SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE SIX AHEAD!
I appreciate that, in vaguely acknowledging the existence of queerness at all, Robert Jordan was far ahead of many of his straight white cisgender male peers in the fantasy literature scene of the 1990’s when it came to LGBTQ+ representation, but I think that speaks more to how low the bar was at the time for mainstream fantasy than to any particularly strong or noble effort by Jordan to write queer characters and relationships into his Wheel Of Time novels. And women in fantasy and in speculative fiction at large had been raising that bar for decades before Jordan, so I’m not sure how many points he deserves for giving us…”pillow-friends”.
Ah, the infamous pillow-friends – a bit of queer(ish) terminology unique to the Jordan lexicon, and therefore conveniently flexible. In and of itself, the phrase was seemingly so self-explanatory that queer readers could choose to interpret it as representation without straying too far into head-canon territory…but because the term was never explicitly defined, others could very easily dismiss those interpretations as frivolous, and find textual evidence for their arguments.
What was never in question was that pillow-friends were women (always women) who slept with other women on occasion, but Jordan seems to have been intent on over-complicating what could have been as simple as that by insisting there had to be rules to these relationships. Pillow-friends are almost always shown to be straight women who, temporarily deprived of their access to men, turn to other women for comfort – as seen in the environment of the White Tower, where the term originated to describe the relationships formed between young Aes Sedai Novices out of necessity and almost universally abandoned as these women grow older.
Some of the most prominent Aes Sedai in the books had pillow-friends as Novices, but the list of Aes Sedai who try to maintain these relationships as adults or are otherwise depicted as being romantically/sexually attracted to women, is far shorter, and includes a troubling amount of “man-hating” sadists and sexual predators from the antagonistic Red (and later the straight-up villainous Black) Ajahs. A handful of minor lesbian characters are scattered among the other Ajahs, but the general rule is that the heroines eventually grow out of their “gay phase” and find fulfilling relationships with men while the villains don’t.
Throughout The Wheel Of Time books, there’s a repeated theme of straight women in same-sex relationships being heavily fetishized for the straight male gaze, while actual queer women (especially lesbians) are chastised – as if the latter have chosen to be inaccessible to straight men. Among the Aiel people, there’s a time-honored tradition of straight women becoming “sister-wives” if they both love the same man and decide they want to share him romantically and sexually. Naturally, there’s no equivalent for straight men in love with the same woman.
If you’re wondering where queer men fit into Jordan’s world at all, well…they don’t. The Wheel Of Time features 2782 named characters, only two of whom are canonically gay men – both extremely minor characters, of course, and both added into the final books in the series by Brandon Sanderson, who completed The Wheel Of Time after Jordan’s passing. Amazon’s Wheel Of Time series has already done slightly better in that regard.
Not having known the late author personally, I’d like to assume that Jordan had good intentions with his queer representation, and by all accounts he did. That’s great. It’s also irrelevant to whether he wrote that representation well, but good luck telling that to the Wheel Of Time purists who claim that Jordan’s books are already so progressive for their time that Amazon’s adaptation shouldn’t need to modernize his questionable depictions of queer people. You’d think that if said purists actually cared that Jordan had good intentions, they’d want to be see better LGBTQ+ representation in Amazon’s series.
But judging by some of the outraged reactions to The Wheel Of Time‘s sixth episode, apparently that’s not the case (*pretends to be shocked*). Undone by an authentic depiction of queer loved rooted in the subtext of the books, the most blatantly homophobic of these purists are claiming to have abandoned the series and its gay agenda. Ah well, their loss. The Wheel Of Time is moving merrily along without them, and it is gayer now, which I see as an absolute win.
To be fair, it’s been at least a little gay since Rosamund Pike as Moiraine Damodred first appeared onscreen and started hurling fireballs left and right. But in the books, it’s also canon that Moiraine was the pillow-friend of another Aes Sedai, Siuan Sanche (Sophie Okonedo), when both were Novices at the White Tower – although neither woman is confirmed to be queer, and their relationship appears to have ended after both obtained their Blue Ajah shawls. Not so in showrunner Rafe Judkins’ vision for The Wheel Of Time, where the backbone of Moiraine’s entire character arc is revealed to be her epic love-story with Siuan.
