Amazon Prime’s new high fantasy series The Wheel of Time is based on the 14 novel series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. The series takes place in a future universe that looks like the late medieval past, after a cataclysmic battle between good and evil thousands of years ago brought societal collapse and confined the use of magic to women. Men are driven insane when they wield the One Power. Time is cyclical and as the Wheel of Time spins it creates the Pattern of Ages, with human lives as both the threads of the tapestry and drivers of the Wheel.
Souls are reborn, with some able to channel power and meant to change the course of history. 3500 years ago, one such soul, who became known as The Dragon but was a man named Lewis Therin, fought the Darkness and won, but at great cost. The world has never recovered. Now prophecy states that the Dragon has been reborn and will stop the Dark One again. The Aes Sedai, a powerful magical sisterhood, seek to find him before he comes into his power. He must be carefully managed so that he doesn’t destroy the world a second time.
Opening voice over by Moiraine, powerful Aes Sedai:
“The world is broken. Many, many years ago, men who were born with great power believed they could cage Darkness itself. The arrogance. When they failed, the seas boiled, mountains were swallowed up, cities burned, and the women of the Aes Sedai were left to pick up the pieces. These women remembered one thing above all else: the man who brought the breaking of the World. And him they named Dragon. Now, this man has been born again. We don’t know where or to whom. If he was reborn as a girl or a boy. The only thing we know for certain is that this child is coming of age now, and we must find them before the Dark does.”
During the voice over, Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) suits up in several layers, including a bit of leather armor. Once she’s fully dressed, she joins her male companion, Lan (Daniel Henney).
Elsewhere, two men run for their lives from a group of women in red on horseback. The lead woman, Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood), uses magic to create a rock slide and cut off their escape. One man tells the other to keep fighting so they don’t die. The second man tells Liandrin not to hurt his companion. She points out that he’s alone. His hallucinations confirm that the madness has already taken him. She tells him that power is only meant for women. His use of it taints the One Power. She and her sisters remove his connection to the power.
Moiraine and Lan stand on a cliff overlooking the scene. Moiraine announces that this man isn’t the Dragon reborn. Lan reminds her that he was born at the right time and matches the prophecy, but Moiraine won’t reconsider. They are on their way to Two Rivers next: “There are rumors of 4 ta’veren there, all the right age. The old blood runs deep in those mountains. Let’s hope it’s prepared them for what’s coming.”
On the outskirts of Two Rivers, Egwene (Madeleine Madden) begins the initiation ceremony to join the town’s Women’s Circle. The town’s Wise Woman, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), known by the title of Wisdom, braids her hair and tells her that the braid reminds her that she’s part of them and they’re part of her. When she feels the Dark around her, the braid will help her remember that she’s not alone.
Nynaeve tells Egwene to be strong and trust the river, then pushes her in. At first Egwene fights the rapid current and struggles for air. Once she stops fighting and figures out how to float, she safely makes it to a small beach where she can get out of the water.
Rand (Josha Stradowski) and his father, Tam (Michael McElhatton), guide their horse drawn cart down to the village of Two Rivers from their home in the mountains, delivering apple brandy for the Bel Tine festival. Tam reminisces about Rand’s childhood, when there were fewer wolves in the woods, so the boy could play there on his own.
They unload the brandy and join Rand’s friends Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) and Mat (Barney Harris) in the local tavern. Mat has already lost his money gambling with the other customers, so Rand and Perrin draw him into conversation to stop him from losing anymore. Perrin tells them that he heard there’s a war to the south in Ghealdan. Mat doesn’t believe or care about the rumors and decides his friends are boring, since Perrin is married and Rand is pining over Egwene. He spots an expensive looking bracelet on a friend, Danya (Naana Agyei Ampadu) and zips over to chat her up.
Egwene returns home to the tavern, pausing dramatically in the open doorway. The Women’s Circle members, who appear to have been drinking since Nynaeve pushed her into the river, stand up and cheer. Her father, the tavern keeper, rushes over to say he’s so glad she’s safe, but now it’s time to go back to work waiting tables- he wants a pint in every hand. The Women’s Circle won’t hear of it. One pulls her away to celebrate with them. Nynaeve watches the scene with quiet pride.
