Moiraine, drinking tea. Moiraine, talking shop with a colleague in a sauna. Moiraine, letting down her hair in front of a mirror at the end of a long day. Moiraine, sneaking off for a late-night assignation with her secret lover and confidante, who’s also her boss. Moiraine, standing on the balcony, admiring the view one last time before she leaves, perhaps forever.
If nothing else — and believe me, there was plenty else — this week’s episode of The Wheel of Time (written by Justine Juel Gillmer and directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield) established the vital but straightforward fact that Moiraine, the powerful sorceress at the heart of the narrative, has a life. She enjoys simple and not-so-simple pleasures. She has co-workers she trusts and some she doesn’t. She has an office romance on the down-low. She’s into sexual power dynamics. She likes tea, and she occasionally spills it to keep her position secure.
In short, Moiraine is a human being, not just a wizard or a plot device. So even when, at the end of the episode, she reunites the five potential Dragons Reborn, you don’t simply have a picture of a questing witch in your mind — you envision a woman, in full. She’s fulfilling a quest, yes, but she’s been a person the whole time.
Perhaps the irony here is that even as it establishes its heroine as a human being with a human being’s drives and desires, The Wheel of Time is unapologetically a fantasy.
The genius of Game of Thrones lay in how it hit us with the White Walkers in its opening minutes but then allowed the magic of its world to fade into the background, right up until Daenerys Targaryen hatched her dragons. It was a medieval setting, with a medieval setting’s concerns; the fantasy elements were a slow burn, building and building until the fire claimed King’s Landing.
Compare and contrast with The Wheel of Time, which opened with a Trolloc attack on a small village, repelled by a powerful wizard-woman in search of five young people believed to be the reincarnation of a messianic figure. It’s been magic pretty much non-stop from there: channeling, shadow cities, fades, a False Dragon, a potential werewolf, an “Ogier,” and a tower full of powerful women magicians.
Never has Wheel’s reliance on fantasy been clearer than in Moiraine’s audience before her overlord — and lover — Siuane Sanche (Sophie Okonedo), the so-called Amyrlin Seat and ruler of the Aes Sedai order of female magic-wielders. In an absolutely gorgeous palatial setting of intricate marble details, the Amyrlin Seat holds court over Moiraine, her rival Liandrin, and her ally Alanna, as they’re taken to task for their unauthorized gentling of Logain, the False Dragon, who is by now quite mad and literally begging for death.
Moiraine backs up Liandrin and her decision to “gentle” Logain rather than continue the struggle to contain him until he could have a proper trial in the White Tower. In response, Liandrin hangs Moiraine out to dry, forcing her to account for the two years of wandering she’s done since she last was at the Tower. When she refuses to divulge the nature of her quest, she’s effectively sentenced herself to severe punishment; only later do we learn that the Amyrlin Seat is her lover, that they’re in cahoots about her quest to find the Dragon Reborn, and that they select the punishment — exile — together, knowing it spells an end to their relationship, at least for the foreseeable future.
But it’s the future that Moiraine is worried about, after all. Though she keeps each group of survivors from the Two Rivers crew in the dark about the others until she consciously reunites them — you’ve gotta love the way she effortlessly lies to Egwene about Rand and Mat not yet making it into the city — she’s convinced that they must reconvene and travel to a place called the Eye of the World. Once they arrive, it will be the job of the Dragon Reborn, whoever that may be, to re-seal the prison of the Dark One, incarcerated by the original Dragon millennia ago.
Who is the Dragon Reborn, you ask? That is … somewhat less clear than you might have suspected after Nynaeve magically healed an entire phalanx of Aes Sedai a couple of episodes back. Nynaeve, Moiraine points out, is too old to properly fulfill the prophecy. Egwene — who in one of the episode’s funniest moments assumes Moiraine is describing her incredible power before the conversation shifts to Nynaeve — seems a shaky candidate. So does Mat Cauthon, whom Moiraine cures of the evil inhabiting his body courtesy of the cursed dagger he took from the shadow city of Shadar Logoth. (Rookie mistake!) Then there’s Perrin, his golden wolf-esque eyes, and his bond with wolves in general to consider — not Dragon-esque, perhaps, but still a force to be reckoned with. And finally, there’s Rand, the least magically accomplished of the quintet, which leads me to believe he’s the one after all.
In the end, with Moiraine exiled, our heroes travel to a stone portal — part of the ancient Ways that enable their users to travel vast distances of time and space in a short while — in order to reach the Eye of the World and defeat the Dark One once again. Moiraine, her Warder Lan, Egwene, Rand, Perrin, and the ogier Loial (Hammed Animashaun) all make the journey; Mat, ever the skeptic, stays behind. How this will affect the remaining quartet remains to be seen, given that the entire idea seems to be that one of five people is the Dragon Reborn, not one of four.
Be that as it may. This is a hefty episode, full of reunions and revelations; my personal favorite divulged secret may be the man that the imperious asshole Liandrin is secretly seeing on the side, the existence of whom Moiraine threatens to divulge unless Liandrin fucks off and leaves her alone, which indeed she does. Composer Lorne Balfe’s score swells with choral passages throughout the episode, from the cold open in which the young Siuane (Keira Chansa) is sent by her one-handed fisherman father (Peter de Jersey) to the White Tower after their home is burned down, right on through the rest of the hour. The surpassingly lovely architecture of the White Tower and the city that surrounds it match the soaring vocals, and lend gravitas to the proceedings that unfold within, whether grandiose or simply human.
All told, it’s a feat of fantasy filmmaking, bringing its core characters down to earth even amid its lofty setting. With any luck, the season’s last two episodes will live up to the standard set here.