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I still find it hard to believe that all of this is actually happening. Just over four years ago, when Amazon Prime Studios bought the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings and announced their intention to tell never-before-seen stories in the world of Middle-earth, I had no way of imagining what the streaming service had in store. At the time, I had no real interest in the entertainment industry and Amazon Prime was therefore still just a shipping company in my mind.
It was largely because of my growing excitement for what, three years ago, I and many others in the Tolkien community still believed to be the story of a young Aragorn’s adventures, that writing about film and TV became a passion of mine. The revelation in early 2019 that Amazon actually planned to tackle the sprawling Second Age of Middle-earth in their massive series was the tipping-point, finally convincing me to start a blog where I could talk about The Lord Of The Rings – and all my favorite films, TV shows, and franchises, but first and foremost, it’s always been about The Lord Of The Rings for me.
As you might have heard, or guessed, or realized from the video embedded at the top of this post, the cause of my emotional distress is the first brief teaser for Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings – or should I say, The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power. It shows not a single frame of footage from the series, which premieres on September 2nd. Trailers and such are still many months away (and please, Amazon, I beg of you, warn us all beforehand when the first trailer is about to drop, because I can’t just randomly wake up to that one day).
So what is this teaser, then? Well, simply put, it’s a title reveal. But it’s also quite literally a work of art. What at first appears to be a compilation of wholly CGI shots of molten metal flowing through spidery grooves in a wooden background, bubbling and cooling into the forms of thin silver letters (forming the title) is in fact actual footage of the actual forging of this piece at an actual blacksmith foundry by an actual blacksmith, named Landon Ryan. Members of TheOneRing.net’s staff were invited to witness the forging of the title, and shared details of their behind-the-scenes experience on their website.
The teaser is enhanced by what may be our first taste of Howard Shore and Bear McCreary’s score for The Rings Of Power, and by voice-over narration from Morfydd Clark, who recites the iconic verse of poetry inscribed on the One Ring, greatest of all the Rings of Power. I doubt I need to remind you of what it says, but I can’t help myself because I get chills even typing out the words; “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky; seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone; nine for Mortal Men doomed to die; one for the Dark Lord on his dark throne; in the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie”.
Clark is all but officially confirmed to be playing Galadriel, so her narration here establishes a clear link with Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, which also began in the Second Age with voice-over from Cate Blanchett’s version of Galadriel. As one of the oldest Elves in Middle-earth, and certainly among the most active in all three Ages of the world, she’s simply the ideal choice for a narrator. Elrond and Gil-galad are too young, nobody knows Círdan (to be fair to Círdan, that was by choice; dude’s most notable accomplishment was giving his own Ring of Power to Gandalf the first chance he got), and Glorfindel is still dead…for now.
Of course, the flashbacks to the Second Age in Peter Jackson’s films were necessarily brief, condensing thousands of years worth of lore from J.R.R. Tolkien’s appendices to The Lord Of The Rings into a short and succinct prologue sequence. But The Rings Of Power, according to showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, “unites all the major stories of Middle-earth’s Second Age”, including “the forging of the rings, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the epic tale of Númenor, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men”.
Their words would seem to indicate that, despite mounting evidence that Isildur and his family are major characters in season one of The Rings Of Power, events long before their time – such as the actual forging of the Rings in Eregion and the war of the Elves and Sauron – will also be adapted in great detail and depth. Unless The Rings Of Power jumps across timelines in the style of The Witcher‘s first season, what we might be seeing is a case of a compressed timeline; all the major events of the Second Age happening roughly simultaneously, instead of spaced out across 3,441 years.
I know that would be divisive with some fans, but unless the rumors of Isildur are all baseless (which at this point seems highly unlikely), it’s the only scenario I can see where the forging of the Rings isn’t squeezed into the first two episodes, which apparently form a roughly three-hour long prologue to the main events of the series (at least according to TheOneRing.net). And given that the Rings of Power now feature in the title, it’s difficult to believe that their creation will again be abbreviated for a prologue – even a supersized one – when the series could easily dedicate multiple episodes to their forging.
There are very few other clues in this teaser as to what stories will be adapted in season one, although the wave of water that floods the screen just as Galadriel reaches the line in the Ring Verse that talks about “Mortal Men doomed to die” is a nice bit of foreshadowing for one of the cataclysmic events that brought the Second Age to its end. If you know, you know.