Two Rivers seems like a jolly town. Tam mentioned that when Rand’s mother was alive she’d drink all of the brandy, leaving none to sell in town. Then he looked at the group of celebrating women fondly.
Rand gets pouty when Egwene joins the other women without saying hello to him first.
Hours later, Egwene has compromised by serving the occasional pint and the tavern is full of happy drunks. Rand sulks against a wall and watches her. She glances at him, but turns in the other direction. Perrin joins him and asks how her ceremony went. Rand tells him they haven’t talked yet. Perrin reassures him that Egwene is just busy.
She might want some time to herself to process the experience of becoming a woman before her wanna be boyfriend starts putting expectations on her future. Rand seems like he can be intense.
The front door opens again and a pair of black boots dramatically enter. Egwene’s mother asks the man who’s wearing them to state his name. Lan pulls down the hood of his black cloak. Another hooded character immediately follows, revealing herself to be Moiraine. She flashes her Aes Sedai ring as she tells the innkeeper that she and Lan need their horses stabled and a room for the night with two beds.
Moiraine’s instructions make it clear from the start that she and Lan are super close in a deep and spiritually fulfilling way, but not romantically or sexually involved.
Nynaeve stands at attention, with her hand on a weapon throughout this interaction, ready to defend her people should the intruders prove dangerous. Lan and Moiraine act as though she’s invisible- until Moiraine scans the crowd for the potential Dragons she’s here to evaluate. Her eyes zero in on Egwene, Mat, Rand, Perrin and Nynaeve. When Moiraine looks at Nynaeve, it also becomes clear that Lan placed himself between the two women while Moiraine warmed herself at the fire.
The fact that Moiraine spotted all 5 within moments of entering a crowded room suggests they all have power that she can sense.
As Marin (Lolita Chakrabarti) shows Moiraine and Lan to their room, Perrin observes that Moiraine doesn’t look like a witch. Rand shushes him, because she could still act like an evil witch. They wonder if she’s on her way to help with the war in the South. Nynaeve joins them and says Two Rivers will be better off when Moiraine gets to wherever she’s going. Then she sends Perrin off to find his wife, Laila (Helena Westerman), who’s working in the blacksmith’s shop.
Laila is working at the forge alone. Perrin uses an accusing tone when he asks why she stayed there and skipped Egwene’s ceremony. But then he holds her stomach and tells her he loves her- maybe she had a miscarriage and can’t face the other women right now?
Mat finds his mother drunk and lurking outside the tavern watching his father have drunken public sex with another woman. This appears to be a regular occurrence. He drags his mother home, where his two young sisters have been left alone. Dirty and dressed in rags, they play with broken toys. Mat puts his mother to bed while she insults him, then gets his sisters ready to sleep.
Rand and Tam help Egwene’s family clean up after the tavern closes. Egwene’s parents think the war has nothing to do with them and agree that Moiraine must be headed there. Tam says the Aes Sedai don’t fight normal military battles. They scheme from their seat of power instead, so the villagers should be concerned that one has shown up on their doorstep. Egwene’s father, Bran (Michael Tuahine), says Moiraine can stay for the Bel Tine festival if she wants.
The grown ups leave Rand and Egwene to finish cleaning up, allowing them some time alone together. Rand notices a scrape on Egwene’s arm from the river rocks and asks how the ceremony went. She says he knows she can’t talk about it with a male. He insists she can at least tell him if it was good or bad. She says it was… good. Then she begins to talk to him in earnest, like he just asked her to do. He kisses her and shuts her up. After a second, she kisses back.
What he really wanted was to be the center of her attention. He wasn’t interested in what she had to say. He actually grunts at her a couple of times during their conversation.
Now that he has her undivided attention, he starts talking, telling her a story that his dad reminded him of earlier in the episode: when he was little he would pick berries for her. He produces a single small berry from his pocket and tries to feed it to her. She’s not interested in eating his pocket fuzz and tosses it aside, giving him the consolation prize of more kissing.
