MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME, SEASON 2, EPISODES 1 – 4, AND BOOK 2, THE GREAT HUNT, AHEAD!
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time has one bad habit it needs to break. You may recall that the first season was structured around the premise that one of its five main characters was unwittingly walking around with the power to save the world or break it – a high-stakes mystery with the potential to be extremely engaging. In Robert Jordan’s fourteen-volume series of books by the same title, it’s fairly obvious from the first chapter of The Eye Of The World which of these five is the so-called “Dragon Reborn”, because we go on to spend roughly 75% of the book in his head, and there are only two other contenders, but the Chosen One story has been told a million times and more, so for the show, screentime was divided (somewhat) fairly between five potential Dragons to encourage the intriguing idea that it could be any one of them. All good changes, honestly.
But an engaging mystery is one that allows for some degree of…well, engagement. And that can’t happen when all of the relevant information is being withheld. Obviously, some deception and misdirection is to be taken for granted, but when the general audience has access to none of the clues that the characters do, they become passive observers instead of active participants. Throughout The Wheel Of Time‘s first season, this is pretty much exactly what happened. Fans new to the series weren’t given the chance or the means to figure out the answer on their own without resorting to the books, while fans of the books waited impatiently for the reveal, inevitably underwhelming given the smaller amount of screentime allotted to him in the show, that Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) was the Dragon. Then again, perhaps it was obvious after Barney Harris left the show that the only other white man in the main cast would turn out to be the protagonist (they are all of them ta’veren, to be fair, but I don’t expect the average person to know what the heck that means, yet).
Anyway, while The Wheel Of Time‘s quality has improved massively from the first season to the second as a result of the writers learning from their early missteps, this is one area where they need to do better, because in a much stronger second season it’s all the more jarring when the show falls back, even briefly, into old habits – and mercifully, the time spent delaying the reveal that Natasha O’Keefe’s character “Selene” is the alias of the Forsaken Lanfear is relatively brief, though that arguably only makes it harder to justify when every second counts; a philosophy we’ve seen reflected in the decision to drop the series’ beautiful animated intro for an extra minute and a half of screentime per episode.
Once again, fans of the show were given little to none of the information they would need to solve the mystery. Once again, book readers didn’t gain much from the experience except frustration at watching others struggle to speculate and theorize. And once again, the mystery was ultimately detrimental to the characters entangled in it. Most egregiously, this was not a mystery that needed to exist in the first place.
For comparison, while Lanfear does not make her identity known to Rand in The Great Hunt, it is at the very least abundantly obvious that the woman she claims to be, a Cairhienin noblewoman named Selene, does not exist, and there are enough clues pointing to her being Lanfear that, long before it’s officially revealed at the end of the book, the observant reader will have started to suspect a connection. Around the same time Rand first encounters her, conveniently trapped with him in a mirror-world that can only be accessed by channeling at a Portal-stone, Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) dreams of a woman standing over Rand – “her face was in shadow, but her eyes seemed to shine like the moon, and Egwene had known she was evil”. And although she can’t place a name to the woman, we can, because the name Lanfear is mentioned early in the book; much earlier than in the show, where it’s not until the opening of episode four that viewers will hear the name amidst other words in the Old Tongue recited by Ishamael (Fares Fares) as he shatters the ancient seal containing Lanfear.
It’s only about an hour later that the name is repeated, this time with some context, when the Warder Ihvon (Emmanuel Imani) – oddly – becomes the first character in the show to read aloud the so-called Dark Prophecy that has been in al’Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney)’s possession since episode two, intercut with shots of Selene tying Rand to a bed and of Lanfear rising, drenched in blood, from the cave-floor where Ishamael found her, Ishamael’s voice in the background gradually superseding Ihvon’s to finish the verse. The whole scene is terrifically entertaining, but the reveal itself lacks weight. We’re told that Lanfear is Forsaken, which at this point in the season still has only a vague meaning for those who haven’t read the books (or my post on the subject). We don’t know anything about who or what she is, specifically, and we don’t have any sense of her potential power. Up to this point, we’ve known her as a fun-loving free spirit, and not much else.
Now, to be fair, I’m sure many folks assumed Selene was a Darkfriend like the last innkeeper who tried to seduce Rand (remember Dana?), so there may have been a bit of connecting-the-dots going on already, but O’Keefe plays her innocence almost too well in response to Rand’s tearful confession that he can channel at the end of episode four, to the point where it’s unclear exactly what her character is trying to accomplish, even in retrospect. She acts shocked and scared, pushes Rand away, and then starts reeling him back in when he actually tries to leave. I’ve watched this scene enough times now that I feel like I should understand what she wanted from Rand here, and I can only guess that she was steering him towards making a declaration of love for her – which she does get out of him eventually, albeit in a roundabout way.