Honestly, none of us really know what to expect from The Rings Of Power. We have this one teaser, one screenshot from the first episode that is more confusing than illuminating, and a vague synopsis. But the marketing campaign has officially begun, and a full-length trailer, first look photos, interviews with the cast and crew, and plenty of other goodies are coming. The months between now and September 2nd will fly by as swiftly as the four years we’ve spent waiting for this exhilarating moment, and I can only hope that when that day arrives, I will be ready.
Because right now, as I finish off this review and think about how I’m going to dissect and examine this minute of footage for the next month, how it is literally going to consume my life until I get another crumb of content and make that my new obsession, one thing is for sure; I’m not ready yet.
SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE EIGHT AND THE EYE OF THE WORLD AHEAD!
As if Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time didn’t have enough problems going into its very first season finale, between budget and time constraints, COVID-19 restrictions, and a lead actor leaving during filming, the harsh reality was that this season finale was probably always going to be difficult to get right (and therefore divisive with fans) no matter what…because there’s a precedent in the source material itself.
The convoluted and convenient ending of Robert Jordan’s first Wheel Of Time novel, The Eye Of The World, is widely cited as one of the main reasons that fans regard the book as weak in comparison to its sequels; well that, and the fact that tonally and stylistically, it reads more like Tolkien than Jordan, or that it’s heavy on exposition yet the complex magic-system remains vaguely-defined by the end of the book and main characters are just barely fleshed-out. But seriously, a lot happens in the last few chapters that is still confusing even by the end of the series.
Leaving aside the extremely random nature deity who literally appears out of nowhere, Jordan’s version of events involves two of the series’ most inconsequential Forsaken popping up out of the ground to challenge Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) to a magical battle at the Eye of the World. Things get really weird and trippy from there, Rand instantaneously teleports to Fal Dara and singlehandedly defeats an army of Shadowspawn because he can just…do that now, kills “The Dark One”, possibly talks to The Creator (a.k.a. God), then returns to the Eye to find the long-lost Horn of Valere and the banner of the Dragon Reborn.
Some of the questions that first-time readers have upon finishing The Eye Of The World are answered in later books. Some aren’t. The general consensus among fans is that while Robert Jordan had a lot of his story already figured out when he wrote that first book, the rules of his magic-system weren’t locked down at that point. On top of that, he wanted The Eye Of The World to work as a self-contained story in case he never got to publish the sequels, which explains the deceptive triumphant tone of the ending.
It’s unsurprising and understandable that Amazon’s Wheel Of Time adaptation didn’t aim for loyalty to the books in this instance, because frankly it wouldn’t have made much sense if they had. Jordan’s fourteen-volume series came to an end in 2012 with the help of Brandon Sanderson, so the magic-system is now fully-realized and the inconsistencies in The Eye Of The World are outliers anyway. And because Amazon greenlit The Wheel Of Time for a second season months ago, there’s no need for the writers to tack on a misleading happy ending as Jordan did.
But for every problem solved in the adaptation process, a new one arises that is exclusive to this medium – and hopefully to this first season, specifically. Amazon dictates have apparently been a thorn in showrunner Rafe Judkins’ side since early days of production, when the studio shot down his idea for a 2-hour pilot episode. Then COVID-19 happened, and when The Wheel Of Time was allowed to resume filming after a months-long hiatus with new restrictions in place, one of the show’s lead actors, Barney Harris, didn’t return to set, requiring Judkins and his team to rewrite the last two episodes to account for his absence.
Behind the façade of this otherwise mostly enjoyable episode hide patches of frantically-rewritten story and dialogue loosely holding the whole structure together – like puzzle-pieces that when assembled, form a picture of chaos behind-the-scenes. Most egregiously, the writers don’t seem to have finished removing Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) from this episode, so the silhouette of what was clearly intended to be his subplot remains visible, awkwardly filled by the character of Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford).
Thematically, it makes no sense whatsoever for Perrin to confront the Darkfriend Padan Fain (Johann Meyers), or for their conversation to unfold the way it does, with Padan taunting Perrin about succumbing to the darkness. This entire sequence, which concludes with Padan Fain stealing the Horn of Valere from its secret vault under the throne of Fal Dara (in the books, it’s discovered at the Eye of the World), was very obviously intended to feature Mat – the only character with whom Padan ever interacted, whose potential for darkness was so strong that Padan guided him to the cursed dagger in Shadar Logoth.