Lan joins Moiraine in a huge tub next to a fire and mildly suggests that the water could be warmer. When Moiraine doesn’t pick up on his request the first time, he repeats himself. She uses her power to heat the water up. Then he asks her what’s bothering her and guesses what she’s thinking- one of the 4 ta’veren is the Dragon.
They are both naked, but it’s only a bath. We’re being shown how far their closeness extends and that there’s balance in the relationship. He asked for a small use of her power, but then did some emotional labor for her in return by offering to share the burden of analyzing what they know so far about the ta’verens.
Egwene sits by the fire downstairs in the tavern, nearly naked and lost in thought. Rand rejoins her, half naked and complaining that she let him fall asleep. He asks her again about her day. She tells him the part that’s troubling her happened earlier. Nynaeve asked her to become her apprentice Wisdom, to learn to listen to the wind. She hasn’t given Nynaeve an answer yet. Rand is taken aback, since Wisdoms don’t marry or have children. He thought they were headed toward spending their lives together. He goes to bed without further discussion.
An ill wind blows through. Egwene thinks it’s Rand’s mood, but there’s a new danger riding into town.
Voldemort has arrived.
The next morning, Padan Fain (Johann Myers), a traveling peddler, drives his cart into Two Rivers. The children are thrilled as he teases them. Tam tells Egwene that Rand left town early. Laila snuggles up to Perrin in his sleep.
Mat brings Danya’s bracelet to Padan, who decides it’s not worth much since it’s not real gold and he can’t sell it in town. They haggle until Mat settles for 3 lanterns for his sisters. Padan hides the bracelet in a safe spot, suggesting it’s worth more than he let on to Mat.
Moiraine scans the town, trying to pinpoint the location of the Dragon as she and Lan move among the people. She asks if he had a restless night because he thinks one of The Eyeless has already arrived. She senses that he does and says they’ll both be busy today.
Egwene finds Rand sitting on a rock outcropping on a mountain top that’s one of his favorite thinking spots. He tells her when he’s there, he thinks about his future- his wife, his children, the house he’ll build for his family on his land.
It’s a Rand-centric life, without much room for what his wife wants.
Egwene hears this, cries a little, and tells him she’s opting out of recreating Rand’s parents’ life. She’s going to become a Wisdom. (He doesn’t actually let her say it out loud, though. No need for her or Laila to speak in the presence of their men.) To his credit, he momentarily taps into his better self and tries to accept it without a fight.
Moiraine discovers Nynaeve in a cave scrubbing the rocks surrounding a sacred pool.
Moiraine: “They call you a leader in this town, Wisdom, and yet here you are cleaning.”
Nynaeve: “This pool is sacred. It’s an honor to clean it. What are you doing here?”
Moiraine was out for a walk. That’s not what Nynaeve was asking. She wants to know why Moiraine is in Two Rivers, but Moiraine pretends she doesn’t understand the question rather than lie. She turns the questions around on Nynaeve though, revealing that she’s been asking the townspeople about the younger woman. She’s discovered that Nynaeve was born somewhere else and the old Wisdom brought her there as a baby when she was orphaned. Moiraine complains that the town doesn’t keep accurate records.
Or maybe the records all disappear the moment the Aes Sedai show up in town. Given their elitist, imperious attitudes and judgementalism, I would expect regular people to avoid cooperating with them whenever possible. Not only is Moiraine speaking to Nynaeve in an unforgivably rude manner in her own territory, she’s physically standing above her and blocking the other woman’s way out of the pool. She making sure Nynaeve feels small, cold and wet during this conversation- no magic required, only the tactics of a bully.
Nynaeve explains why she hates the Aes Sedai: when the old Wisdom was 13 and realized she had power, she spent months walking to the White Tower to learn from the Aes Sedai. They took one look at her and saw nothing more than a poor peasant girl, dismissing her without giving her a chance. She never forgot how she was treated and Nynaeve won’t forget either.
Moiraine: “See, people say you’re too young to be the Wisdom and I disagree. I think you’re strong. Even if you have only had that braid for, what, a year or two?”
Nynaeve: “I’ve had it for five.”
Moiraine: “So that makes you 25…26.”
Nynaeve says she’s able to do her job and protect the town, despite her age, including protecting it from Moiraine if necessary. She drops the mic and walks out.
