A bird’s-eye view of the city of Tar Valon spread out in all its splendor around the great White Tower. A vampiric being of an ancient evil called back from beyond the grave while dripping Hellraiser quantities of blood from her nude body. Moiraine Damodred futzing around in her childhood room, the ghost of a smile on her face as she remembers who she used to be. The ornate latticework covering every column within the tower of the Aes Sedai, a simple design flourish that communicates their beauty and skill on the one hand, their preoccupation with ritual and their decadent splendor on the other — the attempted murder of a demigoddess.
There are many things, large and small, that I could single out as the highlight of this episode of The Wheel of Time, the second very strong one in a row. You know what I’m going to go with, though: al’Lan Mandragoran,
the handsome and tormented Warder, pissing on a tree trunk.
I’m serious! If you’ve spent enough time around fantasy TV shows and movies, or at least around the kinds of people who watch them to complain about them, you may have heard this complaint: “This fantasy includes fucked-up stuff because it’s ‘realistic’? How come you never see anyone going to the bathroom, then?” Checkmate, complainers!
Game of Thrones went there first (it went everywhere first), but seeing a heroic main character take a leak on this show reinforces its particular brand of realism. Wheel is indeed far less gory, explicit, and brutal than the show that clearly inspired its creation. (Nerds can kvetch all they want about how the two shows, and the books from which they sprung, are totally different in this way or that, but it’s just a fact of the business that GoT is why we have TWoT and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Time, etc. Heck, Thrones alum Dave Hill wrote this episode! Really well at that!) But Wheel has its own earthy quality, rooted in practical matters, ranging from how to get decent wine when you’re poor as hell to how to comfort a grieving friend to how to negotiate the interpersonal dynamics of a throuple, with or without the use of magic.
Lan taking a pee break in the middle of a cookout is right in line with that. Beneath all of author Robert Jordan’s insane quantity of characters and cultures and ancient civilizations and magical McGuffins, these are just people, and people urinate after they have a bunch to drink with dinner. By all means, spend a few seconds of screen time to show the sexy swordsman drain the main vein. As we see when his fellow Warder Ihvon (a strong Emmanuel Imani) tells him to get over himself about the idea that he and Moraine were somehow equals, this is a man who needs the piss taken out of him figuratively as well as literally. It’s a better show for it.
But then, it’s a better show in general now. This episode proves that the fantastic third installment of this season was no fluke, even if we technically need one more good’un to establish a pattern. It’s entirely possible that Wheel is undergoing a “sophomore surprise” — the quantum leap in quality beginning in a show’s second season previously experienced by Halt and Catch Fire, Billions, The Leftovers, and most recently Foundation.
For starters, Lan is off peeing at a barbecue at Alanna Sedai’s family estate because his former partner, Moraine, is visiting her own. Located in the big city of Cairhien, it’s now the home of her kid sister, Lady Anvaere (Lindsay Duncan). Remember the cynical noblewoman who warned Rand that the aristocrats in this town are a tricky bunch to master? She ought to know: She explains to her long-estranged older sister, who through the age-extending power of the Aes Sedai now looks much younger, that she painstakingly rebuilt their family fortune and prestige after a wastrel uncle pissed it away.
She largely did so by becoming a sort of unofficial spymaster of the city; her agents are everywhere, and they know all about Moraine’s connection with Rand, his job, his current location, you name it. Anvaere isn’t above lording this over her sister, who, let’s face it, is a real asshole. But she does so only to force Moraine to take tea with her instead of ignoring her as she’d largely intended to do. Families are complicated, even when one of you is the J. Edgar Hoover of a fantasy city and the other is an ageless wizard. Maybe especially then, actually.
Far away, Perrin has picked up a family of his own, or a pack at any rate. He learns from his rescuer Elyas that he is a wolfbrother, a sort of werewolf-lite; he can’t transform into a monster, but he can psychically communicate with wolves and other wolfbrothers via hologramlike visions. Indeed, he’s been doing so for months; it was in fact Elyas and his pack who rescued Perrin and Egwene from torture at the hands of Eamon Valda and his Children of Light last season. In a scene that’s both a little silly and very sweet, a wolf named Hopper befriends him by sending him a vision of his own slain mate, a loss Perrin can relate to. It’s a real put-your-hand-on-your-heart-and-say-aww moment.
