The search for the next Game of Thrones continues apace with Amazon's adaptation of Robert Jordan's best-selling fantasy series.

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The Wheel of Time won't let you forget its title. Amazon's expensive new fantasy drama, about a coming war between good and evil, takes place in a world that firmly believes in reincarnation, thus the never-ending passage and cyclical nature of time is a hot topic. "The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills." "The Wheel does not care if you're young, petty, or weak." These on-the-nose lines speak to both the show's strengths and weaknesses. The Wheel of Time is clearly confident in its tone and knows exactly what kind of show it wants to be — an epic fantasy tale — but it's so focused on the big picture that it neglects the small things and feels bland. 

An adaptation of Robert Jordan's best-selling fantasy book series developed by Rafe Judkins (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), The Wheel of Time weaves a familiar story of young Chosen Ones, magic, fictional folk songs, and apocalyptic conflicts. A malevolent force known as the Dark One is rising once more, thus the search is on for the one person who can defeat him: the Dragon, a reincarnated Messiah-like figure whose immense power will offer salvation and even more destruction in the brewing conflict. 

The Wheel of Time
'The Wheel of Time'
| Credit: Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

Leading the search is Rosamund Pike's Moiraine, who is a member of the Aes Sedai, an order of witches that maintains peace in the vast land. One of the more interesting aspects of The Wheel of Time is that women are the only ones allowed to channel the One Power, i.e. magic, because the Dark One corrupted it ages ago. Now, any man who wields magic will be driven mad, forcing the Aes Sedai to depower them. Finding the Dragon Reborn is even more imperative because it could quickly become troublesome if it's a man. To the show's credit, it doles out much of this exposition and mythology as confidently and smoothly as possible over the first six episodes provided to critics. (The first season consists of eight episodes.)

Moiraine's search for the Dragon leads her and her loyal companion, the sword-wielding Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), to a small town where she finds not one but four people who could potentially be the Dragon Reborn: farmer's son Rand al'Thor (Josha Stradowski), who carries himself like the main character even though he really isn't; Rand's love interest Egwene al'Vere (Madeleine Madden), whose destiny may be greater than her lover's; the blacksmith Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford); and the hot mess Mat Cauthon (Barney Harris). With war on the horizon and destiny calling, Moiraine and Lan whisk these somewhat reluctant potential saviors, along with the town's mystically inclined healer Nynaeve al'Meara (Zoë Robins), away from their homes on a journey toward the White Tower, the Aes Sedai's headquarters.

Along the way, they face more than their fair share of dangers and setbacks — from monster attacks to witch-on-army battles, and mysteriously haunted cities — but that's about it. Every episode features some major display of violence and action but does so at the expense of deepening the characters. Save for Nyneave, most of the villagers come across as flat archetypes at the beginning of a role-playing game as opposed to fully realized characters. Rand and Egwene's romance feels perfunctory, like it's there just because the genre demands at least one love story. Similarly, a candidate's brush with darkness seems like it's less about him and more about fleshing out the show's mythology until the very last moment.

The Wheel of Time
Rosamund Pike in 'The Wheel of Time'
| Credit: Amazon Studios

Unfortunately, Pike, who is the first person we see in the show, doesn't fare much better. As Moiraine, the Gone Girl actress is called on to be cold and withholding, but she doesn't really get an opportunity to play anything more than that. (This problem actually becomes text when another Sedai notes, "It's hard having a conversation with someone who won't say anything," one of the show's few self-aware moments.) Thankfully, the sixth episode pairs Pike with a dynamic new scene partner, allowing her to stretch some and reveal a different side to Moiraine. While that doesn't make up for the sameness of the first five episodes, it does at least make the end of the season more interesting. 

Despite the weak characterization, I still found The Wheel of Time rather watchable. It definitely isn't lacking in incidents. The writers keep the plot wheel turning as characters are chased from one location to the next, action is adequately sequenced, and magic is performed (albeit rendered goofily). Not only is that a blessing in this age of streaming bloat, but the constant forward motion supports the world-building because the show introduces us to new things at a steady pace — from the revanchist White Cloaks, an army of men who resent and hunt the Aes Sedai with religious zeal, to a community of peace-loving nomads who are just here for vibes, and the surprisingly interesting internal politics of the Aes Sedai. Furthermore, the series provides just enough history, adding context to the present and making the world feel lived in without overwhelming viewers (at least not until Amazon orders a prequel as it expands the Wheelverse.) The setting is so captivating that it leaves you wishing the characters had received the same amount of attention.

The Wheel of Time
'The Wheel of Time'
| Credit: Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

Amazon obviously hopes The Wheel of Time becomes Game of Thrones' heir. In fact, the streamer greenlit a second season months before it even premiered. That means there's still time for the show to sort itself out before the wheel breaks. C+

The Wheel of Times premieres with three episodes Friday on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes arriving weekly thereafter.

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The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time (TV series)

Based on the bestselling series of novels by Robert Jordan, this fantasy show follows the mystic Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) as she searches for the reincarnated messiah figure known as the Dragon Reborn, who can save the world from the Dark One

type
  • TV Show
rating
genre
creator
  • Rafe Judkins
network
  • Amazon Prime Video

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