The Wheel Of Time (Season 1, Ep 1): Leavetaking

Hi! Amazon Prime’s new TV series, based on the books I am blogging about HERE, just debuted. I want to lay out my initial thoughts and reactions to the adaptation.

Warning: This post will contain spoilers covering Episode 1. I recommend not reading on unless or until you have also watched the episode. That said…if you are hesitant to get started on the TV adaptation, and you need a nudge, go ahead and spoil yourself a little bit and I will hopefully help you decide whether the series is worth your time.

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Plot summary:

Two strangers arrive in a remote mountain village of the region known as The Two Rivers. The pair includes a woman named Moiraine who is from a magical order of women called Aes Sedai, and a man, her Warder, Lan Mandragoran. They believe that one of the village youths in The Two Rivers is “The Dragon Reborn” – a reincarnation of the most powerful channeler of magic (“The One Power”) who ever lived. The Dragon, while remembered in history as a man who broke the world in an attempt to cage The Dark One (a cosmic being embodying evil itself), is also believed to be the single greatest threat to The Dark One, which is attempting to escape from the temporary prison built by The Dragon 3,000 years ago.

Moiraine arrives during the aftermath of a celebration for a young woman named Egwene al’Vere. She has just completed a rite of passage for becoming a woman and joining the local “Women’s Circle.” The outward sign that the ceremony is completed is the braiding of her hair. The village is also soon slated to celebrate something else – a local festival called Bel Tine. After the ceremony, Egwene has bad news for one of the local village boys, Rand al’Thor (who is her primary love interest and has been for nearly their entire lives). After prodding from Rand, who can see that something is amiss, Egwene tells Rand that the village Wisdom Nynaeve has told her that she has the ability to become a Wisdom, too. Rand points out that Wisdoms do not marry. Pained, Egwene tells him that she had decided to become Nynaeve’s apprentice. This is effectively a declaration that their relationship will be ending.

We meet some other villagers as well. Mat Cauthon is one of Rand’s best friends. He is primary caretaker of his two younger sisters as his father is known for being a philanderer and his mother is the town drunk. Mat is poor and is willing to steal occasionally to help collect money to take care of his family. Mat is also a gambler – and a bad one at that – so much so that we see Rand and their other friend Perrin giving Mat money to help him buy gifts for his sisters.

Perrin is a blacksmith. He is recently married to a woman named Laila who also works at the forge. There is tension in their marriage – Perrin needs to reassure her that he loves her. Laila does not attend Egwene’s ceremony, and we’re unsure of why. We do not get a lot of time to explore the dynamics of Perrin and Laila’s relationship due to the night that follows.

During the night, minions of The Dark One, monstrous creatures called trollocs and fades, appear. A fade, a human-like figure cloaked in black, rides in on horseback with an army of trollocs in tow, each a jarring hybrid of human and animal. The fade and trollocs attack the village, killing many people. Like Moiraine and Lan, the minions are also searching for The Dragon Reborn. Wielding an axe, Perrin fights a trolloc inside his home, killing it. In a chopping frenzy, Perrin is surprised by Laila who approaches him, and he accidentally hits her as well. Horrified, Perrin watches as Laila’s life slips away.

Elsewhere during the attack, Mat’s parents lose track of his two younger sisters. Mat leaves the safety and locked door of his house and goes looking for them. He eventually finds the two young girls hiding and takes them into the woods outside of the town, where they hide until morning. Egwene is with Nynaeve when Nynaeve is dragged away by a trolloc. Rand and his father Tam are in their farmhouse when a trolloc kicks the door in. By way of a sword and a spear through its head, they manage to kill it. In the process, Tam becomes injured and Rand has to carry his father into the village. They arrive arrive the following morning for healing from the Aes Sedai.

Moiraine and Lan work tirelessly to push back the attack using his sword and her ability to tap into The One Power. The following morning, they tell Egwene, Rand, Mat, and Perrin that The Dark One attacked the village because it believes, as Moiraine does, that one of the four young villagers is The Dragon Reborn. The episode ends as the four flee with Moiraine and Lan on horseback in an attempt to reach The White Tower – the home base for all Aes Sedai – where it is believed the women there will be able to protect them.

