“Hawkeye” Episode 3 Tells Echo’s Side Of The Story

SPOILERS FOR HAWKEYE EPISODE THREE AHEAD!

Of the few people who are actually talking about Hawkeye and making their opinions known on what is potentially the least-watched live-action Marvel Disney+ show yet, it seems from social media that most are just sticking around to witness the return of Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, better known by his supervillain alias, Kingpin. And after Hawkeye‘s third episode debuted yesterday, the series may have just ensured that Kingpin will continue to overshadow the rest of the story, much like how the character looms over everyone thanks to his impressive 6’7″ stature.

Hawkeye
Echo | epicstream.com

And mind you, all we see of Kingpin in episode three, in the roughly five seconds that he’s onscreen, is one of his hands, and a little bit of his suit. We hear him chuckle, but he doesn’t actually say a word to confirm that Vincent D’Onofrio is back in the iconic role. I’m excited to see Kingpin, don’t get me wrong, but it’s slightly frustrating that in five seconds he managed to pull focus away from everything else that happened in this episode, including our official introduction to Hawkeye‘s primary villain for the moment – Echo (Alaqua Cox).

To some degree, that’s on head writer Jonathan Igla and directors Bert & Bertie for not giving Cox’s adult version of Echo a standout action sequence or emotional beat, even though there were plenty of opportunities to blow audiences away on both counts. Her child version, played by Darnell Besaw, has one brief fight at a karate class that translates her photographic reflexes from page to screen, but while promising, we have yet to see Cox’s Echo utilize those abilities again. And her final scene with her father, who famously dies in the comics leaving a bloody handprint on Echo’s face, is significantly less impactful when Disney shies away from showing much blood.

But at the same time, it’s worth noting that MCU stans will find a way to overshadow Echo no matter what. Even when it was revealed that she would become the first Marvel character introduced on Disney+ to receive their own spinoff, all that anyone could talk about was how Kingpin and Daredevil could use Echo’s show as an arena in which to continue their conflict from the Netflix Daredevil series, as if Echo doesn’t have any stories worth telling from her own viewpoint.

And that’s a shame, because Echo happens to be a fascinating character, and Alaqua Cox in her debut performance brings a commanding presence to the role. A deaf Native American woman (and in the MCU, an amputee like Cox), left in the care of Kingpin after her father’s murder, Echo in the comics has a reputation as one of the most formidable street-level antiheroes in the global criminal underworld. There’s already so much going on with her in this episode that Hawkeye doesn’t even have time to reference the fact that in the comics, Echo was the original Ronin before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) took on the mantle.

Nonetheless, the two characters still have a very intriguing dynamic in the MCU. There’s a somewhat generic revenge storyline going on, with Echo under the (most likely false) impression that Clint as Ronin murdered her father, but what’s most compelling about their relationship to each other is how they interact as two characters with hearing disabilities. Hawkeye depicts a range of experiences through Echo, the MCU’s second deaf character after Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari in Eternals, and Clint, who has partial hearing loss.

Hawkeye
Clint, Kate, and Lucky the Pizza Dog | denofgeek.com

This includes depicting the stark differences between the two, as well as the similarities. Echo uses sign language and as a child had to rely on lipreading because she wasn’t able to attend a deaf school, while Clint is still in the process of learning sign language and can’t hold a full conversation with Echo without the help of a translator using simultaneous communication (or SimCom), a controversial method where one signs and speaks at the same time, sometimes to the detriment of both languages but particularly to the signed language because the speaker is often a hearing person who mentally prioritizes their spoken language even while using SimCom.

I have not been able to find any articles specifically regarding the use of SimCom in Hawkeye, and thus it would be impossible for me to say as a hearing person who doesn’t speak any sign languages whether the SimCom in the show is accurate and intelligible. But something that I have seen others address, and that I noted myself while watching this episode of Hawkeye, is that the way shots are framed, the characters’ hands are often out of frame while they’re signing. It might seem like a small thing to some, but it also demonstrates why representation can’t stop at onscreen visibility. It takes a diverse team behind the camera to make sure that visibility is…well, visible.