Like many star-crossed lovers of myth, Moiraine and Siuan are held apart by forces beyond their power to control – but in a refreshing twist befitting Jordan, the master of subverting tropes and clichés, it’s not because they’re queer but because Siuan is the Amyrlin Seat of the Aes Sedai. Her political duties must always take priority over her heart’s desires, and both women understand that this is not only for Siuan’s benefit but for the good of the world. Only by exploiting the power and influence of the Amyrlin Seat have Siuan and Moiraine been able to secretly orchestrate their plan to find the Dragon Reborn and throw them into battle against the Dark One.
At this point, much of the responsibility falls on Pike and Okonedo to locate the grain of human truth in this fantastical story of political intrigue, and The Wheel Of Time is lucky to have two actresses so fully immersed in their characters that the subtlest nuances of their physical performances speak volumes when words would be too dangerous or too clumsy. Outwardly, it’s through their raw, desperate, excruciatingly swift exchanges of eye-contact or the gentle collision of fingertips yearning to hold, to cling to what must always slip away, that we experience the magnitude of Moiraine and Siuan’s bliss and misery around each other.
These moments of modesty and restraint lend real emotional weight to the one sexual encounter they share when they’re finally given an excuse to meet in private. Director Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s decision to keep the camera close to Moiraine and Siuan’s faces throughout the entire scene is noteworthy for how it accentuates expression, individuality, and humanity above all – in stark contrast to how sex scenes between queer women (particularly one involving a queer Black woman) are often filmed, with a dispassionate focus on dehumanized body parts. The effective characterization is what makes this scene sensual.
Unfortunately, they’re only allowed a few hours in each other’s arms before Moiraine informs Siuan that as Amyrlin Seat, she has to do what’s best for both of them and officially banish Moiraine from the White Tower – taking some of the pressure off of Siuan from her opponents who claim that she’s soft on the Blue Ajah, while giving Moiraine the freedom to continue her mission. Their dangerous love is built on a mutual tenacity and trust that Siuan draws on to perform the punishment, and that gives Moiraine the strength she needs to continue moving.
In the universe of The Wheel Of Time, destiny comes for everybody regardless of whether they’re strong enough to meet it in the field. All the characters can do is try and figure out the part they’ll be required to play, and be prepared to go through with it even if it’s not the part they wanted or expected. Moiraine and Siuan’s preparations for the inevitable Last Battle have forced them to make hard choices at the cost of their own personal happiness, something Siuan indirectly laments later in the episode while advising Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) and Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) on how to face their own destinies.
It’s no coincidence then, that this is also the episode in which Moiraine finally uses her most iconic quote from the books – “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills”. Although the phrase implies some level of sentience on the Wheel’s part, Robert Jordan was adamant that the the Wheel of Time is much like a computer, in that it was programmed (by a vague and nameless Creator) to achieve a purpose, that being the preservation of the Pattern of history. Woven into this Pattern are the people and events the Wheel requires to combat the unending threat of the Dark One and continue turning.
In the books, there’s a name for certain people chosen by the Wheel to influence and even shape the Pattern around themselves – ta’veren. When the Pattern is at risk of coming undone, one or more ta’veren are spun out depending on the severity of the situation, and for as long as they are needed they change the world wherever they go simply by existing. Jordan’s books revolve around the deeds of three prominent ta’veren, although in Amazon’s adaptation I suspect the number will increase slightly; if not to exaggerate the scale of the current threat to the Patten, then at least to diversify the group (the ratio of men to women among ta’veren is…statistically perplexing).
Fans will be able to guess the identity of at least one ta’veren after episode seven, but throughout episode six Moiraine is still keeping all of her options open…something that becomes significantly more difficult as her agenda clashes with those of the Emond’s Field Five. Only Egwene trusts her wholeheartedly and seems genuinely in awe of the Aes Sedai at this point (even trying to be on her best behavior to impress potential mentors), which makes Moiraine’s refusal to share the details of Egwene’s friends’ whereabouts with her particularly hurtful – although I suspect she did so to prevent any of them teaming up and fleeing Tar Valon.
To be fair to Moiraine, Nynaeve did just straight-up leave the White Tower without telling anybody to go find Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) in the city below. It’s classic Nynaeve, on so many levels. Put in any situation where she’s scared or overwhelmed, her instinctive reaction is always to fight her way out tooth-and-nail, so her simply ignoring Moiraine’s instructions to stay put is very in-character. She’s then drawn directly to her friends as if by an internal compass. And she doesn’t tell Moiraine, because frankly she doesn’t trust Moiraine or anyone but herself to keep her friends safe.
