Andrew and Lee dissect The Wheel of Time’s television premiere


Enlarge / Our lead characters, from L-R: Nynaeve, Mat, Lan, Moiraine, Egwene, Perrin, and Rand.

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Andrew Cunningham and Lee Hutchinson have spent decades of their lives with Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books, and they’re bringing that knowledge to bear as they recap each episode of Amazon’s new WoT TV series. These recaps won’t cover every element of every episode, but they will contain major spoilers for the show and the book series. If you want to stay unspoiled and haven’t read the books, these recaps aren’t for you.

New episodes of The Wheel of Time will be posted to Amazon Prime subscribers every Friday.

Andrew: I thought it would be best to start this first one off by establishing our Book Reading Cred.

A friend gifted me a paperback copy of The Eye of the World in what must have been mid-2003, which I have pinpointed so precisely because I know that Crossroads of Twilight had come out but that it hadn’t yet come out in paperback. So I burned through them all once or twice in high school, and then re-read the whole series again sometime in the mid-Sanderson era, and then did my last full-series re-read in 2019 after I talked about EotW on my book podcast.

Lee: Way back in 1997, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, a coworker at the friendly neighborhood Babbage’s suggested I try this fantasy series she’d been hooked on called “The Wheel of Time.” She loaned me her copy of Eye of the World, and then yeah, same thing—it was like falling into a mad vortex of dizzying addiction. The latest book at the time was the just-released Crown of Swords, book seven, and I blazed through the series in just a few months. There have been several re-reads since then, every time a new book landed (even the mess that was Crossroads of Twilight), but at this point it’s been probably a couple of years since I picked one up. However, I’ve got my wife to fill in the gaps for me—I infected her with WoT as I was infected, as is tradition, and she is if anything even more excited about the show than I am.

Andrew: My wife, sadly, had too many antibodies to catch Wheel of Time fever. Maybe from reading so much Tolkien? And like, I get it. It can be a hard series to sell to a skeptic. The conversation always goes something like “well, it’s fourteen gigantic books, and the first one especially is mostly a Lord of the Rings pastiche, and it spends a lot of time in this “men be like this/women be like this” space that hasn’t aged especially well…”

Lee: Half-hating the characters in WoT is a huge core part of the fandom! Maybe we can get her into it after the show!

The world of <em>Wheel of Time</em> is lovingly (and expensively) recreated.
Enlarge / The world of Wheel of Time is lovingly (and expensively) recreated.

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Andrew: I mean, I saw A Knight’s Tale in her “watch it again” Netflix queue, so I know she’s watched sillier stuff.

All of that being said! When these books are good they are still really engaging. Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones comparisons are going to be inevitable throughout this project, so I will just break that seal now—those books and that series sort of revel in their blood-soaked nihilism, but Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson loved all their characters and very, very rarely deployed “surprise major character death” or “gratuitous sexual assault” as a driver of narrative.

Lee: That’s a good way to put it. I’ve always thought of WoT vs. GoT as kind of like a Star Trek vs. Star Wars pairing—WoT is the Excelsior, all smug and superior and ready to smack you with that transwarp drive. GoT is the Millennium Falcon—dirty, loud, with some swearing, but it’s got it where it counts. Where WoT is all graceful lines, flowing slow-motion dresses, stark and shining Whitecloaks, and a camera that can never hold still, GoT is dirt, mud, filth, and then you sh— yourself when you die. (Aes Sedai, on the other hand, clearly do not poop at all.) The differences aren’t just thematic, though there’s lots of that—the two shows visually are very, very different experiences.

Andrew: OK, let’s jump into these first three episodes, which all, collectively, have kind of a “sweaty TV pilot” feel to me. There’s a lot to say about what they are and are not doing well individually, but as a group they are all doing a ton of heavy lifting—they have to establish a whole bunch of pro- and antagonists and start building their personalities and story arcs. They visit a few locations and talk about a bunch more of them. We either meet or hear about, by my count, three completely distinct subcultures (the Whitecloaks, the Tinkers, and the Aiel). It’s all a bit dizzying, and some of the introductions work better than others.

Abdul Salis' turn as the slimy Whitecloak Questioner Eamon Valda is a highlight of the early episodes.
Enlarge / Abdul Salis’ turn as the slimy Whitecloak Questioner Eamon Valda is a highlight of the early episodes.

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Lee: It’s a hard ask for a TV writer to get us into this story—you don’t have the luxury a book author has where you can just go ahead and take a thousand pages to do whatever. And Eye of the World is one of the biggest meals to get through in the whole saga. Folks who are coming into this show expecting to see their favorite scenes echoed back at them onscreen are going to have to realign their expectations, because as you say, we’ve got so much we have to get into. What we see of the Whitecloaks is excellent, and Eamon Valda (Abdul Salis) is gratifyingly unctuous. We speed through the Tinker encounter without the aid of a major supporting character—I suppose we’ll get to that in detail, but something to be aware of is that a lot of swizzling has been done to shape the narrative for TV. If you’re still angry that Thom Bombadil didn’t show up on screen to sing you songs or that you never got to see the Scouring of the Shire, you might take issue with WoT’s streamlining for TV.

