There’s a Monty Python bit from Holy Grail — and forgive my presumptuousness, but there once was a time where if you were a person familiar with The Wheel of Time, the chances were good that you knew your Monty Python — where a sparkling-clean King Arthur trots past the heavily soiled peasantry.
“Who’s that then?” asks one man.
“I dunno,” responds a collector of dead bodies. “Must be a king.”
“He hasn’t got shit all over him.”
The premiere episode of The Wheel of Time isn’t quite this direct in terms of its visual signifiers. From background extras to leading ladies, everyone gets their hands dirty in this thing. But still, there’s a definite sense that the episode, titled “Leavetaking,” exists primarily to let the main characters know they are, in fact, the main characters. By the end of the hour, written by showrunner Rafe Judkins (who wrote for Agents of SHIELD) and directed by Uta Briesewitz (one of The Wire’s ace cinematographers back in the day), four lowly peasants have been told by a powerful sorceress that one of them is a messianic figure and that they must accompany her on a journey away from home as she tries to figure out which one it is. In essence, the protagonists of the show, adapted from Robert Jordan’s eponymous series of fantasy novels, are also the protagonists of the world it depicts. King Arthur, eat your heart out.
Rosamund Pike stars and starts the series off with her episode-opening narration as Moiraine, a powerful member of the Aes Sedai. The Aes Sedai are an order of magic-wielding women; indeed, only women are permitted to use magic at all in The Wheel of Time’s world. (Some of her more militant sisters track down and execute a hapless man who’s made contact with the source of their magic in a brief aside.) The vibe is a bit like the Bene Gesserit from Dune, but with elemental powers straight out of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Moiraine and her bodyguard, al’Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney), set out for the hinterlands searching for a figure shrouded in mystery. Known as the Dragon Reborn, this unidentified young man or woman is the reincarnation of the historical figure whose attempt to “cage darkness itself” led to a total cataclysm. Now that the Aes Sedai have sensed this being’s presence in the world once more, it’s imperative to find them, though whether to tutor them or contain them is so far unclear.
Moiraine’s search brings her to a pleasant little country village called the Two Rivers, where we meet the rest of the main cast. Egwene (Madeleine Madden) has just been inducted into womanhood by the village’s “Wisdom,” a sort of healer-slash-spiritual leader named Nynaeve (Zoë Robins). Her red-haired love interest Rand (Josha Stradowski) is the son of the local innkeeper, Tam (Game of Thrones veteran Michael “Roose Bolton” McElhatton); despite his hot and heavy relationship with Egwene, he must contend with her choice to follow Nynaeve’s footsteps and become a celibate Wisdom herself.
Rand and Egwene’s circle of friends includes Mat (Barney Harris, already recast for the show’s second season), a wisecracking son of alcoholic parents, and Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), a blacksmith and the sole married member of the crew. That marriage, and its rapid and (spoiler alert) violent dissolution, is a major departure from The Eye of the World, the book this first season adapts, in which Perrin is a bachelor. (The adaptation is also casually, confidently racially diverse, in a way that’s barely noticeable as the hour progresses.)
But the idyllic existence of the Two Rivers community—seriously, they’re in the middle of some kind of festival when the shit goes down—comes to an end very quickly, when a horde of Trollocs attacks the town. These towering werewolf/warthog/minotaur hybrid-looking beasts operate under the command of a “fade,” or Myrddraal, a white-faced eyeless ghoul who commands them from afar on the back of a spooky horse. If you get the vibe of an army of Tolkien orcs given a less reptilian makeover, commanded by Lord Voldemort in a ringwraith costume, you’re pretty much there.
Despite the best efforts of some of the villagers, the attack is a disaster. Mat barely rescues his kid sisters on behalf of his neglectful parents. Rand and Tam finish off a Trolloc who broke into the inn at the cost of a poisoned wound to Tam’s shoulder. Egwene watches helplessly as a Trolloc carries off her mentor, Nynaeve. In dispatching their own attacker, Perrin accidentally kills his wife Laila (Helena Westerman) with an errant ax strike. (When the dust settles, he allows everyone to believe she incurred the fatal blow from a Trolloc rather than from him.)
