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IS THE PATTERN UNRAVELLING? Review of Season 1 of the Wheel of Time

As you may know, most fantasy stories follow a universal structure known as the hero’s journey. The structure looks like the following: the hero begins their life in the normal world, unforeseen circumstances invite them to consider leaving this world, they refuse the call, circumstances then force them out, they go into a new world where they meet a mentor, hone their skills through trials until they arrive at the ultimate trial and eventually the story resolves after an epic dual, battle or event and our character comes back to the beginning…completely changed.

Star Wars is a great example of the classic hero’s journey. I’m not going to go into details here… suffice it to say you all know Luke’s journey. Star Wars is a classic fantasy story wrapped in the veneer of soft sci-fi. It hits all the beats of a hero’s journey so very well!

This structure is a standard tool for putting together a solid, well-told fantasy story. It establishes a mark to hit. Our long-anticipated delve into the realization of our beloved The Wheel of Time missed that mark on many levels. In some ways, it’s hard to understand how they missed that mark. The formula for these kinds of stories, and in my opinion, Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World is pretty straightforward. On one hand, the objective seems simple. Just tell the story that’s there. Keep it simple. Don’t deviate, STAY ON TARGET!

On the other hand, television is a different medium and changes are needed, expected. Deviation from the book as written is a given. Fine. I understand. However, whatever changes are made MUST push the story, as presented, forward. Threads that are woven into this new tapestry must be carried through, not cut short, discarded or forgotten because the result risks being an unfinished, fragile, facsimile of the source. A source that was woven so well by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson that it has sold OVER 90 MILLION COPIES worldwide!

Hear me. I am not against changes. I am not against a loose interpretation of the source material. I’d be ok with a “new turning” but it really needs to stand well on its own. Not only that, it would be more acceptable to the fan base if they expressed clearly that this is NOT going to be the story as it’s told in the books. In my opinion, this adaptation has a long way to go. I say ‘a long way to go’ because I still want to believe that Rafe Judkins cares about this story. I still want to believe that he wants the “heart and spine” to carry through on screen. For this reason, I am against lowering the guillotine on this series just yet. Call me hopeful, call me foolish. I’m still clinging to the cliff.

It takes a great deal for me to get to the place where I’m screaming, “BOYCOTT”. But some of the fandom is doing that very thing; this should be a concern to the showrunner and the team. As I’ve reflected on the show and had some interactions with the fandom that are less than positive, I’ve also heard feedback from non-book fans who were miserably disappointed with the show. I feel all their frustration and I recognize the validity of it. I just want to approach my own thoughts through the lens of productivity. To look at this thing from a constructive point of view. Perhaps how we approach this is a byproduct of the nature of the individual viewing the show. To those who have been unable to reconcile their distaste for the changes, I say, I feel your pain. I know it’s hard. For us who wish the show followed the book more closely, it is difficult, I know, just remember, thankfully we always have the book and it will always be what it is.

Too many promises, not enough payoff.

In writing, it is highly important to fulfill the promises you make to your readers. These promises are what keep the audience engaged.

For example, “We need you, Hobbit, to steal the Arkenstone from a dragon inside the mountain.” That’s a compelling thought. How is this little cheese eater going to sneak into a dragon’s lair and steal its crown jewel?! That’s a story I want to read. Now, imagine that Bilbo gets to the mountain and the dragon is dead. Or missing. Or they find out the jewel has already been pinched by a goblin hiding in a solitary cave and they only have to kill the goblin to get it back. Talk about a letdown… right? That would be a promise with no payoff.

The Wheel of Time on Prime is replete with instances like this. The earliest moment I can think of is this. “Be careful everyone, there are things more dangerous than Trollocs in this world.”

This line, it’s exciting. It’s full of promise. I thought perhaps this meant we’d see a Draghkar. But sadly…no.

I guess my question becomes, what “things”? Throughout the journey of the show, they don’t really face any other “monsters”. One could argue that Eamon Valda, the white cloak, is a monster and IS more dangerous than a trolloc. Perhaps this is where my knowledge of the books betrays me. I know what those “more dangerous than a Trolloc” things are and I want to see them. No, it’s just that you need to provide more danger if you say there is more danger.

