It’s not always the case — no piece of Hollywood visual shorthand is truly universal — but in general, a close-up on a character’s mouth as they eat with gusto is shorthand for evil. It’s a way to communicate a character’s acquisitiveness or hedonism. (Sometimes it’s just plain old fatphobia.) In the case of Eamon Valda (Abdul Solis), the Whitecloak “questioner” who gives this episode of The Wheel of Time its cold open, it’s intended to show his indifference to human suffering.
As he tucks into what is, for all intents and purposes, the Billions/Succession/Hannibal forbidden delicacy ortolan, a woman dies in front of him. Her hand has been chopped off, and she’s being slowly burned at the stake. Her crime? Membership in the Aes Sedai, the powerful order of magic-wielding women whose representative Moiraine is leading our heroes off into the unknown. Clearly, they’ve got some dangerous rivals in the do-gooding department; the collection of stolen Aes Sedai rings Eamon wears on his belt indicates that he’s been down this bloody road many times before.
Solis’s chillingly cheery portrayal of this Captain of the Whitecloaks appropriately introduces Wheel’s second episode. Much more so than its predecessor, it’s concerned with the question of what it really means to be one of “the good guys.” In the war against the dark that both the Aes Sedai and the Whitecloaks consider themselves waging, are “good guys” even a thing?
Egwene, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, our runaway foursome from the Two Rivers village, are given plenty of reason to ask this exact question. Just steps ahead of a small army of Trollocs and its lamprey-mouthed “fade” captain, they enlist a ferryman to help them cross a river since Trollocs can’t swim and fear the water. But while she bribes him and promises more cash when they’re safely across, Moiraine neglects to mention the evil at their heels until the ferryman has already realized his family is stranded at the Trollocs’ mercy. Once they reach the opposite riverbank, Moiraine sinks the ferry in a whirlpool; the ferryman leaps into the water in a desperate attempt to rescue his son and succumbs to the whirlpool himself.
Once the danger has passed, Moiraine is quick to point out to Egwene that the oaths sworn by the Aes Sedai — they’re kind of like Asimov’s laws of robotics — prevent her from killing anyone except in immediate defense of herself, her “warder” Lan, or another Aes Sedai. If the ferryman died in the whirlpool she created, that means he put himself in danger and paid the price, not that she killed him. Some further tutelage in the ways of the Aes Sedai seems to put Egwene at ease, but to the rest of us, this looks a lot like Moiraine weaseling her way out of culpability for the death of the ferryman, not to mention his family.
Things only get worse from there. Rand is deeply resentful of Egwene’s decision to become a celibate Wisdom; even though that avenue appears to be closed to her now, her willingness to listen to Moiraine is a bridge too far to him. She repeatedly blows his erstwhile girlfriend off.
His reward? A dream in which he vomits up a dead bat, a dream apparently shared by the rest of the group, who all wake up to a campsite littered with the corpses of flying rodents. Also present in the dreams, a dark man with flaming embers for eyes. Probably nothing to worry about!
Moiraine and the crew manage to safely bullshit their way past Eamon Valda and a squad of Whitecloaks by sticking as close to the truth as they can without revealing their true identities and purpose. But we discover that both Moiraine and Perrin are hiding wounds from the battle with the Trollocs. In Moiraine’s case, coupled with her repeated use of the “One Power,” the wound is quite severe. We learn she’s incapable of healing herself, too. As for Perrin, he communes with a pack of wolves, one of whom licks his open wound before trotting off. It’s not clear if this is helpful or not.
After a little Aes Sedai story time, in which Moiraine explains that their village was once part of a great kingdom that stood alone against the forces of darkness during the Trolloc Wars, the group winds up fleeing through a crack in an enormous shield wall into a city where even the Trollocs and Fades fear to tread: Shadar Logoth, which translates to “Shadow’s Waiting.”
Indeed it is. It turns out Shadar Logoth is the city that refused to come to the Mountain Home’s aid in the story Moiraine told; as punishment, the place was consumed from within by evil, leaving no living thing behind. Fortunately, the extremely cool-looking ruins were left alone.
For a while, the group minds its own business: Lan tends to Moiraine, sicker than ever, while Mat gives Perrin a knife made for him by Perrin’s late wife, Laila. Mat then goes off on his own and finds a jeweled dagger hidden in some debris. Probably nothing to worry about!
Then the shit, or the shadow, hits the fan. Darkness itself rises up and devours one of their horses, sending the group in three separate directions. Rand (who has effected a rapprochement between himself and Egwene) and Mat flee the darkness-swallowed city by slipping through the wall. Perrin and Egwene climb one of its shield walls and jump into the water beyond. Lan and Moiraine escape on horseback — and are quickly waylaid by Nynaeve, the Two Rivers village Wisdom, reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. Roll credits.
As a work of dark(ish) fantasy, this episode has a lot to recommend it. Eamon and the Whitecloaks are instantly memorable enemies, diametrically opposed to the Fade and his Trollocs but worse to contemplate because of their very humanity. Shadar Logoth, like the rest of the computerized ruins the group passes on their journey, is duly impressive, evoking the untold centuries over which the story of light and dark has so far unfolded.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to see both why Rand (angrily) and Mat (sarcastically) reject Moiraine and Lan as guides and why Egwene would cling to anything that gives the chaos of her current life some kind of meaning and direction. And it’s actually pretty impressive for the show to chronicle Moiraine’s behavior toward the ferryman in such a way that you might think, “Hey, these witch-burners have a point.” The entire narrative hinges on whether the foursome should trust their guide; giving us reasons not to do so is a gutsy play this early on.
It all leaves you wondering: Is the Dragon Reborn a person you’d actually want to find? Or does their legacy of world destruction threaten to carry over to the present, potentially drowning the world just as Moiraine’s Aes Sedai powers accidentally but not quite drowned that poor ferryman and doomed his family to death at the Trollocs’ hands? In this war, who’s expendable?