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'The Wheel of Time' Series Premiere: Unexpected Turns in the Road

By James Field | TV | November 20, 2021 |

By James Field | TV | November 20, 2021 |


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Major spoilers for books and show.

The 1990s were such an innocent time in America. Sure, there was Desert Storm, Ruby Ridge, the Waco siege, the OKC bombing, the WTC bombing, and we used homophobic slurs more frequently than people’s actual names, but in fantasy fiction, the sex and violence were far tamer than today’s standards. It’s clear the people behind Amazon’s Wheel of Time read over Jordan’s chaste and comparatively bloodless first book, The Eye of the World, and said “Yeah, f*ck that.” Good thing too, because it led to some great action scenes.

Nor were those the only changes made. Since Amazon drops shows at midnight UTC, the first three episodes were available at about 7:00 EST Thursday night, letting me get a jump on things. That’s good, because I had several pages of notes on changes before the end of the first episode. Most of the alterations are for the better, I think, though we’ll see how it plays out. I’m going to discuss several of them at the end of this recap, so this is your last chance to leave unsullied by spoilers! Still here? Cool. Buckle up.

We begin with Moiraine’s (Rosamund Pike) voiceover, explaining her mission and the most crucial change to the series so far: the Dragon, the man from legend who broke the world, might be a woman on this turn of the Wheel. *cough* called it *cough* We cut to the Red Ajah hunting a male channeler. The leader of the Reds, Liandrin, tells the man she’s gentling that it’s men touching the One Power that causes the taint and their madness. They make it “filthy.” It remains to be seen if this is true in the show, or if a lack of historical knowledge and the Red’s prejudice makes her believe so. Either way, the man is already losing his mind, seeing people who are not there. He’s the right age to be the Dragon, but when the Reds succeed in capturing the man Moiraine tells Lan (Daniel Henney) he isn’t the one, and they must seek in the Mountains of Mist, where there are rumors of four ta’veren in the same village.

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In the Two Rivers, Egwene’s (Madeleine Madden) hair is braided during a ceremony that welcomes her to the Women’s Circle. Nynaeve (Zoe Robbins), village Wisdom, shoves her off a cliff into the waters below after telling Egwene to trust in the river. Egwene struggles at first but soon gives in to the flow, and makes her way back to the village of Emond’s Field alone. At the same time, Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski) and his father Tam (Michael McElhatten) make their way to Emond’s field from their remote farm with a load of brandy for their Bel Tine spring equinox celebration. They’re on guard, as wolves and bandits are becoming more common. But they make it to the village without incident and soon childhood friends Rand, Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris), and Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford) are chatting it up over full tankards.

Egwene barely makes it home before a major storm rolls in, and the celebration begins. It’s cut short when Lan and Moiraine arrive and ask for lodging. The crowd’s suspicion of the strangers grows when Moiraine is almost immediately recognized as Aes Sedai. The celebration continues and it turns out Perrin is married to Laila Dearn. She’s working the forge while he’s at the celebration and maybe making calf-eyes at Egwene, though it’s difficult to tell. It seems Egwene is avoiding Rand, and Mat is getting drunk and losing at dice. He wanders off with a village girl towards the end of the evening and we learn his parents are terrible people; his father’s a womanizer who ignores his wife and children and his mother’s a drunk, leaving Mat responsible for his young sisters. Perrin returns home and speaks to Laila, who it seems can barely look at him. I get the sense they’re newlyweds, she may be pregnant, and things aren’t not going well.

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Egwene’s parents push her and Rand together and they wash dishes before making the beast with two backs. Moiraine and Lan share a bath, which she heats with the One Power at Lan’s request. Seems to me they’re both hot enough the water should boil on its own, but what do I know. Egwene tells Rand that Nynaeve wants Egwene to become her apprentice. If she does, she cannot marry or have children. Rand is upset Egwene is considering it. An eyeless Myrrdraal arrives in the night, looking like a lamprey had a baby with Crispin Glover. Myrrdraal are also called Fades, which is much shorter and easier to spell.