Presumably, in the version of the finale we’ll never get to see, Padan would have encouraged Mat to take the next step towards joining the Dark One, before stabbing him with the cursed dagger and leaving with the Horn of Valere after Mat inevitably fought back. In the version we did get, Padan randomly stabs Loial (Hammed Animashaun) and leaves him for dead, although Rafe Judkins has confirmed that Loial is alive. Either way, it would have set up the events of The Great Hunt and the connection that Mat has to the Horn more effectively than a split-second shot of Mat in Tar Valon while Padan is talking to Perrin.
Perrin actually spends most of the episode talking and running around aimlessly, while a battle rages outside the walls of Fal Dara that we barely get to see because apparently Perrin adopted the pacifistic Way of the Leaf at some point (never shown onscreen) and now refuses to fight. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be fully onboard with that character development if Perrin did anything cool or compelling instead, but the weak action scenes scattered throughout this episode really could have benefited from a character with the instincts, reflexes, and unique abilities of a wolf.
There’s a lot of buildup to the Battle of Tarwin’s Gap, and the characters even delude themselves into thinking that the Last Battle, Tarmon Gai’don, is upon them, but all the time spent developing Fal Dara’s warlords Agelmar (Thomas Chaanhing) and Amalisa (Sandra Yi Sencindiver) goes to waste on a “battle” that consists of one embarrassingly puny cavalry charge and a single barrage of arrows. Agelmar, who survives The Eye Of The World, is impaled within the first five minutes by a Trolloc, at which point the fortress at Tarwin’s Gap falls (they call it a fortress, I call it a glorified palisade).
Throughout this…skirmish, the camera refuses to linger very long on the close-quarters action, for good reason. COVID-19 restrictions prevented The Wheel Of Time from filling out the armies on either side with human extras, and even the actors who portrayed the Trollocs and Myrddraal in the first few episodes using extraordinary practical effects and prosthetics have been replaced by a patchy CGI swarm that pours into the flat wasteland before the walls of Fal Dara and is conveniently obliterated by Amalisa, Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins), and Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) before they come into focus.
To the surprise of no one (including the VFX department, I’m certain), this unfinished army of Shadowspawn doesn’t look all that great even from a distance, in total darkness. But it still required money to build from scratch, and that’s money that’s clearly been siphoned away from the special effects in other areas, including the incoherent thunderstorm of saidar summoned by Amalisa (using Nynaeve and Egwene’s power) that eventually reduces the Shadowspawn to cinders in what is already one of the finale’s most confusing – and controversial – original scenes.
Let me try to break it down for you. During the final battle, as the Shadowspawn approach, Amalisa orders Nynaeve, Egwene, and a handful of weaker channelers to “link” with her, something we saw the Aes Sedai do in episode four to collectively gentle Logain. But as we learned from Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) in episode seven, Amalisa herself is weak, and clearly lacks the necessary Aes Sedai training to pull off this difficult maneuver. Instead of equally distributing the One Power amongst her teammates, Amalisa absorbs it all into herself and goes nuclear, quickly burning out.
The same fate befalls everyone tied to her by the link, as one by one the weaker channelers are ripped apart from within by the One Power, which leaves blackened craters where their facial features used to be (a delightfully grisly visual). But eventually Nynaeve wrests control of the One Power from the disintegrating Amalisa to protect Egwene, and burns out. For a moment it’s even implied that she’s dead…but then Egwene heals her anyway. And that, to me, is the only part of this sequence that warrants criticism, because honestly everything else is appropriately terrifying and exhilarating.
But seriously, another fake-out death? Really? This is a trope that is extremely difficult to write well even once in a story, and The Wheel Of Time has now “killed” Nynaeve twice. The first time around, when Nynaeve was abducted by a Trolloc, the manner in which she cheated death actually told us a great deal about her character – and as we learned from Padan Fain, she was never really in danger of being killed because the Trollocs planned to bring her to the Dark One. We don’t learn anything new about Nynaeve when she “sacrifices” herself to save Egwene; only that she’s apparently invulnerable.
