SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME, BOOKS TWO THROUGH FOUR, AHEAD!
Did you know that JordanCon is a thing? Founded in 2009 to honor the life and legacy of fantasy author Robert Jordan, the convention has been held in the state of Georgia every year since (except for 2020, but as many appear to have forgotten, there was a global pandemic that year). Fans of The Wheel Of Time, the fourteen-volume fantasy series started by Jordan in 1990 and posthumously completed by Brandon Sanderson in 2013, flock to the convention in the hundreds to discuss the series with other fans and to attend lectures and panels by Jordan scholars on subjects ranging from the themes of his work to the Wheel Of Time adaptation which recently premiered on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
Notable guests and speakers at JordanCon have included Jordan’s successor Brandon Sanderson, widow and editor Harriet McDougal, illustrator Michael Whelan, and a number of Jordan’s peers and proteges, including Patrick Rothfuss and Saladin Ahmed. But this year, excitement was through the roof, as the cast and crew of Amazon Prime’s The Wheel Of Time hosted a hotly-anticipated Q&A panel to talk about the high points of season one – and the direction of the series going forward.
The biggest announcement, which trended on Twitter for a while and received attention from mainstream media outlets, was the casting of Killing Eve‘s Ayoola Smart as Aviendha of the Nine Valleys sept of the Taardad Aiel. You can immediately tell which professional journalists covering this story didn’t read the books or do any research into the books by skimming through their eerily similar descriptions of Aviendha. If they refer to her by a certain title she doesn’t actually acquire until book twelve, you can bet your bottom dollar they just copied-and-pasted the very first Google search result for Aviendha into their articles without worrying about how much of her character development they were unintentionally spoiling for new readers.
When we first meet her in The Dragon Reborn, three books into the series, Aviendha is merely one of many Aiel warriors sent over the Spine of the World to find Rand al’Thor and inform him that he is the Car’a’carn, a prophesied “chief of chiefs” who is supposed to unite the scattered clans of the Aiel and lead them into a new age (what Rand himself wants is as irrelevant to the Aiel as it was to the Aes Sedai). Aviendha follows Rand to the city of Tear, where she and the Aiel joins forces with Rand’s army to help him defeat Be’lal, one of the thirteen Forsaken, and recover the legendary sword Callandor from the Stone of Tear so that Rand can complete a totally unrelated prophecy.
As inspiring as Jordan’s description of this battle is, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for a live-action adaptation just yet. The second season of Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time is expected to condense the events of The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn into roughly eight hour-long episodes, which means that at least one of those seven-hundred page novels is inevitably going to be prioritized while the other is only mined for its important character introductions and necessary story beats. And showrunner Rafe Judkins has done what I think any writer would do in that situation, prioritizing The Great Hunt over The Dragon Reborn. It has a clean and cohesive narrative, excellent character development, and an aerial battle over the city of Falme.
Judkins excitedly confirmed at the JordanCon presentation that The Wheel Of Time will be heading to Falme in season two, so we can probably rule out the possibility of the characters visiting Tear in the same season – unless by some miracle there’s enough time, space, and money left over to justify building sets for a second massive fictional city, populating it with extras and designing new costumes for all of them, choreographing a second elaborate city-wide battle, etc. Keep in mind that season one could only afford three main locations, leading to the characters and cameras bypassing the cities of Baerlon and Caemlyn entirely. Expect similar situations going forward.
That’s not to say that a lot can’t still be done on a $80M+ budget, and honestly the bigger problem is Amazon’s refusal to order the ten or twelve episode seasons we deserve from a show of this sprawling scope, but I’m getting off-topic now. To sum up everything that we’ve learned; we’re going to Falme in season two, not to Tear, but Aviendha has also been cast, which probably just means that she and the other Aiel will be involved in the battle of Falme rather than the siege of the Stone of Tear (curiously, that also means the Aiel scouts in the show will have traveled over two-thousand miles further west than the Aiel scouts in the books).
Without spoiling too much of book four, The Shadow Rising, I’ll just say that Aviendha plays a major role in the story going forward, and that despite her humble beginnings she quickly becomes a power player on the same level as Egwene al’Vere and Nynaeve al’Meara, with abilities beyond just her physical strength and prowess in combat that come to light gradually. I’m very excited to see her character come to life onscreen, and I trust Ayoola Smart to do a fabulous job.