Moiraine got what she came for- she wanted to know Nynaeve’s age (to decide whether she could be the Dragon). But she didn’t want to ask her directly and have to explain why she wanted to know. By insulting Nynaeve, she ensured that the younger woman will focus on other parts of the conversation when she remembers it. It was a manipulative way to gain information. Nynaeve may not have been completely honest with her either, given how much she mistrusts the Aes Sedai.
Rand, Mat and Perrin meet for lunch in the village square. Mat quickly senses that Rand is upset, but he won’t talk. Perrin hands Mat a few coins, explaining that he and Rand chipped in so that Mat can buy his sisters lanterns for the festival. Mat tries to refuse, but Perrin insists. Mat has lanterns already, but he could use the money for food. Rand leaves to go back home for the afternoon.
Moiraine watches them from her attic room at the inn.
Nynaeve and Egwene stand on a bridge over the river and listen to the wind.They agree it sounds strange and wrong, but they don’t know what’s causing it to sound that way.
Lan searches the forest for signs of what’s coming. He finds a series of sacrificed sheep laid out in the shape of a Dragon’s Fang, an omen of evil.
Tam and Rand light a candle inside a lantern at home to call Rand’s mother’s spirit back to them. They hang the lantern up high on a pole. Rand wonders if they should join the crowd at the festival, but Tam tells him it doesn’t matter where you are when you light the candle.
Rand: “How long does it take before the Wheel of Time turns someone’s spirit back into the world again?”
Tam: “Wish I knew. But I’m sure there’s a reason no one can remember their previous lives. All we can do is the best we can with the life that’s given to us. And take comfort from it. That no matter what happens, what pain we face, what heartbreak, even death, the Wheel keeps turning. Always. And we try again. Maybe do a little better than the last time.”
As Tam speaks, the townspeople light their lanterns and set them loose on a calm spot in the river. Moiraine watches from the shadows. She and Egwene give each other a long look from a distance.
Lan finds Moiraine on the edge of the forest and tells her that the Fade, the hooded creature of Darkness who arrived during the night, brought dozens of trollocs with it. He wants to leave town immediately. Moiraine still hasn’t figured out which youth is the Dragon.
The festival begins in earnest in the village, with music and dancing meant to attract their loved ones’ souls to join the party. The villagers perform lively group folk dances until Egwene’s partner gets an ax to the back. Trollocs bust up the party, creating chaos as the terrified villagers try to escape. The trollocs are huge and strong, with vicious weaponry. The villagers don’t stand a chance against them.
In the midst of the chaos, Padan Fain casually slips out of town. He doesn’t seem worried that the trollocs will come after him. Could he be the informer who told the Fade where to find Moiraine?
Nynaeve catches Egwene and helps her hide. They try to save some of the wounded, but the trollocs leave them too damaged. Mat searches for his sisters, because of course his parents didn’t think about getting them to safety. The trollocs don’t seem to notice him as he races through the battle.
A trolloc breaks down Rand and Tam’s door. They both fight the beast, Tam using a sword he had stored under his bed that has a heron insignia on the blade. Tam is a skillful swordsman, but the much bigger and stronger trolloc backs him up against a wall. Rand stabs the beast through his back and kills him, but Tam has already been injured.
Nynaeve and Egwene fight a trolloc of their own and are about to lose the battle when Moirane uses her magic to kill it. Moiraine continues to use her power, sending it out as wisps of white light, to every corner of the battle. Lan protects her while she works, fighting off trollocs with his sword.
Once Moirgaine has turned the tide, the villagers rejoin the battle, ganging up on individual trollocs. Perrin and Laila fight together in the blacksmith’s shop until he gets carried away, swinging his battle ax at anything that moves and accidentally hitting her in the abdomen. She dies within a couple of minutes.
Moiraine creates lightning and fire to take out trollocs. Nynaeve and Egwene drag the wounded out of the fray. A trolloc grabs Nynaeve by her braid and carries her off. Mat finds his sisters and takes them out into the woods to hide in an old oak tree.
Dozens more trollocs arrive to join the fight. Moiraine is wounded in the shoulder. Lan tells her there are too many enemy soldiers for them to beat.
