In the end, the end comes quickly.
It takes only a brisk day’s walk for Rand al’Thor — the Dragon Reborn — and his Aes Sedai mentor Moiraine to walk from the besieged city of Fal Dara through the impenetrable and dangerous Blight to the Eye of the World, where the Dark One is imprisoned. Lan, Moiraine’s severed Warder, catches up with her seemingly only minutes after the confrontation to which the entire season has built.
Meanwhile, the Dark One’s army of Trollocs defeats the guardians of Fal Dara in fairly short order. (No one’s going to be comparing this episode’s battle favorably to the similar conflicts of, say, Blackwater in Game of Thrones or Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings anytime soon.) In turn, they are blown to gooey smithereens by Fal Dara’s phalanx of five female channelers in a matter of seconds, even though it costs most of those channelers their lives.
Meanwhile, the previously very minor character Padan Fain leads a pair of Fades to sack the city’s palace, killing its guardians and stealing a chest containing a magical horn meant to be blown by the Dragon Reborn on the occasion of the Last Battle. (Moiraine helpfully tells us that this is the First Battle. Whoops!) Fain takes some time to gloat in front of our guy Perrin before exiting stage right as if getting into the throne room of a previously impregnable city were the easiest thing in the world.
And back at the Eye of the World, Rand matches wits with the Dark One, who abandons his fire-eyed guise and takes the form of a handsome sophisticate, played by actor Fares Fares. This version of the Dark One doesn’t intimidate — he goads, entices, persuades, attempting to win the day by convincing the Dragon Reborn to use his newfound power to make his fondest dreams come true instead of, y’know, sealing evil away forever.
Rand, to his credit, doesn’t fall for it. In a series of unnerving scenes in which he sees a Last Temptation of Christ–style future for himself, his beloved Egwene, and their baby — frozen in time by the Dark One — he rejects this vision. Egwene, he insists at the cost of his own heartbreak, has already chosen life as an Aes Sedai instead of life as a humble housewife. If Rand were to create a happy family for himself, he’d do so knowing he’d be going against Egwene’s wishes; the Egwene he’d wind up with would not be Egwene at all.
So he rejects the Dark One’s advances, seals him back in his prison (at least for the time being), then wanders off, telling Moiraine to tell his friends that he died in order to spare them his incipient madness. Moiraine herself winds up cut off from the One Power, telling Lan she lacks the ability to repair their once-unbreakable bond. And on a faraway shore, an impressively costumed invasion force creates a magical tsunami as the vanguard of their assault; their origins and goals are unknown, but they’re probably nothing good.
There’s also a magical MacGuffin in the form of a little statue from before the Breaking of the World; a last-minute lifesaving as Egwene revives Nynaeve after their battle with the Trollocs; and a very cool intro set 3,000 years in the past, where the original Dragon Reborn (which I guess means he’s not original at all; the Wheel of Time is a complicated thing), a male Aes Sedai named Lews Therin, ignores his female companion’s warnings and decides to try to imprison the Dark One despite the risk that this will enable his adversary to taint the One Power forever. Also, there were spaceships back then, or vehicles that very closely resembled them.
And that about covers it!
For all the spectacle and all the twists, it’s a weird feeling to see Rand accept his destiny and reach the end of his hero’s journey even though there are, like, 13 books left for The Wheel of Time to adapt. It’s an odd note to end on, you know? The story has ended, but as Moiraine herself implies, the story has just begun.
The biggest problem with The Wheel of Time isn’t what’s onscreen, but what isn’t. Watching the seemingly endless credits spool out, listing a crew of hundreds if not thousands across multiple European nations, I found myself wondering what all this money and all these resources were being thrown at and drawing a blank. What is The Wheel of Time about in the end? Friendship? Yes, it’s nice to have friends; no, I’m not sure a massive monster war is required to illustrate this. Destiny? What does that even mean? Is anyone watching this show going to become the one single person capable of stemming the onrushing tide of evil? There are no Dragons Reborn IRL, I’m afraid. So what are we watching, exactly?
To draw a couple of comparisons that are sure to annoy a lot of people, TWoT is a lot more Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker than it is Game of Thrones. I hope it’s not tooting my own horn to say that I’ve made my position on the conclusion of Game of Thrones very clear, but the point I’ve always tried to make is that from the start it was a show about something, namely the way that man’s inhumanity to man keeps us from uniting against a massive common threat. (In 2021, that framework is more topical than ever.) The Rise of Skywalker, by contrast, is about how important the grandchildren of the antagonists of the previous trilogy of Star Wars movies turned out to be, which is another way of saying it’s about nothing in particular. I see a lot of Rey in Rand, and that’s not a good thing.
TWoT’s great hope for the future is that Rand’s discomfort with his own status, his drive to protect his friends by removing himself from their orbit, results in a journey of personal growth that’s both engaging and relatable. The chances are that no one reading this review will be the single person responsible for saving American democracy, stopping fascism and climate catastrophe, and generally setting the world to rights. But certainly, some of us reading this review — to say nothing of the person writing it — feel that they have personal traits best kept away from the people they care most about. If Wheel can lean into that aspect of Rand’s narrative, allowing us to relate to his decision to walk away from his friends lest he drag them down into madness and death with him, it can actually be about something, and thus become more than just a pleasant diversion in a fantasy world far, far away.