“We call ourselves ‘Gleemen’ because a silly name makes us less frightening. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who knows the past.”
The Wheel of Time is an Amazon Studios produced streaming series based on the works of the author Robert Jordan by that same name. Showrunner Rafe Judkins has combined elements of the first two volumes in the series, The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt into the first season of the show. The sprawling, expansive narrative demands a large ensemble cast starring Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney, as well as Sophie Okonedo, Alexandre Willaume, Zoë Robins, Marcus Rutherford, Barney Harris, Josha Stradowski, Madeleine Madden, Johann Myers and Priyanka Bose, along with many others.
Planned to run six books, Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series grew to fourteen vast tomes with a prequel novel as well. Unfortunately, Jordan died before he could finish his epic. Working from his notes, Brandon Sanderson took the reins and finished the series with the blessing of Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s wife. The series is noted for its large page count per volume. The first clocks in at nearly nine hundred pages. The last book was so big it was split into three smaller novels to make it more practical to sell and carry. The Wheel of Time has sold over ninety million copies worldwide since The Eye of the World was published in 1990. Sanderson completed Jordan’s chronicle with A Memory of Light in 2013.
One of Jordan’s central conceits is that of the cyclic nature of time, hence said Wheel. “The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth and even myth is long forgotten when the age that gave it birth comes again,” is an oft repeated refrain.
Jordan also has a very interesting take on the typical Tolkien-esque fantasy epic with Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as the through-line. For example, like many archetypical “chosen ones”, Harry Potter is celebrated as the Boy Who Lived, hero to all. Conversely in Jordan’s world, for nearly three thousand years, the memory and any mention of Lews Therin Telemon, known as the Dragon, is reviled and cursed as the Man Who Broke the World.
In fairness, he didn’t break the world alone. During the Third Age, in a time known as The Age of Legends, humans lived in a post-scarcity utopia. They had technology so advanced it appeared to be magic and they had actual magic. The Creator of the universe put the Wheel of Time in motion with the One Power. Certain men and women could Channel that power, known as Saidin for men and Saidar for women, to great effect. Jordan’s series is steeped with his ideas about binaries, and so even The Creator has their own great antagonist, Shai’tan, known as the Dark One, who The Creator sealed away in a prison at the moment of creation, preventing the Dark One from touching the Wheel and tainting the work. (akin to David Warner’s Evil Genius in 1981’s Time Bandits.)
Like King Arthur, The Once and Future King, foretold to return in the hour of England’s direst need, many cultures in Jordan’s world have their own predictions auguring the rebirth of the Dragon, known as The Lord of the Morning, He who Comes with the Dawn and he who will wield The Sword that is Not a Sword, among other things. The arrival of the Dragon Reborn will signify the ending of the Age and inaugurate a new Breaking. The Dragon Reborn will alert the world that time is short and herald the coming of The Last Battle against the forces of the Dark One.
Many signs and portends will signal the true Dragon, and by fulfilling the predictions in the prophecies he will proclaim to the world his authenticity. Over the following millennia, several ambitious men with the ability to Channel would take up the mantle of the Dragon and walk a path of chaos and conquest. Though they were all false, the world trembled in their wake because for thousands of years, mothers, fathers and nannies alike frightened children with bedtime stories about Lews Therin the Dragon and his Hundred Companions.
The One Power was such that nearly nothing was beyond the reach of the mightiest Channelers; both men and women, especially when working in concert. The catch was, no woman could sense Saidin, nor could any man touch Saidar. Still, the Age of Legends was an age of wonders and humanity reveled in the great works of those most powerful, known as Aes Sedai, or ‘Servants of All’. Lews Therin Telamon could Channel more of the One Power than anyone. As such, the Dragon led the Aes Sedai as they ably maintained their world of miracles and super science. Sadly, some are never content; some are impatient and hungry, even in the comfortable hammock of utopia.
Sensing something out of reach and hoping to find a power that both men and women could use simultaneously, some bored a hole through the realms of reality. Calamity ensued as the Bore they augered cracked the prison of the Dark One. Though the prison wasn’t shattered and Shai’tan wasn’t free, it was free enough to touch the world. The Age of Legends came crashing to an end as those touched by the Dark One reintroduced to the world the long forgotten horrors of war and pain and suffering.
Thirteen of the strongest Channelers of the Age, known as the Forsaken, betrayed the Aes Sedai and allied themselves with the Dark One, leading its armies against the Dragon and the forces fighting for life. Due to this perfidy, after nearly ten years of fighting and millions upon millions of casualties, humanity was teetering on the brink.