Across all fourteen volumes in Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time saga, no burned out channeler ever has their ability to channel restored – and the fact that in this instance it’s Egwene (canonically one of the weakest healers) who miraculously saves Nynaeve makes this scene all the more amusingly inaccurate to the books. That’s not necessarily a problem for the time being, because The Wheel Of Time hasn’t established many of the laws of channeling yet, but down the line one would hope that we get an explanation for what Egwene did in this moment.
My fear is that the explanation, if we ever get one at all, will be in the form of some dismissive offhand comment to the effect of “she’s ta’veren; deal with it”. My hope is that The Wheel Of Time plans to actually explore the intricate mechanics of channeling in its second season, partially through Nynaeve and Egwene as they try to piece together what went wrong with their linking-circle and how they can learn from their mistakes (by training with the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon), and partially through Moiraine, who was unexpectedly humbled by “The Dark One” (Fares Fares) at the Eye of the World, losing her own ability to channel.
Fans are divided over what exactly happened to Moiraine. She can’t channel, but can still feel the One Power at her fingertips, indicating that “The Dark One” either “shielded” her or “stilled” her. The former is more likely, because the magic net that “The Dark One” cast over Moiraine was very similar to the shield that the Aes Sedai used to bind Logain in episode four, and nothing like the probes they used to rip the One Power out of his chest when they “gentled” him. Gentling and stilling both refer to the act of removing a person’s ability to channel entirely, and the consequences are believed to be permanent.
Shields, thankfully, can be undone – although the process requires patience, persistence, and in many cases assistance from another channeler, especially if the “weaves” used to create the shield were extremely complex or archaic (and “The Dark One” is many thousands of years old, so we can safely assume he learned his weaves sometime during the fabled Age of Legends). That’s good news for Moiraine, but keep in mind that women in Jordan’s world can’t see when men channel (and vice versa), so Moiraine doesn’t know what “The Dark One” did to her, or how deep the damage goes.
It’s reasonable to assume that Moiraine will have to search for help from other Aes Sedai in season two, seeing as Nynaeve’s mental block is now firmly in place, preventing her from channeling, even to heal, except when she’s angry, and Egwene, well…actually, this would be a lot simpler if Egwene were still really bad at healing, but…yeah, I don’t know how they’re going to explain why Egwene can’t just undo Moiraine’s shield the same way she undid Nynaeve’s burning out. This is why we need that explanation for what she even did to Nynaeve in the first place, and fast!
On top of all that, the Seanchan colonists make their first live-action appearance at the very end of the episode, leaving audiences with a frightening mental image of all the sadistic, creative ways in which the One Power can be abused. Women with the ability to channel, including captured and enslaved Aes Sedai, make up the lowest class in Seanchan society, where their movements can be controlled by non-channelers through the use of special collars (which in the show are coupled with golden gags). The Seanchan are seen using them to conjure a tidal wave in advance of their arrival on the western shores near Falme.
There’s not much I can actually say about the Seanchan without skirting around Wheel Of Time spoilers. I mean, I could just rant for hours about the production design and costume design failures that continue to plague this show, including the tacky skull helmets that I naively want to hope were stolen from the set of a 1990’s B-movie because the thought of any professional costume designer approving those in 2021 is frankly embarrassing, and the fact that every flat surface on the Seanchan ships is inexplicably covered in giant spikes, but nobody wants to hear me rant (unless you do, in which case I will happily oblige).
Besides, I actually have nice things to say about the production design, too. Not as many nice things as I would like to be able to say, but enough to fill out this paragraph at least, because for one brief flashback to the Age of Legends (hopefully the first of many), the eclectic sets, props, costumes, and production values are in perfect harmony with each other, united by a sleek and streamlined science-fantasy aesthetic. The actors even speak in the Old Tongue invented by Robert Jordan to immersive effect.
The scene gives us insight into the events that preceded the Breaking of the World three-thousand years before Rand’s time, when Lews Therin Telamon (Alexander Karim), in his arrogance, impatience, and desire to protect his loved ones, foolishly chose to try seal the Dark One away forever, ignoring warnings from the Tamyrlin Seat that he would expose the male half of the One Power to the Dark One’s corrosive influence in so doing. Rand al’Thor, Lews Therin’s reincarnation in the Third Age, similarly fails to see the bigger picture, which is why his victory at the Eye of the World is…incomplete.