(Speaking of characters named “Thom,” Thom Merrilin has an absolutely electrifying introduction—though, sadly, the character lacks giant, white twirly mustaches. We’ll probably have more to say about Thom in a future piece.)

You’re an excellent book reviewer—folks, check out Andrew’s podcast!—and I’d love to hear your take. What is the right way for a monstrous book-to-TV adaptation to slim down? How do you balance the need to tell that story with the need to be a coherent, functional, standalone adaptation?

Andrew: Seconded on the Whitecloak introduction. It would be very, very easy to make them dour and joyless pricks, since as a group they are typically the most interested in imposing their rigid idea of what “goodness” is onto characters who we already know to be fundamentally “good.” Making the most prominent Whitecloak—and our introduction to the organization writ large—a slimy, horny sadist who murders Aes Sedai with a smile is one of the strongest moments we get here.

And that’s sort of what you need to do, right? TV shows especially rely on this kind of shorthand, the ability to tell us what we need to know about a person or a group of people with a combination of visual cues and one or two characters. Obviously, some of a book’s depth and complexity can be introduced later, once audiences have gotten a bit more comfortable. But in the early going in a show like this it’s all about combining performances and visuals to create memorable first impressions. The Whitecloak sequences are great at this. The scenes where Moiraine or Lan stand and monologue at the rest of the characters for multiple minutes, less so.

Lan (Daniel Henney) and Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) don't exactly match the characters' descriptions in the books, but the performances are spot-on.
Enlarge / Lan (Daniel Henney) and Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) don’t exactly match the characters’ descriptions in the books, but the performances are spot-on.

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Lee: Moiraine is kind of the primary driver of plot for this batch of episodes, too, and Rosamund Pike has to carry a lot on her blue-draped shoulders. She gets to kick off the story—without any Age of Legends prologue to speak of—and she sets the world’s stage for us. I swear I don’t want to make this an extended book-versus-movie thing, but it is worth commenting that even in the first few minutes, the show updates the books’ canon a bit—in the world of the Wheel of Time, souls are reborn again and again after they die, spun out by the Wheel in new bodies. And in the show, a man can be reborn as a woman, or a woman as a man—something that was not in the books (Aran’gar and Osan’gar notwithstanding—though folks who have never read the books don’t need to worry about the reference).

Moiraine is hunting, as we’re told, for the Dragon Reborn—the reincarnation of the man who, thousands of years ago, “broke the world” and ushered in an age of chaos and darkness. Though the first Dragon was a man, the current Dragon Reborn could be anyone of a certain age. There are long-term plot implications here, and a bunch of the first season is concerned with leading the audience on about precisely who this Dragon is. All Moiraine knows is that it’s almost certainly one of our five main characters—the rougue-ish Mat, red-haired Rand, brooding Perrin, pensive Egwene, or Nynaeve, the village Wisdom (think half doctor, half person who punches you in the face for disturbing the peace).

Andrew: If there’s one “well actually” moment I will entertain as a book reader, it’s the revelation that Egwene or Nynaeve could be the Dragon Reborn. On the one hand, I really appreciate a lot of what the show is doing to add nuance to the books’ dated and rigid gender roles. Two Rivers women in the books are intelligent and resilient, but they’re also a bunch of arm-crossing, braid-tugging, foot-tapping scolds. Two Rivers women in the show, from the glimpse we see, maintain that same sense of community but also get to drink and party and have sex. Rand and Egwene are doing sex to each other. And explicitly putting Egwene and Nynaeve on even narrative footing with Rand, Mat, and Perrin serves to emphasize how central they will be to the rest of the story moving forward.

On the other hand, the split between the male and female halves of the One Power is foundational to pretty much everything in the entire series (gender is strictly binary in Randland, though the show seems open to experimenting with this, and I hope that it does). The Dragon Reborn is in danger, and Moiraine needs to find him, specifically because he is a man who will channel the corrupted male half of the One Power, dooming him to eventual madness. The last time the Dragon Reborn went mad, he snapped the world in half like a fresh Oreo. Even among people who believe he will save the world, there’s a belief that he must be tightly controlled. This is, again, pretty foundational stuff. And I’m still not sure how the decision to mess with that is going to play out long-term.

Nynaeve al'Meara (Zoë Robins) is a character the show gets a handle on pretty quickly.
Enlarge / Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins) is a character the show gets a handle on pretty quickly.

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Lee: I agree—and there are some things in later episodes that really make me wonder how the One Power works in this adaptation. Though, if we’re calling out changes, the one that stuck out to me was the fact that instead of making all three of The Boys (Mat, Perrin, and Rand) inept with The Ladies, Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) starts out married! He’s got a wife! And she’s not a wasting wallflower or nagging angry person—she’s an all-business blacksmith lady, who seems like she knows how to work the forge even better than Perrin does.

