The Wheel of Time

As I was contemplating what media I should do for my first major separate review outside of games, this particular show came to mind. For those who may not be aware (which strikes me as unlikely given the location of this blog and my audience), The Wheel of Time is Amazon Prime’s latest attempt at the old Game of Thrones crown. It’s clearly a prestige fantasy series that focuses on high drama, with a richly fleshed out world based off the epic fantasy novel series of the same name.

Response to this show have been decidedly divided. Most fans of the books, and many viewers on top of those, aren’t thrilled with several of the changes the show has made. Most notable of those are changes to the cast: if a character wasn’t explicitly stated to be white in the books, then they are likely non-white in the show, but of greater weight are the changes to character behaviors and storylines. This is of course bound to happen in any translation between a text and the screen (trust me, my Masters specialized in text to film translations), as the mediums are quite different, but some of the changes do seem… extreme.

On the other hand, most casual fans of the show, those that simply watch whatever’s on Amazon Prime or who have an interest in shows like this, spurred by Game of Thrones, The Witcher, and others of their kind, seem to have a more positive view of things. The diverse cast, grand worldbuilding, and intriguing characterizations draw them in.

I’ve got something of a unique perspective here. I have read some of the original Robert Jordan novels: at least the first six or so (I believe I stopped partway through book eight on my further dive into the series). There are fourteen total novels, and each is a fairly impressive size of itself, so we’re talking about a lot of material here. I always found the worldbuilding fascinating, and loved several of the characters (Mat, Perrin, Nyneave, Min, and Faile are my top five for those curious; and those of you who have only watched the show are like “Min? and who in the world is “Faile”?). Yet at the same time, I’m not a huge fan of the bloat that fantasy novels often experience: I haven’t tried to get into Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series for that reason; I’m behind in Sanderson’s massive epic; about the only one I’ve come close to finishing is Jim Butcher’s Furies series, and I’m still a book away.

From my perspective, the show is unique and interesting, mostly well cast, but makes several critical errors that just shouldn’t happen in a show made in 2021.

For those who don’t know, The Wheel of Time follows what is sort of a traditional high fantasy plot. A group of young people from the town of Two Rivers are living their simple rural lives. One’s a hunter in love with the innkeeper’s daughter. Said daughter wants to become a Wisdom, the village wise woman, and therefore has to choose between learning and becoming her own person or marrying the hunter. Another’s a blacksmith attempting to build a young family. And the last is a sort of carefree wastrel who has a family to support. Into this community comes the mysterious magical person in the form of Morraine, who tells the young people that one of them is the mythical Dragon Reborn, destined to wield the One Power against the Dark One.

So, yeah, pretty standard fantasy stuff there. The show does a pretty good job of making this feel at least relatively fresh. The various young people argue about who may or may not be the Chosen One™; there’s genuine character conflict that comes from the potential roles. They handle the way the One Power, the world’s magic, works pretty well. The effects are always pretty impressive, and the idea that the female half is pure but the male half is tainted still remains a unique one (they show the literal ying yang symbol at one point to hammer home how this magic system is really supposed to work and this whole idea of balance and unity between the sexes). It’s standard, but it’s standard done quite well on the whole.

There are some changes to the books and the story though. For one thing, the cast is Modern Hollywood Diverse. Even older viewers are likely to just take this in stride at this point: Hollywood has started to realize that there are more than white people out in the world. Honestly, I don’t really care about what color a character is, so long as they still embody certain traits. Thus I was thrilled that Nynaeve was still incredibly attractive and strongwilled, bordering on b***chy, but in a good way, and that Mat’s still puckish and charming. I do worry some about potential pot holes: they made the black woman strong, the black guy struggle with violence, and the sneakest charming character looks vaguely Arabic (though most info I seem to find in a quick search states he’s still white). I think the characterization is strong enough to side step these issues, and the characters still mostly fit.

even the horses are different colors!

The only casting decision I’m not entirely behind is Rosamund Pike as Morraine. She brings power and wisdom to the role, certainly, coming off a lot like a certain wizard played by a certain Sir. Yet Morraine is supposed to be fae-like in appearance, with the Aes Sedai ageless face, and Pike doesn’t quite pull that off to my estimation. I’m willing to give it a pass as she does embody the character pretty well through, y’know, acting, which is the whole point, but it does feel like they nailed everyone else quite well, including other Aes Sedai, so this choice is a bit surprising.

Character plotlines and ideas have diverged as well. Much has been said regarding the decision to say the Dragon could potentially be female (they point to Egwene and Nynaeve as potential dragons, and do a pretty good job setting up Nynaeve as a potential red herring in my opinion… less so Egwene, who borders on a Mary Sue throughout this season). The whole idea is that the power is divided, the male half is the trouble, and balance needs restored. This does feel a bit like social justice writing or “wokeness” seeping into the writing, and I’m left wondering if this is their slight nod to trans individuals (and I do wonder how Jordan would handle a trans character; much of this seems to be based on biological sex though).