And yet, Rand’s confrontation with “The Dark One” at the Eye is an unequivocal improvement on the world-hopping swordfight that concluded the first book in Jordan’s series. Usually, adaptations look for opportunities to expand on action and visual spectacle – but this is the rare instance where the opposite is true, and Rand finds himself battling not a physical opponent, but his own worst impulses. “The Dark One” tempts him with a tantalizing vision of the simple life he wanted with Egwene back in the Two Rivers, telling him that with his newfound power he can force the Wheel of Time to weave this fiction into a reality.
And he still wants it, desperately. The scene wouldn’t be effective if he didn’t. But his epiphany, which ultimately gives him the strength to turn on “The Dark One” and blast him out of existence with a blinding sunbeam of power, is that he wanted this future with Egwene because he loves her deeply, deeply enough to know that she doesn’t want it. She has her own hopes and dreams of becoming the village Wisdom someday, or even an Aes Sedai, dreams he may never understand but which he will always respect and accept because he loves her. And I just think that’s beautiful.
Of course, by giving up his one chance at the life he always wanted, Rand simultaneously shoulders the responsibilities and burdens of the lonely life he’s got. And Rand being Rand, instead of seeking guidance, he chooses to go into self-imposed exile after defeating “The Dark One”, instructing Moiraine not to come looking for him or even to tell his friends that he’s alive – because the way he sees it, he won’t be for much longer. All that’s left for him now is the slow descent into insanity that awaits all male channelers.
At least, that’s what he thinks. Without getting into spoilers for the books, all I’ll say is what’s already implied by Moiraine in the episode itself; that the events at the Eye of the World warrant close examination, because what Rand thought happened and what actually happened are not necessarily the same thing. This may not have been immediately obvious to readers back in 1990, but Robert Jordan’s series now has fourteen books, a prequel novel, and several spin-off stories, so there’s not much point in hiding that this is just the beginning of Rand’s story.
Well, let me rephrase that; it is not the beginning, for there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.
But it is a beginning – perhaps even a new beginning for Amazon’s series, which will enter its second season free of the heavy baggage that season one struggled to carry. A recast Mat’s return will obviously restore some cohesion to the story, but on top of that the budget has been increased, and The Wheel Of Timeis now a proven success on streaming, which will appease the skeptical Amazon executives. The writing choices made throughout season one allow season two to hit the ground running and almost immediately branch out in exciting new directions.
If this season finale was messy (and don’t get me wrong, it absolutely was), it’s only so that season two doesn’t have to be.
SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE SEVEN AND BOOKS AHEAD!
Tug a thread carelessly from any piece of fabric, and it will begin to unravel. The same is perhaps doubly true of story-threads, especially in a narrative as carefully and deliberately woven as The Wheel Of Time. Many of the major events and character moments in the fourteen-volume book series, written and published over a span of roughly twenty-nine years, were plotted out by author Robert Jordan from near the beginning of the series, allowing him to layer foreshadowing into the early books for story beats that wouldn’t transpire until after his death in 2007, when Brandon Sanderson completed The Wheel Of Time.
This hasn’t prevented Amazon Prime’s adaptation from rearranging the order of events and character introductions, excising or swapping out characters and locations, or otherwise streamlining Jordan’s sprawling series, but until episode seven these changes haven’t dramatically altered the predetermined course of the story and individual character arcs. Most of the material in the Baerlon and Caemlyn chapters of The Eye Of The World, for instance, has simply been redistributed across the width of the first season – including the character of Min Farshaw (Kae Alexander) who’s been transported halfway across the map from Baerlon to Fal Dara.
But those changes were part of showrunner Rafe Judkins’ plan for The Wheel Of Time, and he and his team of writers had already comfortably integrated them into the story by the time filming began. By contrast, it does not appear that anyone foresaw Barney Harris’ abrupt departure midway through filming, and if I had to hazard a guess based solely on the quality of the scripts for the last two episodes, I’d wager that the writers were not provided anywhere near enough time by Amazon to try and work around Harris’ absence in such a way that it felt planned.