I do appreciate, however, that Hawkeye actually utilizes its diversity for more than just surface-level visibility; Clint and Echo’s disabilities are an integral part of both their characters, and in this episode at least both deal with unique situations and challenges that arise because of their disabilities. At one point, Clint’s hearing-aid gets smashed under Echo’s boot during a fight, which in turn requires him and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) to work together more closely, culminating in a scene where she helps him through an abrupt phone call from his son. It’s strongly reminiscent of a scene in The Umbrella Academy‘s season one finale, but still poignant and powerful.

In the superhero genre especially, it’s also important that diverse characters get the chance to be cool, which is why Makkari’s magnificent power display in Eternals was such a joy to behold. And here, it’s great to see that Clint at least is finally being given that chance thanks to his collection of trick arrows, each more dangerous than the last. Even though it’s pretty obvious that the show’s CGI budget got diverted elsewhere (let me guess, it’s all going into making Kingpin look taller), several of the arrows are very well-used, and the Pym Tech size-alteration arrow is particularly clever in theory.

In next week’s episode, we’ll also presumably see Clint take up a sword as he deals with the Swordsman himself, Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton), who pops up right at the end of episode three (wielding Ronin’s blade) to remind us that, oh yeah, there’s a whole separate plot revolving around that unsolved murder mystery in episode one that has yet to tie into everything going on with Echo and Kingpin. At this point, with my theory that Echo would be connected to the MCU’s Red Room officially very unlikely to materialize into anything substantial (a shame, I thought it was a good theory), I have no idea when or why Yelena Belova will show up.

Hawkeye
Kate Bishop | hollywoodreporter.com

Perhaps, in trying to wrap up all these storylines with a neat little bow (and arrow), Hawkeye will bite off more than it can chew, but for the time being I’m just enjoying the ride. As long as Renner and Steinfeld continue to have great banter and chemistry, and Echo continues to develop into a more well-rounded antagonist to the duo, that shouldn’t be hard. I just have to hope that they don’t let Kingpin steal the show from them without putting up a fight.

Episode Rating: 7.5/10

“The Wheel Of Time” Episode 2 Puts Jordan’s Genius On Full Display

SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE TWO AHEAD!

With episode four of The Wheel Of Time now out on Amazon Prime, my review of episode two is perhaps, scratch that, definitely, a little bit late. Hopefully I’ll have caught up to the show in time for episode five, but if not, well, it’s my own fault for having too much to say individually about the first three episodes than could be reasonably be crammed into a single super-sized review. What can I say? I geek out over fantasy, and I end up writing way too much about everything down to the tiniest worldbuilding details or bits and pieces of deep lore, and mind you, I wouldn’t even consider myself a diehard fan of The Wheel Of Time books.

Wheel Of Time
Lan and Moiraine in Shadar Logoth | nerdist.com

I read almost all of them, to be clear, only putting down the series for good shortly after reaching the point where Robert Jordan left off and Brandon Sanderson took over for him. There’s stuff I really like about the books, including their complex storylines and massive ensemble cast set against a backdrop of rich worldbuilding. But then there’s stuff like Jordan’s dry writing style and the sluggish pacing and the sexism built into The Wheel Of Time‘s world and magic system that ultimately led me to stop reading the books.

All of which is to say that there aren’t many changes that the Amazon Prime series could make to the source material that would bother me greatly – at least not on the grounds that “it’s inaccurate, and therefore bad”. When I feel that a change is unnecessary, or negatively impacts the story and character development, I’ll note it, but for the most part I entrust that solemn duty to Wheel Of Time book purists. So be warned that this post will include a lot of raving about episode two, which features some massive changes from the books.

Despite and in large part due to these changes, episode two slowly begins creeping out from under the looming shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence on the early books in The Wheel Of Time. Where Robert Jordan filled his first book in the series, The Eye Of The World, with intentional pastiches of Tolkien’s characters and locations, showrunner Rafe Judkins has made the wise decision to either cut these derivative stragglers entirely, or swap them out for the products of Jordan’s own genius.