What do you think of the casting? Was Aviendha one of your favorite characters in the books, and if so, how do you hope to see her adapted for Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
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.
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.
SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE FIVE AHEAD!
If there’s one criticism that should not be leveled against any streaming series developed by Amazon, one of the biggest and most valuable companies on the planet, it’s that it’s low-budget. And to be fair, Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time isn’t actually low-budget, not by any stretch of the imagination. $80 million dollars, even spread across eight episodes, is a sizable amount of money, roughly on par with what Netflix allocated to The Witcher‘s first season. But The Wheel Of Time uses at least as much CGI as The Witcher, if not more, and that puts a strain on the budget.
And inevitably, sometimes that does result in The Wheel Of Time looking cheaper than it has any right to. I’ve been disappointed in the show’s lackluster production design, poor costuming choices, and occasionally wonky CGI. But while I absolutely hope that Amazon has increased the show’s budget after seeing the strong reception to season one, the silver lining in this situation is that watching the first season, you can admire how the creative team behind The Wheel Of Time have clearly had to think outside the box and find clever solutions to challenges and problems at which they can’t just throw millions of dollars to make them go away.
And that’s how we find ourselves standing before the gates of Tar Valon early in episode five. If you were hoping to read Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time books concurrently with the show’s adaptation of each book, this is probably the point where you’re gonna have to choose one or the other, because this is a far more significant deviation from the source material than the show’s decision to cut out the pit-stop in Baerlon on the road to Shadar Logoth or the river-boat journey to Whitebridge. It’s also a bold choice made for practical reasons that not only works in theory, but in execution works better than the books’ equivalent.
In the first book of The Wheel Of Time, the characters aren’t reunited in Tar Valon, but in the city of Caemlyn. They don’t even reach Tar Valon until book two. But in Amazon’s version of events, it’s the other way around; the characters’ paths converge in Tar Valon, and presumably it won’t be until season two or later that we get a chance to visit Caemlyn. The only real downside is that we lose Caemlyn as a location in season one, but that’s not a terribly hard loss to endure. In the first book, it’s only significant as the home of Elayne Trakand, her mother Morgase, and her brothers Gawyn and Galad.
And down the line, when Amazon’s adaptation has room to introduce those characters, that’s when we can expect the show to stop by Caemlyn. But The Wheel Of Time is still in its first season, and still trying to acquaint new fans with as few characters and locations as they absolutely need to understand the story right now. With so much of the story woven around the Aes Sedai sorceress Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), whose role has even been upgraded in the show from a major supporting character to the lead, it makes total sense to visit her home-city, Tar Valon – the center of Aes Sedai power, and the axis upon which Jordan’s fantasy world rotates.
Swapping out Caemlyn for Tar Valon also allows Amazon’s adaptation to begin weaving a through-line of Aes Sedai political intrigue into this first season, a through-line that fans will follow until the very end of the show. Political intrigue is a major element of Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time saga (and, incidentally, one of my favorite tropes in genre fiction), but that’s something that only becomes clear around book two. By contrast, the first book in the series is a fairly straightforward quest narrative styled after The Lord Of The Rings, with little to no politics.
As Amazon’s Wheel Of Time has wisely accentuated the differences between the two series’ (and even discarded some of Jordan’s most…shall we say, overt homages to Tolkien), playing up the intricate machinations of the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon is a far more efficient use of screentime than spending a full episode in Caemlyn, Jordan’s generic fantasy city stand-in for Tolkien’s Minas Tirith. Even outside of the White Tower in which the Aes Sedai live, Tar Valon feels distinct, with a bright and colorful visual aesthetic blending cultural influences from Byzantine Constantinople, Renaissance-era Rome, and medieval Avignon; all cities presided over by religious authorities.
The Aes Sedai are the closest equivalent to the Catholic Church that exists in Robert Jordan’s world – and that’s even taking into account all the intentional similarities between the Whitecloaks and the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition. Although their political power doesn’t extend far beyond the shores of their island city, within its walls the Aes Sedai are still revered and respected by the common people. They wield an intangible influence that can alternately be used as a shield or a sword, crafted through centuries of tradition, ritualism, and subtle manipulation of faith, fear, and superstition.