To be fair, it’s a miracle that the loss of a series lead – coupled with COVID-19 and budget constraints – didn’t halt The Wheel Of Time dead in its tracks, and that they were able to move forward at all with revised scripts and a new direction for Harris’ character, Mat Cauthon. Judkins wisely chose to put off the recasting process until he had time to fully devote himself to finding the right actor for the role, but the consequence of that decision is that Mat doesn’t appear again between episode six and a few moments worth of presumably repurposed footage in episode eight.
Now, anyone who’s read The Wheel Of Time knows that major characters often disappear for entire books to go do their own thing, and Mat is one of those characters. But that’s roughly halfway through a fourteen-book series, after readers have gotten to know, and to care for, and to love Mat Cauthon. The effect is quite different when you’ve only got to know a character throughout six episodes of a crowded debut season, the last four of which said character spent being driven mad under the influence of a cursed dagger. If I didn’t know why I should care about Mat by virtue of having read the books, I’m not sure I would.
And all of that is exacerbated by the shoddy justification for Mat’s decision not to enter the Waygate at the end of episode six; that he has an “inherent darkness” within him that’s apparently pushing him towards the Dark One. It only further alienates the character from the audience at a point where he’s not here to defend himself, and clashes with what we thought we knew about Mat given that his only firmly-established character trait was a selfless desire to help his family that was driving him away from his destiny, but certainly not to the Dark One’s side.
It’s a flimsy excuse and a hurtful one, not only to Mat but to the characters forced to halfheartedly state it as if it’s an irrefutable fact that Mat’s already succumbed to the darkness. I could perhaps get onboard with the idea that Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), ever the wariest of the Aes Sedai, would be reluctant to bring Mat near the Dark One because of his exposure to darkness through the cursed dagger, but I can’t easily accept that she never actually intended to bring Mat to the Eye of the World, as she claims in hushed tones to Lan (Daniel Henney), until I understand why she brought Mat to the Waygate at all in that case.
If he hadn’t decided to stay put of his own accord, was she planning to kill him in the Ways or after reaching their destination? Did she have a reason for telling him where she was going if she genuinely feared that he would join the Dark One? And if she always planned to send the Red Ajah after him, why not do so back in Tar Valon, when she could have used the opportunity to appease Liandrin Guirale? If, on the other hand, she’s doing all of this for Mat’s protection, why not leave him in safe hands instead of stranding him in the middle of nowhere near a Waygate he can’t open even if he wanted to?
The one person you can usually rely on to see through Moiraine’s smokescreens is Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) – so naturally in this situation, instead of demanding truth from the Aes Sedai or fighting to reopen the Waygate, she’s quickly convinced that that would be impossible and decides to follow Moiraine into the darkness of the Ways, remarking that they’ll find Mat once they’re out (a promise she doesn’t even attempt to keep once they reach the city of Fal Dara). Soon, the only character consistently standing up for Mat is Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski).
If the intent behind all of this was to endear Rand to viewers just in time for the big twist that he’s also the Dragon Reborn, it comes at the cost of exposing the lack of character development amongst all the Emond’s Field Five (well, four now), and is undermined by Rand himself. I get that Rand makes himself unlikable in the books to try and distance his friends from the fallout of his actions, but that plot-device is so poorly utilized here that it alienates us from Rand without providing any reason to keep sympathizing with him.
Gone is the quiet yet affable sheepherder whose presence we tolerated through the first six episodes; in his place is the sullen, irritable woolhead I fear we’ll be burdened with from this point hence. Not content with privately pushing his friends away one-by-one, Rand stirs up drama between them and stokes rivalries and divisions in the group under the pretense that he’s trying to unite them against Moiraine. He leaps at the opportunity to berate Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden), calling her out for doubting Mat and not having his back when Rand did.
But this argument – this entire subplot – hinges on the viewer knowing these three characters more intimately than The Wheel Of Time has actually allowed us to, even seven episodes deep. Egwene and Mat only shared a handful of scenes in the first two episodes before separating at Shadar Logoth, and never had any interactions in which Rand could plausibly have interpreted some sort of animosity on Egwene’s part, so everything they’re arguing over in episode seven is largely meaningless to us, based on stuff that I guess must have happened before we entered the story.
