“The Wheel Of Time” Episode 6 Goes Gay, And It’s Wonderful

SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE SIX AHEAD!

I appreciate that, in vaguely acknowledging the existence of queerness at all, Robert Jordan was far ahead of many of his straight white cisgender male peers in the fantasy literature scene of the 1990’s when it came to LGBTQ+ representation, but I think that speaks more to how low the bar was at the time for mainstream fantasy than to any particularly strong or noble effort by Jordan to write queer characters and relationships into his Wheel Of Time novels. And women in fantasy and in speculative fiction at large had been raising that bar for decades before Jordan, so I’m not sure how many points he deserves for giving us…”pillow-friends”.

Wheel Of Time
Siuan Sanche | winteriscoming.net

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.

Wheel Of Time
Moiraine | amazonadviser.com

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.

Wheel Of Time
Egwene and Moiraine | arstechnica.com

Because I get a feeling of satisfaction out of coming around full-circle in any post involving The Wheel Of Time (it’s just so fitting, you know?), I’ll leave you to ponder the question of whether Finn’s Mat will be canonically bisexual as many fans have been hoping to see, some for literal decades. I’ll be honest, I was surprised to learn that of the Emond’s Field Five, Mat is the most commonly head-canoned as bisexual (if anybody ought to be bi in that group, it’s clearly Perrin and Egwene), but I hope that the show doesn’t stop at confirming Moiraine as queer. Jordan’s world could stand to get a lot gayer.

Episode Rating: 8.9/10

“The Wheel Of Time” Episode 3 Dives Deep Into Robert Jordan’s Cosmology

SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE THREE AHEAD!

It brings me great joy to report that The Wheel Of Time‘s third and fourth episodes, two of its best, were both helmed by director Wayne Che Yip. His resume is extensive, but it’s his work for Amazon Prime Studios that’s of pertinent interest to me. In recent years, he’s become one the streaming service’s go-to directors, having contributed to some of their biggest series’, including The Wheel Of Time, Hunters, and, yes, The Lord Of The Rings. I’m sorry that it’s always on the back of my mind, but if The Wheel Of Time is any indication, then the four episodes of Lord Of The Rings that Yip directed will be extraordinary.

Wheel Of Time
Nynaeve al’Meara | collider.com

In just two episodes of The Wheel Of Time, Yip broadens the scope of the entire series to include a spiritual or metaphysical dimension. Just as the extensive mythology of Tolkien’s Middle-earth was created not as a supplement to his published writings but as the backbone of his entire legendarium, Robert Jordan’s fantasy world (which I guess now is a good time to point out is technically just our world in another “Turning of the Wheel”) and all the stories that take place therein are built on a staggeringly vast and intricate cosmology partially inspired by Hindu and Buddhist theology.

And although The Wheel Of Time wades confidently into the deeper end of that pool, Yip uses purposeful direction and cinematography to weave Jordan’s themes of repetition, rebirth, and the permanence of human nature into the fabric of Amazon’s series so that any information you don’t get in the dialogue you’re still absorbing through recurring motifs and subtle details. This is a show that I know will stand up on a rewatch, as fans scour every episode for clues they missed the first time around.

That being said, it’s also clear that The Wheel Of Time has no intention of upholding the rigid binary systems around which Jordan’s cosmology is structured. Dualism is another prominent aspect of his novels, from the conflict between good and evil that spans the entire Wheel Of Time series, to the rift between men and women in Jordan’s world, which itself is derived from another clear-cut divide between saidin and saidar, the masculine and feminine halves of the One Power that permeates the cosmos and fuels the Wheel. To “channel”, i.e. use magic, men always tap into saidin, women always into saidar.

For the 1990’s, that seemed really progressive. But our understanding of all these subjects is constantly evolving, and Amazon’s Wheel Of Time reflects that by blurring the lines between the broad concepts that Jordan positioned as clear opposites in his books. The series depicts a world where gender and sexuality are more fluid, to the point where even the prophesied Dragon Reborn, who in Jordan’s books is always a man regardless of whatever else changes in his appearance, personality, and the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, is not locked down to being male or female.

And in keeping with Jordan’s own deconstructions of fantasy tropes like the chosen one, the series plants that persistent seed of doubt in our heads that this Dragon Reborn, whoever they are, will actually be able to fix the world – assuming they don’t just tear it apart in a mad rage, as everyone in-universe agrees is just as likely. In episode three, we meet our very first Darkfriend, a barmaid named Dana (Izuka Hoyle) who just wants the Dragon to break the Wheel of Time and let her and all of humanity escape from an endless cycle of pain and suffering. Until she attempts an abduction, her only crime is demanding better from the world.

