The Wheel of Time is an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s best-selling fantasy series of the same name, helmed by showrunner Rafe Judkins (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and starring Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, Die Another Day) on Amazon Prime.
This review will have major spoilers for the entirety of Season 1 so proceed with caution.
The story centers around Moiraine, an Aes Sedai (a female magic-user referred to in-universe as a channeler of the One Power), her Warder Lan, and their search for The Dragon Reborn, the reincarnated soul of the world’s most powerful channeler in history. Her quest to find The Dragon Reborn is important because it is believed due to prophecy that the Dragon will either destroy the world or save it. Moiraine wants to reach him or her before the Dark One (a cosmic evil entity) can reach the Dragon and make him or her a servant.
Their search takes them to a tiny village in The Two Rivers where one of four young people might be the one they are seeking. While they are in the village, it is attacked by minions of the Dark One, gigantic monstrous “trollocs” and black-cloaked “fades” forcing Moiraine, Lan, and all of her candidates to leave immediately in order to draw the bad guys away from their homes and families.
The young people travel with Moiraine, become split up in the cursed city of Shadar Logoth, before reuniting in the home base of all Aes Sedai, Tar Valon. They are not here long before leaving again for The Eye of the World, a place where Moiraine believes one of the young people with her will reveal him or herself to be The Dragon, and in–so-doing defeat The Dark One. Unfortunately, she also believes that every member of their party who is not The Dragon will die in the confrontation.
Shortly before they are all slated to leave, one member of the group – Rand al’Thor – tells Moiraine that he knows that he is the Dragon and he sets out to The Eye with only her as a companion in an attempt to spare everyone else.
The trip to The Eye appears to have been successful and Moiraine even survives – though her ability to channel is taken away from her. However, there are some clues that perhaps not everything went exactly as Moiraine believed.
It is difficult to evaluate Season 1 of The Wheel of Time without taking into account that the production was significantly hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic which led to multiple production shut-downs and the loss of access to shooting locations. The show also suffered the setback of having an actor leave the show after six episodes, necessitating significant re-writes for the season’s final two episodes. Though I do not know the specifics, I suspect the shut-downs reduced time for post-production editing as Amazon was in a big hurry to get the show aired after the delays.
I will be evaluating the product as it was presented. I just want to be clear that I understand that some of the problems with this season may have been the result of extraordinary circumstances.
What I Thought Season 1 Did Well:
While I do not think all of the actors were given enough to do, I think all of them did well with what they were given. Some of the standouts for me:
Zoë Robins as Nynaeve. She really embodied the character’s nature of furious exterior meets squishy center and just brought her to life.
Kate Fleetwood as Liandrin. She gave us a layered interesting Season 1 villain. In fact, I probably liked her version of Liandrin more than the version we were given in the books.
Álvaro Morte as Logain. I really loved this performance. He walked the line between charismatic would-be hero and mad man and he was compelling at both of those extremes. At his strongest, he came across as somebody worthy of being followed by others. At his worst, I felt sympathy and compassion.
Abdul Salis as Eamon Valda. This performance was so, so good. It was hard to take your eyes off of him when he was in a scene. He embodied the worst aspects of Whitecloak fanaticism perfectly.
- Cold Opens.
I had a lot of issues with writing choices throughout Season 1 but one thing I think the show did very well – most of the time – was utilizing its cold open sequences. In fact most of my favorite moments from the season were in the cold opens. Episode 7s “Blood Snow” cold open was probably my favorite scene from all of the season. I also really enjoyed “Young Siuan” in Episode 6 and “Nynaeve’s Escape” in Episode 4.
Unfortunately, I think the two worst cold open scenes were for the pilot and the Season finale. The pilot’s scene was bad because it did not really add much to the story and was visually kind of a mess to follow. The finale’s open was fine as a standalone – it’s just that I’m not sure why it is there. I think they were trying to create a parallel between Lews with a baby and Rand with one, but it did not work. The cold open was the least of Episode 8’s problems, though.
- The Tone
The Wheel of Time book series begins as an homage to The Lord of the Rings before branching off and becoming quite different. The current landscape of fantasy television is such that everyone wants to find “the next Game of Thrones.” Going into the series, there was reason to be concerned that the show might be tonally too similar to either of those other two franchises. I think it succeeded in being something in between and uniquely its own.
What I Thought Season 1 Did Poorly:
While the show did well in fleshing out a few of the characters (Moiraine and Nynaeve in particular) it really struggled with others.
Perrin: Do we know him better now than we did at the start the season? Did he have any actual arc in this entire season? No.
Thom: Why was he even in this season? What purpose did his character serve?
Loial: Why was he even in this season? What purpose did his character serve?