And, well, don’t even get me started on the other big revelation that comes out of this argument. At some point while everyone is fighting, Nynaeve blurts out that Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) had an unrequited crush on Egwene while married to Laila, something that comes as a shock to Egwene, to Rand, and to us, the viewers. Technically, this is not a new development. Perrin was implied to have a slight crush on Egwene in The Eye Of The World, but Jordan never referenced it again afterwards. It was unbelievable even by his standards, and that’s saying something.
So obviously there was a great deal of shock and disappointment from fans (including myself) who felt that Perrin’s crush on Egwene maybe wasn’t the most vital part of the books to bring over into live-action. Don’t get me wrong, I like relationship drama in my fiction as much as anybody; when it’s just the right amount of juicy and spicy, that’s good stuff. But this is neither. It’s the bare bones of a love-triangle, which is already a generic trope, but on top of that Perrin never indicated any romantic interest in Egwene ever, and now I’m supposed to believe that his marriage was on the ropes because he couldn’t get over her?
Perrin’s wife, Laila, has lingered in the back of my mind as I’ve waited for The Wheel Of Time to reveal why she existed in the first place except to die horribly and motivate her grieving husband. Supposedly, part of the thought process behind her inclusion was that aging the main characters up from teenagers to twenty-something adults in the show required them to act more mature, and to come across as more comfortable in their love-lives than the helplessly awkward, angsty protagonists of Jordan’s books. A married Perrin exemplified that. The ham-fisted reveal that he was secretly crushing on his best friend…eh, not so much.
It’s obviously insulting to Laila. As if the poor woman didn’t go through enough, trapped in an apparently listless marriage and fridged by her own husband with an axe to the stomach (against Brandon Sanderson’s wishes), now the secrets she confided in Nynaeve to keep are shared with a roomful of her friends and enemies. Not to mention the fandom is still convinced she was a Darkfriend, no matter what Rafe Judkins might say. But perhaps The Wheel Of Time is even crueler to Perrin, who’s spent most of season one cycling through pointless subplots, patiently waiting for the show to remember that he’s a major character.
Hopefully he can hang in there a little while longer, because as Judkins himself revealed, Perrin was intentionally sidelined throughout this season to preserve the mystery around the identity of the Dragon Reborn, which Judkins worried non-readers might have solved on their own if The Wheel Of Time had explored how far Perrin’s connection to the wolves goes.
Personally, I feel like the guy who can literally talk to animals would have shot to the top of my list of potential Dragons if I didn’t already know it was Rand going in, but be that as it may, the mystery resolves itself at the end of episode seven and…Perrin still gets nothing to do with wolves in the finale, because he’s burdened with the role that was clearly meant to be Mat’s before these episodes were heavily rewritten.
That said, the mystery was effective in at least one regard. It got non-readers talking and speculating and having fun watching The Wheel Of Time, trying to guess the identity of the Dragon Reborn based on the limited clues that the writers were willing to spare. And at the same time, book readers got a good chuckle out of watching those reactions, or, alternatively, felt their hearts sink to their stomach when they saw how non-readers reacted with joy to the misdirect that Nynaeve was the Dragon.
I admit to being partially biased in this matter because I never liked Rand, and about five books into the series I basically had to reconcile with the fact that I was only tolerating him because the supporting cast was worth the blood, sweat, and tears required to make it through every one of his POV chapters. I proceeded to tolerate Rand for the next seven books. The experience left me tired – and in need of more likable and offbeat protagonists. Learning that some fans really adore Rand is something that invariably shakes me to my core, although I suppose after a couple rereads one grows numb to the pain.
But on a serious note, I really love hearing the various reasons why people like Rand because I can see the potential in his arc. For Rand, the responsibility of being the “chosen one” is claustrophobia-inducing, because he can never be free of it. Wherever he goes, his very existence alters the Pattern and causes irrevocable damage to the people he loves. He’s haunted day and night by the deranged musings of the last Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon. He’s hounded by the Dark One and the Aes Sedai. The corrupted male half of the One Power offers no escape, only a constant reminder of his duty to “cleanse the taint”.