But a well-timed knife throw from the gleeman Thom Merrilin (Alexandre Willaume) puts an end to all her dreams of escaping the mining town of Breen’s Spring and being uplifted to a place alongside the Dark One for her accomplishments. The other characters are forced to leave her body crumpled in an alleyway, while Yip’s framing of the moment forces us to seriously contemplate what is right and what is wrong, who gets to draw the line between the two and where, and how we enforce that often arbitrary distinction.

The Wheel Of Time poses these same questions over and over, just as the titular Wheel weaves endless variations of the same people and events out into the tapestry of human history, over and over. That the Wheel is sentient to some degree, and weaves into existence whatever it feels is needed at any particular moment to preserve the overall integrity of the pattern, is taken for granted the world over. As far as I remember (and to be fair, I haven’t read the books recently), nobody except the Dark One wants to break the Wheel, and even that’s just to fulfill an archetypal mission of chaos and cosmic destruction.

Here, it feels a bit more nuanced than that, which I appreciate. We don’t really know anything about the show’s version of the Dark One yet (apart from that vague title), but as evidenced by Dana, the Darkfriends at least seem to have opinions of their own on whether the Wheel is a good or a bad thing. Even the prevalent theory that Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford)’s wife was a Darkfriend before she died in the first episode indicates that in Amazon’s adaptation, the Darkfriends aren’t just randomized vices in human shells. They’re humans, and their motives are understandable, if not sympathetic.

But The Wheel Of Time presents an alternative to their ideology that, while not without flaws of its own, is aimed at freeing humanity from the violent cycle in which they’ve been trapped for eons. In this episode, Perrin and Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) run into a band of the nomadic people known as the Tuatha’an. Heavily inspired by the Irish Travellers, and in the Amazon series also by the Amish, the Tuatha’an don’t believe in breaking the Wheel by force. Their “Way of the Leaf” preaches that nonviolence begets nonviolence just as the opposite is also true.

Although the Way of the Leaf is focused on more heavily throughout episode four, I’ll talk about it in this review because, well, I’m behind on reviews anyway and the first five episodes are out at this point, but also because it makes such a fitting counterbalance to the Darkfriend philosophy represented by Dana in episode three. The Tuatha’an aren’t scared by the Wheel’s endless turnings, because they don’t regard themselves as trapped in it. Instead, they see it as sobering that if they work harder to make the world a better place in the lives they have now, then the world into which they’re reborn will be better because of it.

Because most of this is explained through a very touching monologue in episode four, however, it doesn’t excuse the fact that in episode three itself the Tuatha’an feel like a detour. Egwene, who for the first two episodes was almost by default the series’ lead, is reduced to a supporting character in the series’ third-most important subplot as she and Perrin walk around the Tuatha’an camp looking baffled by their surroundings. Even given the state of their world, I find it hard to believe that pacifists are really the most shocking thing they’ve ever seen when they literally just escaped from a city that wanted to eat them.

Wheel Of Time
Perrin and Egwene | tvline.com

With Rosamund Pike’s Moiraine Damodred unconscious throughout most of the episode courtesy of an injury sustained in episode one that conveniently waited until Shadar Logoth to knock out the powerful Aes Sedai, the burden falls on Zoë Robins to carry the series’ primary subplot. And after being given only a handful of scenes in episode one, Robins’ Nynaeve al’Meara is revved-up and ready to go when she returns in full force to let you know, dear viewer, that she’s not a damn side character, and it’s gonna take more than a Trolloc to stop her.

From her opening scene in this episode, in which the introverted village Wisdom brings down the aforementioned Trolloc on her own turf, to the revelation that she somehow tracked Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) from Emond’s Field to Shadar Logoth, Nynaeve is clearly formidable and impressive on many levels. But she’s not invulnerable, and she’s not above feeling frightened just because she outwitted one Trolloc. She’s scared for herself, and you genuinely get the sense that she’s terrified for Egwene and for the others through Robins’ raw line-delivery and physical performance.

Reading the early books of Jordan’s series, I didn’t feel anywhere near as strong a connection between Nynaeve and the other characters (least of all Lan, with whom she’s suddenly in love one day; the premise of most of Jordan’s romances). Granted, it’s been a minute since I’ve read the books, but Nynaeve’s decision to join the group there is framed as something of a reluctant obligation, if I remember correctly. And from that point on, she falls into a semi-comedic babysitter role; constantly distracted yet self-righteous, controlling yet completely ineffective at monitoring the others.