The result is a culture of adoration that exists to keep the people of Tar Valon in check and demonstrates the efficiency of Aes Sedai methods. But the city itself is largely insignificant. Sure, the Aes Sedai entertain their people every so often by parading a gentled False Dragon through the streets and allowing him to face the wraths of their followers, but everything of importance happens inside the echoing hallways and sparsely-decorated chambers of the White Tower, where women from all seven Ajahs work on expanding their influence across the entire world. Tar Valon is only a testing ground.
Sadly, there’s not enough time for Amazon’s series to explore all the nooks and crannies of this rich environment, as the story requires that most of the main characters be escorted into the White Tower at once. Moiraine, we learn, has been away from the Tower for two years, and the Aes Sedai won’t let her leave again without an explanation for her long absence, while Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) is of pertinent interest to everybody after her incredible power display in the previous episode. Simultaneously, we see Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) open up in an effort to comfort his fellow Warder Stepin (Peter Fránzen), still reeling from the loss of his Aes Sedai.
The latter subplot is probably the least integral to the overarching storyline of season one, yet in the brief time that we’re given to know Stepin (before he chooses to die by his own hand, finding peace in the belief that he and his beloved Kerene will be reunited in another life), his struggle with the isolating anguish of grief is beautifully intertwined with The Wheel Of Time‘s philosophies on love, death, and life. Perhaps more than any other fantasy series currently running, The Wheel Of Time is first and foremost concerned with regular people, whose stories of everyday pain and joy fill the series of small, intimate vignettes that run throughout this season.
And in a story as vast and epic in scope as this one, it’s truly a testament to The Wheel Of Time‘s masterful writing and direction that it’s able to ensure that the focus remains right where it needs to be, on the characters of the Emond’s Field Five, Moiraine, and Lan. As the story begins following the latter two more closely in episodes five and six, both are understandably humanized – partially due to our expanded access to their private conversations, and partially because they are written to be less stoic and guarded than they were depicted in Jordan’s early books.
I find it interesting that this has proven to be one of the adaptation’s most controversial changes to the source material, because it makes complete sense to me that Moiraine and Lan (and all Aes Sedai/Warder groupings, for that matter) would feel everything more strongly than other people as a result of their empathetic bond. They’re each a sounding-board for the other’s emotions; every flutter of love, every crashing wave of sorrow, every sudden joy. We see this demonstrated during Stepin’s funeral, when Lan is asked to ritually act out the grief of his fellow Warders, but it’s through Moiraine’s tears and the tremble in her hands that we actually feel the weight of his loss.
I certainly don’t feel that Lan is out of character in that scene as some have argued, and I don’t even want to address the bizarre claim being espoused in all the darkest corners of social media that Amazon’s version of Lan has been “emasculated” (that word alone…blech). The irony isn’t lost on me that the men jeering at Lan for being sad at his best friend’s funeral are the same men who will nonetheless describe themselves as “advocates” for mainstream depictions of platonic affection between men in response to literally any representation of queer men onscreen.
Personally, I have a feeling that the bigots in this fandom are still too blinded by their rage over the mere suggestion that Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) could be queer to notice that the only openly queer men in The Wheel Of Time so far are the fairly minor characters of Maksim (Taylor Napier) and Ihvon (Emmanuel Imani), who are part of an adorable polyamorous throuple with their Aes Sedai, Alanna Mosvani (Priyanka Bose). Apparently they also overlooked the fact that Lan and Stepin’s relationship, the crux of episode five, is totally platonic.
We’ve seen varied and highly individual expressions of romantic and sexual love throughout The Wheel Of Time (and even so, only a sampling), but platonic love is a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors too. The tranquility that Moiraine and Lan feel around each other, that allows them to ease into a form of platonic intimacy built on trust and understanding, is distinct from romantic attraction – but at the same time, it’s nothing like the at-times prickly platonic love that Moiraine and Alanna share, or the mutual platonic affection that Lan and Stepin can’t quite bring themselves to voice.