Fittingly, Judkins stages the Dragon reveal in episode seven as a revelation for the audience, but not for Rand. A montage of flashbacks to recontextualized moments throughout the season tell us that Rand has actually suspected that he is the Dragon Reborn for a long time; since he channeled in the Ways to kill a Trolloc and let Egwene take the blame; since he used weaves of saidin to escape from Dana (Izuka Hoyle) in episode three; since the Battle of Bel Tine, when his delirious father Tam al’Thor (Michael McElhatton) revealed that Rand was actually born far from the Two Rivers, on the blood-soaked slopes of Dragonmount during the Aiel War.
The cold-open for episode seven takes us back twenty years to that battle on Dragonmount (known simply as the “Blood Snow”), giving non-readers an indelible mental image of the ferocity and determination they should come to expect from the Aiel – and therefore from Rand. Vikings director Ciaran Donnelly brings an expertise in shooting raw and gritty action to the table, coupled with an almost painterly understanding of how to elegantly compose and choreograph scenes of brutal violence so that they remain one step removed from the hyper-realism of Game Of Thrones‘ early seasons.
The Wheel Of Time is the kind of fantasy show where a pregnant woman in labor can climb up a mountain in the middle of winter, leap through the air with a heavily-armored man in tow before killing him and several others in intense hand-to-hand combat, sustain a stab-wound to the stomach, and only finally die after giving birth to a healthy baby. It’s fantastical, which is refreshing in this case because the fantasy genre is usually known for mercilessly slaughtering mothers and their babies in numbers that rival Disney’s kill-count. Tigraine Mantear (stuntwoman Magdalena Sittova) reclaims agency over the last moments of her life and goes out like a warrior.
A private audience with the seer Min Farshaw confirms Rand’s suspicions that he was adopted by Tam in the aftermath of the Blood Snow, while tentatively establishing the groundwork for a romantic relationship between their characters. If they’re not quite as flirty off the bat as some fans had hoped, it’s only because Rand has just been informed that there’s a strong likelihood he’ll die the very next day, and it kind of throws a damper over any flying sparks. But Amazon’s Wheel Of Time is taking a slow-burn approach to the canonical romances, so I wouldn’t have expected Rand and Min to fall in love yet anyway.
Jordan had many strengths as a writer, but romance was not one of them. His canonical couplings often play out like some of the weirdest and most random “crackships”, with characters falling in love on their first meeting, or on a whim after several books. Even Nynaeve and Lan, whom most fans (including myself) agree are perfect together, are revealed to be deeply in love with each other almost as a side-note nearly fifty chapters into The Eye Of The World. Amazon ‘s Wheel Of Time follows that relationship more closely throughout the season, cluing us in to what both characters are feeling.
The mystery regarding the Dragon Reborn adds a sense of urgency to their relationship in episode seven, as Lan and Nynaeve are both aware that if Nynaeve is the Dragon, there’s a good chance the Dark One will kill her at the Eye, and if she’s not, she’ll almost certainly be obliterated in the clash between the Dark One and the actual Dragon. Either way, the outcome doesn’t look good, and Nynaeve resolves to die having loved Lan as fully as she can. Not content with longing from afar, she joins Lan at his home in Fal Dara, where she meets his foster-family, before returning to his bedroom with him.
Or rather, Lan returns to his bedroom without even kissing Nynaeve goodnight, and Nynaeve enters a minute or two later as he’s getting undressed for bed. Lan can’t bring himself to tantalize her with what they both know is beyond their reach, but Nynaeve is living in the moment, accepting that she’ll probably never have the chance to settle down with Lan or start a family – hell, she’ll be lucky if she survives one more day, but at least right now they can have this together. Before we cut away and leave them to their lovemaking, the unshakable, headstrong Nynaeve we adored is back.
Even in Jordan’s world, the Pattern comes undone sometimes, but it always finds a way to correct itself. That process usually involves ta’veren in the books, but seeing as Amazon Prime Studios doesn’t just have one of those hanging about the place to help out (that we know of, at least), the combined talents of Rafe Judkins and his creative team will make up for the lack of cosmic intervention.
And of course they’ll make mistakes sometimes, but keep in mind that this and the next episode had to be rewritten in the middle of a pandemic to accommodate the absence of a lead actor, so the ending we got is not the ending that Judkins wanted to give us, and the slightly lower quality of these last two episodes is not indicative of where The Wheel Of Time is headed, only of how many obstacles had to be surmounted in order for this first season to see the light of day.
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.