Within minutes of its opening title hitting the screen, The Wheel of Time’s season-two premiere shows us Rosamund Pike bathing knees up and Daniel Henney practicing swordplay shirt off. Hey, you’ve got to give the people what they want!
You see, there’s a thin line between “not bad” and “pretty good,” and for the bulk of its duration thus far, The Wheel of Time has rolled right down that line. The big-budgeted Prime Video series — itself just a blip on the radar of the even more expensive, far more creatively dubious epic-fantasy saga The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — has never looked like much more than a season of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys with a bankroll that permitted not so much designing better costumes and props and sets, but simply ordering several hundred times more of them. Pike, Henney, and other members of the core cast are enjoyable screen presences, and not just for horny reasons either — but horny reasons apply, and showrunner Rafe Lee Judkins would be a fool not to take advantage.
Yet overall, adapted as it is from author Robert Jordan’s source material, itself mostly content to play Songs in the Key of Tolkien rather than blaze new trails outright, TWoT has been a series that rarely distinguishes itself. Beyond the sheer scale of the production, the money Jeff Bezos sank into this thing is rarely evident onscreen. Most of the fits and sets are unremarkable, while Apple+’s Isaac Asimov–derived Foundation leaves it (and all other non–House of the Dragon sci-fi/fantasy adaptations currently airing) in the dust where memorable, spectacular imagery is concerned.
Performances have not distinguished it either. Pike and Kenney have a sort of doomed romantic charm, for sure. But before you argue that all pairs of really, really, ridiculously good-looking people have chemistry, I’d point you to Josha Stradowski’s savior figure, Rand al’Thor, and his magic-wielding sweetheart, Madeleine Madden’s Egwene, as evidence against that particular theory. Indeed, the most memorable turn last season came from Barney Harris as the edgy, cursed Mat Cauthon — but he’s not even on the show anymore, replaced by Dónal Finn.
So perhaps the smartest thing the show’s second-season premiere could have done is cold-opened with a scene quite unlike anything we’ve ever come across on this show before. In a church-like building shaped like a six-pointed star, a sort of board meeting of evildoers — including the turncoat peddler Padan Fain (Johann Myers) — discusses their next move. When a child enters the room and hides under the table from the human-animal hybrid monsters called Trollocs lurking outside, she’s comforted by the chairman of the board: the unnamed figure of evil incarnate played by actor Fares Fares. Read anything about this show, or watch the “this season on TWoT” preview that plays during the closing credits, and you’ll learn he’s just a minion of the Dark One rather than the Dark One himself, but this has in no way been made clear by the show itself at this point. Anyway!
Whoever he is, this weirdo tells the frightened girl that he himself has been referred to as a monster, but look at him: He’s not so bad, right? Taking her outside, he gentles a Trolloc enough to allow her to pet its furry face. What if all monsters were just critters looking for something to eat, he asks? They wouldn’t be so bad then, would they? After all, monsters are just doing what they perceive to be good, just like he is. Already, we’ve gotten a vastly more interesting interpretation of evil than anything we got the last time the Wheel spun.
What follows is an “around the horn”–style episode on a scale that dwarfs anything television has seen since Game of Thrones, catching us up on this expansive fantasy world’s cast of dozens. The show’s core characters, it turns out, have been scattered to the four winds.
Magic-wielders Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Egwene (Madeleine Madden) have traveled to the White Tower, where they’re in training to become Aes Sedai, the setting is all-women wielders of magic. As novices, they perform menial tasks while enduring the harsh tutelage of instructors such as the sensual but demanding Green sister Alanna (Priyanka Bose) and the sinister head of the fanatical Red Ajah, Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood). Liandrin takes a special interest in Nynaeve: As the most powerful channeler the Aes Sedai have seen in centuries, she’d make a great asset to the inquisitorial Reds — if, that is, she weren’t so scared of her own power that she’s now unwilling to use magic at all, which Liandrin finally goads her into doing.