We learn a lot about Nynaeve through that incident alone; including that sometimes she doesn’t know what’s best for her friends and she can’t keep them safe by her traditional methods, which terrifies her. Mat is almost lost to the cursed dagger from Shadar Logoth because Nynaeve didn’t even consider going to Moiraine, much less any of the other Aes Sedai. It’s only when Moiraine takes action and sneaks in to see Mat after Nynaeve leaves him (Rand’s there, but he’s useless even with a cool sword) that she’s able to perform the necessary exorcism to save his life.
Is it technically an exorcism? It involves Moiraine pulling a veiny rope of sentient, wriggling darkness out of Mat’s throat and allowing it to clamp over her mouth and start sucking on her soul before…absorbing it into herself, I think…so yeah, I’m gonna call it an exorcism because honestly, I don’t know what the proper surgical terminology for any of that would be. It’s not fun to watch, whatever it is. Meanwhile, over on the other side of Tar Valon, Moiraine has arranged for a whole bunch of Yellow Ajah sisters to tend to Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford)’s wounds while he sleeps tastefully half-naked in a greenhouse.
With all the coming-and-going this episode, it’s no surprise that others besides Moiraine and Siuan eventually learn of the Emond’s Field Five. Frustratingly, it’s Liandrin Guirale (Kate Fleetwood) who hears of them first from her eyes-and-ears, but her jealousy of Moiraine is so strong that she wastes time gloating to her when she could have been quietly wrangling potential Dragons. Moiraine in turn casually informs Liandrin that the latter’s boyfriend, a male channeler Liandrin had been hoping to hide from the Red Ajah…yeah, turns out he’s not so well-hidden as all that, and also Moiraine has the Red Ajah on speed-dial.
Although that shuts Liandrin up pretty quickly, the unwanted attention forces Moiraine to leave town with her companions. The group seeks out the ancient Ways, a network of interdimensional passages across the world that Moiraine hopes will take them straight to the Eye of the World for a prophesied confrontation with the Dark One. In the books, Waygates were designed to be used by the Ogiers, and could only be opened with a rare Avendesora leaf. For reasons that will soon become clear, the Waygates in Amazon’s Wheel Of Time are activated by channeling, which sadly undercuts Loial (Hammed Animashaun)’s role.
It’s here that The Wheel Of Time appears to have run out of footage of Barney Harris, who abruptly left the show midway through filming, leaving Amazon with no choice but to write around his absence for the final two episodes before recasting the role heading into season two (Dónal Finn will be our Mat from here on out). A temporary exit is therefore hastily and somewhat awkwardly arranged for the character at the end of episode six. As the others file into the Waygate, he stands a long distance back and just…waits there, without moving, turning around, or walking away, until the door closes.
The scene is very choppily-edited. On the one hand, that’s to be expected seeing as Harris doesn’t seem to have been called back in to film any more appropriate reaction shots before his departure, so his face is blank and expressionless throughout what’s intended to be a very dramatic scene. But honestly, it’s the other characters standing just inside the wide-open Waygate and yelling ineffectively at Mat to follow them that ruins the emotional impact we might have felt more deeply if they hadn’t noticed Mat’s absence until the door was already closing behind them.
Until Amazon or Harris himself say more regarding the matter, I have no interest in speculating as to why he left. Hopefully he’s in good health, and I appreciate the hard work he put into establishing the character of Mat Cauthon throughout this season. Obviously it’s upsetting that at such a pivotal moment in his character arc he’s suddenly rushed offscreen, but this isn’t a situation where much could have been done differently. And I’m actually glad that Amazon took their time to recast – it indicates that the creative team behind The Wheel Of Time thought long and hard about finding the right actor for this crucial role, and I trust that Finn is that actor.
Because I get a feeling of satisfaction out of coming around full-circle in any post involving The Wheel Of Time (it’s just so fitting, you know?), I’ll leave you to ponder the question of whether Finn’s Mat will be canonically bisexual as many fans have been hoping to see, some for literal decades. I’ll be honest, I was surprised to learn that of the Emond’s Field Five, Mat is the most commonly head-canoned as bisexual (if anybody ought to be bi in that group, it’s clearly Perrin and Egwene), but I hope that the show doesn’t stop at confirming Moiraine as queer. Jordan’s world could stand to get a lot gayer.
Episode Rating: 8.9/10