It’s surreal to say, but The Wheel of Time is finally here. To a large swath of television viewers, that name will mean nothing; to my uncles, however, the Wheel of Time series of novels by Robert Jordan were the highest of literature. Yet, I never quite got the itch to read them. I guess I had always hope there would be some kind of a screen adaptation to ease me into the mythology. Now, after decades of attempts, we have that adaptation in the form of Amazon’s new series.
If the intention of the first episode of The Wheel of Time, entitled “Leavetaking”, is to pique interest in Jordan’s world, then I’d say it does a serviceable job. In the episode’s pilot, we meet Moraine, played with grace by the great Rosamund Pike in a vague high fantasy setting. As a member of the Aes Sedai, a group that can channel a sort of elemental magic and strictly adheres to the idea of time as cyclical. A wheel, if you will. Moraine is searching for the reincarnation of someone known as “The Dragon”. Earlier in time, The Dragon’s power had caused mass destruction. Moraine is in search of him or her for as of yet undisclosed reason. As far as hooks go, not bad!
Cut to the village of Emond’s Field, where the story starts proper. Young shepherd Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradoski) has the makings of your typical fantasy protagonist. Drinking with his friends, the delightful Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris), and falling head-over-heels with Egweine al’Vere (Madeline Madden). Proceedings, naturally, recall the opening stretch of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Nothing wrong with that, as it does give a comforting sense of familiarity in establishing this world. It helps that Amazon seems all-in on the series, financially, leading to gorgeous sweeping shots of rolling green hills and the mountains behind.
Nevertheless, that familiarity and admittedly beautiful cinematography do much of the heavy lifting. What remains is not so easy to parse out. Rand and his buddies don’t quite have their defining characteristics yet. There’s some engaging character work with Mat, his family troubles, and bad habits, though it’s fleeting. They’re simply laying in wait for the adventure to begin. Egweine has a significantly more gripping story behind her.
Much like Dune (and this year’s exceptional adaptation), the world of Wheel of Time is one of a somewhat matriarchal bent. The women, who wear their hair in braids, are almost exclusively the controllers of magic. Egweine is being prepped to become the village’s next Wisdom, a role that entails leadership but precludes being wed. Madeleine Madison is stupendously understated, torn between duty and passion. It’s the kind of arc women rarely get in these types of stories.
The Wheel of Time‘s plot in macro picks up steam upon the arrival of Moiraine. In tow is her assistant, the stone-faced al’Lan Mandragoaran (Daniel Henney). Although the rest of the town doesn’t quite know why they’re there, the series keeps us privy to their inner workings. A scene between Moiraine and Mandragoaran cryptically hints at things to come, whereas also serving as a showcase for Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney’s authoritative talents.
“Leavetaking” closes with the hook needed for a pilot: a huge action sequence. The villagers’ merriment is cut short by the arrival of creatures known as the Trollocs. Guided by the shadowy Dark One, whom we can assume is to be the show’s primary antagonist, these are orc-adjacent creatures familiar to any fantasy head. Where they gain the edge is in their brutality. Trollocs mercilessly slaughter villagers in a manner adjacent to a horror film. Despite the nighttime setting, the sequences are painfully clear to see.
Director Uta Briesewitz makes a strong statement. Moiraine’s entrance into the fray makes an even bigger splash. Summoning elemental energy, she dispatches the Trollocs in a visually divine show. Honestly, it borders on sensory overload. That’s a good thing. After bodies, both Human and Trollocs, lay on the ground, Moiraine makes her purpose known. She is looking for the dragon and believes it might be one of four people. Said people are Rand, Perrin, Mat, and Egwein. And away we go.
As a pilot, “Leavetaking” does what it needs to do. There’s a lot of set-ups that will be looked back at either fondly or dismissively depending on how the rest of the season plays out. Once again, this is my first time experiencing the Wheel of Time saga in any form, but I’m confident in saying my curiosity is peaked. Now we see if it can continue the momentum. –James Preston Poole
Season Rating: 6.5/10
The Wheel of Time Episodes 1-3 are now streaming on Amazon Prime.