One of the hidden measures of quality in any fantasy show is how comfy its inn looks. Is there a cozy inn with attached tavern you can picture going back to day after day? If “The Wheel of Time” says yes, then we’re talking a fantasy show that knows where its priorities lie.
I’m only partly kidding. What I look for most in a fantasy show (or movie, or game) is whether it feels lived-in. Do the people inhabiting its towns and streets actually feel like they live and work there, as if they’ve known each other for years? World-building starts with the people who live in that world, and “The Wheel of Time” gets this right. It spends most of its first episode establishing a lovely mountain town of close-knit families and friends. I’m sure nothing bad will happen to it.
When you feel you could just watch a show entirely about this town of people living their everyday lives, that makes leaving it behind difficult not just for its characters, but its viewers, too. Yet when a powerful sorceress – called an Aes Sedai – shows up in town, trouble is soon to follow. She and her very able swordsman leave with four of the town’s youths who are being stalked by an army of Trollocs (beastfolk) and their shadowy special agents. Any one of them might be the reincarnation of the Dragon, a figure prophesied to either end the world or fix it.
If that sounds a bit formulaic, like a certain wizard, ranger, and four hobbits, understand that “The Wheel of Time” came in the middle of modern fantasy’s developmental timeline. Western fantasy was defined by the hero’s journey when the first book of Robert Jordan’s 14-novel series was published in 1990. Fantasy series from that time didn’t necessarily challenge that structural foundation, but where they did excel was in the world-building and social commentary that made each unique.
Here is where “The Wheel of Time” as a series succeeds. Its world reads as middle ages, but with echoes of a renaissance or early modern period that previously collapsed. You see, the last time the Dragon was kicking around, he nearly destroyed civilization. It remains fractured and internally warring.
One thing the show does is it offers a society that’s very diverse – they’ve had thousands of years since their early modern era, which is far more than we’ve had. That small mountain town with the nice inn has people of all races and ethnicities in it. It is deeply refreshing to see a fantasy series that takes place in a different world simply start with this as a given fact.
The Aes Sedai are all women – because the last Dragon was a man, the only people entrusted with magic in this world are women. That puts the Aes Sedai in a position of power, but the Aes Sedai are rarely seen by most. Women in the town, however, are treated with equality and have the same jobs and stature as men.
These aspects are relieving and energizing to see in a major fantasy series. You could argue that following what amounts to a D&D party is either too familiar or comfortably so, but the presentation of the world and who lives in it feels like a deep breath in the genre that we rarely get to take.
I’d also be on the side of arguing that the familiar half of “The Wheel of Time” is very well done. The writing is straightforward, but manages to pack an awful lot into each hourlong episode. I’d usually end up two-thirds through thinking it had to be over because each episode had already covered more than most hour-and-a-half movies manage, yet there’d still be more story to enjoy. The writing doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s incredibly efficient – all the more remarkable for how patient and unrushed its dialogue scenes feel.
“The Wheel of Time” has the same nose for quiet conversation in the midst of turmoil that Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy possesses. I have to imagine these are mostly dialogue passages lifted from the book, but there’s some beautiful in-scene writing at times. Those quiet conversations are really the best moments in the show so far, which is a testament to the kind of lightning in a bottle that good casting, writing, performances, and editing can achieve.
The four who have to leave their town are all solidly cast. When I describe a D&D party structure, I’m not exaggerating. There’s Madeleine Madden’s potential magic user Egwene, Josha Stradowski’s ranger Rand, Barney Harris’s thief Mat, and Marcus Rutherford’s tanky blacksmith Perrin. There’s also their town Wisdom Nynaeve, played by Zoe Robins, and the Aes Sedai’s protector Lan played by Daniel Henney. There’s not a weak link among the actors, and they cover a range of personalities that’s interesting to see in both partnership and conflict.
The casting of Rosamund Pike as Moiraine, the Aes Sedai who kickstarts this whole journey, is a masterstroke. There’s a scene in the second episode where the party’s been through some rough shenanigans and is starting to bicker. One starts a song and the rest join in. It’s something their town sings, but they don’t know what the subject of the song is. It’s been lost to history, but it’s something that an Aes Sedai knows. Moiraine describes the bloody moment in their world’s history that’s being sung. She’s drained by now, injured and using her magic to keep the energy of her horses and companions up. Most shows wouldn’t have kept the monologue, or they’d have shortened it to a few lines and someone’s reaction shot. Here, Pike grabs us for a three minute monologue where no one else speaks and nothing else happens. She doesn’t let go, Moiraine’s speech gently slurring from exhaustion as she tells a tragic story with reverence.
