Minas Tirith. King’s Landing. And now, Tar Valon. Despite its pastoral roots, fantasy filmmaking has long counted upon its practitioners to nail the look and vibe of its fictional capital cities. And so, from Middle-earth to Westeros to the world of The Wheel of Time, these ancient and ornate metropolises have played a major role. So kudos to TWoT’s team for making the city of the Aes Sedai’s White Tower such an intricate and impressive milieu — a staging ground for the human drama taking place within its beautifully patterned columns and corridors.
The first to arrive in the city of Tar Valon are Rand and Mat, who since we last saw them have taken up with a convoy of nondescript travelers. They seek out an inn recommended to Rand by the gleeman Thom Merrilin, himself last seen dueling with a fade in the previous episode. Mat’s main concern — other than being reassured that the fade, rather than he himself, killed that family last week — is his own evident incipient madness. When he and Rand spot the Aes Sedai marching into the city with the False Dragon Logain in tow, he makes Rand promise to stop him if he ever gets that far gone. (At no point during any of this does Mat’s possession of a dagger from the cursed city of Shadar Logoth come up. Seems important!)
While Mat convalesces, Rand takes it upon himself to investigate the city’s riches. This includes a library, which brings him into contact with a being called Loial. This towering, broad-faced figure is an ogier — that’s the preferred term for “ogre” — who pegs the red-headed Rand for an Aiel, a member of the warrior tribe of which we’ve previously seen one member strung up in a cage and shot full of arrows. When Rand demurs, saying he lived in the mountains, Loial’s curiosity is only redoubled. An Aielman in the mountains? What will they think of next!
Loial turns out to be a good friend to have made. With an abruptness bordering on the comical, he brings Nynaeve out of the White Tower to where Rand and Mat are bunked up. It’s a chance for Nynaeve to sidestep the complicated politics of the Aes Sedai and do some hands-on healing for a change, but Mat rejects the offer.
If anyone gets wind of Nynaeve’s departure from the Tower grounds, I can’t imagine it going over well, as it turns out that the White Tower is a hotbed of political gamesmanship. Its leader, the so-called Amyrlin Seat, wants answers about the gentling of the False Dragon Logain. Each of its color-coded factions will want to claim the powerful Nynaeve for their own. While there’s time for Moiraine and the Green Aes Sedai Alanna to kibbitz like college girls in their dorm room, Liandrin and Moiraine continue to verbally spar, with Moiraine charging Liandrin with a hatred of all men. It should be noted here that Liandrin brushes aside a lock of Moiraine’s hair in a way that suggests her ostensible misandry may be twinned with an attraction to other women, or at least to Moiraine herself.
(Red Aes Sedai, like Liandrin, it should be noted, take on no male Warders; the question of Liandrin’s sexual orientation aside, it makes sense for the Aes Sedai tasked with subduing male channelers not to have male companions of their own given the potential conflict of interest.)
Perrin and Egwene, however, have yet to arrive at the Tower. Continuing to travel with a band of Tinkers, they’re waylaid by the band of Whitecloaks led by Eamon Valda, who recognizes Perrin and Egwene from their previous encounter. When the Tuatha’an band together to protect the pair, the Whitecloaks begin beating them — non-lethally but still painfully, in a fashion that will be familiar to anyone who’s dared to protest police brutality and racial injustice in this wonderful fantasyland we call America. But in the end, Egwene and Perrin fall into Valda’s clutches.
While he busies himself with the interrogation and torture of Perrin and Egwene, Valda also delineates the politics of his faction, the Children of the Light, which up until this point had been a bit cloudy. Shouldn’t a group with that name align itself with the Aes Sedai rather than persecuting them? Not if you believe, as Valda and his confederates do, that the magic of the One Power — all of it, not just the tainted kind occasionally wielded by men — emanates from the Dark.
“We humans are meant to be of this earth,” he explains. “To struggle and fight for everything we have.” Seen in that light (no pun intended), channeling the One Power is like using a cheat code, and every Aes Sedai or minor channeler practicing the craft is as guilty of perverting the will of the Light as a False Dragon.
What Valda failed to consider is that both of his captives have magical abilities. True, Egwene’s minor, inexperienced channeling fails to defeat Valda (though she manages to burn away the bonds that constrain Perrin). But Perrin’s unexplained kinship with wolves leads directly to the pair’s escape from the camp, since all of the Children are too busy getting eaten by wolves to interfere.
Perrin’s arc during this sequence is particularly interesting to observe. One moment, he’s (finally) confessing to Egwene that his wife died at his own hands, accident though it may have been, rather than being slain by Trollocs. The next moment his eyes go golden (like a wolf’s) and, freed from the ropes that bound him, he scares Valda half to death. “What are you?” the inquisitor mutters before Egwene stabs him from behind and the two make their escape. “What are you” indeed.
If there’s a throughline for this episode, it’s grief. Echoing Perrin’s continued devastation over his wife’s death, there’s Stepin, the Warder of the slain Aes Sedai Kerene. He does his best to bond with his fellow Warders, including Lan, but in the end the pain of separation between himself and his mistress is too great to handle. He winds up drugging Lan with a soporific and stabbing himself in the gut, bleeding out in front of one of the statues that commemorate the earliest Warders.
A genuinely affecting funeral ceremony follows, led by Lan, who literally beats his breast and screams in psychological pain over the body of his fallen comrade. Tears stream down the face of Moiraine as well, though whether over Stepin’s death or Lan’s distress is open to debate. When the camera cuts to a wider shot, you can see that actor Daniel Kenney has actually pounded his own chest into a shade of red. He’s fully committed to the bit, and it pays off with the series’ most moving sign-off to date.
Regardless of how things pan out for the individual characters involved, it’s cathartic to see so many of our main characters arrive at the White Tower after so many episodes made this arrival their explicit goal. I found myself cheering “Hey, it’s the White Tower!” It’s a far cry from the storytelling pattern of, say, Game of Thrones, which took eight seasons to pay off the confrontation between life and death incarnate that occupied its final episodes. The question now is whether The Wheel of Time has enough storytelling mojo left over now that its first quest has been successful.