For instance, the characters no longer stay at an inn in the town of Bree, sorry, Baerlon, where in the books they encountered Whitecloaks and a terrifying Myrddraal, and gained a traveling companion in the Wisdom of Emond’s Field, Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins). Judkins drops the sojourn in Baerlon, scattering the various events that happened there in the books throughout this episode and the rest of the season.

The meeting with Whitecloak zealots therefore takes place on a deserted stretch of road where their threat is more immediate. The characters don’t come face-to-face with a Myrddraal until episode four, prolonging the suspense. And Nynaeve’s eventual reappearance is moved to a later point in the narrative where its consequences and implications are more interesting. All of that allows us to reach one of Jordan’s most iconic locations, the sentient city of Shadar Logoth, much sooner than we did in the books.

Now, there are drawbacks to cutting out this sizable chunk of the story. Obviously, we lose the popular Baerlon-based character of Min Farshaw – although she’ll show up later in the season, so that’s another example of Judkins simply rearranging the pieces of Jordan’s puzzle. More problematically, interactions between the main characters are again reduced to a sprinkling of underwritten scenes in this episode, and the characters split up at the end of the episode. The time we didn’t get to know them is now time we can’t get back.

And if this pivotal event were pushed back just by one episode, perhaps it wouldn’t come across quite as hectic as it does, but this is episode two. We’ve barely even had a chance to connect with the characters individually, and we’re still only just learning about their relationships with each other when suddenly they’re divided off into pairs. The Wheel Of Time is veritably spinning along. But this is truly a fault of episode one, which didn’t lay strong groundwork for the series to build upon.

I only need to cite one example of what I mean by this. By the time that Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) and Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) break up in episode two, shortly before being forcibly separated at Shadar Logoth, we still have no idea why Egwene’s dream of becoming Nynaeve’s apprentice was so important to her that she would give up Rand to pursue it. The nuances of Egwene trying to repair their relationship in the aftermath of Nynaeve’s apparent death, only to be rejected by a Rand bitter at being manipulated, are simply too complex to be summed up in one or two scenes – which are all this subplot is allotted.

It’s a shame, because what this episode does spectacularly well in a very short time is explore the wide range of emotions towards Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike) from each of the characters she takes on as a ward – particularly Egwene, whose awe develops into reverence and respect for the Aes Sedai after two separate incidents, one at Taren Ferry and the other with the aforementioned Whitecloaks in the woods, that simultaneously alienate Moiraine from her male traveling companions, especially Rand and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris).

Wheel Of Time
Moiraine | variety.com

The first of these incidents is a frightening demonstration of an Aes Sedai’s power that leaves an innocent man dead, although as Moiraine points out very reasonably afterwards she didn’t kill him directly, and to say that she did would be a grave accusation as an Aes Sedai is forbidden to use the One Power as a weapon “except against Darkfriends or Shadowspawn, or in the last extreme defense of her life, the life of her Warder, or another Aes Sedai”. Such subtleties are lost on Mat, who develops a fear for Moiraine that manifests itself in irrational outbursts.

In the instinctive reactions of Mat and Rand to Moiraine’s power and secrecy, it’s not hard to detect the influences of the same patriarchal mindset that informs the ideology of the Whitecloaks, a semi-religious order who regard the Aes Sedai as abominations against nature. The unexpected encounter with them and their Questioner Eamon Valda (Abdul Salis) is thus illuminating on multiple levels. Moiraine is also playing defense throughout the tricky situation, forced to rely on deception while obeying the first law of the Aes Sedai, that she may “speak no word that is not true”.

Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford)’s view of Moiraine is still rather unclear even after both these events, but the character is kind of an enigma anyway, reluctant to forge any strong connections with people out of fear that he’ll hurt them all. Also, wolves are really interested in him, which is something that general audiences are just supposed to roll with until somebody in-universe explains why or somebody in real life spoils it for them, so I won’t dwell on that plot point too much here.

