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The Wheel of Time review

The Wheel of Time (WoT) is the feedback loop literalised, an unwitting comment on the cycle of epic fantasy adaptations being churned out in the wake of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and Game of Thrones (GoT).

Mortal Kombat got another movie adaptation this year. Cowboy Bebop is now a misbegotten and soon-forgotten Netflix series. Tie-dye is popular again. (A guy wearing a tie-dye hoodie was in fact a key suspect in one of 2021’s hit series.) There’s no denying the 90s’ are making a comeback. Depending on whom you ask, nostalgia runs on a 20 or 30-year cycle, where consumers of culture as kids go on to become creators of culture as adults. Indeed, Amazon adapting an epic fantasy series from the ’90s, one about the cyclical nature of time where everything dies only to be reborn again, feels rather of the moment.

Call it Eternal Recurrence, Kalachakra, or The Wheel of Time, the idea spans cultures across the world. A prophesied reincarnation may either save the world or destroy it in Robert Jordan’s sword-and-sorcery saga.

The two becoming pop cultural phenomena ushered nerd culture into the mainstream, expanding the audience for the genre. Streaming services have been dusting off old books hoping to be the home of a water-cooler hit of their own. WoT though feels more like a cog in the streaming wheel, rather than a disruptor. It’s Amazon testing the waters before they release their own $465-mn-take on JRR Tolkien’s LOTR.

A prophecy of the Chosen One prone to visions. Four friends not named Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin from a sleepy village embark on an epic quest guided by a mentor. A Dark One whose power grows and who can influence the world without physically manifesting in it. Clashes with bows, axes, swords, and CGI. At stake is the survival of all living beings and the world itself. All these fantasy flourishes are put together in a tiresome way in Amazon’s WoT. Season 1 adapts the first book from Jordan’s series, The Eye of the World. In the effort to streamline a near-800-page novel into eight hour-long episodes for the screen, creator Rafe Judkins rushes through the source material. WoT is a sprawling 15-book saga, and the show will have to double down on the pacing if they are to condense them into the planned eight seasons.

The prophesied reincarnation, the Chosen One, is referred to as the Dragon Reborn. Not the flying and fire-breathing kind, but who can reduce the world to ashes nonetheless. The magic, the One Power that turns the wheel of time, is gendered. The female half is described as a river of power that must be embraced, while the male half is a raging torrent that must be subdued. This half is tainted by the Dark One aka Shai’tan. Which is why men are driven mad by it. So, only women are now allowed to wield the One Power. The world of WoT is governed by a Bene Gesserit-like powerful order of witches called the Aes Sedai, who are made up of different groups identified by their shawl colours. In the season premiere, a Red Ajah is tasked with capturing a male channeler. A Green Ajah named Alanna Mosvani (Priyanka Bose), who only makes her appearance in the second novel The Great Hunt, is introduced half-way into the season when the Aes Sedai come together to confine Logain (Álvaro Morte), a powerful channeler who turns out to be a false Dragon. The non-human species can be identified by the bad prosthetics and make-up, like the kind and well-read Ogier, Loial (Hammed Animashaun). Or the Dark One’s army made up of eyeless horsemen called the Fades, who lead a cannibalistic army of humanoid creatures with hoofed feet and horns called the Trollocs.

It’s a duel between the forces of light and darkness as old as time. A Blue Ajah, Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), and her Warder, al’Lan Mandragora (Daniel Henney), lead a group of four (eventually five) young adults from the town of Two Rivers to the White Tower of Tar Valon to seek the counsel of the Amyrlin Seat (Sophie Okonedo), the leader of the Aes Sedai. One among the five is believed to be the Dragon Reborn. Moiraine can’t lie, but she doesn’t tell the whole truth either, keeping the heroes and the viewers guessing on her intentions and plans.

Over the course of the season, the Dark One’s strength grows just as his forces do. The premiere sees the Trollocs ambush Two Rivers, shortly after Moiraine and Lan arrive. The ensuing battle pitches us right into the heart of a town on fire. When the smoke clears, Rand, Egwene, Perrin and Mat are given a choice: stay behind or face their destiny. The former will mean more misfortunes for their town as the Dark One’s army after them. The latter offers a chance to save the world from the apocalypse. Pike serves as the vanguard, her Morraine the guide to the world of the Wheel. The performances from Stradowski and Rutherford are woefully flat, and they can’t channel the charm for us to warm up to Rand and Perrin.