Reaction:

If you watch this and pick up some Lord of the Rings vibes, that is because they are planted there intentionally. The first chapters of The Wheel of Time series are written as an homage to Tolkien’s work. As with The Shire, The Two Rivers is home to a people somewhat outside the concerns of the wider world. They are not a wealthy people but neither are they destitute. The community is rooted in deep traditions and has a long history, the beginnings of which even its own inhabitants struggle to recall. Though rough around the edges, the people of The Two Rivers are a happy people.

Also as with Tolkien’s tale, a magical stranger arrives to lead a group of locals from the village and on an adventure. Instead of an old gray bearded “wizard,” the guide figure here is a beautiful woman named Moiraine, an “Aes Sedai.” In both stories, the threat is the same. The small group of locals must leave to protect their village from attacks that will descend on family, friends, and neighbors if they stay. The attackers in both stories are led by evil black-cloaked riders.

Do not watch this expecting a rehash of Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, though. Despite some subject matter similarities, there are also some notable beats that let you know how different this story will be right from the outset.

There is a toughness and edginess to the people of this community that we do not see with the hobbits. When the monstrously sized trollocs attack, after the initial shock, some of the locals fight back viciously and in some cases capably. While Jackson made the LOTR movie violence silly and fun more often than not, The Wheel of Time embraces a gritty and believable depiction of violence. If Tolkien’s baddies were scary in a theoretical and distant kind of way, The Wheel of Time‘s antagonists are terrifying in an up-close and realistic kind of way.

This show is visually breathtaking. Amazon spared absolutely no expense in the location choices, the set designs, or the costuming. The trollocs are brought to life with a combination of practical effects and CGI, and they all look just like you’d want monsters to look – real and terrifying.

Some of the complaints that I have seen about the show are that it felt rushed and/or that it was hard to follow. This is almost always the reaction to any fantasy or sci-fi series – good or bad – when it begins. That feeling for the audience is not an accident. You are going on the journey just as the characters are. They are lost and confused, too. You aren’t supposed to understand everything immediately. At some point later in the series, when you get your feet beneath you, you can go back and re-watch these early episodes with a better appreciation for what you did not understand the first time through.

Professional critics in particular often have a hard time with this type of storytelling. Game of Thrones was not a universal critical success after its pilot. By season five though, many of those skeptics had been won over. This show will be a slow build and will ultimately be judged over the course of its seasons instead of its episodes.

What I Liked Best:

I really enjoyed Egwene’s initiation into the Women’s Circle. Aside from being visual perfection, the scene gives us a great feel for who the people of The Two Rivers really are. This is the kind of place where becoming a woman means being pushed from a cliff by a group of smiling older women. This is the kind of place where the whole town comes together afterward to celebrate. The Two Rivers is a community of tough but warm people, and this moment really encapsulates that feeling.

(I also IMMENSELY enjoyed the scene where the trolloc dies via pitchforks.)

What I Liked Least:

I occasionally had trouble keeping up with the dialogue. As an American, the quick-spoken Euro-Aussie accents were sometimes hard for me to follow closely without also having the closed captions on. I did not really want to have to cover any part of the screen with text of what the characters were saying…but it was necessary on the first watch. I have not seen that as a wide complaint though, so that might just be me.

(For whatever it’s worth, I did not have the same trouble in Episodes 2 and 3.)

Thoughts Specifically For the Book Readers:

(Scroll down to the “Conclusion” heading if you don’t want to be spoiled re: Jordan’s first book in this saga, The Eye of The World.)

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There are some changes from the book material – both large and small. This was known going in. That’s how adaptations work.

If you loved Robert Jordan’s Randland curse words…I’m sorry. They are replaced by real world curse words. This change was necessary, but I hope that the show slips in some appropriate fake swear words here and there later on.