Rand: In order to keep the surprise of who The Dragon is, the writers hid Rand’s character arc. I understand the choice – to a point – but Rand’s struggle with a secret throughout the first book in the series is what makes him interesting. On the show, we find out at the end that he learned some things from his father Tam, off-screen, during the events of pilot episode and that he’s been wrestling with all of it off-screen all season. The problem is that we didn’t get to go on that journey with Rand all season. As a result, when he knocks on Moiraine’s door at the end of episode seven, I do not know what I am supposed to feel. I have not been given a good reason to even care about Rand yet. Why is this revelation supposed to matter to me? The truth is that it’s not supposed to mean much from Rand’s perspective. The revelation is supposed to move me because I am supposed to be invested in Moiraine’s journey. But I think that’s a disservice to Rand’s character. It was a mistake to leave me uninvested from both sides of that moment.
Mat: This is a tough one because I do not know what their plans were for the final two episodes. It’s obvious they were building toward something. The TV version of the Mat character is quite a bit different than the same guy in the books so I do not really even have a good feel for what they might have had planned. Nevertheless, if you just take the show for what it delivered, this season was a really poor characterization of Mat.
Whatever the reasons might be, Season 1 did not deliver good characterizations for about half of the main cast. I might expect something like that from The CW and one of its shows with bloated ensemble casts, but Amazon Prime’s fantasy epic with a $9 million per episode budget should be better. These people needed time to talk to one another more often and through those conversations, we needed to get to know them. The best moments from Game of Thrones were conversations between characters, not bursts of dragon fire. That show went off the rails when it was a hurried conversation-less mess, getting from one big “event” to the next.
- Unfocused Storytelling
One of the biggest defenses of the storytelling for Season 1 of The Wheel of Time is that it was not the show’s fault – it just needed more episodes. I agree that it would have been better with more episodes. But taking a step back, prior to the series, if you had asked *any* fan of the books whether you could tell the story of The Eye of the World in eight hours, almost every fan of the books would have said yes. Peter Jackson made a compelling adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in about 9 combined hours of theatrical release time and he won dozens of awards. The movies are regarded as modern day classics.
The problem with The Wheel of Time‘s first season is that it loses focus from its primary story for long stretches. As a result, we missed out on important world-building and character development for *main characters.* Is including more about Logain a good idea in this show’s first season in theory? Of course. In practice, though, with only eight hours, they might have included too much and done so at the expense of giving us a reason to care about Perrin, Mat, Loial, Thom, or an ability to understand the world around them. That’s a mistake.
Far more egregious than the extra focus on Logain though was the Episode 5 side plot surrounding Steppin. The show devoted close to ten percent of its Season 1 runtime to a character that is not in the books, to a plot that is not in the books, and to a circumstance that does not come up again in Season 1 (the Warder / Aes Sedai bond and the aftermath when one of them dies.) This was a compelling and tremendously well-acted episode that added absolutely nothing to the wider story of the season. It would have made MUCH more sense to incorporate something like this in a later season when it might be relevant to the story being told in that season.
The Siuan / Moiraine meet-up and reveal could have been delayed, too, and for the same reasons.
The pilot episode sets up an arc for Perrin regarding the death of his wife. Does that go anywhere? Not really. It is referred to a couple of times. Perrin comes to no resolutions. It’s like the show wanted Perrin to just kind of hang around but not develop until later when it will be more convenient. That’s bad television. You should not tee something up in a pilot that is as dramatic as that scene with Laila was, and then not do anything with it. I’m sure we’ll revisit that incident in future seasons but he should have had *some* kind of arc in Season 1.
This show even seemed to be self-aware of its own flaws. One example of this is that we are not told, on-screen, how Padan Fain travels through The Ways. Instead of explaining with dialogue, or showing us on-screen, the series just released a still photo extra so that the book fans would know the answer. The TV audience who did not read the books apparently does not get an explanation. (That’s bad writing.)
- The “Look” of the Show.
One of the strangest things about watching this season was the back and forth between feeling like something was done extraordinarily well visually and then feeling like it was done with a too small budget.
If I was not aware of the fact that The Wheel of Time had such a large per-episode budget (reportedly $9 million per episode), some of the CGI, editing, and practical effects choices that looked frankly mediocre and outdated would not have bothered me. The show does not look that much different or worse than Game of Thrones Season 1. The problem is that it has a Game of Thrones Season 8 budget and does not look close in quality to that show’s final season. Where did the money go? Was *all* of this just a COVID issue? It might be. It seemed to be a problem that got worse throughout the season.
- Lack of Respect for the Source Material
This one might hurt some feelings so I am going to cite my sources.
This is from an IG interview shared on The Wheel of Time’s official account. Read the first two sentences of that answer carefully. “Rafe” is Rafe Judkins, the showrunner for the series. His belief regarding the source material is that it appeals to a too-small audience. (As of 2021, the series has sold 90 million books worldwide, making it one of the best-selling epic fantasy series ever.)
The plan as stated above was to take one of the best-selling fantasy series of all time, change it into something other than an adaptation designed for its hardcore fans, but also to limit their aim to fans of the genre generally. I find this flatly infuriating. Can you even imagine adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, for audiences other than their source material audiences? Even the superhero shows on The CW still largely aim at the hardcore fans of the Green Arrow, Supergirl, and The Flash, first and foremost.