That mystery is only one of several being teased out across season one, but this episode does begin answering some questions about the worldbuilding and the magic system. Egwene, still acting as The Wheel Of Time‘s default lead, is our point-of-view character through whom we learn about “channeling”, the practice of using the One Power – in Egwene’s case, specifically its feminine half, saidar. There’s an artistry to Moiraine’s channeling that I referenced in my last review, but Egwene isn’t at the point yet where she needs to worry about refinement.

If Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time can capture any of the vibrant images and emotions conjured up by Robert Jordan’s description of channeling, it will be an outstanding achievement. There is one scene in episode four that is very nearly on that level, but in episode two Egwene’s attempt at channeling is a little underwhelming, not because she’s still in the process of learning but because it doesn’t feel like the show has a clear idea of how to depict the act of reaching into the One Power, even during action scenes when the focus is mostly on the expulsion of that Power.

There’s also the related problem of some wonky CGI, which wasn’t something I noticed in episode one (I’ve watched it now three times; Moiraine’s battle with the Trollocs looks really good), but it’s very obvious in Shadar Logoth, when the city’s nocturnal spirit awakens to try and consume the group, leading to their separation. Granted, it’s already not a great action sequence in general because it’s only about five minutes long, choppily-edited, and badly-lit, but the fact that the spirit, or mashadar, is depicted as a conveniently slow-moving oil-stain is extremely disappointing. Like Shadow And Bone‘s Shadow-Fold, it’s a potentially terrifying visual, but it’s done no justice here.

It’s an increasingly common complaint that TV shows are literally too dark to see anything, but the problem (at least for me) isn’t that Wheel Of Time‘s Shadar Logoth sequence or Shadow And Bone‘s Shadow-Fold scenes are dark, it’s that they’re muddled and incomprehensible. The darkness has no definition, it’s just a nebulous CGI smog. Add to that the fact that Shadar Logoth is itself almost entirely CGI (apart from the one main street that is very clearly a soundstage), and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Whether because they were achieved using practical effects enhanced by CGI or because their design is simply too iconic to mess up, the Myrddraal by contrast look fantastic – like anthropomorphic cave-salamanders with no eyes in their smooth pale faces, and rows of cookie-cutter shark fangs behind their thin-lipped frowns. Although clearly inspired by Tolkien’s Nazgûl, Wheel Of Time‘s Myrddraal are more vivid and disturbing than those intangible beings. The Nazgûl wield terror, the Myrddraal horror, and both are perfectly repulsive in their own right.

Wheel Of Time
Myrddraal | Twitter @ThreeFoldTalk

And that’s where I think I ought to close this review, on that unholy marriage of Tolkien’s influence and Jordan’s imagination that is the Myrddraal, representative of the balance achieved throughout this episode between staying faithful to the generic quest narrative of The Eye Of The World and foreshadowing the creativity of Jordan’s later books in the series. And after this episode, as the show moves increasingly in the latter direction, The Wheel Of Time ceases to be merely good and becomes great.

Episode Rating: 7.5/10

Hawkeye’s First 2 Episodes Kick Off A Street-Level Story

SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO EPISODES OF HAWKEYE AHEAD!

Even with the first two episodes released simultaneously this morning, Hawkeye is taking just a little bit longer to pick up speed than Marvel Studios’ last four Disney+ shows. It’s getting there, but the ending of episode two left me still waiting for that big “wow!” moment when the show would kick into gear – and disappointed that such a moment won’t arrive until next week at the earliest. If the series had more than six episodes to its first season, I wouldn’t be concerned, but now I wonder if Hawkeye will even have the time it needs to find its groove, much less stay in that groove long enough to make an impact.

Hawkeye
Clint Barton and Kate Bishop | empireonline.com

In the meantime, Hawkeye takes us on a pleasing, if somewhat safe and slow-moving, joy-ride around the outskirts of the MCU’s criminal underworld. The series gets progressively more exciting as it ventures deeper into that dark and largely uncharted territory, although the trappings of Christmas in New York City are never far from sight, providing a visual contrast to all the violence and crime (in just the first episode, we have a murder and a musical number), and a pop of color that keeps the series from ever looking as blandly gritty as some of the Marvel Netflix shows that shared similar plots and street-level characters.