The next morning, peddler Padan Fain (Johann Myers) makes an appearance. We only see Mat doing business with him, selling a bracelet he stole from last night’s conquest in exchange for some paper lanterns for his sisters. Egwene’s chosen to become an apprentice, a decision that upsets Rand. Nynaeve, meanwhile, finds herself answering Moiraine’s probing questions despite her best intentions. It turns out Nynaeve is 25 or 26, too old to be the Dragon, but still with the potential to become a powerful Aes Sedai. She refuses to entertain the notion as the former Wisdom, the woman who raised her after the death of her parents, could also “listen to the wind” - a sign that women can channel - but was turned away by the White Tower for being too poor, too common. Nynaeve is far too proud to put herself in the same situation. Lan, while scouting the nearby woods, finds more than a dozen slaughtered sheep laid out in the shape of the Dragon’s Fang, an ancient symbol of evil.

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Rand and Tam return home and as evening falls they light a lantern to guide the spirit of Rand’s mother home. The townsfolk do the same for their lost loved ones and celebrate after. It’s during this Winternight celebration that the Trollocs first attack. It’s brutally violent and several townsfolk are slain immediately. The peddler, Padan Fain, strolls off into the dark as people around him are killed. Everyone flees; Mat discovers his parents hiding in safety, having abandoned his sisters. He races off to find them as Trollocs devour their kills. At the same time Rand and Tam are attacked at home; trapped in the house they battle a massive Trolloc. Tam fights it first with a boar spear and then a curved, heron-mark blade. Unable to move in the houser’s confines he is wounded and nearly killed before Rand puts a spear through its throat. They leave the farm, Rand desperately seeking help for his father. Perrin and Laila battle Trollocs at the forge, ax and hammer making bloody work of the monsters. Perrin is nearly killed before he goes berzerk and hacks down a Trolloc. The good news is he survives; the bad news is that he, in his rage, mortally wounds Laila, and she dies in his arms.

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While the Women’s Circle works as a group to kill Trollocs one by one, Egwene and Nynaeve attempt to rescue wounded villagers until Nynaeve is snatched by one of the monsters and disappears, presumed dead. Moiraine and Lan go all out in an effort to save themselves and the village. It’s an effective juxtaposition, seeing Lan cut down his opponents with relative ease while the farmers around him are all but helpless. Moiraine unleashes the One Power in a number of ways; blades of air, fireballs, lightning strikes, and massive stones ripped from the walls and hurled into the Trolloc band. Despite her power she is wounded by a thrown knife, and the effort expended in pushing back the beasts nearly kills her. With her strength all but gone, she heals Tam’s poisoned wound, and tells Egwene, Rand, Mat, and Perrin about the Prophecy of the Dragon Reborn. One of them has the potential to damn the world or save it, and neither the Dark One nor the White Tower will rest until the Dragon is under their control. The friends leave the only home they’ve ever known, lest the Trollocs descend on their friends and family once more.

That was all in the first episode.

It’s a lot, and a bit hurried. The Trollocs look good in glimpses and are best used sparingly. When the camera lingers, the CGI shines through, and not in a good way. The Fade design is exactly right, and they’re truly disturbing. The battle for Winternight is gory as hell and I imagine cost an arm and a leg to film - fortunately, there are a few spares lying around. The cast is wonderfully diverse, and all seem up to their roles. I can see Mat becoming a favorite among the fans who like their dudes greasy with questionable morality. He’s sketchier than he is in the books but his heart is still in the right place.

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By comparison, Lan looks like the kind of statue Michaelangelo carved while seriously horny but portrays quiet confidence and a certain ruthlessness necessary for his role. We haven’t gotten much from Perrin so far - deep emotional trauma will do that I suppose. It’s a shame we don’t get more time Tam before Rand and his compatriots leave the Two Rivers; McElhatten’s warmth and solid nature are a perfect match for his literary inspiration. Rand, on the other hand, is a bit petulant and sullen at times - again, just like the original character, who needed several solid kicks delivered to the seat of his pants.