Moiraine: “Light give me strength.”
As Lan fights the attackers, Moiraine draws power from every source she can tap. Then she pulls the town’s stone building blocks out of walls and hurls them at the trollocs, ending by pulling out so many that the buildings collapse and so does she. Lan rushes to throw himself on top of her to protect her from falling debris.
Rand arrives in town at dawn with his father slung over his horse. He stares at the destroyed town and devastated villagers, then asks for Nynaeve or someone to heal Tam. Egwene brings Moiraine.
Perrin brings Laila out to lie with the rest of the dead. Mat brings his sisters back into town.
Moiraine recognizes trolloc poison in Tam’s wound. Though weak herself, she draws out the poison and heals him. She pauses and looks at the four young people, who are nearby when she’s done. No one thanks her for saving Tam’s life.
As she walks away, Rand accuses her of bringing the trollocs with her. She tells him the trollocs came to the village for the same reason she did- for the four of them. 20 years ago there was a blind seer with white eyes at the White Tower who could see everything, even without the use of her eyes. She saw glimpses of the turning of the wheel.
Moiraine: “The Dark One is waking. His whispers are already in the backs of our minds. But there will be one who can stand against him. The Dragon has been born again. And it’s one of you.”
Mat suggests she’s lost her mind. Lan tells her they need to leave before the next round of trolloc reinforcements arrives- there will be 300 more, at least.
Lan: “How did they get here so fast?”
Moiraine agrees that it’s time to go and tells Lan to get the horses. When Egwene protests that Moiraine can’t leave Two Rivers undefended, she finally tells them the truth about why she came to town, explaining that the four of them need to leave with her, since it’s them the trollocs want. If they leave, the town will be safe.
She once again shows how out of touch she is with regular people’s lives by blaming them for having sheltered childhoods in the mountains, as if they should have taken off on their own and traveled the world by the time they’re 20.
Moiraine: “Our only chance is to reach the White Tower and the other sisters of the Aes Sedai. There’s no time. We leave now.”
They saddle up, say goodbye to their families and ride out with Moiraine, looking like they’re not sure what just happened. Which is exactly how Moiraine wanted it. She waited to say anything until the moment when they couldn’t say no to her or ask too many questions. Only one episode in and it’s clear why people don’t trust the Aes Sedai. They are ruthless and they trust no one.
Moiraine in voice over:
“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.”
I haven’t read the books this series is based on, so I’m coming to the story with an open mind. After watching the first four episodes, I think it’s pretty great. It suffers from the same issues that high fantasy often does- it has to struggle to differentiate itself from the giants of the genre that have come before it.
For myself, I just accept that works within a particular genre, whether it’s a buddy cop comedy or a scifi horror film or a high fantasy story, will have certain tropes and similarities. Without those tropes, they don’t fit into the genre. The true test is what the creators do within the parameters of a particular genre, not how clever they are in breaking it (though that’s also fun sometimes).
So far, Wheel of Time isn’t reinventing the wheel (heh). Instead it’s a solid story with complex characters and intricate world building. The cast are all enjoyable, the production design is gorgeous and the special effects look great for television. I’m particularly enjoying the original music by Lorne Balfe.
“All we can do is the best we can with the life that’s given to us.” – Tam makes a beautiful, profound speech filled with world building and foreshadowing. And with the acknowledgement that Wheel of Time has some major similarities to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. It’s hard to even pay attention to the rest of what Tam says when you’ve got the actor from Game of Thrones almost directly quoting one of Gandalf’s most famous lines. Kudos to Wheel of Time for confronting the issue head on and saying, “So what?” You do you, show.
Tam draws a certain serenity from knowing that no one is gone forever and no chance is the last chance. Others in the village seem melancholy, maybe because there’s no guarantee two souls will reincarnate together again and even if they do, they won’t remember each other. Moiraine knows that the Dragon has to do significantly better in his current life, not just a little better than the last one, when he broke the world.
