Andrew Cunningham and Lee Hutchinson have spent decades of their lives with Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time books, and they’re bringing that knowledge to bear as they recap each episode of Amazon’s new WoT TV series. These recaps won’t cover every element of every episode, but they will contain major spoilers for the show and the book series. If you want to stay unspoiled and haven’t read the books, these recaps aren’t for you.
New episodes of The Wheel of Time will be posted to Amazon Prime subscribers every Friday.
A friend gifted me a paperback copy of The Eye of the World in what must have been mid-2003, which I have pinpointed so precisely because I know that Crossroads of Twilight had come out but that it hadn’t yet come out in paperback. So I burned through them all once or twice in high school, and then re-read the whole series again sometime in the mid-Sanderson era, and then did my last full-series re-read in 2019 after I talked about EotW on my book podcast.
Andrew: My wife, sadly, had too many antibodies to catch Wheel of Time fever. Maybe from reading so much Tolkien? And like, I get it. It can be a hard series to sell to a skeptic. The conversation always goes something like “well, it’s fourteen gigantic books, and the first one especially is mostly a Lord of the Rings pastiche, and it spends a lot of time in this “men be like this/women be like this” space that hasn’t aged especially well…”
Lee: Half-hating the characters in WoT is a huge core part of the fandom! Maybe we can get her into it after the show!
All of that being said! When these books are good they are still really engaging. Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones comparisons are going to be inevitable throughout this project, so I will just break that seal now—those books and that series sort of revel in their blood-soaked nihilism, but Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson loved all their characters and very, very rarely deployed “surprise major character death” or “gratuitous sexual assault” as a driver of narrative.
Lee: That’s a good way to put it. I’ve always thought of WoT vs. GoT as kind of like a Star Trek vs. Star Wars pairing—WoT is the Excelsior, all smug and superior and ready to smack you with that transwarp drive. GoT is the Millennium Falcon—dirty, loud, with some swearing, but it’s got it where it counts. Where WoT is all graceful lines, flowing slow motion dresses, stark and shining Whitecloaks, and a camera that can never hold still, GoT is dirt, mud, filth, and then you sh— yourself when you die. (Aes Sedai, on the other hand, clearly do not poop at all.) The differences aren’t just thematic, though there’s lots of that—the two shows visually are very, very different experiences.
Andrew: OK, let’s jump into these first three episodes. Which all, collectively, have kind of a “sweaty TV pilot” feel to me. There’s a lot to say about what they are and are not doing well individually, but as a group they are all doing a ton of heavy lifting—they have to establish a whole bunch of pro- and antagonists and start building their personalities and story arcs. They visit a few locations and talk about a bunch more of them. We either meet or hear about, by my count, three completely distinct subcultures (the Whitecloaks, the Tinkers, and the Aiel). It’s all a bit dizzying, and some of the introductions work better than others.
(Speaking of characters named “Thom,” Thom Merrilin has an absolutely electrifying introduction—though, sadly, the character lacks giant, white twirly mustaches. We’ll probably have more to say about Thom in a future piece.)
You’re an excellent book reviewer—folks, check out Andrew’s podcast!—and I’d love to hear your take. What is the right way for a monstrous book-to-TV adaptation to slim down? How do you balance the need to tell that story with the need to be a coherent, functional, standalone adaptation?
And that’s sort of what you need to do, right? TV shows especially rely on this kind of shorthand, the ability to tell us what we need to know about a person or a group of people with a combination of visual cues and one or two characters. Obviously, some of a book’s depth and complexity can be introduced later, once audiences have gotten a bit more comfortable. But in the early going in a show like this it’s all about combining performances and visuals to create memorable first impressions. The Whitecloak sequences are great at this. The scenes where Moiraine or Lan stand and monologue at the rest of the characters for multiple minutes, less so.
Moiraine is hunting, as we’re told, for the Dragon Reborn—the reincarnation of the man who, thousands of years ago, “broke the world” and ushered in an age of chaos and darkness. Though the first Dragon was a man, the current Dragon Reborn could be anyone of a certain age. There are long-term plot implications here, and a bunch of the first season is concerned with leading the audience on about precisely who this Dragon is. All Moiraine knows is that it’s almost certainly one of our five main characters—the rougeish Mat, red-haired Rand, brooding Perrin, pensive Egwene, or Nynaeve, the village Wisdom (think half doctor, half person who punches you in the face for disturbing the peace).