All the Emond’s Field Five are knit tightly together by a kind of platonic love-pentagram, but after this episode it’s clear that we’re supposed to see especially strong bonds of trust and familiarity emerging between Rand and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris) and between Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) and Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford). To be honest, I still don’t see it with Rand and Mat. Stradowski and Harris are the weakest links in the ensemble cast, but this episode gives them nothing to work with, not even a proper conversation to communicate the self-loathing and horror that Mat is struggling with, or Rand’s confusion and desperation to help.
But while those two reach Tar Valon in the first few minutes and proceed to wander around aimlessly, Egwene and Perrin take an unexpected detour before they can enter the city and come out the other side with a clearer understanding of themselves and of each other, at a place in their relationship where one can easily imagine them developing their own form of the bond that Moiraine and Lan share. Abducted from the Tuatha’an caravan by fanatical Whitecloaks lurking outside the city gates, Egwene is brought before the Questioner Eamon Valda (Abdul Salis), who tortures Perrin to try and force Egwene into confessing to being a channeler.
The horrific ordeal forces Egwene and Perrin to lay bare all their fears and insecurities in front of each other if they’re to survive, something neither had been able to do up until this point. Shedding the self-doubt that had plagued her, Egwene finally reveals her ability to channel, while Perrin brokenly admits to accidentally killing his wife during the battle of Emond’s Field (in-universe, and specifically as far as Whitecloaks are concerned, the two are comparable crimes). Perrin doesn’t quite have time to explain what the whole glowing golden eyes thing is about, or why he’s being followed around by wolves now, but that’s a story for another day.
Funny story, my notes for this review contain a lengthy critique of The Wheel Of Time‘s CGI-enhanced wolves that will never see the light of day, as I have recently discovered that the wolves are…well, real. I mean, they’re not really wolves, they’re actually wolfdogs, but nor are they CGI, not even a little bit, which means that the problem I had with the level of distance between the human actors and the wolves is apparently not attributable to VFX artists digitally inserting wolves in post-production. I don’t even know why I’m surprised. Honestly, it would be more shocking if The Wheel Of Time had money to afford hyper-realistic CGI wolves.
So basically I still feel it detracts from Perrin’s character arc that the wolves don’t seem to fully inhabit the same space as him and the other actors, but I’m no longer sure what to chalk this up to and I’m sure as hell not gonna blame the wolfdog actors who are all doing a lovely job. Maybe these are just the realities of working with animals on any film or TV set, and I admire the show for once again choosing the practical solution to the challenge of adapting Jordan faithfully, as they’ve done with the beastly Trollocs, the terrifying Myrddraal, and in episode five, the scholarly Ogier Loial (Hammed Animashaun).
Loial trended on Twitter the night of his debut, and for good reason. The Ogier is a fan-favorite, whose meandering dialogue and bemused reactions to humans make him a quaint outlier in a story growing increasingly darker all around him. Acting through several layers of facial prosthetics and reciting what could have been extremely stilted dialogue, Animashaun brings Loial’s endearing awkwardness to life while maintaining his own dignity and successfully conveying that the Ogier has a more solemn side we may get to explore in later seasons – by which point, hopefully, Amazon will have dialed back his prosthetics a bit.
Something that I remember realizing when I first read The Wheel Of Time, only to later forget and realize all over again when watching the show is that Loial is also very clearly inspired by Treebeard. I’m not complaining…I really like Treebeard, and I really like Loial, but it is interesting that his characterization from the books is kept intact in the adaptation process and ironically it leads to a momentarily jarring tonal shift. The rest of the episode is spent untangling an intricate political intrigue narrative while dealing with all these weighty themes, using Jordan’s later books to inform the tone and style, and then here comes Loial.
Personally, I think showrunner Rafe Judkins and his team have proved they’re more than capable of handling the challenges thrown their way, even by their own source material. But at the same time, I’m kind of okay with keeping Loial exactly the way he is. Is he a remnant of the sometimes unsubtle homages to Tolkien that filled the pages of Jordan’s first book? A little bit, yeah, but The Wheel Of Time is otherwise so comfortably situated in its own skin by this point that I think the show can get away with it.