The special effects for the One Power are pretty solid, by which I mean they don’t look like they belong on Syfy. Moiraine’s hand movements are suggestive of weaving, though I never really thought of Aes Sedai moving this much. The time it takes for her to unleash various effects demonstrate why Warders are so crucial to Aes Sedai work. Rosamund Pike fits Moiraine quite well, cool and passionate at the same time, and her refusal to flee from the Trollocs in Emond’s Field demonstrates her core strength.

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As for the changes from the original story, there are so many it’s difficult to track them all, but I’ll give it a go. I haven’t read the first book in at least a decade, so if I miss any feel free to chime in with your comments! Skip to the end if you intend to read the books for yourself!

The first and most obvious is that in this turning of the Wheel, Egwene may be the Dragon Reborn, whereas in 1990 the three boys were the only candidates. 31 years after The Eye of the World’s publication, it’s an obvious change, though purists are no doubt upset. But it’s the 21st century, folks; dudes aren’t the only possible heroes any longer. And despite arguments to the contrary, it does make sense. There’s no need for a reborn spirit to come out the same gender or nationality. It doesn’t remove the tension with the Aes Sedai either. Should the Dragon be a man, they will still want to tame him. Even the Reds know that if the Prophecy is true - and many of them have their doubts - he will need to be controlled and eventually gentled. If the Dragon is a woman she will need guidance, and whatever Ajah recruits her to the cause will gain significant power and influence. Either way, the Dragon is both a promise and a threat to the world.

The second most blatant change is Perrin’s marriage to Laila, a young woman who in the book he merely crushed on from afar. It’s difficult to tell in the short time we’re given what the relationship is truly about. They care for one another, but there’s also a distance and perhaps distrust on Laila’s part. She loves her husband, but she’s withdrawn. And Perrin cares for her, but how much? In the books Perrin is slow and deliberate; not stupid, but aware of his great strength and unwilling to hurt anyone. The red mist that descends over him as he butchers the Trolloc in the forge is something we don’t see in the books until a future confrontation with the Whitecloaks. Here, the fury is the cause of Laila’s accidental death, and perhaps why Perrin withdraws into himself and becomes a more careful person. It was a shocking death, but effective. He also seems fixated on Egwene in a way he isn’t in the books, though perhaps that’s only in my imagination.

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There’s no indication in the books that a Wisdom must remain childless and unmarried, unlike the discussion between Rand and Egwene suggest here. In TEotW Egwene has been an apprentice for a significant period but the townsfolk still assume she and Rand will eventually marry. I assume the change here is to create more drama between the pair, though I’m not sure it’s needed given everything else happening. They’re also much more sexual than in the books, which I suppose is only fair. If you’re going to get eaten by hideous monsters at least get laid first.

Mat’s parents, Abell and Natti, are significantly different in the books. Natti doesn’t have a speaking role that I remember, but in the books Abell is a good and friendly man who helps fight the Shadow later on. Here, he’s a silent, drunken, and charmless creature, while Natti is a verbally abusive drunk. They’re obviously one of the poorer families in the village, and Mat steals to provide for his sisters as well as fund his drinking and gambling. It’s one of the few genuinely ridiculous moments, though, to think Mat wouldn’t be caught stealing the bracelet from a girl he knows in a village that tiny. There are almost no visitors, and Mat is an obvious suspect. Good thing they leave town so quickly.

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Nynaeve was not originally captured or killed by the Trollocs, nor is she an outsider. She was raised by her parents - or at least father - who taught her to track and hunt. She is still Emond’s Field youngest Wisdom, a source of pride and contention. Nynaeve’s anger on behalf of her deceased mentor is another significant change. Not the anger - Nynaeve is angrier than a spring bear sitting on a bee’s nest - but that a woman who can listen to the wind would be turned away from the White Tower. Women born with the innate ability to channel will inevitably do so. Many of those who do so without training die from saidar’s effects, so the Aes Sedai will do everything in their power to bring female channelers into the sisterhood. It also adds to their power. They are obsessed with standing and protocol, but even village girls don’t get turned away.

There’s a few other changes, but they include potential plot spoilers, so I’ll keep them to myself for now. The changes might be difficult for longtime fans to accept but the Wheel turns, and nothing stays the same. This was a solid opener, and we’ll have a recap of episodes 2 and 3 soon. Let us know what you thought!

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