Though Tam says it doesn’t matter where you light the lantern, I’m not sure he believes it. He very pointedly hung his wife’s lantern up as high in the air as he could reasonably place it, just outside her front door. He’s calling her back home. The villagers perform a communal ceremony, turning their lanterns into little boats that float in the river together. The souls of the villagers are called back together, just as the villagers will die together later in the episode. They accept random reincarnation, whereas Tam quietly attempts to influence his wife’s soul to rejoin him. This matches the quiet possessiveness Rand shows toward Egwene over the course of the episode. It makes me wonder if Rand’s mother drank so much of the apple brandy because Tam isn’t as easygoing as he seems.
The 4 or 5 ta’veren are associated with the classical elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit. You could make the case to assign various elements to different characters, but I think in this episode, Egwene has the strongest association with water (floating in the river), Perrin has the strongest association with fire (blacksmith) and Rand is associated with air (all of those heights). Mat and Nynaeve are both associated with earth and spirit, though if I had to choose I’d give her earth and him spirit. We saw her in a cave and he saved his sisters by hiding them in an oak tree, one of the traditional trees depicted as the tree of life.
(I’m aware that in the books, women tend to have an affinity with air and water, while men are stronger with fire and earth. Until the show gives me a reason to believe they’re continuing that sexist separation, instead of updating the magic the way they’ve updated the ta’verens by including Elgwene and Nynaeve, I’ll assign elements to characters as I please. Besides, Moiraine seemed pretty comfortable with earth and fire when she was dismantling stone buildings and controlling lightning. 😀)
The show hasn’t definitively told us who is the Dragon Reborn yet. When Moraine tells them the Dragon is one of them, she stares straight at Rand and only belatedly looks at the others. Either she isn’t quite sure yet or she isn’t ready to tell Rand about his destiny. There is foreshadowing for all of the ta’veren that could mean they’re the Dragon, but it’s strongest for Rand. He has a dragon’s typical personality traits (intelligence, possessiveness, hoarding, intensity, easily angered) and he prefers mountains over lowlands. His thinking spot was made for a dragon.
There is a Bonus Origin Stories video on The Breaking of the World on Amazon’s site, found either under the Explore tab or in the Episodes list.
Moiraine is a member of the powerful magical sisterhood the Aes Sedai: Women train for years in the White Tower before they can become Aes Sedai. The term “Aes Sedai” means “servant of all”. Aes Sedai are divided into several groups, called Ajahs. The Aes Sedai consist entirely of women in the present day, as the male half of the One Power, saidin was corrupted by the Dark One at the end of the Age of Legends. They are an extremely powerful organization who maintain an uneasy peace throughout the land.
Moiraine refers to the 4 young people she’s seeking in Two Rivers as ta’veren: When the Wheel of Time needs to mend or realign the Pattern, it creates ta’veren: bending a person’s life-thread in such a way that all surrounding threads are forced to swirl around it. This creates a ripple effect across the Pattern, making the person a focal point in the weave. People who are ta’veren find themselves at the center of strange and improbable events, both good and bad.
Nynaeve is the Wisdom of Two Rivers: A woman who provides healing and guidance [to the village.] Wisdoms are natural foragers. They are completely at home in almost any natural landscape, and are experts on flora in the area. While Aes Sedai usually rely only on the One Power to heal, Wisdoms use whatever is at their disposal. Tracking is another useful skill for a Wisdom, as particular animals are great indicators for specific plants, flowers, and herbs that the healers like to keep on hand.
Lan finds the sign of a Dragon’s Fang made from slaughtered sheep outside of town: Seen by most as an omen of evil, or as a cursed mark, the Dragon’s Fang symbol is often scrawled or painted on the doors or homes of those believed to be evil, or as a curse upon those living within. (From Amazon Prime’s supplemental material in the Explore/Mythology section.)
Perrin’s wife, Laila, was created just to be fridged in the first episode of the TV show. She barely has any dialogue and spends most of her time mooning at him. Surely there was a better way to motivate Perrin in the future than to create a mannequin wife whose sole narrative purpose is to die a violent, tragic death? Even if she still died, she could have been at the women’s ceremony and the tavern and have spoken more.
The chemistry between Moiraine and Lan is off the charts. I’d really be okay with it becoming less platonic.
Does anyone else have “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” stuck in their head after watching all of those coins change hands? It’s only going to get worse.
Images courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.