Hawkeye, a.k.a. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), is kind of a quintessential street-level character, as his enhanced accuracy and precision are superpowers grounded heavily in realism, that give him a slight advantage over your average criminal but don’t offer much if any protection from, say, Loki or Ultron or Thanos – the villains whom the Avengers took on, and whose low-level minions Hawkeye and Black Widow usually got saddled with killing. The Avengers movies were simply too epic in scale for Hawkeye’s bow and Black Widow’s batons to make much of a difference, so the writing emphasized their relatable qualities and made them out to be the team’s heart and soul, with Black Widow even sacrificing herself for the Soul Stone; taking the metaphor a step too far.

But sometimes all you need to do is reel it back a little for these characters to work. Not every hero needs to save the world every day – sometimes the most vividly-realized villains are those who threaten the hero on a more personal level, endangering them and their loved ones, challenging their worldview, or both. Because that gives us a reason to care, and it makes every injury sting a little fiercer. It’s not impossible to write a supervillain who checks those boxes, either, but the threat usually rings truer when it’s coming from someone grounded – like Echo (Alaqua Cox) who at least for now seems to be Clint’s primary antagonist in Hawkeye.

And we’re not even introduced to Echo until the end of episode two. Until then, Hawkeye is slowly working his way through her henchmen, a bunch of burly Eastern European men who call themselves the Tracksuit Mafia, and despite their ridiculous name (although, as Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop would be the first to admit, their branding is on-point), they’re more than a match for Hawkeye when he’s dispossessed of his bow and forced to rely on his limited mixed martial arts skills. We see him and Kate get hurt, repeatedly, and the show doesn’t gloss over those injuries like Black Widow did every time Natasha fell from some great height and miraculously walked off without so much as a scratch.

When Kate gets a nasty cut on the forehead, there’s an entire sequence devoted to properly cleaning her injury, in which Clint demonstrates those effortless mentoring skills that make him so popular with aspiring young superheroes. Clint knows the reality of what happens to average people who get entangled in Avengers business. By the time Hawkeye opens, two years after Avengers: Endgame, he’s already wearing his hearing-aid from the comics and using sign-language occasionally (the second MCU character to do so after Eternals‘ Makkari), which is explained as being the result of all those battles and loud explosions.

It’s easy to see why, in-universe more than in the real-world, regular folks look up to Hawkeye. He’s theoretically more accessible than any of the other main Avengers, whose ranks originally included a literal god, an ageless superhuman, a billionaire encased in high-tech armor, an enigmatic double-agent, and a man who did most of his work with the Avengers while trapped inside an uncontrollable green monster. Conversely, Clint is just a guy; but ironically, while that might seem to make him a better role model, Hawkeye plays with the idea that maybe…just maybe…we shouldn’t put any of these people on pedestals.

Clint is just a guy, but that means he’s also fallible. In his relatable mission to get back to his family, he’s always walked that thin line between doing what’s right and what’s best for him, demonstrating even less remorse about it than Black Widow. Sure, MCU fans love to defend him by saying that the victims of his serial killer spree in Endgame were all criminals, and maybe that’s true, but we still don’t know by what devious methods Clint acquired the Ronin mantle he used to commit those killings, and I’m inclined to believe that Echo might expose truths about him that nobody – least of all Hawkeye’s protégé Kate Bishop – wants to hear.

Hawkeye
Eleanor Bishop and Jack Duquesne | indiewire.com

If Hawkeye continues down this path of deromanticizing the myth of the superhero, it could be revolutionary for the MCU. Kate Bishop in particular would come out the other side having learned some important lessons about the responsibility of heroes to wield their influence wisely, that would serve her well as she steps into a leadership role over the Young Avengers. I don’t know if the show will commit to this idea, because Disney absolutely still wants people to put the Avengers on pedestals and buy all their merchandise, but it’s nice to think about.