Along the perilous journey, a variety of natural and supernatural obstacles typical of a heroic adventure present themselves along the perilous journey. A militia known as the Whitecloaks are on a witch hunt for Aes Sedai. The group is forced to split up after being attacked by the evil entity that inhabits the ghost city of Shadar Logoth. Rand and Mat encounter a strolling minstrel who sings wistful ballads in a village, while Egwene and Perrin take refuge with a tribe of pacifist nomads known as The Tuatha’an, who adhere to a nonviolent, non-interventionist principle they call the Way of the Leaf. On reuniting at the White Tower, the heroes’ next checkpoint is the Borderlands, where they seek out the Eye of the World to defeat the Dark One.

The changes made to the source material don’t serve the show too well. Making the four potential Dragons adults takes away the coming-of-age complications and wide-eyed perspective of the teenage versions. In the novel, Rand and Egwene shared a will-they-won’t-they dynamic. In the series, they already have. As the group is split by the second episode, we don’t get a taste of the interpersonal dynamics between the five of them. The split doesn’t come for at least the first 250 pages. Perrin, who dreams of marrying fellow Two Rivers resident Laila in the novel, is married to her before he accidentally kills her when the Trollocs attack. All of them appear hard-edged to varying degrees. In exploring an unfamiliar world, there’s none of that youthful energy. The hurdles they face don’t explore the mental leap, the moral strength, and the brave choices they must make in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The mat may be the exception here. He is a man reluctant to leave Two Rivers because it means leaving his two young sisters in the care of his parents who have been rewritten as drunks. There’s also darkness festering within him, further corrupted by the dagger he picks up in Shadar Logoth. Visions spill into their dreams. The series also bridges the age gap between the four and Nynaeve, adding to the Chosen One possibilities. The penultimate episode brings the calm before the storm, revealing the identity before the finale deals with the implications.

WoT gets woke too. The ethnically diverse casting has become an all-too-characteristic revision of the once-predominately white fantasy genre. Aes Sedai and Warders are known to share a deep emotional bond. If Moirane and Lan’s relationship is platonic, Alanna and her two Warders, Maksim (Taylor Napier) and Ihvon (Emmanuel Imani) are in a polyamorous one.

The prologue in the finale shows the World of the Wheel 3000 years ago as a far more sophisticated techtopia than the Early Modern setting of the show’s present. Civilisation regressed in the aftermath of the Breaking of the World when the previous Dragon, Lews Therin Telamon, fell prey to his madness. Before the end of the Second Age, technology had sufficiently advanced to a point where it was indistinguishable from magic.

The worldbuilding fails to give us a true sense of place. Never once do the cities and towns feel vivid and alive, more like elaborately constructed sound stages. There is a dissonance between the setting and the characters. The show opts for a knowable quantity that is a strained authenticity, rather than indulge in the unknowability of this world. The widescreen lensing of gorgeous landscapes feels like settings leftover from a Mallick movie — only without the contemplative pleasures.

Rest assured WoT is not going to rewrite any rules of how to reshape fantasy novels into long-form TV, as GoT did at its peak. No softcore porn accusations are to be made here. Bathtub scenes hint at a shared intimacy and unresolved sexual tension between two characters but are mostly employed as equalisers to strip away the chain of command. When things do steam up, they steam up off-screen. The violence is spare but startling: An Aes Sedai is tortured and burnt at the stake by a maniacal Whitecloak. The only memorable set piece is the speed-ramped blood-against-snow fight sequence that opens Episode 7, where a pregnant warrior singlehandedly dispatches a troupe of armed soldiers with a spear before she is fatally stabbed. (She isn’t the only pregnant woman to suffer such a tragic fate.) In most other sequences, CGI is the tail wagging the dragon, as WoT confuses industrial light for magic. The special effects may provoke a bit of a chuckle, especially when the Aes Sedai channel the One Power with all sorts of performative hand gestures.

The Wheel of Time is a product of a culture where TV and streaming storytellers are looking for an answer to a big hit, rather than conceptualising an entirely new story or bringing a refreshing update to an existing text. Just as His Dark Materials is not the next GoT, neither The Witcher nor The Wheel of Time is Netflix and Amazon’s answers to the HBO series. But the cycle perpetuates to find the next big fantasy epic. “The wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” as they say.

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