Andrew: A wife whom the show tragically almost instantaneously murders so that Perrin can suffer from a Deep and Abiding Sadness. It’s one of the show’s cheapest shots, and it was my least favorite thing in all three of these episodes by kind of a lot!

Lee: Yeah, they stuff her into the fridge immediately.

Discussing this without trying to race through it to look at the narrative consequences is difficult—almost as difficult as adapting this series in the first place. And without spoiling things for non-book readers, Perrin’s choice about whether to “take up the axe” or “take up the hammer” makes up the majority of his character arc, and this is a difficult thing to see the consequences of. At first, I thought I was going to hate it—but the more I think about it, the more interesting it becomes. It’s fascinating to see these characters I’ve lived with in my head for 20+ years suddenly doing something new. I think I like it.

Rand, Perrin, and Mat (Josha Stradowski, Marcus Rutherford, and Barney Harris) enjoying a rare moment of peace.
Enlarge / Rand, Perrin, and Mat (Josha Stradowski, Marcus Rutherford, and Barney Harris) enjoying a rare moment of peace.

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Andrew: That feeling of, “Ooh, I am excited to see how they change this!” is the healthiest attitude for a book reader to have going in, I think. The first season of Game of Thrones was a very straightforward, true-to-the-book adaptation of A Game of Thrones. The sheer length of WoT and how the scope and focus of the books change as they move forward meant that was always going to be a lot harder to do for Eye of the World. Honestly, for me, the fact that this show is happening at all is so wildly improbable that I am planning to just enjoy the ride. But that’s a kind of trust that the creative teams behind these adaptations can easily lose, as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did by the time Game of Thrones had slogged through to its last seasons.

Zooming in a bit: what characters are working for you in these first three episodes? Who seems to have a handle on the character and who doesn’t? I have thoughts, but I want to hear yours first.

Lee: Let me start real quick with our Main Five—Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene. They’re all perfectly adequate, though Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Mat (Barney Harris) are probably given the most to do. Everyone except Rand (Josha Stradowski) has some nice character-building moments (though, I expect the community to be divided as hell by Perrin’s wife, and seeing Mat’s cheerful horse-trading dad turned into an alcoholic domestic abuser stings a bit). The “which one is the Dragon!?” misdirection is strong—so strong that a major interaction between Rand and his father Tam is cut entirely out of the first episode. (I’m sure the whole “you’re not really my son” bit will show up later, but its absence is jarring.)

Andrew: There are definitely crumbs here vis-a-vis Rand’s origins (“no one has red hair in the Two Rivers” is expressed at least once that I saw), but, yeah, one benefit of not being in Rand’s head for 95 percent of the story is that he can blend in with the rest of them a little more.

Lee: On the Aes Sedai side, the ones we meet in the first few episodes are excellent—Moiraine is Moiraine, and I’d have to dig to find a real complaint about the way the character is portrayed. (The only critical thing I can think of is that Pike is maybe a little tall for the role, and that’s minor criticism indeed.) Lan (Daniel Henney) doesn’t really match my mental picture of “Brooding Conan-looking Man Mountain,” but he’s got a nimbleness and a careful, deliberate grace that I’m really enjoying. And he’s definitely got a face of planes and angles.

How about you?

Andrew: Yeah, he did not match up with Lan physically in my head, but the distance he maintains from all the non-Moiraine characters and the way he and Pike interact sold me on the performance. I think another early standout is Nynaeve, whose arc is tweaked for the show (she’s carried off by and escapes from Trollocs during the initial attack on Emond’s Field and catches up with the rest of the party from there, rather than following of her own volition), but in ways that are consistent with her character in the books. She’s a bit older and more capable than the other Two Rivers-ians (??), she’s driven by anger but also by her compassion. She’s doing a good job.

Lee: She is definitely less of a sullen rage-filled harridan in the show—I don’t think she’s thumped anyone with a stick even once. So far.

Andrew: There’s time!

The characters who have changed more are the ones who struggle more. Madeleine Madden, who plays Egwene, isn’t doing anything wrong, but she hasn’t left much of an impression yet. And Harris is just coming across as flat and unlikable as Mat. Some of that might be the show’s fault! Because, as you mentioned, show-Mat is substantially more unsavory and less Han Solo-ian than book-Mat. But I do wonder if the onscreen struggles contributed at all to his recasting for season two.

Mat and Padan Fain (Johann Myers), who appears in the first episode but hasn't (yet) reappeared.
Enlarge / Mat and Padan Fain (Johann Myers), who appears in the first episode but hasn’t (yet) reappeared.

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Lee: Yeah—too early to tell, but that would definitely follow from what we’ve seen so far. There’s certainly lots for him to do, since we get to Shadar Logoth relatively quickly, and it’s the second big setpiece after Emond’s Field, and from the dagger springs a big chunk of Mat’s character arc for the first few books.

Andrew: To my memory we don’t actually get a PoV chapter from Mat until book three, so it’s also possible that if you were just reading EotW to research the role, there would not be a whole lot to go on there.



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