And even Kate is more morally gray than I expected. Not quite on the level of Hawkeye murdering people and leaving their bodies in the street, but the show doesn’t pretend that she hasn’t been spoiled all her life by her extraordinarily wealthy mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga), who’s secured her a spot in a high-end college and a permanent job at Eleanor’s own security company. Tony Stark also benefited from mind-boggling wealth and nepotism, which the MCU simply never saw as a problem until after his death when The Falcon And The Winter Soldier raised the question of why he never paid the Avengers, but with Kate they could right those wrongs by actually addressing her privilege, and the ways it can be weaponized for good or evil.

We’ll see if the show chooses to double down on any of these themes, or if my reading is completely wrong in the end. What’s more certain is that, as was the case with WandaVision and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and Loki, these first two episodes are seeded with clues regarding the season’s overarching mystery. There’s always more going on beneath the surface of these shows than what meets the eye at a first glance, and because these mysteries often lead circuitously back to characters that will be significant going forward, we’ve learned to pick up on these clues more quickly and to connect the dots.

Sometimes we’re still completely wrong, and the Mephisto debacle is a testament to what can happen when fans get so wrapped up in theories that they forget to focus on the show itself. But Hawkeye definitely wants us to know that someone relevant was behind the murder of Armand Duquesne (Simon Callow). While it might not have been his suave nephew Jack (Tony Dalton), their family history in the comics is shady nonetheless. Jack is better known as the Swordsman, an identity alluded to when Kate challenges him to a fencing duel in which he only pretends to be unskilled.

But if Jacques didn’t murder Armand, who did? Kate’s mother is a likely candidate. She had motive, surely, although we still don’t know exactly why Armand was threatening to call up his “powerful friends” to deal with her. Echo is another option, and Yelena Belova is supposed to appear in Hawkeye, although I have no idea why she’d want to kill Armand. The name that’s come up among fans is that of the Kingpin, the crime-lord who is Echo’s father figure in the comics and arguably the most prominent street-level villain. He has yet to appear in the MCU, although Vincent D’Onofrio memorably portrayed the role in Netflix’s Daredevil and there is some speculation that he may return to the role.

Thus far, we haven’t been given enough clues to build a compelling argument for or against any of these potential killers, and the murder mystery takes a backseat in episode two while Clint is off investigating the Tracksuit Mafia at a medieval-themed LARP (live-action roleplay) event that is a completely random and boring setting for a scene that drags on pointlessly. The slow pace of both these episodes is a problem, but Renner and Steinfeld have an easy chemistry that helps keep the momentum going, and Steinfeld at least sells all of her solo scenes (the same can’t be said of Renner, who is giving a strangely distant performance when we first reunite with him).

Hawkeye
Lucky the Pizza Dog | collider.com

But with some assistance from an adorable dog that loves pizza, Renner and Steinfeld carry the first two episodes of Hawkeye through most of its rougher patches and hopefully won’t have to wait too long before the show finds its footing and rises to the level of Marvel Studios’ other Disney+ shows.

Episodes Rating: 7/10

“The Wheel Of Time” Episode 1 Is Decent, But Deceptively Simple

MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE ONE AHEAD!

For the past decade or so, the fantasy genre has been dominated to such an extent by HBO’s Game Of Thrones that it appears as though many professional critics no longer remember what came before. So they dissect every new fantasy series looking for similarities to Game Of Thrones, and inventing said similarities even when there are none. The Witcher? A Game Of Thrones rip-off, clearly. Shadow And Bone? A young-adult Game Of Thrones. The Wheel Of Time? Uh, Game Of Thrones but…uh, more wholesome, I guess?

Wheel Of Time
Lan and Moiraine | nerdist.com

The reference-point they’re looking for (in the latter case) is The Lord Of The Rings. To be honest, it’s downright annoying that critics feel the need to endlessly compare vastly different works in the same genre at all, especially as fantasy is rapidly expanding to be more diverse than ever and the writings of cisgender heterosexual white men are no longer automatically the gold-standard by which we judge everything else. But even leaving that aside, comparing The Wheel Of Time to Game Of Thrones is absurd. The first installment in Robert Jordan’s sprawling fourteen-book series is intentionally modeled after The Lord Of The Rings.