Unfortunately, whatever emotional impact this moment could have had on Rand is short-lived, as Lanfear is seemingly killed just a few minutes later by Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), who is able to get close enough to the Forsaken to stab her and cut her throat before she has a chance to react – unexpected perk of being shielded or stilled; she’s practically invisible to other channelers now. It strains plausibility slightly that one of the Forsaken, especially one as dexterous with the Power as Lanfear, would not instinctively counterattack at the exact instant that Moiraine’s blade pierced her skin, but I can’t be mad about it, not when it’s just such a powerful moment for Moiraine, who hasn’t had many this season. To add insult to literal injury, she actually tosses the Forsaken headfirst onto the hardwood floor with a sickening thud. Marking a major deviation from the books, however, Moiraine clarifies to Rand as they run for their lives that killing a Forsaken with mortal weapons would be impossible, which at least heightens the stakes exponentially.
I would have liked to see whatever it was that led Moiraine to the conclusion that Selene was Lanfear (though I wouldn’t entirely put it past her to stab a woman based on nothing more than a hunch). She spends some time in the Foregate of Cairhien, asking after Rand, but I can’t help but feel the writers missed an opportunity for her to investigate the innkeeper with him. However, Lanfear was smart to disguise herself as someone so lowly no one would even think to question where she came from (if a Cairhienin noblewoman had been traipsing around the Foregate with a commoner, that would surely have received attention), and understandably, Moiraine’s focus was on locating Rand, to the exclusion of all else, even her own sister.
Much to Moiraine’s obvious discomfort, it’s her sister, Anvaere Damodred (Lindsay Duncan), to whom she ultimately has to turn for information about Rand’s whereabouts, when her own eyes-and-ears network produces few results. Pike has mentioned in interviews that The Wheel Of Time‘s guest-stars are always given some of the juiciest material to work with, and no lies were told. Duncan’s performance is, of course, powerful, but it helps that she’s working from a script that favors her character. The episode opens on Anvaere as she prepares to face another exhausting day as head of the fractured Damodred household, piling her snow-white hair under a wig and applying makeup before receiving visitors, the first of whom on this particular day is Moiraine, whom we learn has not come home to Cairhien in roughly twenty years, ever since her hunt for the Dragon Reborn began. The stiff reunion between long-estranged sisters is cut short by Moiraine declaring she has business in the city that takes priority over having a cup of tea – a remark that Anvaere files away for later, when she forces Moiraine to sit and share tea with her before telling her where Rand has gone.
Their iciness is presented in stark contrast to the warmth and acceptance that Lan finds when he returns to the abode of Alanna Mosvani (Priyanka Bose), the sensual Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah to whom his care was entrusted by Moiraine. The parallels don’t end there. Alanna’s homestead on the grasslands of Arafel is compact, with narrow rooms and hallways, built from humble sun-bleached stone around a central courtyard, whereas Moiraine’s childhood home in the center of urban Cairhien is massive, its labyrinth of rooms each richly furnished, with tiled floors and paneled walls. Most significantly, Alanna’s home is crowded with members of her extended family who manage all the housework and cooking between them, while Moiraine’s is practically empty but for her and Anvaere, a butler, and the servants in the kitchen.
We don’t get to see many examples of Aes Sedai having family-lives outside the White Tower in Jordan’s books, so in theory I should have loved these scenes with Alanna, but I found Lan’s subplot to be a drag on the episode. He’s never been my favorite character, on account of being the silent, stoic, noble type that I generally find uninteresting, but I tolerated him throughout the first season because I enjoyed his dynamic with Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins), and how they were able to chip away at each other’s facades. This season, that relationship has been put on the back-burner. While Lan is used as a motivating factor for Nynaeve (and we saw during the Trial of the Arches that she would abandon the Aes Sedai for him), Lan has not mentioned her even once, and it’s getting on my nerves. That and the fact that the lessons he’s been learning from Alanna’s Warders about honesty and emotional vulnerability are lessons he started learning in season one as a result of Stepin’s death, making much of this feel redundant.
Some of it is also attributable to Maksim (Taylor Napier) and Ihvon, Alanna’s Warders, being two of the dullest characters on The Wheel Of Time, with an exorbitant amount of screentime each. I suppose I should be thankful that two explicitly queer male characters, our only two with the possible exception of Ishamael, are being given a bit more screentime, but neither actor, Napier least of the two, comes across as well-equipped for dramatic scenes. They’re now so inextricable from Alanna that I want to see less of her as a result, which is a shame, because Bose herself is everything an Aes Sedai ought to be – self-assured, powerful, enigmatic, with an innate and devastating elegance.