Then in episode 5, they did. A fade killed some farmers and fought Thom. But this fight was so short and I feel that it didn’t fulfill the promise made. It was a pale attempt. Did it kill Thom? I’m thinking not.

I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t feel the terror and angst of their journey as much as I could have after episode 3. Episode 1 was so fast-paced that I couldn’t invest in anyone’s emotional journey. It all felt a bit forced upon me. The romance. The death of a loved one. The disappearance of Nynaeve.

I did feel like the show got me excited about storylines and then dropped them. Take, for example, the build-up to the Eye of the World. Maybe this is the foretold “more dangerous than a Trolloc” because Moiraine tells them a few times that whoever travels to the Eye and is not the Dragon will DIE there. Noooooo! That’s bad.

You could surmise that perhaps she was telling a fib here. An Aes Sedai “lie” used to fish out the real Dragon Reborn by inadvertently threatening the lives of the Dragon’s loved ones. If this was your suspicion, good on you. If it was her intention, it worked, Rand did come forward and say it was he who could channel. But wait, Aes Sedai cannot lie. So she was genuine in her fear of death.

Still, no one dies at the Eye of the World, not Moiraine or anyone unless you count the smirking “dark one”. Although the build-up to the battle with the army of trollocs was decent, the fight at the wall and the obliteration of the army left me feeling cheated of an epic battle. It also didn’t make any sense. Why not have the aes sedai at the wall too? As a fan of Jordan’s writing, this sequence was super difficult for me to let go of. I really was hoping to see Rand do some work through episodes 7 and 8. Instead, he slept and had bad dreams.

The battle at the Eye of the World was a letdown, an unfulfilled promise of potential death. Earlier in the series, we saw an Aes Sedai die at the hands of the white cloaks and others at the hands of a bunch of thugs in a forest and from the false dragon. Yet, the ‘dark one’ seems to only have words, sleepy time dream magic and the weave to block Moiraine.

For me, the promise of the “last battle” was far more epic than what we received. The same ill fate cursed the blight sequence as well. Apparently, the blight eats boys and is dangerous enough that at one point Moiraine was prepared to channel some trees to death. For that split second, I thought maybe we were going to get some real blight action like that of which we read in the book. Unfortunately, it turned out to just be a falling branch. All that happened in the blight was they got dirty. A bit of wet soil from the moist undergrowth of the spider tree forest. To top it off, Moraine emphatically told Rand not to touch anything and then encouraged him to rest in the moss.

On top of this, the last battle was really weak. The fighting against the trollocs was odd, the plan to defend the city was odd and it felt strange that the writers chose to have the aes sedai die defending the city instead of having Rand do what he does in the novel. For those who know, you know what I’m talking about.

To top it off, through the channelling sequence in episode 8, they pushed more changes, or uncertainties into the metaphysical aspects of the one power by allowing the ladies to burn out, then be healed/raised from the dead. I think while watching that scene I exclaimed out loud, “WHAT IS GOING ON!?”

When I sit back and reflect on this season in relation to the hero’s journey I think the biggest problem is we didn’t have enough of a focal point for the story. In the Eye of the World novel, it is pretty clear that Rand is our hero, the story anchors around him. In the TV adaptation, we have Moiraine as the primary antagonist, but I feel like it doesn’t do a good enough job of magnetizing itself to her journey. If SHE is the protagonist, every story point needs to relate to her. The beats need to drive her story forward. But because of the ensemble cast and the importance of developing everyone’s plots, we lose that and we don’t have enough signposts along the way for other characters to hang our hats on and linger awhile.

Love = Sex ?

Let’s discuss relationships/rivalries. It may just be me, some people seemed happy with the relationships that were created in this season of the show, I was not. Since this post is going long, I am just going to bullet point my thoughts out there.