Later on in the series, perhaps, one could argue that Jordan’s increasingly complex spiderweb of crisscrossing subplots was more reminiscent of Game Of Thrones‘ intricate storytelling than The Lord Of The Rings‘ relatively straightforward quest narrative, but Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time is only on season one – which means we haven’t gotten anywhere close to the point where a Thrones comparison is even relevant, much less accurate. The Wheel Of Time‘s first episode is actually so simplified that my biggest criticism is that it feels deceptively generic, stripped bare of almost any unique embellishment to distinguish it from The Lord Of The Rings.

Perhaps recognizing that the monumental scope of Jordan’s series could alienate casual viewers or audiences new to the fantasy genre, Wheel Of Time starts off with a bare-bones plot and as little lore-heavy exposition as possible – basically all we learn from episode one is that “the Dark One is waking”, which is a vague yet familiar concept, and that one of the four main characters is prophesied to be “the Dragon” who can stop the aforementioned Dark One. There’s no way of narrowing down which character is the Dragon (although book readers will know the answer), because they’re all roughly the right age to fit the prophecy, and the Dragon could be any gender.

What Jordan did with these well-worn tropes was deconstruct them in various ways, but unless you know that going into the show I worry that some new viewers might be turned off by what sounds like a basic plot. There are plenty of worldbuilding details and story elements unique to The Wheel Of Time that could have been sprinkled in throughout this episode, not distracting from the narrative but enriching it and giving viewers a reason to keep watching for something they haven’t seen before onscreen, rather than the promise of deconstructing tropes they already have.

The one area where Wheel Of Time stood out from the crowd when the first book was published was in the series’ exploration of gender roles, and one would think that Amazon’s series would lean into that more, given the focus it received in the marketing, and the top billing given to Rosamund Pike as Moiraine Damodred, an Aes Sedai on a mission to find the Dragon. To be fair, episodes two and three (released simultaneously with the premiere) do a much better job of explaining the rift between women and men in this world, but episode one only gives a handwavy explanation of who the Aes Sedai are, why women alone can use magic in this world, and what happened so that men can’t.

Yet even so, Amazon’s depictions of women in The Wheel Of Time are effortlessly superior to Jordan’s, at least insofar as it feels like the women of Amazon’s series are real people with some thought and care put into their individual characterizations. Reading Jordan’s books, it sometimes feels like he pulled at random from a grab-bag of sexist stereotypes to flesh out his female characters, which in turn dilutes whatever message he was trying to send (I said his books explored the subject of gender roles, but you could build a strong argument for why they also reinforce them).

Fantasy and sci-fi in particular are two genres that have always had a problem with sexism, and that doesn’t magically go away during the transition from literature to film and television without writers behind the scenes advocating for updates to the source material. Based on showrunner Rafe Judkins’ previous work on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., I do trust him to make those decisions on his own, but I’m very glad that his writers room for season one also included three women; one of whom, Celine Song, is credited as having written four episodes – the most of any writer on the series. The result is that Wheel Of Time‘s dynamic female characters are its highlight.

Wheel Of Time
Perrin, Egwene, Lan, Moiraine, Nynaeve, Rand, Mat | collider.com

That being said, this is something that only becomes gradually clear throughout the first three episodes. Episode one, in and of itself, skimps a little on characterizations…which is weird, seeing as there’s not enough actual plot packed into these fifty-four minutes to warrant doing anything else with all that screentime. The women do still manage to steal the spotlight, however, particularly Moiraine, who keeps the people of the Two Rivers on edge with her disarming personality, and Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), whose journey of self-discovery is followed so closely by director Uta Briesewitz’s camera that whether intentionally or not she comes across as the lead.

We’re introduced to Egwene and expected to focus on her before we even hear of Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), or Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris, whose performance you’ll want to enjoy while it lasts – he’s been recast for season two), or Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), while Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) doesn’t get enough attention in this episode to foreshadow her significance down the line. Throughout the battle with the beastly Trollocs, we remain centered on Egwene as her reality crashes down in flames around her, and it’s through her wide eyes that we witness Moiraine’s first staggering display of power.

