The Wheel of Time
The battlefield is covered with snow and corpses.
A warrior runs through it. The warrior is a woman, red-haired and freckled, visibly pregnant beneath clothing clearly of desert origin. Using twin spears as if born to them, she makes short work of a series of armored opponents — jabbing them, impaling them, battering them, parrying their throwing knives like a D&D character who just rolled a 20.
Eventually, she runs out of enemies and time: She’s in labor. Using a fallen foe’s cape as a makeshift birthing bed, she prepares to deliver her baby herself until a rival soldier bearing a blade marked with a distinctive heron design approaches her.
Is she doomed? Yes, but it’s not what you think. During her battle with the other soldiers, she incurred a fatal stab wound to the side — but the warrior who approaches her now is overcome by her plight and tries to help. As she dies, he takes her baby into his arms.
A brief search of the Wheel of Time wiki reveals that the woman is Tigraine Mantear (played by Magdalena Sittova). She’s an heir to a kingdom who ran off and joined the fearsome warriors of the Aiel. The man, played by a convincingly de-aged Michael McElhatton, is Tam al’Thor, adoptive father of the baby whose birth he witnesses. That baby turns out to be Rand al’Thor, one of our traveling companions throughout the series. And Rand al’Thor is none other than the Dragon Reborn.
So that answers that question!
Filmed in Zack Snyder–esque slowed-down/sped-up fashion, the fight scene that opens this episode of The Wheel of Time is impressive, its snow-white field of battle reminiscent of the climax of Kill Bill Vol. 1. It’s also a bit of false advertising, as far as the hour or so of television that follows is concerned. This is primarily a calm-before-the-storm affair, as our heroes contemplate their lives and their futures — if, indeed, they have a future. After all, one of them is the Dragon Reborn, which means the rest of them, y’know, aren’t. In all likelihood, they’ll die finding out who’s who … or would if Rand and Moiraine didn’t take off without them in the end.
All of our main characters (except the Ogier, Loial, who’s something of an afterthought here) are haunted by voices in their head that play up all their greatest fears and regrets. These voices have a supernatural origin — something called the Machin Shin, or “Black Wind,” a supernatural force in the warp-zone paths known as “The Ways,” which get them from Point A to Point B much quicker than a journey overland would do. The Ways, it turns out, has become a conduit for Trollocs and other friends of the Dark One, like the long-forgotten peddler character Padan Fain.
But more fearsome than any Trolloc are the doubts the Machin Chin places in the protagonists’ minds. Egwene doesn’t love you as much as you love her, Rand! You killed your wife because you really love Egwene, Perrin! You’re a fraud, Egwene! You’ll lead them all to your death and call it heroism, Moiraine! Equally painful to them is their collective decision to plow forward without their friend Mat, who abandoned them last episode.
With all these thoughts fresh in their minds, the gang makes it to the fortress city of Fal Dara. This place is a lonely outpost against something called the Blight, which is best described as if Mirkwood from The Hobbit were an invasive plant species. The city is also the adopted hometown of Moiraine’s Warder Lan, who we learn is the heir to a kingdom that fell to the Blight when he was an infant. Everyone’s got a story, folks.
After a brief bit of miscommunication, the group is welcomed to the city by its ruling family, one of whom briefly trained to become an Aes Sedai. Moiraine tasks her with getting word back to Tar Valon that the Red Ajah inquisitors are to seek out the rogue potential Dragon Mat Cauthon. (I’ll note here for the record that Mat actor Barney Harris, comfortably the most dynamic of the five Two Rivers refugees, has already been recast for the show’s second season. Bummer.)
The night that follows is kind of a CliffsNotes version of great Game of Thrones calm-before-the-storm moments, like the pre-battle portion of “Blackwater” or the entirety of “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” before the Battle of Winterfell in season eight. Rand gets mad at Egwene for thinking poorly of Mat. Nynaeve gets mad at Rand and Perrin for fighting over Egwene. (Yes, apparently Perrin has it bad for Egwene, a fact that had in no way been communicated by anyone’s dialogue or performances until this episode.) Rand and Egwene make up and have sex off-camera. Nynaeve trails Lan to his adoptive family home, and later on they have sex, also off-camera.
Honestly? Other than some smooches and Moiraine’s terrific delivery of the command “on your knees” last week, the sexual relationships on this show are bizarrely sexless. The actors involved may be hot, but there’s no heat in their chemistry at all. In Lan and Nynaeve’s case, it’s not clear from the episode’s editing that she so much as removed a single garment in pursuit of her partner. It all feels like an embarrassing overreaction to the embarrassing overreaction to Game of Thrones’ use of sex and nudity, a discourse I hope and pray I never see the likes of again.
I suppose the important thing to communicate here is that both Moiraine and Rand rely on a clairvoyant bartender (!) named Min (Kae Alexander) to tell them what’s in store. For Moiraine, she sees Perrin with his glowing wolf eyes and blood-encrusted jowls, and Rand cradling a baby. For Rand, she’s able — by some cosmic coincidence — to tell him about bumping into his father Tam when she was a child and seeing his whole origin story play out before her eyes.
This is when we’re given a glimpse into what really happened in the Ways — how Rand, rather than Egwene, defended them from the pursuing Trolloc by wielding the One Power. It’s what brings him to Moiraine’s door late at night, announcing, “It’s me.”
And as Rand and Moiraine head off toward the Eye of the World through the creepy vegetation of the Blight — leaving Egwene and Perrin and Nynaeve and Loial (who disappears halfway through the episode) and even her Warder Lan behind — we’re left with one episode remaining in the season, and one of the most confounding hours of setup I’ve seen in a good long while. The origin stuff? Very cool, as far as fantasy origins go. The human-relationship stuff? Wildly off the mark, if the idea was to get the viewers hot and heavy for the characters who are hot and heavy for one another. Don’t get me wrong: I think we likely have a fun fantasy finale ahead of us. I just wish getting there was really half the fun.