On the other hand, the split between the male and female halves of the One Power is foundational to pretty much everything in the entire series (gender is strictly binary in Randland, though the show seems open to experimenting with this and I hope that it does). The Dragon Reborn is in danger, and Moiraine needs to find him, specifically because he is a man who will channel the corrupted male half of the One Power, dooming him to eventual madness. The last time the Dragon Reborn went mad, he snapped the world in half like a fresh Oreo. Even among people who believe he will save the world, there’s a belief that he must be tightly controlled. This is, again, pretty foundational stuff. And I’m still not sure how the decision to mess with that is going to play out long-term.
Lee: I agree—and there are some things in later episodes that really make me wonder how the One Power works in this adaptation. Though if we’re calling out changes, the one that stuck out to me was the fact that instead of making all three of The Boys (Mat, Perrin, and Rand) inept with The Ladies, Perrin (Marcus Rutherford) starts out married! He’s got a wife! And she’s not a wasting wallflower or nagging angry person—she’s an all-business blacksmith lady, who seems like she knows how to work the forge even better than Perrin does.
Andrew: A wife who the show tragically almost instantaneously murders so that Perrin can suffer from a Deep and Abiding Sadness. It’s one of the show’s cheapest shots, and it was my least favorite thing in all three of these episodes by kind of a lot!
Discussing this without trying to race through it to look at the narrative consequences is difficult—almost as difficult as adapting this series in the first place. And without spoiling things for non-book readers, Perrin’s choice about whether to “take up the axe” or “take up the hammer” makes up the majority of his character arc, and this is a difficult thing to see the consequences of. At first, I thought I was going to hate it—but the more I think about it, the more interesting it becomes. It’s fascinating to see these characters I’ve lived with in my head for 20+ years suddenly doing something new. I think I like it.
Zooming in a bit: what characters are working for you in these first three episodes? Who seems to have a handle on the character and who doesn’t? I have thoughts but I want to hear yours first.
Lee: Let me start real quick with with our Main Five—Rand, Mat, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene. They’re all perfectly adequate, though Nynaeve (Zoë Robins) and Mat (Barney Harris) are probably given the most to do. Everyone except Rand (Josha Stradowski) has some nice character-building moments (though I expect the community to be divided as hell by Perrin’s wife, and seeing Mat’s cheerful horse-trading dad turned into an alcoholic domestic abuser stings a bit). The “which one is the Dragon!?” misdirection is strong—so strong that a major interaction between Rand and his father Tam is cut entirely out of the first episode. (I’m sure the whole “you’re not really my son” bit will show up later, but its absence is jarring.)
Andrew: There are definitely crumbs here vis a vis Rand’s origins (“no one has red hair in the Two Rivers” is expressed at least once that I saw) but yeah one benefit of not being in Rand’s head for 95% of the story is that he can blend in with the rest of them a little more.
How about you?
Andrew: Yeah, he did not match up with Lan physically in my head, but the distance he maintains from all the non-Moiraine characters and the way he and Pike interact sold me on the performance. I think another early standout is Nynaeve, whose arc is tweaked for the show (she’s carried off by and escapes from Trollocs during the initial attack on Emond’s Field and catches up with the rest of the party from there, rather than following of her own volition), but in ways that are consistent with her character in the books. She’s a bit older and more capable than the other Two Rivers-ians (??), she’s driven by anger but also by her compassion. She’s doing a good job.
Lee: She is definitely less of a sullen rage-filled harridan in the show—I don’t think she’s thumped anyone with a stick even once. So far.
The characters who have changed more are the ones who struggle more. Madeleine Madden, who plays Egwene, isn’t doing anything wrong, but she hasn’t left much of an impression yet. And Harris is just coming across as flat and unlikeable as Mat. Some of that might be the show’s fault! Because as you mentioned, show-Mat is substantially more unsavory and less Han Solo-ian than book-Mat. But I do wonder if the onscreen struggles contributed at all to his recasting for season two.
Lee: Yeah—too early to tell, but that would definitely follow from what we’ve seen so far. There’s certainly lots for him to do, since we get to Shadar Logoth relatively quickly and it’s the second big setpiece after Emond’s Field, and from the dagger springs a big chunk of Mat’s character arc for the first few books.
Andrew: To my memory we don’t actually get a PoV chapter from Mat until book three, so it’s also possible that if you were just reading EotW to research the role there would not be a whole lot to go on there.