I’ve never read any of the “The Wheel of Time” novels, but that moment, that feel – it’s exactly the kind of thing I want in a fantasy series. The battles and fights are compelling because there’s a weight of places left behind, a foundation of stories told, fragile connections made by relationships built or strained along the journey.
To feel as if we’re watching moments in a world’s history, we need to know the characters in ways they may not know each other, and we need to know the shape of that history. A lot of shows can manage one or the other, either the intimate or the epic. It’s rare when you get a fantasy entry that can do both with this much skill.
The choral-heavy musical score by Lorne Balfe is also exquisite, balancing a blend of song, celebratory medieval instruments and tense, driving electronic elements. There’s a fusion of traditional balladry with good new age that feels very aligned to this world without losing that larger, epic feel. Its sense of rising tension carries us through the sometimes sudden shifts in place that this kind of adaptation demands. The score stands as one of the best and most unexpected of the year.
It’s also nice to see something aside from orcs and goblins as the baddies. Trollocs seem to come in at least two flavors of beastfolk: 10-foot tall minotaurs, and smaller, four-legged hyena-satyr things. A lot is done with make-up, costuming, prosthetics, and special creature effects. This focus on a live-action base for the creatures is the right choice. They have a weight and presence that is immediately felt. Since they start bashing and slicing everything in sight when they show up, it’s also important that the choreography and editing sells them as terrifying. “The Wheel of Time” nails this, too. They’re presented with a brutality and suddenness that skips any kind of prologue or anticipation. They’re stronger than people, faster than people, and it shows. No one has time to describe them as terrible before they just show up and start hacking and feasting.
There are some negatives, and in large part they’re apparent because they’re surrounded by so many positives. While the make-up, costuming, and live special effects are all well done, the CGI visual effects can fail at points.
There’s an argument that magic is more successful in live-action when the visual focus is its consequence rather than the CGI moment of effect. For instance, focusing on the consequence more than the casting is the approach “The Witcher” takes very effectively.
By contrast, in “The Wheel of Time” you will see every fireball launched, every rock hurled, every bolt of lightning struck, every magical shield, um, shielded. People’s mileage varies with these kind of effects – to me, these moments do look cheesy. Sometimes I’d mind that, but here it doesn’t bother me too much. Part of my forgiveness is: hey, where else are you going to see Rosamund Pike hurl a building at a minotaur?
The other part is that there is a cost to these actions. Every Aes Sedai is accompanied by a Warder, a combination warrior/tracker/companion/sounding board. They have a magical connection that allows them to draw on each others’ strength.
There’s a neat logic between Aes Sedai and Warder, where Moiraine takes time charging her spells and is vulnerable. During these moments, her Warder Lan has to protect her, whirling around and ending anyone or anything that gets too close. If you’ve ever played a pen & paper role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a CRPG like “Dragon Age” or “Baldur’s Gate”, the notion of protecting your spellcaster while they charge a spell up is a geeky kind of cool to see done on-screen this literally. They don’t cheat or edit past it, they just have Moiraine take set amounts of time charging high-level spells while Lan dances around her decapitating minotaurs. At that point, I don’t mind if the fireballs look cheesy or the boulders she hurls need more render passes. I just want to see minotaurs go flying.
Nonetheless, other moments of CGI effects don’t fare so well. It could be a taste thing and I just don’t like this particular aesthetic of CGI. I love the static elements – abandoned cities, ruins they pass, a besieged city in one prologue. It’s the moving elements I’m not completely sold on: water splashing as a trolloc runs through a river, the swirls of magic, the strangely Tron-like lattice effect of a magical barrier.
The show also travels at a pace, and it can seem a bit sudden when characters appear in a completely different biome. The geography and the passage of time could be communicated better. Where one character seems to be in the next morning, another pair have climbed a mountain. It’s not a big deal for a series like this where travel and distance are more of an impressionistic aspect of myth-telling, but these shifts could feel more cohesive. It does help that the locations they spend longer periods of time in are beautifully realized, and as I mentioned earlier the music does some heavy lifting to smooth these transitions.
I’m not going to say “The Wheel of Time” is the best piece of fantasy out right now when the audacious and jaw-dropping “Arcane” is less than a month old and season 2 of “The Witcher” is weeks away, but if you’re looking for a satisfying example of traditional fantasy that’s well written and acted, “The Wheel of Time” is a very cozy blanket to nestle into as the nights get longer.
You can watch “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon. The first four episodes are available now, with a new one dropping every Friday for a first season total of eight. It’s already renewed for a season 2. That’s half-filmed so the wait probably won’t be too long.
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