Many characters are essentially unchanged, at least from what I can remember: Rand, Mat, Nynaeve, and Lan don’t feel all that different from their book counterparts, mostly for better. Rand does seem a bit more developed with some subtle acting, but otherwise, more or less fine. It’s the other decisions that seem… odd.

My lightest complaint is that Morraine is apparently queer now? This is probably odd coming from someone who has a doctorate in queer theory and usually celebrates whenever there’s a queer character on the screen. But in this case, Morraine’s queerness feels almost tacked on: they decided she has a personal relationship with another character partway through the show. This strikes me as odd, as part of the whole struggle Nynaeve has/had is that Lan is tied to Morraine and that seems to imply a certain intimacy. The show does away with this by writing Morraine as potentially queer. It is kind of interesting that a queer character is in a position of power, but it also sort of feels like pandering; I’ll be interested to see if it actually goes places.

Egwene feels poorly written, and I don’t know if this is the show or the books. Too often she almost feels like a Mary Sue character: Rand wants her and that makes sense; they have a sweet, childhood romance going on. But for some reason, Perrin also has affection for her? They don’t seem to have much chemistry, at least nothing that goes beyond a sibling relationship. On top of this, Egwene only really has one or two moments of action in the series (one is incredibly cool and does involve Perrin), yet somehow Rand and others seem to think she’s the best potential other Candidate for the Dragon? (I do think the show does a decent job with red herrings in Nynaeve, who has a channeling “limit break” and Mat, who suffers from what looks like the madness that should hit the Dragon).

oh speaking of: Nynaeve does perform what I can only think of as a “Limit Break” in the show, in a sort of video game/anime fashion. Healing magic explodes out of her. This kind of tracks with what I recall from the books, and it’s cool and cinematic, so I’m giving it a pass (I also love Nynaeve, soooo…)

She really does look like she stepped out of the books in so many ways

Now for my big complaint, and what I see as the show’s biggest sin: Perrin. For some reason the show decided Perrin needed to be married from the start. This could have been interesting, and there are hints that they might have added a show-exclusive character into the group. Fans of the books would have revolted, but they were doing that the moment you cast a black man for Perrin anyway. But they barely let her say two lines in the first episode, then have Perrin kill her off. For character development.

It’s 2021 and a popular show by a mainstream service fridged a female character.

For those who may not know, “fridging” is fandom parlance for a certain way of handling female characters, most often those that are romantic interests to hetero male leads. In this, the female character is killed by someone or something for nearly the sole purpose of furthering the male character’s growth and storyline. It references a particularly gruesome death in the Green Lantern comics, where GL’s girlfriend is brutally murdered and stuffed in a fridge so he could get development. It is horrendously sexist, degrading to women ,and just flat out bad writing.

And the Wheel of Time does it in the first episode.

This is just inexcusable for a show at this level! It seems to be done to make Perrin question violence, which, yes, is a plotline he explores in the books. But he explores it after several books’ worth of violence. The idea is to have a character question all the killing and bloodshed he and the others are doing. It’s supposed to be a poignant character development that is carefully worked through and discussed with other, similar characters. Here the show decided to rush it in the most haphazard, awful way it possibly could have done so, and it’s a travesty.

Rest of the show’s pretty decent. I found the effects quite gripping, the plotline engaging, the characters fun. I love that the stakes do feel real, though at the same time, this isn’t Game of Thrones: every main character has plot armor for at least a while (they do hint at possibly killing off a couple of secondary characters; I’ll believe it when we have their funerals). The show’s production is good, and I’m definitely going to watch the second season quite eagerly.

The show is rough… very rough in a few places, and it seems to have bungled a few points, often because it feels like it’s pandering to a certain “woke” audience that’s bound to upset a few people. Awkward decisions bring the show down, but they don’t quite wreck it. Some things are still off for me: I find the Aes Sedai (magic ladies) kind of boring, not helped by a weaker character (Egwene) being central (I’m hoping my love of Nynaeve buoys these sections for me); I’m obviously peeved about the complete mishandling of nearly everything involving Perrin, particularly his love interests ; and there’s gonna be some weirdness coming up. I still think the show worthwhile, particularly if you already have Amazon Prime, and it does have the potential to be a grand epic with its own style.

8 though I’m tempted to go for 7 because I’m so incised about Perrin, but the overall show is good enough to bring its entire rating up a few notches; it probably would have bumped Dogs in Space from my ranking, but it would be close

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