The sacking of the village would be complete if not for the intervention of Moiraine. While her right-hand man Lan makes short work of creature after creature with his superior swordsmanship, Moiraine draws upon what appears to be a considerable reservoir of magical power to take out whole handfuls of Trollocs at a time — lighting them on fire, striking them with lightning, pelting them with stones raised from the ground or pulled from buildings, and in one memorable case simply tearing one beast in half. Upon her arrival in town, there were whispers that a single Aes Sedai could turn the tide of an entire war; now we know how.
As day breaks after the attack, a massive column of hundreds of howling Trollocs can be seen pouring down a nearby hillside, making their way to the village. This leaves Moiraine with little choice but to tell Egwene, Rand, Mat, and Perrin her theory: The Trollocs and their undead commander are in town for the same reason she is. One of the four of them is the Dragon Reborn, the only being powerful enough to defeat the Dark One, who is rising again. In order to save their village, they must join her and leave immediately. Their destination is the far-off White Tower, where the Aes Sedai are based. With basically no hesitation — it’s like they realized that if they stayed behind, there’d be no show — the foursome set off. Adventures and Trollocs alike are sure to follow.
In recapping The Wheel of Time, it is frankly impossible to avoid mentioning the two series that made its creation not just possible but also potentially massively lucrative: Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s Game of Thrones. Author Robert Jordan (and, after his death, hand-picked successor Brandon Sanderson)’s source novels have long shared bookshelf space with J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, earning countless comparisons to both works. That’s a tough break for Jordan, who wasn’t looking to effectively invent a new genre, as Tolkien did, nor create a heavily revisionist version of that genre, like Martin. Aside from giving women a much more central role in his narrative, which is admittedly no small thing, Jordan was largely content to play in the key of JRRT, as it were.
So if you see Frodo Baggins’s departure from the Shire in Egwene, Rand, and company’s flight from the Two Rivers, it’s tough to blame you. Moiraine’s voiceover narration, with its portentous intonations of memories becoming legend and legends becoming myth during the Third Age in the Mountains of Mist and so on, is enormously evocative of Cate Blanchett’s similar prologue to the LotR films. (Lan’s discovery of mutilated sheep arranged in a pattern is equally reminiscent of the White Walkers’ dirty work in GoT.)
If any of this sounds condescending or like a smarmy game of spot-the-reference, I don’t intend it to be. Though I had no experience with Jordan or The Wheel of Time before watching this episode beyond whatever I learned through three decades of nerd osmosis, I think there’s a great pleasure to be found in genre work that plays familiar notes. It’s certainly entertaining to watch the towering Trollocs descend on the Two Rivers like boogeymen straight out of a child’s nightmares, or — dodgy CGI aside — to see Moiraine use her Dark Phoenix powers to make mincemeat out of them. And as befits a post–Game of Thrones fantasy-TV epic, there’s some not-half-bad sexual chemistry between Madden and Stradowski as Egwene and Rand, and even Pike and Henney as Moiraine and Lan, whose platonic but literally steamy bathing scene has no doubt already launched a thousand ’ships.
Not all of the show’s elements are so successful. It seems especially shitty to invent a wife for Perrin solely for him to have something sad about when he kills her before the credits roll on the first episode, for example. And compared (sorry) to Game of Thrones and its complex human and political drivers, Wheel’s chosen-one talk feels like a flight of mere fancy. (Though perhaps that lack of grounded drama will eliminate the truly berserk discourse that surrounded GoT’s denouement? Ah, who am I kidding? This is a nerd-culture show; it has toxic fandom baked right into it.)
Be that as it may. As a critic, I consider myself to be in the liking-things business, and my sole expectation going into TWoT was, “I hope it’s enjoyable.” By that simple but vital metric, the show is, so far, a success. Let’s see where this journey takes us.