Far and away the best episode of The Wheel of Time yet, this third and final installment of season two’s initial batch of three bears out the wisdom of that release schedule. After watching this teeming hour-plus of television, bursting with big ideas, memorable dialogue, and committed, witty performances, it’s hard not to want to see where the Wheel turns next.
The episode begins and ends with an affecting, virtually self-contained plotline: the testing of Nynaeve by her Aes Sedai higher-ups to see if she’s worthy of joining the sisterhood. This is conducted by stepping through three Arches of ancient design located in White Tower, each of which possesses a mysterious magic that makes the women who walk through them face their worst fears. If you can pass through all three and return, which is harder than it sounds, congratulations, you’re an Aes Sedai. If you can’t? Nice knowing you.
Like many such contrivances throughout fantastic fiction, the Arches bring Nynaeve visions of things that were (the slaughter of her family by invaders), things that are (a plague sweeping through her hometown at this very moment), and things that yet may be (a life of peace with Lan as her husband and Mat and Perrin as her best buddies). But that last illusion is so convincing that Nynaeve really believes she has chosen to reject the Aes Sedai and return home, so she remains trapped in a sort of pocket dimension, never to be seen in the real world again.
Or so it seems. Eventually, the illusion is pierced when Trollocs sack her home, killing Lan, Mat, and Perrin. Then the Arch that leads back to reality appears, and Nynaeve realizes what the past few years of her life have really been. She makes a heartbreaking effort to drag her daughter back through the Arch and into the real world, only to collapse into Egwene’s arms when she emerges to discover her own arms are empty. This wasn’t the illusion of domestic tranquility Ishamael tempted Rand with at the end of season one: This was, somehow, real, and now it’s really gone.
Director Sanaa Hamri lingers on Nynaeve’s gutting grief for a good long time before the final cut to black, as well she should. From now on, Nynaeve will always remember the family she lost in a world known only to her. She’s not just devastated; she’s fundamentally alone with her devastation.
In a way, the episode functions as a sort of relay race between actors Zoë Robins, who plays Nynaeve, and Kate Fleetwood, who portrays her would-be mentor Liandrin. Predictably, she handles Nynaeve’s apparent death horribly, all “sorry but them’s the breaks” one moment, misplaced rage the next, hidden sorrow the next. She tells Egwene that Nynaeve was a disappointment while scaring the shit out of the young novice. She sets Mat free out of what she refers to as regret that she wasted her time on him when she could have been better training the sister who died that day. She reads him to filth in the process (at one point calling him a “coward who mistakes his own moral failings for cunning and wit,” yikes), to the point where he barely wants to leave his cell after all.
Now, Liandrin conveniently leaves out that the dead sister in question is Nynaeve, though she encourages Mat to be a friend to Egwene. But she’s counting on him not to follow through, to run away instead, and to take his fellow prisoner Min with him. It turns out that Liandrin and Min are in cahoots; it’s part of some plot to free them both from being under Moraine’s thumb, though how exactly that happened is deliberately unclear.
At any rate, as strong as Robins is in depicting Nynaeve’s sense of loss, Fleetwood is just as powerful in conveying the imperious arrogance Linadrin uses as a substitute for actually feeling her loss. Director Hamri, who I assume is responsible for making this episode look noticeably brighter and more thoughtfully composed than its predecessors, films Fleetwood’s bright eyes and high-cheekboned face like canvases for light. This is especially apparent in her confrontation with Egwene, staged on a vast balcony against the glowing backdrop of the city sky at sunset. It’s the first time a shot on this show had me saying, “Wow.”
It certainly wasn’t the only time I said it in this episode, though. Elsewhere, we get a good look at the Seanchan, the strange invaders from beyond the sea. And friends? Holy shit, they look awesome. Severe makeup, Cenobite headgear, skull-visored helmets, armor like something out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a bejeweled ruler atop a towering littler like a veiled female version of the guy from 300: It’s almost as if the show held back its entire “bitchin’ costume” budget for this very moment.
There’s more fun stuff to be found in this end of the story. The Seanchan warlord has a unique method for executing her enemies: Slamming them face-first into a spike that tapers to a needle-like point, impaling them through the mouth, and then widening the aperture to a genuinely disgusting degree. “All will bow,” the Seanchan leader, High Lady Suroth (Karima McAdams), portentously intones, and man, she wasn’t kidding.
She’s also got a friend in Ishamael, played by Fares Fares as if he’s always chuckling to himself about a private joke at everyone else’s expense. His costume isn’t the lesson in badassery that are the Seanchan outfits, but putting him in clothes that look more like something someone would wear in a show about the near future rather than the distant, imagined past is extremely shrewd — such an easy way to convey the idea that he’s not of this earth and far more advanced than anyone we’re rooting for. This includes Perrin, whom he taunts with what comes across like real enjoyment (“I want to meet the monster,” he purrs at him) before the wolfman is freed from captivity by a pack led by his tracker buddy Elyas.
The final storyline follows the increasingly interesting Rand al’Thor as he attempts to learn how to control the One Power from his new patient at the mental hospital, Logain. The former False Dragon is a wily one, recalling Rand from spotting his aura in a crowd and sussing out his motivations from the start — as well as demanding a rare wine for his troubles.
Rand secures the vintage at a fancy party that’s very Dangerous Liaisons. There, a cynical aristocrat tells him the big hunt for the Horn of Valere that the city’s queen is organizing is just a way to unload some of the refugees that flooded into the city following its war against the Aiel. (Rand is of Aiel descent, hence the shaved head to conceal the desert race’s telltale red hair.)
Furious, he abandons his girlfriend Selene at the party to get the information he can from Logain. Actor Álvaro Morte makes the most of his screen time; he and Josha Stradowski turn Logain and Rand’s interaction into the kind of conversation the Joker might have with Batman in Arkham Asylum. Alas, Logain has no answers Rand wants to hear: The One Power will slowly overwhelm him until it pours out of him uncontrollably.
Which it does. Not during sex, fortunately, though it provides one hell of a light show and a real turn-on for the thrill-seeking Selene. Instead, it flows out of him in the middle of the night and sets Selene’s inn ablaze. He can already do this without even trying, so what’s he going to be capable of when he’s fully trained?
I’m looking forward to finding out, even if I worry that it’ll take the better part of 20 years to tell the full story on television. It took season two until now to finally get it right, but this episode feels like Wheel has activated its potential. Writer John McCutcheon’s script takes big swings and connects and contains some of the show’s most memorable dialogue to boot. Could this series really have passed through the proverbial Arches and emerged again, stronger, wiser, and prepared for the fight to come?