SERIES REVIEW – In a world where only women can (safely) use magic, witch Moiraine (Pike) Aes Sedai arrives in a village searching for The Dragon Reborn – the reincarnation of a legendary hero. After being attacked by nightmarish monsters (trolls), she and five potential candidates set out on a journey to either save the world or break it.
If there is one thing the world of The Wheel of Time is not short of, it is content. Robert Jordan’s sprawling work of fantasy spans 15 hefty volumes (including a prequel) and took 29 years to complete, ultimately outliving its creator (Brandon Sanderson finished the last three books after Jordan’s death). It is a fantasy series with stories of extraordinary depth, it contains enough plot threads to tie a scarf to the M5. The Wheel of Time is one of the most epic works of fantasy ever written, so when Jeff Bezos demanded that Amazon produce a response to Game of Thrones, it was the obvious choice.
But while Game of Thrones was essentially a very human story of intrigue, incest and betrayal (with a deliberately subdued inclusion of dragons and white walkers at first), The Wheel of Time is a classic fantasy. In the very first episode, we meet a reincarnated wizard, a mystical prophecy, an army of beastly trolls, and Rosamund Pike throwing fireballs. Add to that the fateful heroes and the ominous talk of the Dark Lord, and you have the feeling you’re in a computer fantasy role-playing game.
But The Wheel Of Time is far from just another tired, cliché-filled fantasy series about ogres and goblins. Long ago, we learn, men used magic to break the world and left it to women to pick up the pieces. The result is a society where women are literally in power. As a result, the series is also full of well-developed female characters who can assert themselves without constantly being seen naked. This is the world into which our five rural naïves slip: Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), Rand (Josha Stradowski), Mat (Barney Harris), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden). Moiraine (Rosamund Pike, excellent, though terribly stern in her portrayal of the character) picks them up from a deserted village and snatches them from their homes to save the world. From there, events accelerate and the story becomes complex.
A repetitive plot
Along the way, they face more perils and setbacks than they should – from monster attacks to battles against witches to mysteriously haunted towns – but that’s about it. Every episode has some significant violence and action scenes, but all at the expense of character deepening. With the exception of Nyneave, the majority of the villagers come across as flat archetypes at the start of a role-playing game, rather than fully realised characters. Rand and Egwene’s romance feels perfunctory, as if it’s only there because the genre requires there to be at least one love story. Likewise, the Candidate’s clash with darkness seems less about him and more like a fleshing out of the series’ mythology to the last.
Unfortunately Rosamund Pike – who we see for the first time in a series – doesn’t fare much better. As Moiraine, the Gone Girl actress is destined to be cold and reserved, but doesn’t really get the chance to play anything more than that. (This problem actually becomes textual when another Sedai remarks: “It’s hard to talk to someone who doesn’t say anything” – one of the few moments of self-awareness in the series. ) Fortunately, episode six pairs Pike with a dynamic and new scene partner, allowing him to show another side of Moiraine. While this doesn’t make up for the one-note performance of the first five episodes, it at least makes the end of the season more interesting.
Fun and spectacular, but superficial
Despite the poor characterisation, I still found The Wheel of Time quite entertaining. It certainly has no shortage of events. The writers keep the plot wheel turning as they chase the characters from one location to another, driving the plot along appropriately. This is not only a boon in the age of streaming bloat, but the constant progression aids world-building as the series introduces us to new things at a steady pace – from the revanchist White Cloaks, to an army of men who resent the Aes Sedai and hunt them with religious fervor, to a peace-loving community of nomads who are just here for the atmosphere, to the surprisingly interesting internal politics of the Aes Sedai. Plus, the series provides just enough history to give context to the present, and the world feels lived in without overwhelming the viewer (at least not until Amazon orders the prequels, which they will use to expand the universe.) The setting is so immersive that one wishes the characters had been given the same attention.
Amazon clearly hopes that The Wheel of Time will be the heir to Game of Thrones. Indeed, the streaming service gave the green light for the second season months before the premiere. That means the series still has time to get going before the Wheel breaks.