The TV show leaves the identity of The Dragon Reborn a mystery, while the book more or less tells us who it is right away through its not-at-all-subtle point of view choices. I like this change. The books eventually evolve into an ensemble effort, but the TV show’s choice to create some mystery about who The Dragon Reborn is allows it to be an ensemble effort from the very beginning. To that end, the TV show does not allow us to hear Tam having a fever dream during the night after the attack. I loved that scene in the books but I completely understand why it was cut for the show. He gives away too much information in that scene. That’s not to say though that the show will not at some point give us a flashback of Rand’s journey of bringing his father from the farmhouse to the village.

In the book, we join the story after Egwene has been allowed to braid her hair, though we are told she obtained it just days before the book begins. We get to see that braid-earning moment happen on the show and I think the addition is a major positive. The inclusion of this moment fleshes out Egwene as a feature character and it allows us to get to know Nynaeve, and the community as a whole, a little better, too.

All of the village youths are aged up a little bit for television. I think that’s a good decision. The ages of the characters in the novels are fitting for a YA series. However, The Wheel of Time is absolutely not a YA series. Visually bringing them into adulthood makes sense given their future story arcs. That said, the decision to age them up creates some storytelling consequences, too.

An older Rand and Egwene have a very physical relationship already. That might be a tough change for some of the book readers but it makes sense.

An older Perrin means that he has a wife. He also accidentally kills her during the attack. Giving Perrin a wife and then killing her off immediately was a very controversial change to the source material, and I am going to defend the change here. First, it is realistic that at least one of the aged up Two Rivers kids are married. Second, the marriage raised the stakes for a main character during the village’s attack. Personalizing the potential loss in this way helps the audience to feel what a war with the trollocs will mean for the rest of the world when it eventually happens on a larger scale. Third, the attack lets us see Perrin, during his axe frenzy, lose control over himself in a wolf-like way. That loss of control happens in the books, too, we just see it introduced here sooner. It makes sense to me because he is aged up for the show. Fourth, the tragic death of Laila provides an on-screen motivation for a lot of Perrin’s subsequent behavior. I actually prefer the story here as a motivation for self-loathing more than the “I killed Whitecloaks” justification for that feeling from Perrin in the books.

“Book Perrin” is a very cerebral character. It works for the novels. Jordan can give us narration from inside Perrin’s head. The TV series cannot add in a voiceover narration of Perrin ruminating on his feelings on violence, his relationships with other people, and his own nature generally. Without the ability to be in his head, the TV series needs to adapt Perrin in such a way that his motivations can appear on the screen. This scene with his wife’s tragic death creates a visual reference point for the audience going forward as to what Perrin’s motivations are and why they are what they are. You might prefer that the writers had accomplished an on-screen motivation for Perrin in a different way, but this choice works and it makes sense.

One other major change regards Mat’s family. In the books, Mat’s father is a good and well-respected member of the community, not a womanizer. We do not know much about Mat’s mother in the books, though she is certainly not known as the town drunk. I think the writers have fleshed out Mat’s family in this way to explain some of his subsequent choices, too, as well as to create for him some internal conflict. It was always conspicuous to me in The Eye of the World that, among the main characters (the Emond’s Field Five), Mat has the least interest in ever returning home to his family. Jordan never gives us a motivation for Mat to that end other than just a general desire for adventure and a sense of restlessness from him. The TV series gives us a potential motivation with this backstory. Mat now has a home, but perhaps not one for which he would be homesick. I like that this is juxtaposed with Mat also having arguably the strongest internal motivation for going home among all of the characters (i.e., he needs to return to make sure his sisters are well-raised.) The TV version of Mat is interesting and sympathetic.

“The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

― William Faulkner

Beyond the change to Mat’s father, the TV series generally downplays the “good fathers” aspect of this village, which is disappointing. We see great women on screen. Tam’s role, though, is limited. Perrin’s parents – as well as Master Luhhan, his boss and father figure – are absent. We hardly spend time with Egwene’s father. There is no “Village Council” on screen for the men to balance out the Women’s Circle. Perhaps that is an intentional choice that will pay off later. As of now, though, it’s a significant change inasmuch as a lot of what helps the Two Rivers folk in their later successes in the novels is the solid grounding upon which they were all raised. The storytelling basis for this change is not readily apparent to me. Of course, this could easily be fixed with later scenes set in the community. I’ll be patient here.

