The Wheel of Time
In a way, storytelling is The Wheel of Time’s biggest storytelling problem.
The world Rafe Judkins has brought to the screen feels boundless, replete with different cultures and subcultures, sects and sub-sects, thousands upon thousands of years of history, of wars won and lost, kingdoms risen and fallen, songs and languages learned and forgotten and learned again. (Dip your toe in the book series’ wiki, I double-dog dare you — you might fall in and never come out again.) From an epic-fantasy perspective, this is an impressive feat.
However, from the perspective of a television drama, it’s almost an obstacle because virtually every new development requires someone to tell someone else a story about it. Every time a character sees another character praying, a conversation must ensue as to what the prayer means and to which deity or ancestor or metaphysical concept it’s directed. Each time a phrase from a lost language is uttered, someone has to explain what it means, who originally said it, and what context it was said. Each new enemy requires one of the heroes to tell one of the others what the enemy is and what its powers might be, and how best to defeat or defend against it. And so on, and so on, and so on, for 15 novels and however many seasons of those novels’ adaptations Amazon deigns to make.
In short, The Wheel of Time is a show that’s almost all fantasy world-building, at least so far. If you’re a mark for that sort of thing — as, frankly, I am — then hey, great! World-building out the wazoo!
If you’re not into it, though, hoo boy, I can imagine this is quite a slog. For every recognizable moment of human connection — Rand struggling to communicate to his best friend Mat that he doesn’t need to keep any secrets, Nynaeve’s raised-eyebrow reaction to the polyamorous lifestyle of some of the Aes Sedai — there’s great gobs of exposition about the Way of the Leaf or the Song before the Breaking or the Kingdom of Minethrin or the will of the Amyrlin Seat or what have you.
To paraphrase I Think You Should Leave, suffice to say, The Wheel of Time is a lot.
In this week’s episode, at least, it’s a little less for Egwene and Perrin than it is for any of our other protagonists. They’re traveling with the nomadic Tuatha’an, or Tinkers, the show’s Roma stand-ins. Egwene spends most of her time discussing spirituality and Tuatha’an culture with Aram (Daryl McCormack), who’s obviously smitten with her, but who finds her attachment to the far-away Rand just as obvious. Perrin, meanwhile, discusses the Tinkers’ pacifism with Aram’s grandmother Illa (Maria Doyle Kennedy). It’s unclear if she knows more about his past than she’s letting on when she asks him if his life has been better or worse since he first picked up an axe in anger — he accidentally killed his wife with one, after all — but either way, she leaves him with a lot to think about.
Rand and Mat and their gleeman companion Thom have a more eventful, and tragic, road ahead of them. Rand is plagued by nightmares and the sinking suspicion that something is very wrong with his friend. Thom goes so far as to suggest that Mat has begun channeling the One Power, which for all men is a direct road to madness. (More on that later.)
The trio winds up encountering a humble family of farmers or, y’know, whatever it is that humble families in fantasy worlds do. In exchange for mucking out their stables and, on Thom’s part, maybe doing a little performance, they’re granted leave to sleep in the family’s barn for the night. Mat makes the friendly acquaintance of the family’s adorable daughter, who offers him both a loaf of bread and a little doll who, she says, wants to see the world.
Neither the doll nor the daughter gets the chance. Awakening from a nightmare in which Perrin pounds away at a dead body, Mat has a bloody hand, and the recurring figure of the dark man with flaming eyes seizes Egwene; Rand finds Mat inside the family’s home, where all of them have been butchered. It appears as though Mat has been led there by the dagger he picked up in the cursed city from the second episode — a dagger that has clearly brought the curse along with it. It enables him to see the fade that’s been following them; Thom stays behind to battle the creature, displaying incredible martial prowess as Rand and Mat speed away.
From both a dramatic and a worldbuilding perspective, the episode’s real action centers on the Aes Sedai encampment where Moiraine, Lan, and Nynaeve find themselves. Moiraine is healed of her poisoned Trolloc wound by Kerene (Clare Perkins), an Aes Sedai who’s on the brink of exhaustion. Why? She and her Aes Sedai sisters Liandrin and Alanna (Priyanka Bose) have been divvying up their time keeping their prisoner Logain (Álvaro Morte) subdued, a tall order as he’s one of the most powerful male channelers they’ve ever encountered.
This lends some credence to his claim that he’s the Dragon Reborn, even though he’s ten years too old by Moiraine’s reckoning. Liandrin wants to sever his magical connection, a process called “gentling,” right then and there; her sisters remind her that their orders are to bring such men back to the White Tower where their leader, the Amyrlin Seat, can judge him at trial.
While in the camp, Nynaeve, who’s shown some talent at channeling herself, becomes closer to Lan, Moiraine’s warder. At first, this is just an alternative to hanging out with the insufferable Liandrin, but over a warm campfire and a morning prayer, Nynaeve comes to like Lan and the other warders, all of whom seem to have much more personality than appearances would admit. (In one of the show’s most human moments so far, Lan complains to his fellow warder Stepin, played by Peter Franzén, that Moiraine is kind of a drag.) It’s during these conversations that she discovers that the Aes Sedai are color-coded — green for warriors, red for inquisitors, blue for spies — and that the bond between some Aes Sedai and their warders is at least partially romantic in nature.
It nearly all goes to shit, though, when Logain’s army — recruited from the forces of the kingdom he conquered, who have since become his staunch allies — shows up to free him. It turns out he’d largely been playing possum in anticipation of this precise moment, at which point he sends Liandrin and Kerene flying. Moiraine confronts him herself and attempts to persuade him that the voices in his head are not, as he claims, his past selves talking to him but are merely the first twinklings of insanity.
When Logain lashes out, Kerene shields her sisters at her own expense and dies for it. Stepin goes wild and attempts to kill Logain himself; Logain shatters his twin battle-axes and sends the shrapnel flying into basically everyone in the camp, slitting Lan’s throat in the process. Nynaeve is so upset that she unleashes a supernova of One Power magic, overwhelming Logain and healing Lan, Moiraine, and everyone else injured in the initial explosion. Liandrin and the rest of the Aes Sedai gentle Logain, a process likely to end in his death from despair in the future.
Is Nynaeve the Dragon Reborn, then? The episode’s title seems to hint at it, as does Logain’s recognition that, in Moiraine’s words, his own power is just a candle compared to Nynaeve’s radiant sun. Then again, we’re told throughout the episode that an uncounted number of false Dragons have risen and fallen; there’s no guarantee that Nynaeve isn’t one of their number, whether or not she winds up claiming the title for her own.
Which brings us back to the show’s surfeit of history lessons. In between the many stories told about its many cultures’ pasts, will we be given something new and present to latch onto?