  • Nynaeve and Lan – had promise but the thread was dropped in favour of Stepin and Kerene, then awkwardly picked up again. I mention in another video how there was a missed opportunity after the funeral for Stepin. Nynaeve gave Stepin the drug to help him sleep. This could have been a nice catalyst to have some development between Lan and Nynaeve. Also, did they NEED to sleep together? Why does everyone have to sleep together to build the facade of love? Couldn’t that come later?
  • Rand and Egwene – kinda sweet, but again, just not enough time with them. Wish their love was more innocent as depicted in the books. But I’m willing to let it go.
  • Rand, Egwene, Perrin triangle – just … why?
  • It feels like in order to establish “love” everyone needs to sleep together. Nynaeve and Lan didn’t neeeed that for their love to feel right. They just needed more screen time.
  • Perrin and the wolves – it began and ended… was dropped.
  • Mat and Padan fain – perhaps suffered due to Barney Harris leaving the show. But again, more time.
  • Ishamael and Eamond’s Fielders – Wish they had more communication in the dream sequences rather than just scary fire face. So much potential there.
  • Moiraine and Siuan – This one ties into my point about sex = love, and on top of that because this relationship had minimal screen time I couldn’t buy into the emotional connection or the over-the-top drama of the oath (another strange metaphysics issue)
  • White cloaks and Tinkers, Egwene and Perrin (Well everyone really) – Intense! Crazy! Then dropped.
  • Egwene and Perrin and Tinkers – just dropped. Egwene and Perrin aren’t worried about them… not a word mentioned after the attack by the White Cloaks… serious?

Covid – Locations – Fight Scenes

I will say I must give some grace to the team. What an unprecedented accomplishment to get this show brought together in the context of COVID. It feels quite evident that some scenes were changed or lost due to complications. They probably had some other intentions for Mat, but Barney left (hope he’s ok). We know they had a different plan for the blight but covid prevented on-location filming. I assume COIVD also impacted the filming of the last battle. I suspect that they had other plans for that sequence. If you look at the effort and choreography that went into the battle in episode 1 it doesn’t make any sense that they wouldn’t have had similar scenes planned for episode 8. The fighting was very minimal at the wall and the rest was CGI stuff.

Positive Vibes

Phew! What a rant, right? Well, I need you to know, it’s not all bad. The show had some silver linings. The first of these stirred up a good bit of controversy early in the WoT on prime news days. Casting.

Boy oh boy do I love this cast. I feel like everyone is so well cast and that they fit the characters so very well. On my next read-through of the books, I’m sure to imagine them in my head as these actors. Josha Stradowski is a great Rand. Do I wish he was taller? Sure I do, but I also wish Loial was taller and had tufted ears and drooping eyebrows and eyes as big as saucers. But, we get what we get in this regard and as I mentioned in a previous post, Hammed Animashaun killed it. He IS Loial. His performance made me forgive the strange makeup/costuming. It’s too bad we’re losing Barney Harris for season two but I’m hopeful that Dónal Finn will pick it up well.

Zoe Robbins, YES! Madeleine Madden YES! Daniel Henney HECK YES! Rosamund Pike uh-huh! Marcus Rutherford is AWESOME (give this guy more screen time!) All the supporting cast are great too. Just so great. With better writing and more screen time to allow the characters to grow and be more solid, this cast could make this show perfect.

The locations, set work and settings are all wonderful (save perhaps a few scenes in the last few episodes). The world feels good, lived in and expansive. Some of the shots of the world are amazing, ie. Tarvalon and Dragonmount.

The music is so good too! Lorne Balfe crushed it. Every track is so great. Al’Naito being my fav.

The title sequence. Ooooh that is lovely.

For all my complaining about this show, it has done some amazing things in my life. I have become connected to people all over the world through the online community and developed some genuine online friendships. That is remarkable. The show has prompted numerous, lengthy, passionate discussions around writing, world-building, character, adaptation, the fantasy genre and the Wheel of Time as a whole. I have spent more time talking about this story since the show came out than I probably have in my combined life experience without it. My wife, who does not usually read fantasy, has finally read and loved the first book. I truly hope that this show continues to precipitate a new flowering of collective experience across all of fandom, both old and new.

So with all its flaws and struggles, I am glad we have this show and I applaud the team that brought it to life. May you have an easier go of it moving forward and may season two be a better run. Oh, and one more thing. AMAZON give us 10 episodes at least! Let the damn thing breathe!

Oh, and one more thing… why did the Seanchan navy create a title wave to kill a small child on a beach under a cliff? Also, why do the Damane have some kind of gag over their mouths? Weird. We’ll see what kind of craziness season 2 brings.