Review: This ‘Wheel of Time’ Goes Nowhere Fast
There is a great wheel that turns and turns, and history turns with it. When it completes its circuit, the departed souls from the previous age return in new forms.
This is the cosmology of Amazon Prime Video’s new fantasy spectacle, “The Wheel of Time,” hence the title. It’s also a philosophy of TV programming, in which the old inexorably becomes new again. “Game of Thrones” left this mortal plane in 2019, and it is not far-fetched to assume that Amazon hopes “Wheel,” whose first three episodes debut Friday, is its second coming.
Here is where I need to pre-empt readers of the fantasy novels the series is based on. (Review a fantasy-saga adaptation and you will inevitably need to deal with the readers.) Robert Jordan’s cycle of 14 novels (plus supplemental reading) began years before the George R.R. Martin books that were the basis of “Game of Thrones.” And both Jordan and Martin were following, or responding to, the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” (To complete the circle, or re-spin the wheel, Amazon will also have a “Rings” series next year.)
But as a TV adaptation, “The Wheel of Time” sure looks as if it wouldn’t mind your confusing it with “Thrones,” right down to the opening credits with their circular Ouroboros-like logo, not unlike the emblem in the “Thrones” credits.
The good news for fantasy-hungry viewers is that this lush and ambitious series quickly approaches “Thrones,” and even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, in grandeur and polish. It’s in the verve of life and depth of character that “Wheel” is a few revolutions behind.
Vast series like Jordan’s (which was completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan’s death in 2007) can be quagmires to adapt; an abortive pilot aired like a thief in the night on FXX in 2015. This new attempt, developed by Rafe Judkins, hints at a mammoth world and mythology to be built out, based on a mix-match of eastern and western philosophies and aesthetics.
But it begins simply and approachably, in what you could call Modified Frodo’s Quest Mode: There’s a prophecy, a wizard, a band of ordinary folk swept up in history, a perilous journey, a shadowy foe and talk of a decisive final battle.
The Gandalfian figure here is Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) of the Aes Sedai, an all-female order of enchanters who weave smoky strands of magic. She turns up in Two Rivers, a region nestled amid “Sound of Music” mountains, because the auguries say that one of the local young people is the incarnation of the Dragon, an epochal figure who appears at the end of each age.
The twist: She doesn’t know who it is. When an army of trollocs — beast-faced minions of the unseen Dark One — show up to unleash Dungeons & Dragons havoc, she flees Two Rivers with her swordsman-sidekick, Lan (Daniel Henney), and a gaggle of potential reluctant saviors.
Their journey to the Aes Sedai stronghold, which takes up much of the six episodes screened for critics (of eight in the first season), gives us time to take in the scenery and get to know the characters.
The former is splendid. Scene after painterly scene looks like the lavish cover of a 1980s fantasy paperback. The latter are mostly bland stock types, especially the young Dragons-in-waiting.
Rand (Josha Stradowski) is a moony, earnest shepherd boy smitten with Egwene (Madeleine Madden), the empathetic apprentice to the village healer, Nynaeve (Zoë Robins). The blacksmith Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) is a gentle giant; Mat (Barney Harris) is a cynic with a sad past and a knack for trouble. Two of the more distinctive performances come from antagonists: Álvaro Morte (“Money Heist”) as an uprising’s leader and Abdul Salis as an inquisitor for a band of religious fanatics who oppose the Aes Sedai.
The series’s dramatic drive comes from Pike, who gives Moiraine a burdened gravity and fearsomeness. But she’s too often saddled with Fairport Convention lyrics like “The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills,” and try saying that 10 times fast.
The ideas behind “Wheel” do have potential. Its worldview is not as realpolitik as that of “Thrones,” but its concept of good and evil is promisingly complicated.
The Aes Sedai, for instance, are high-minded but ruthless, riven by internal politics and not to be trusted even by one another. There are doubts about whether the prophesied Dragon will be the salvation or the ruin of the world. Even some followers of the Dark One — so far, a vague offscreen threat — believe that their master means to do good by breaking a historical cycle of suffering.
The series’s gender dynamic may be its most thinkpiece-friendly feature. Women control magic in the world of “Wheel” for historical-mythological reasons — something-something about the One Power being tainted in a way that afflicts males who try to use it — which in turn leads some men to resentment or fear of being superfluous.
It is a provocative premise, though it’s not clear what, if anything, “Wheel” is trying to say with it. In general, the show’s long game — that is, why you should care enough to commit — is elusive, even as it strings episodes together with matinee-serial cliffhangers. Somehow it manages to feel fast-paced and static at the same time.
“Wheel” does have time to develop; it has already been picked up for a second season. What it lacks is a voice. Or rather it has one, but it’s the stiff New Agey dialect of generic high fantasy. Maybe this is a carry-over of Jordan’s ponderous prose; maybe it’s the effect of too much cautious respect for the source material. But listening to one character after another hold forth on the turnings of the Wheel, I longed for a Gollum or an Arya Stark to kick some life into the works.
From its opening minutes, “The Wheel of Time” is epic in scale. But deep into its first season, it is not yet human in scale. It’s pretty to look at, though. Early on, the wanderers take refuge in a cursed city, its deserted streets lined with baroque architecture and statuary. “Wheel,” as a production, feels like that. It’s a breathtakingly detailed edifice with no people in it.