Egwene is having much more trouble than Hopper is when it comes to connecting with a grieving friend. The young novice doesn’t quite know what to say to her Accepted friend Nynaeve regarding the loss of her daughter from within the Arches. “It wasn’t real,” she says. “None of it was real.” But it sure was real to Nynaeve, who spent years inside that pocket reality, years she remembers and mourns even as they begin to fade from memory.
This makes her eminently manipulatable by Liandrin, who so far this season has been an even more prominent Aes Sedai than leading lady Rosamund Pike’s Moraine. The Red sister lets slip that the seafaring Seanchan have invaded the continent and captured Perrin and Loial, clearly counting on her to run off to her friends’ rescue. Liandrin seems okay with the virtual guarantee that Egwene will break the rules of the novices and join her too. She is not, however, prepared to let the princess Elayne travel with them, as the Hermione-esque stickler for the rules decides to do, to everyone’s surprise. Linandrin winds up walloping them all with the One Power, leaving their fates unknown.
Those fates could be very dark indeed given what we learn of Liandrin in this episode. Knowingly or not, she’s in cahoots with Ishamael, chief of the Forsaken. Min, Liandrin’s clairvoyant catspaw, has only been doing her bidding by following Mat around because the Aes Sedai promised her she’d take away her disturbing psychic visions. Turns out she’s planning to use Ishamael to get that job done.
I don’t know what this says about Liandrin, ultimately. She’s always seemed like a fanatical believer in the Aes Sedai’s cause, albeit a believer who’s also a bloodthirsty dickhead, in large part because actor Kate Fleetwood’s performance has a level-11 commitment to it at all times. She also has a scene in which she confronts the acting head of the Aes Sedai, Leane (Jennifer Cheon Garcia, another actor with some of the most incredible cheekbones you’ve ever seen), who has deliberately refused to report the Seanchan invasion to their boss, the Amyrlin. I’m not sure how you square this with her being in league with the dark.
But the subplot definitely says something about the show, which is that it clearly recognizes what a gift it’s been given in the form of actor Fares Fares as Ishamael. Handsome, worldly, sophisticated, he’s a Witch-king who seems like he knows all the best nightspots in town and would be happy to put you on the guest list, provided you do this one little favor for him. Couple that with his anachronistic clothing, and he’s one of the most innovative big bads I’ve seen on genre television since the psychotically chipper Lalo Salamanca on Better Call Saul. (I could see them getting along, actually.) I love how he’s filmed during his convo with Min too: His close-ups come with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them glitches that convey the fact that he’s out of sync with our heroes’ world.
He’s not so out of sync that he can’t yet do some real damage, though, as we’ve already seen with his advisory position among the invading Seanchan. He kicks off this episode by freeing one of his fellow Forsaken, the apparently even more dangerous Lanfear, Daughter of Night, from her prison. “Blood feeds blood, blood calls blood, blood is, blood was, and blood shall ever be,” runs his Dracula-ass dialogue as the blood-covered woman materializes from the ether.
What we don’t learn until late in the episode, however, is that this jailbreak took place some time ago, and Lanfear has already been on the loose. In fact, we’ve already met her — she’s Selene, Rand’s suspiciously glamorous, beautiful, and tolerant-of-male-Channelers innkeeper girlfriend. When she takes him out to the mountains for a little getaway, she clearly intends to perform some arcane sex-magic ritual on him. (He looks so good with his head shaved that you can hardly blame her.) Fortunately for Rand (or unfortunately? I mean, look at her too), she’s caught in the act by Moraine, who stabs her and slits her throat before telling Rand to join her in getting the hell away from there. You can’t kill a Forsaken that way. At this point, it’s unclear if you can kill one at all, as opposed to just locking them up, throwing away the key, and hoping no one’s on a quest to find it again.
Put together, all of this has me anxiously anticipating the next episode of The Wheel of Time for the first time since the show’s inception. James Bond author Ian Fleming notes that when judging unusual phenomena, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times it’s enemy action. (That’s Bond-speak for “a pattern.”) After two back-to-back winners, next week, then, is a make-or-break moment for this show. Light be with it.