The surviving men and women of the Aes Sedai were at an impasse. The women wanted to contain the Dark One at Shayol Ghul, sealing the Bore and the blighted lands around it off from the Wheel ; the men, led by the Dragon, wanted to plug the Bore itself if possible, with a direct strike. Before the debate could be resolved, the tactical situation changed so Lews Therin and his Hundred Companions set out to once again lock away the Dark One. The Hundred Companions were doughty fighters all, and each great Channelers of note. By chance, the Dragon and his followers caught the Forsaken off guard, communing with Shai’tan at Shayol Ghul. Their coup de grâce slammed shut the Bore and trapped the Dark One beyond the Wheel of Time again, along with his most faithful and powerful minions. Shai’tan’s frantic riposte was not enough to keep the Bore open, but it DID taint Saidin, driving every single one of the Hundred Companions, along with the Dragon himself, incomprehensibly and incurably insane. From that moment on, no man would ever be able to Channel the flows of Saidin without feeling the Dark One’s stain and eventually losing his mind.
The Companions, as well as every man anywhere in the world with the ability, lost their marbles, their bearings and their moral compasses. They tore everything before them apart in what would become known as the Breaking. Lews Therin would earn the appellation ‘Kinslayer’ after he mindlessly, uncontrollably and indiscriminately cut down his family and loved ones. Forced to come to his senses briefly, the Dragon saw with horror what he had wrought. Filled with self-loathing, he Traveled to the wilderness in despair. Drawing upon more of the One Power than he could bear, more than any human could sustain, he killed himself. In doing so, he warped the land for miles around and raised a cloud-piercing volcano that the survivors of the Breaking and their ancestors would call The Dragonmount. The great cataclysm known as the Breaking of the World would come to an end hundreds of years later, after the last of the Companions met their fates.
The Aes Sedai who made it through the apocalypse set about to save the few remnants of humanity, the lost knowledge of the dying age and to rebuild society. They were much more successful with the first stratagem than the rest and constructed their White Tower near the slopes of the Dragonmount to further their goal of shepherding humans into the future. They also foresaw the return of the Dragon and stacked up the dominos of prophecy to alert all as to his coming and seeding their tomorrows with the items of Power that would mark him true, like the Sword that is Not a Sword. Now, thousands of years later, shaking the world with his footsteps as was predicted, the Dragon has been born again to ride the winds of time.
Moiraine Damodred, (Pike) an Aes Sedai agent of the Blue Ajah and Lan Mandragoran, (Henney) her Warder, a battle-hardened bodyguard bonded to her by the One Power, have been tasked with finding the Dragon Reborn. For twenty years, they’ve quested across the kingdoms of the land fruitlessly searching. Running down rumors has brought them to the backwaters of Andor, to the region of the Two Rivers and the rustic town of Emond’s Field before the seasonal holiday of Bel Tine. There, Moiraine encounters the village Wisdom, Nyneve, (Robins), her apprentice Egwene, (Madden), town Blacksmith Perrin, (Rutherford) local gambler Mat, (Harris) and sheepherder’s son Rand. (Stradowski) All present as possible Dragons, each having been born within the window she requires.
Moiraine does not know which of the five is the Dragon Reborn. She does know that all of the five are in terrible danger. Though the Dark One could no longer touch the world directly, its presence and influence could still be felt. Myrmidons of shadow, men and women sworn to Shai’tan, were also hunting for the Dragon. Her goal is to get the crew out of Dodge and out of immediate peril so she has the luxury of discerning which of them is the Dragon Reborn, the discovery of whom she desires and the world dreads. She hopes to divert the dire fate she fears, but she runs out of time.
Emond’s Field is attacked by the shock troops of shadow, the Trollocs. Towering offspring of man and beasts twisted by the One Power, the Trollocs have operated as combat fodder in the Armies of Darkness for thousands of years. She smashes their assault with Saidar weaves of Air, Fire and Earth, but is wounded in her efforts. She assures the five that the Trollocs came for them, they will KEEP coming for them and if they are concerned for the people they love, they will leave Emond’s Field and the Two Rivers forthwith, following Moiraine to the safety and sanctuary of the White Tower.
Of course they all get separated in the subsequent episodes. Through they experience growing pains of horror and hope, the teams of split-up kids consisting of Rand and Mat apart from Egwene and Perrin with Lan and Moiraine in pursuit, all attempt to aim their way towards the White Tower with mixed results.
If one of them truly is the Dragon Reborn, will they go mad? Will he or she save the world or raze the world when they come into their power? Is the White Tower a safe place for the reincarnation of the Man who Broke the World? Can Moiraine guide them towards tomorrow when she’s lost track of today? And really, what the hell IS the Eye of the World?
