The Wheel of Time will be compared to Game of Thrones for as long as it lasts, and for good reason: It wouldn’t exist without HBO’s blockbuster serving as a sort of proof of concept for Jeff Bezos’s bottomless pockets. But Wheel is an unapologetic and effects-heavy epic fantasy from the jump. While GoT’s initial cold-open sequence featured a White Walker, that was pretty much it in terms of magical stuff until the dragons hatched in the season finale; Wheel has already shown us more of the admittedly awesome-looking Trollocs than we’d see of the White Walkers in, like, three seasons.
Wheel is also marching us through a lot of exposition about many different lands and cultures in very short order, as opposed to the comparatively easy-to-grasp “Seven Kingdoms governed by Great Houses” world-building of early GoT. The filmmaking follows suit. No sooner are our heroes split up in that shadow city in the last episode than they wind up in three completely different landscapes, facing completely different threats and encountering completely different allies. What it lacks in recognizable human emotions and drives, it makes up for — or tries to, anyway — in sheer storytelling scope. Will this ploy be successful? Only (the Wheel of) time will tell.
First of the breakaway groups is Moiraine, more gravely ill than ever, and Lan, her concerned warder. At the end of the last episode, Two Rivers wisdom Nynaeve caught Lan off guard in the forest to which they’d fled and demanded to know where her friends are; it turns out she escaped from her Trolloc captor when he stopped to cannibalize one of his fellow creatures (there’s actually a darkly funny bit where it at first looks like the cannibal was going to tend to his buddy’s wounds, before eating him alive), then killed him when he made the mistake of wading into the village’s sacred pool in pursuit of her.
Lan quickly outfoxes Nynaeve and ties her to a tree, freeing her when she offers to help treat Moiraine’s poisoned wound. But there’s only so much she can do, given her lack of experience with Trolloc poison. Their best bet, it seems, is connecting with the Aes Sedai group we saw killing a guy during the premiere. Led by a woman named Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood), this red-clad group has another male prisoner who claims to be the Dragon Reborn. Best of luck with that, buddy.
Group No. 2 comprises Egwene and Perrin. Alone on a barren, windswept plain, they at first think a pack of wolves is hunting them. But when they run into wagon tracks in the middle of nowhere, they start to wonder if the wolves were, in fact, guiding them. (Perrin has a nightmare in which a wolf eats his dead wife, and that dark man with fiery eyes appears, further complicating things.)
The tracks lead them to an encampment of Tuatha’an. Also known as “the traveling people” or “tinkers,” they’re a barely veiled analog for the Romani. After some minimal protocol is observed, the Tuatha’an welcome Egwene and Perrin into their camp with open arms.
All things considered, Egwene and Perrin are relatively fortunate compared to their companions, though at first it appears Rand and Mat are making out okay too. After scrambling across a desolate field of rocks, they come across a small town. The corpse of a foreigner found hanging in a gibbet outside the town doesn’t augur well necessarily, but they find a warm enough welcome in a local pub thanks to friendly barmaid Dana (Izuka Hoyle); the pub also hosts a “gleeman,” or minstrel, named Thom Merrilin (Alexandre Willaume), who sings a dour tune, then pickpockets a pickpocket who’d robbed Mat already.
Whether it’s that turn of events that leaves Mat in a foul mood is unclear, but he winds up angrily telling Rand that Perrin and Egwene are probably dead and that he intends to head home rather than east to the White Tower. The two young men take on separate chores at the pub; while Rand enjoys a drink and a chat with Dana, Mat wanders off to rob the hanging corpse. He’s intercepted by Thom, who explains that the man was an Aiel, a warrior Mat says has as fearsome a reputation as the Trollocs. Thom shoots this idea down and helps Mat loot the corpse, though he insists Mat bury the body afterward as a sign of respect. Overall, Thom gives off the vibe of a character your DM introduces in a game of D&D because he’s obviously going to be important later.
And we don’t have to wait long for that to happen. When Rand rejects a kiss from Dana, she wonders aloud if she looks too much like Egwene. How does she know who Egwene is? Because she’s a “Darkfriend,” a servant of the Dark One, and she’s holding Rand captive for her masters. Rand manages to escape, with Mat in tow; Dana tracks them down and delivers a spiel about how the Dark One wants to break the Wheel of Time to end the cycle of human suffering, but she’s killed with a knife-throw to the neck by Thom. See? Important!
There’s one more intriguing wrinkle to Rand and Mat’s encounter with Dana: Rand might have super-strength? After Dana tells him three men his size couldn’t budge the door she’s locked him behind, he busts through with just a few swift shoulder strikes. By my count, this makes him the third member of the Two Rivers crew — fifth, if you count Nynaeve, and Dana does mention “the five of you” to Rand and Mat — who displays some kind of supernatural power, after Egwene’s nascent channeling ability and Perrin’s strange kinship with that pack of wolves.
Mat’s superpower relative to the others is having a personality, and that’s where The Wheel of Time breaks down a bit for me. There are only so many stern, stone-faced fugitives with secrets you can follow before they all sort of bleed together a bit. It leaves you grasping for moments of humanity or levity, like when Rand laughs off Dana’s suggestion that he and Mat are an item. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) I’m enough of a Fantasy Guy to enjoy the basic setup of people in old-fashioned clothes running through grand vistas and CGI ruins with a horde of monsters out of a child’s nightmare at their heels and can probably coast on that vibe for quite a while. Eventually, though, I’ll want something more.