Robins’ Nynaeve is still stubborn and impatient and endearingly irritable, but we get to see a more fiercely caring side of her in her interactions with the injured Moiraine, and even with Lan; not because she cares deeply about him (yet), but because he stands in the way of her finding her friends again. When forced to work together for their mutual benefit, Nynaeve and Lan quickly develop real tension and chemistry that foreshadows their eventual romantic relationship in the books.

Speaking of romantic chemistry, I can’t not mention that the first barely audible word out of Moiraine’s lips when she wakes from sleep near the end of the episode is the name “Siuan”, a nod to one of my favorite characters in the books, Siuan Sanche. Like many of the women in the Aes Sedai order, Moiraine and Siuan were canonically lovers in their youth, but Jordan’s books explain this away as a consequence of there not being any men around. In other words, it’s queer enough for straight men to fetishize their relationship, but not queer to the exclusion of straight men. That’s the kind of queer representation that fills The Wheel Of Time.

But in the Amazon series, I’m hopeful that Moiraine and Siuan’s relationship will just be queer, without any caveats or asterisks. Episode three indicates that the world of The Wheel Of Time is accepting of queer relationships, with Dana misreading Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) and Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris)’s relationship as more than platonic, only for Rand to tell her that if he wanted a man, he could do much better than Mat. Harsh, but true.

It’s not that I don’t like Mat (although I’ll admit that Harris’ performance hasn’t blown me away, and the news of his recasting for season two doesn’t fill me with sorrow as it does others), but I still feel that we didn’t get enough time to know the real Mat in the first two episodes before getting stuck with the mean and temperamental post-Shadar Logoth Mat. His best scenes involve him bouncing off of Thom Merrilin, who is simultaneously sympathetic to Mat’s plight and unprepared to waste precious time humoring his nonsense.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a character whose been changed in the adaptation process, Amazon’s Thom is a far cry from Jordan’s version of the traveling gleeman with his harp and gaudy, brightly-colored patchwork cloak. For one thing, he no longer carries a harp, and his patches are more subdued – a mere flash of color in the folds of his coat, quickly hidden away. These and other physical changes to the character may have their critics (even I was taken aback by the lack of mustaches), but Amazon’s Thom isn’t meant to be the stereotypical, instantly recognizable bard of Jordan’s books.

The craggy, gravelly-voiced Thom of Amazon’s Wheel Of Time, who stuns a crowd speechless with songs of grief and madness accompanied by plaintive guitar-strumming, owes more to modern folk-singers and rock-stars than to medieval bards. But that makes total sense for a character whose responsibility as a gleeman is to preserve ancient oral histories and traditions, because as I pointed out above, The Wheel Of Time takes place in what is implied to be our far-distant future. Cars and computers didn’t survive the Breaking of the World, but someone in the future is looking out for Led Zeppelin, and I think that’s beautiful.

Thom takes that responsibility seriously, too. He may not be as garrulous as his counterpart in the books, but when he does share a story or a monologue or even just a few words of advice, it’s always to pass along some piece of profound wisdom enriched by personal experience. When Thom finds Mat attempting to rob a corpse so he can afford to get back home, that’s the moment where we expect him to step in and gently dissuade the younger man. But Thom stands aside, not because he approves of Mat’s actions, but because he knows what desperation is and you feel in Willaume’s performance that he knows it intimately.

All he asks of Mat is that he have the decency to bury the dead after he’s finished. And on my first time watching the episode, I misinterpreted Thom’s words as a subtle jab at Mat, but by the tone of Willaume’s voice you can tell he means it sincerely, not as an insult or some kind of burn, but as a plea to Mat to never lose his humanity even when dark times force him to do terrible things. Because sometimes the wrong way is the only way, as we see when Thom himself kills Dana to save Rand and Mat.

Wheel Of Time
Thom Merrilin | nerdist.com

And in true Wheel Of Time fashion, that brings us full-circle to the question of what is right and what is wrong, a question to which there is no easy over-arching answer. The best we can usually do is find a balance between doing what’s right by others and what’s best for our own wellbeing, but the capacity for good and bad, even heroism and villainy, exists in all of us. And as long as Amazon’s The Wheel Of Time continues to play in that inherently gray area that is the human heart and soul, I believe the series will continue to feel faithful to Jordan’s spirit of exploration.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

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

SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE TWO AHEAD!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel Of Time
Moiraine | variety.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel Of Time
Myrddraal | Twitter @ThreeFoldTalk

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

Episode Rating: 7.5/10

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

MINOR SPOILERS FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME EPISODE ONE AHEAD!

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

Wheel Of Time
Lan and Moiraine | nerdist.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel Of Time
The Wheel Of Time | amazon.com

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

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

Episode Rating: 6.5/10