This is a very interesting show, a very interesting adaptation. One of the things that made these books unique is that because of the predations of the Dragon and the men who can channel driven by their forced insanity, this world is staged as a patriarchy in name only. In Jordan’s modern day, though there are Kings Lords and armies full of men, they really all play second fiddle to the Aes Sedai, all of whom are women. Andor has a queen. Every town and village has a women’s circle. What is fascinating is that as clumsy as Jordan is in trying to wrestle with his gender issues and how hard a time he’s having with the gender binary and gay or bisexual men as opposed to lesbian and bisexual women, who are depicted much more vividly in his text, he is doing yeoman’s work and is light years ahead of his contemporaries, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book of which came out in 1991 and is somewhat… less sophisticated when it comes to gender equality.
It should not to be said that Jordan’s work is without flaw in that regard. The thirty year gap between the beginning of the book series and the start of the show has allowed for an expansion of his somewhat limited vision. A concerted effort has been made by Judkins and his team to greatly broaden racial, sexual and gender representation. The expansion of that depiction to cover both openly gay men and polyamorous relationships is a very nice touch. Where that ideal of representation becomes problematic is that the two Big Bads of the season, the two most visible, vicious and malicious villains are very dark black men, and that is troubling. They are not the ONLY black men in the show, but both of their depictions as (weirdly similar) amoral sadists are still disconcerting.
It must be noted that this reviewer is very familiar with the Wheel of Time series of novels. There are many changes of the plot and characterizations between text and television, but that is to be expected. Many of said changes are incidental, many are temporal, putting things out of order, many are highly sexual, drawing eyeballs with young, pretty people kissing on each other, but some are quite odd and change intrinsic traits from the books for the streaming adaptation. One is a stunning decision that skids the plot out from under the text only because Judkins suggested those particular characters had little to do in the “next” book and something had to be done to spice up their arc.
However, the most disturbing moment in the entire season comes very early on when the decision is made to “fridge” a character that doesn’t exist in the original text merely to motivate ANOTHER character who gets the EXACT same incentive in the very next episode, in a recreation of an encounter which IS in the original text. It’s a baffling decision. It hangs over the rest of the season both in character dialogue, character growth and earned audience opprobrium.
At first, production design is really impressive; there are backgrounds of cities cracked by catastrophe, looming shadows cast by twisted towers of glass and steel overgrown and overcome by green growth and the crawl of centuries. The exquisite depictions of ancient skycraping towers and the cities themselves are visual victims of the Breaking of the World, bent by the weight of time and the vengeance of nature. However, the practical sets do not look lived in at all, not nearly weathered enough. This is most obvious with the sets of Emond’s Field ,Tar Valon and Fal Dara.
Fal Dara gets the worst of it well before we see the Blight. It is another production fail, as it feels like towards the end of the season they really ran short of funds. The fortified city of Fal Dara is 1000 years old but still has bare brick, plaster-less interior walls (no tiles, no mosaics, no tapestries) and is a city in the middle of nowhere. There are no farms, no villages, no roads, no rivers, no visible commerce. After a THOUSAND years, no one is feeding this city. It just literally exists in the middle of nowhere, with just Tarwin’s Gap in the distance, absent any subsequent fortifications, not even trench-lines. Or, you know, roads. And then the heroes get to the Blight, which looks like something out of Fraggle Rock. (And I don’t mean that in a good way)
What makes that all inexplicable is how good the Trollocs look. They’re almost entirely done with very impressive, on-screen practical effects. Did someone just not do the ledgers right? Is someone on the beach somewhere complaining about salt on his margarita? (He said, “No salt, NO salt!”) What happened to this show’s budget?
The costumes are beautiful. Again, not weathered enough, but beautiful. The actors in the first episode look like they’re walking through a clothing catalogue. That is a problem that persists with much of the production design. Things just don’t look lived in. Not remotely. Not the costumes, nor the sets. The staff should take some time and consult with The Mandalorian showrunner, Dave Filoni. However, the exterior locations are exquisite. They really help set the mood. Shot in Prague with additional locations in Croatia, Spain and Slovenia, the outside sequences are staggering. They just don’t have mountains like that in Brooklyn. The cast is also heavily loaded with very pretty people.
Channeling effects are done with a mix of actor choreography, on-set response and CG enhancements. The thing about the visual depiction of Channeling is that it’s awfully silly. Moiraine and the other Aes Sedai look like they’re doing gun-kata like Christian Bale in 2002’s Equilibrium when none of that dancing and prancing shit is required…because it’s magic.
Squint or you’ll miss it, but when you watch the season with a discerning eye, it becomes the anti-Fargo. Carl is the only guy in that movie who doesn’t have fair hair. In The Wheel of Time, EVERYONE in the first season has dark hair, except Rand who is a ginger.
There is a bit of a plot-hole towards the end, saddling the show with a self-own, but that’s ok, they have seven more projected seasons to explain it. I like this show. I want to see more of it, but it needs to be more consistent, smarter, more lived in and more alive.
“Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.”
Season one of The Wheel of Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime now. Season two is forthcoming.
The Wheel of Time and the Dragon Reborn were created by Robert Jordan.