For those familiar with the first novel, we know that Nynaeve does not die during the attack. She is not attacked at all in the book’s depiction of that scene. She is dragged away in the TV series with everyone believing that she is now dead. Since we did not see her actually die on screen, it is safe to say that we are not done with The Wisdom. I’m actually excited to see how she escapes.

On the topic of the trolloc attack, it is a major and appropriate change that minions of The Dark One actually kill several of the unprepared villagers. It never felt realistic that the people of Emond’s Field escape unscathed in the novel. The TV series version of the village is not so fortunate. I view this change as an improvement.

Overall, are the characters we have spent time with on screen basically the same as their book counterparts?

  • Rand is a wholesome, handsome farm boy who loves Egwene, his dad, his home, and his community. Check.
  • Egwene is a try-hard young woman who throws herself (sometimes literally) completely into everything that comes her way. So far…Check.
  • Perrin is a thoughtful and reserved young man with a wild side he is fearful of…Check.
  • Mat outwardly appears to be someone who only cares about himself (as demonstrated via gambling, not working hard, etc.) while inwardly probably caring more for everyone around him than anyone else in the story…even to the point that he is willing to endanger himself. Check.
  • As with the books, Moiraine and Lan appear to be sincere in their intentions to help. Like in the early books, we also really do not know them very well yet. Check.
  • Thom Merrilin…I guess we’ll catch up with him sometime later. I don’t really think he was super integral to the events in Emond’s Field in the books, anyway. He shines after the party gets split up. I do not mind that the series did not include him in this episode.

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Conclusion:

This is a good start for this series. It’s visually beautiful. The acting is great and the characters are compelling. The effects are very good. I understand most of the adaptation changes to the source material and I look forward to seeing if or how they might pay off later. This will not be a series for the squeamish. It is set in a brutal and violent world, on the edge of destruction, and this pilot episode sets that tone. I give this show my full endorsement. I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

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4 thoughts on “The Wheel Of Time (Season 1, Ep 1): Leavetaking

  1. Professional critics hold fantasy to a standard that they hold no other genre too (including science fiction). It drives me crazy. (As a book reader, I did feel the first three episodes, and especially the first, were rushed pacing-wise.)

    The biggest problem with the change to Perrin is that it is lazy. Rafe expects it to do all the character development work for him. It just happens, then kind of gets ignored, which prevents it from doing the work it needs to do (although maybe that gets fixed after the first three episodes).

    1. I’m not willing to say yet that the change to Perrin is lazy. We’re only through three episodes and it has been revisited more than once already (both in a wolf dream and when Egwene brings her up in conversation.) Rafe has indicated that we’re going to see more from that moment, too. I suspect we are going to get a juxtaposition of “I can’t trust myself to be violent” with “these non-violent Tinkers are insane.” That’s pretty true to the books. Then we’ll then get to see how Perrin deals with his internal conflict with visual reference points for both sides of that conflict.

      I believe Sanderson is said to have lobbied for Laila to be replaced by Master Luhhan. The problem with that choice (IMO) is that it would have less impact for the audience. The tragedy of killing your young wife is more accessible to an audience than the tragedy of killing your boss at work.

      Anyway… the choice might end up being terrible but I’m willing to wait and see how it plays out, first.

      1. One way to look at it is like this: it is the equivalent of telling instead of showing. All the work is expected to be done by the viewers’ existing views on marriage rather than anything the show did. Some time establishing Master Luhhan would have been much more effective than just throwing a wife in there and not doing any of your own work. My one my main overall critiques of the adaptation is that it would have benefited from more time spent in Emond’s Field.

        Perrin never views the Tinkers’ pacifism as viable. His basic, internal conflict is between work/creation and war/destruction. Episode 4 does touch on this conflict, if rather subtly.

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