When we cut back to Rand and his father Tam (Michael McElhatton), their fight with a Trolloc – through which Jordan narrowed the scope of the entire battle to just two people fighting to survive one harrowing night in the mountains – is an interlude between scenes of Egwene’s experiences. We briefly follow Mat and Perrin as they weave in and out of the battle, but I never felt like the show knew exactly to do with Mat, and Perrin’s storyline in this first episode features an overused trope which, unless subverted soon, will continue to grate on me every time it’s brought up again.

Egwene obviously benefits immensely from this change. But if there’s an unfortunate side-effect, it’s that Rand and Tam’s entire relationship is cut down to just three scenes in which we barely get to know anything about them. I loathed Rand in the books, but here I think he could be a more interesting and likable character (episode three, in particular, proves that) if we got a little more time to connect with him.

Amusingly, Wheel Of Time doesn’t have enough time to tell its story. I’m not saying that the episodes need to each be over an hour long (although with only eight episodes in this first season, they might want to consider it), but the premiere certainly should have been. We bounce from scene to scene before having a chance to process anything, and as a result the characters’ personal lives feel underdeveloped. Egwene’s romantic relationship with Rand, which we enter just as both characters are starting down diverging paths, is a clear example of this; reduced to a scattering of interactions that give us no indication of why they loved each other in the first place and why we should care that they no longer do.

Between that, Mat’s standard-issue broken family, and Perrin’s listless relationship with his wife (a character invented for the show), the first episode drags quite a bit as it rotates between these subplots, at least until the Battle of Bel Tine begins. That’s also when Moiraine and her Warder Lan (Daniel Henney) finally stop hovering on the sidelines and get involved. Moiraine’s battle with the Trollocs, accompanied by Lorne Balfe’s eerie and powerful score, is a thing of beauty – we’ve seen magic onscreen countless times before, but Wheel Of Time‘s complex system of “channeling” is completely new.

Amazon’s fight choreographers and VFX team interpret channeling very literally – Moiraine bends into the One Power as gently as a tree in the wind, and performs a kind of slow-motion dance as she wields it, leaning in whichever direction she wants the power to go and letting it flow through her body, forming a channel with her outstretched arms and hands. It’s mesmerizing to watch. The magic itself, comprised mostly of glowing white threads, wouldn’t be all that interesting without Rosamund Pike’s incredible physical performance – although I liked that when Moiraine summons the One Power to her, it spills in luminous rivulets from everything in the area, even the ancient stones used to build the village inn.

The production values are incredible, of course. Amazon may have devoted more money and resources to their adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, but The Wheel Of Time didn’t come cheap either, and it only occasionally looks less than cinematic when its expansive sets and locations are bathed in that unnaturally bright TV lighting that gives everything an artificial sheen. If the costumes don’t look as lived-in as one would expect, only Nynaeve’s vivid gray-green coat is actually distracting in the moment. But that’s not to say the other costumes look good. Moiraine’s traveling gear is the only fashion so far that I could see making an appearance at Halloween parties next year.

Wheel Of Time
The Wheel Of Time | amazon.com

As I close this review, I realize that it might sound harsh, but please keep in mind that I’m reviewing episode one separately from two and three (and if I have time, I’ll review both those episodes in the coming days). Wheel Of Time doesn’t take long to improve significantly, and by the end of episode two I was heavily invested in the story and most of its characters. Episode one on its own, however, isn’t great – it’s fine, but it’s diluted to the point where it sometimes feels more like a bland rip-off of The Lord Of The Rings than the book, which is…impressive.

And amusing, seeing as Amazon has its own Lord Of The Rings adaptation coming up, and it will be completely different from the story most people are familiar with – in fact, possibly more like what Wheel Of Time will become. Me, I’m just happy that in the wake of Game Of Thrones, the fantasy genre on TV continues to expand and diversify, giving us fans plenty of content from which to choose our new obsessions.

Episode Rating: 6.5/10