Nynaeve isn’t the Red sister’s only pet project. She’s imprisoned Nynaeve and Egwene’s missing buddy Mat somewhere in the city, grilling him for information he doesn’t have but which she suspects he does, given his connection to that cursed knife last season. She’s also tormenting him by deliberately omitting any mention of him from the letters between his friends that she’s been intercepting. Insult to injury, man.
The letter writer in question is Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), who, despite having cool werewolf powers, has been something of a sad-sack cipher in the context of the show. He and his towering Ogier buddy Loial (Hammed Animashaun) have joined a band of warriors currently hunting for the evil Padan Fain and his “darkfriends,” who are in possession of the stolen artifact called the Horn of Valere. In the process, they connect with a tracker named Elyas (Gary Beadle), whose golden eyes and psychic powers mark him as a fellow wolfman.
The most emotionally engaging of our scattered plot threads centers on Moraine and Lan. Severed from the One Power, she now spends her time in a quaint little quasi-English Patient compound of some kind, populated by a pair of Aes Sedai, Verin (Meera Syal) and Adeleas (Nila Aalia), and a gray-haired Warder named Tomas (Heikko Deutschmann). While they hang around, eating and drinking like one of the nicer character groups in a season of The White Lotus, Moraine hosts a series of mysterious visitors from whom she hopes to gather artifacts and information regarding the breaking of hearthstone, a supposedly unbreakable material that nevertheless shattered during her and Rand’s battle at the Eye of the World.
Okay, now for the emotionally engaging part. When Moraine lost her connection to the One Power during that battle, she lost her connection with Lan, too. As happens with many people put through one major loss too many in too short a time, she’s become a different person, keeping Lan at a distance in a way that’s killing him inside. It takes the kind advice of Verin and Tomas to convince Lan that she’s dying inside, too, in a way perhaps more agonizing and profound than his own.
But by the time he goes to patch things up with her, she’s already secretly running away, likely both to pursue a lead from a poem found written in blood (yay, fantasy!) and to get away from Lan, whose presence quite obviously pains her as a reminder of what they once had. Unfortunately, she runs straight into a posse of lamprey-mouthed Fades, the worst the bad guys have to offer. A reasonably entertaining fight scene ensues, featuring the episode’s high point — a clever reverse jump scare where Moraine gets the drop on a Fade rather than the other way around — while also demonstrating its indifferent approach to lighting, as the whole battlefield is suffused in sourceless digital gray murk. At any rate, not even Lan, who figured out what had happened and tracked her down, is swordsman enough to defeat them. That requires Verin and Tomas’s magical, flame-bladed intervention, who are clearly a lot less retired than they look.
That leaves only Rand al’Thor, which is to say it leaves the main character, the Dragon Reborn, the bloody messiah. He … lives in a village somewhere, shaving his head and participating in holiday rituals from his and his buddies’ home village and lookin’ good and otherwise not appearing in this episode. Like Nynaeve, he’s concerned that no one man should have all this power — especially since he is a man, and having any power, let alone as much as he has, is a one-way ticket to insanity for men of this world.
There are times when the show that results from all this business feels less like a story, like a lived-in world, and more like a very large box purchased at the cost of a few hundred million dollars into which various story — and lived-in-world-shaped objects can be dropped. I’m a big partisan of the ornate White Tower as a set and location design; its pristine snow-colored latticework filigrees mark it as a place too powerful to be touched and sullied by the wars its residents constantly wage. The show has a kind of ostentatiously poly-couple sex positivity that distinguishes it from the pack, if nothing else. Pike and Henney are transcendently attractive. The Trollocs are perfect monsters under the bed. Beyond that, I’m not sure we’re getting anything here we can’t get more of, or better, elsewhere.
But sometimes that’s enough, you know? I tend to see The Wheel of Time through the eyes of my 12-year-old, a fantasy nerd to whom live-action epic fantasy is still so novel that virtually anything corresponding to that description is a home run. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t still enough of a 12-year-old fantasy nerd left within me that I myself didn’t react that way to the show, at least part of the time, even if Jordan’s books weren’t part of my personal repertoire. Sometimes you just wanna see people in tunics fire waves of magic at people in monster suits, maybe with some swords thrown in the middle. The Wheel of Time gives you that, and if you like that sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like.