss that much greater.
And, as it turns out, the Aes Sedai have more than one threat to contend with on a broader level. Not only is there a dangerously powerful male channeler going around claiming to be the Dragon Reborn (Álvaro Morte), but an independent organization of religious fanatics, the Whitecloaks, is also viciously targeting female channelers and burning them at the stake. One Whitecloak in particular (Abdul Salis) derives a particularly sadistic pleasure of killing Aes Sedai and then wearing their rings on his belt as trophies. All of that aside, The Wheel of Time has a lot more going for it than the Aes Sedai-related plots — but they are some of the biggest reasons to watch. Over the course of the first season, the plot makes the choice to split up the core five (plus Moiraine and Lan), with various pairs forced to make their way separately to Tar Valon, but the advantage there is that these characters are given more room to breathe apart from one another, narratively speaking. We learn more about the unique powers that each of them might possess — and how some may not be the Dragon Reborn after all but something equal to or even stronger than that, outside of prophecy.
The Wheel of Time also, quite frankly, gives the small-screen genre adaptation the injection of inclusion it desperately needed — and what’s more, it makes it look so easy, taking Jordan’s books and turning it into a world that feels effortlessly diverse, effortlessly queer, with women at the heart of power, and all something that requires no in-universe explanation or justification for why; it simply is. The extended exploration of character and relationship development might also feel slower by comparison to a recent series’ very rushed final season, but digging into these dynamics only works to the story’s benefit. The result is a show that satisfyingly deals more in intimate moments rather than overly relying on big action set pieces or CGI’d mythical creatures to conjure excitement. One particular scene early in the season, in which Pike’s Moiraine delivers a nearly four-minute monologue on horseback, is as enthralling as any intense battle sequence we’re given later on.
By the end of the six episodes that were given to critics for review, it really feels like the adventure is only just beginning — so it’s fortunate that the streaming series has already been renewed for a second season. Like any good fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time is one that promises very impressive returns, provided audiences are willing to settle in for the long haul.
The Wheel of Time premieres its first three episodes on November 19, exclusively on Prime Video.
Even book fans will be surprised by what’s to come.
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