Another Aes Sedai coming to serve this season is Jennifer Cheon Garcia’s Leane Sharif, the Keeper of the Chronicles, who has maybe two minutes of screentime, tops, and still stands out due to her statuesque posture and impeccable taste in fashion. Her unconventional high-collared top, palest gold with dark blue peacock-feather embroidery, coupled with a flowy floor-length dark blue dress, is a combination that will live rent-free in my mind for a long time. She also has an extensive arc throughout the books, and I hope that The Wheel Of Time was foreshadowing that with some of the…ominous dialogue between her and Liandrin Guirale (Kate Fleetwood). I’d love to see Leane become the fan-favorite supporting character for viewers that she is for book-readers, though it might take time: her name has yet to be used on the show, so most people probably just know her as the tall, stylish Aes Sedai.
I have high hopes, given how well other minor characters from the books have fared on the show. Liandrin being not merely a likeable character but a fascinating one was unthinkable to me before the season aired. The books never developed her. She was a Darkfriend, a fairly petty and incompetent one at that, and nothing she did in The Wheel Of Time‘s first season gave me any reason to believe that had changed. But Fleetwood and the writers have shaped her into one of the series’ most compelling antiheroes. Yes, she’s still a Darkfriend, as we learn in this episode when she breaks the Three Oaths and takes Nynaeve, Egwene, and Elayne Trakand (Ceara Coveney) captive. But the betrayal cuts so deeply because Fleetwood had us all starting to trust her, against our better judgment. Even Nynaeve had come to respect her, begrudgingly. Liandrin knew that, exploited it, but every word she spoke to Nynaeve was laced with bitter sincerity, delivered with an unmistakable tinge in her voice of regret and crushing shame that she knows she won’t do anything to prevent herself from making unforgivable decisions when the time comes.
In episode four, Liandrin and Nynaeve share a particularly powerful scene in the testing-room beside the three Arches, where in the previous episode Nynaeve lived a whole life alongside Lan and lost him, her friends, and her daughter. Liandrin’s advice for coping with the pain is to “find a piece of this world that belongs to you, and you hold on to it…and then, when it’s finally gone, you find another”, but of course, she still can’t let go of the first thing in her life that ever belonged to her; her son, now an old man whose death she has delayed as long as humanly possible, even turning to the Dark in the desperate hope that one of the Forsaken could heal him. She never really intended to find another piece to hold on to, until Nynaeve entered her life and accidentally became her treasured student. And when Nynaeve asks her point-blank what she’s found to replace her son, Liandrin switches the subject, reminded in that moment that her orders are to bring Nynaeve to Falme and deliver her to Ishamael.
Liandrin tells Nynaeve that Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) was captured by the Seanchan on the western coast – which is technically true, although she leaves out, or more likely wasn’t told, that Perrin already escaped from the Seanchan with Elyas Machera (Gary Beadle) and is now wandering around in the woods, trusting the older, more experienced Wolfbrother to guide him to Falme. I’m biased, because early-book Perrin was one of my favorite characters from The Wheel Of Time (early-book Perrin, before he became insufferable to read about), but his one scene with Elyas and the wolf-pack is my favorite of the entire episode, and its chief redeeming factor. Something about seeing him smile for what feels like the first time, as he tentatively starts to accept who he is, resonates with me as strongly now as it did in the books, though it took him much longer in the books to work through the initial fear that he would devolve into something less than human.
There’s a lot of queer subtext in Perrin’s storyline (in retrospect, I think that was always a large part of why it spoke to me), and the only thing that could conceivably make me happier with the show’s adaptation is if The Wheel Of Time leans into that. Perrin’s borderline canonical boyfriend Gaul needs to get here fast, because the show already has me shipping Perrin with Dain Bornhald to fill the void in my heart, and that’s simply unacceptable. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t toyed with the idea of shipping them before, given Dain’s vaguely homoerotic obsession with Perrin in the books, and I can’t deny they’re both very attractive in the show, and I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to them helping each other work through their internalized homophobia-adjacent traumas, but…it’s still Dain Bornhald. Anyway, that’s a subject best left for my review of episode five.
To conclude: episode four, Daughter Of The Night, just barely earns its title, building slowly to an underwhelming reveal and restraining Natasha O’Keefe until the last few seconds before the credits roll, when Lanfear’s eyes snap open, filled with swirling black specks of the True Power called saa, to indicate (again though, only to book-readers) that she’s exerting all her strength to hold her soul in her body and recover from the wounds Moiraine inflicted. Only then does the episode live up to what was promised with that title. Were those few seconds worth the time I feel was largely wasted getting to that point? In a season consisting of just eight episodes, some not quite an hour long, frankly, the answer is no. Thankfully, episode five hits the ground running and delivers on the Lanfear front. And if the last two episodes can stick the landing, I’ll barely recall this bump in the road when all is said and done.
Episode Rating: 7.9/10