He seems to be contradicting himself here, no? He acknowledges that the books were best sellers. He says most of the world had never heard of the series. Huh? Who does he think is watching? The built-in audience was enough to make this a runaway success regardless of the quality of the show – at least initially. In a lot of respects Rafe Judkins was handed a better project than the Game of Thrones showrunners. That show worked because it placated its book readers as its base audience and built new fans on them successfully.
Here is an anecdote that I think says a lot about the situation. The writers’ room – which includes Rafe who is an alleged fan of the series – debated having Perrin become a “Bear Brother” rather than someone who talks to wolves.
Why did it take someone hired by Rafe to be the “book nerd” in the writers’ room to shut that idea down? If Rafe is an actual fan of the source material, and also a writer on the show, he should not have entertained it, either. Every Wheel of Time book fan should thank the Light for Sarah Nakamura.
Very few of the book fans expected a one-for-one adaptation. What the book fans waited three decades for was a story that followed the plot beats and stayed largely true to the source material. It is disheartening for those fans (which includes me) to read that the show they have waited on is not “for them.” Worse still, the fans who wanted the type of adaptation for The Wheel of Time that other similar genre giants were given will likely die of old age before it is attempted again.
- Bad Writing Generally
I mentioned the unfocused story-telling earlier. Unfocused does not automatically mean “bad.” I thought Episode 5 was mostly well-written and acted – just pointless to the overall season.
When I refer to “bad writing” I am talking about doing things that you are taught not to do in school – such as a decision to fridge a character’s wife. I was willing to give them an opportunity to do something with that choice (see my review of Episode 1) but the death of Laila needed to go somewhere. It did not. To make matters worse, the writers decided to give the TV audience the impression that maybe Perrin killed her because he has a thing for Egwene.
Speaking of Perrin and Egwene, the writers created poorly crafted drama by shoehorning a love triangle into the plot. Why? It was not even a real love triangle and as a result it did nothing except to undermine Perrin as a character.
The writers had a few moments wherein they really dropped the ball in terms of story arc payoff. I’ll point out two examples. First, we are led to believe that Mat stealing the dagger is a *big deal*. Moiraine heals him in a matter of seconds and the whole scene was completely lacking in a sense of payoff. Second, we are told all season that The Dragon is massively powerful. The show even gives us a sense of scale by showing us Logain and Nynaeve as powerful comparison points. When we learn who The Dragon is… we never see him use the power in a meaningful way. That’s a major let down. You cannot (well, should not) talk about how powerful The Dragon is all season and then never show us how powerful he is.
The writers also did a poor job communicating its magic system and its rules. Without getting into it in great detail, the show will either have to reinvent the wheel (pun intended) regarding its magic rules, and make large changes to the story as a result, or it will have to ignore a lot of its own choices in Season 1 in later seasons. The TV audience who is unfamiliar with the books does not know about all of the problems that the show has set up for itself but they will eventually.
Worst of all, Season 1 featured several “fake out” deaths in the finale. You can get away with one of those, maybe, but several?
On the topic of bad writing and not respecting the TV audience:
To answer Rafe’s question-as-answer, yes, you did. This still image was not a part of your TV show. It’s crazy to me that this needs to be said.
The musical score for the show was good but largely unremarkable in my opinion. The only time I recall being moved by the music was during the introduction to young Siuan Sanche. Of course, there were not many moments in the series sort of befitting something sweeping and epic. Hopefully those moments will come later.
The show’s introduction sequence and song underwhelmed me a bit initially but it really grew on me as the season wore on and now I’m a fan. I’m looking forward to seeing if or how they might tweak it from season to season.
I do not generally give a rating for the things I watch but since this probably sounds more negative than I actually feel, I will give this season two and a half out of five stars. As a letter grade, it’s not an F, but it is a C that had A expectations. There are a lot of good things that the show accomplishes in Season 1 in addition to the bad. The season had several excellent moments and I am particularly happy with the casting choices and their performances. A lot of what is wrong with the show visually and in the finale is likely the result at least in part of a pandemic situation that will hopefully not be repeated going forward.
This show is not beyond a point where it might grow into something great but there are a lot of concerning signs going forward, many of which I mentioned above. It is easy – but wrong – to blame lockdowns for things that appear to have been writing choices that were happening regardless of the pandemic. Episodes five and six both preceded the pandemic and both did a lot of what I would consider wasting core storytelling time. On that point, since the writing and filming for Season 2 started before anyone had a chance to watch and review Season 1, I wonder whether anyone making this show will have listened to criticism and concerns, taken them to heart, and adjusted positively based on the feedback.
I will watch Season 2 and hope that it improves. I want to see what this group can do when they are not operating under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. However, I am moving forward with a lot of trepidation.
On the bright side, while I grow comfortable with the idea that I might die of old age or something else before an adaptation of my favorite fantasy series is made “for me,” its actual fan for the last thirty years, at least I have the books and they cannot be taken from me.