The Wheel of Time Review: Strong Storytelling Builds on Generic Beginnings

Amazon Prime's The Wheel of Time finds a balance between captivating storytelling and unveiling an expansive fantasy world, although viewers will have to endure a rather generic opening episode before it fully takes off. Amazon Prime's new series is the long-awaited adaptation of a series of best-selling fantasy books by Robert Jordan, which has a fan base and following roughly analogous to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels that launched HBO's once-popular Game of Thrones TV series. Amazon Prime is clearly hoping that The Wheel of Time will become a success on par with Game of Thrones, with the show already filming a second season, and a prequel trilogy of movies also currently in development.

The premise of The Wheel of Time starts with the title of the show itself, which references a cosmic cycle of reincarnation and prophecy that affects the world. Perhaps the most important figure in this world is "The Dragon," a great soul who continuously does battle against the Dark One, a cosmic force of evil, in various ages. During the previous age, The Dragon sealed the Dark One away in a magical prison, though at a great cost. The Dark One tainted the source of magic used by male channelers (the term used for magic users in the show), which in turn drove male channelers mad and nearly destroyed the world in the process.

At the outset of the series, the mysterious Aes Sedai Moiraine (played by Rosamund Pike) travels to the remote region of Two Rivers with her Warder Lan (Daniel Henney) following a dangerous prophecy. The Dragon was reborn 20 years ago, thus signaling a coming Final Battle between the Dark One and the forces of the Light. The Dragon Reborn, so the prophecy states, will either save the world or break it. Moiraine quickly identifies four "Ta'veren" (people who have some sort of consequential destiny ahead of them) as potential candidates -- sheepherder Rand, blacksmith Perrin, scallywag Mat, innkeeper's daughter Egwene. The local Wisdom Nynaeve is eventually also flagged as a potential Dragon Reborn. When the forces of the Dark One attack their village, Moiraine then leads them on an epic quest across the world in order to guide them to safety and potentially defeat the forces of darkness. 

A consistent criticism of The Wheel of Time book series is that many view it to be "generic" fantasy, despite it having an expansive world with complex politics and a number of characters whose ambitions and goals pit them against each other despite being on the same side. This, partially, is due to the opening pages of the series, which deliberately harken back to the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. While the series quickly deviates, that "generic" opening is one of the biggest detriments to the series as a whole, as that opening sequence spectacularly fails to demonstrate why The Wheel of Time is so beloved by so many people. It takes about one and a half episodes for The Wheel of Time to push past the mediocre opening of its source material and really come alive.

Luckily, showrunner Rafe Judkins is a self-professed fan of Jordan's books and he wisely chooses to focus on what makes The Wheel of Time different from other fantasy franchises. While the show spends time getting to know the core group of characters, the show wisely chooses to give extra time to Moiraine and her Warder Lan, as well as the enigmatic Aes Sedai organization as a whole. Not only does the Aes Sedai reflect what's unique about The Wheel of Time (namely that women hold significant power), but it also brings out the first bits of complexities that will suck people into the show.

Although Judkins is a fan of the books, he doesn't stay entirely beholden to the source material either. New wrinkles are introduced in almost every episode, either to add a dash of drama to the show or to better set up future story arcs or characters that will be much more prominent later in the series. It's interesting to see which secondary characters get the spotlight and which ones get left behind -- I feel like the exclusions and story-driven slights will drive a lot of drama among fans of the books, but they make a lot of sense in the context of the show and in trying to craft a story that appeals to newcomers. 

Early standout performances include Pike, Henney, and Robins. The trio have a complex relationship in the books, and many of the best scenes from the six episodes we viewed involve one or more of the three. Alexandre Willaume's Thom Merrilin is also a joy to watch, as is Hammed Animashaun's Loial, and Abdul Salis as the delightfully sadistic Eamon Valda, one of the few human threats shown during the early episodes of the show. 

The biggest flaw of The Wheel of Time, other than its weak opening, is how poorly defined the Dark One and his forces are. Some of this is due to the source material, but the series does very little to differentiate what makes the Dark One different from a Sauron or a generic evil villain from any other fantasy franchise. There are also a couple of clunky exposition drops that may cause casual watchers' eyes to gloss over, but that's just a necessary evil given the size and complexity of the books. 

The Wheel of Time is an enjoyable watch and a solid adaptation that should make fans of the books happy. For some, the show might struggle to stand out among other high-profile fantasy series. It's more somber in tone than Netflix's The Witcher (although The Wheel of Time has superior special effects and writing) and lacks the shocking twists of Game of Thrones, but The Wheel of Time still shines brightly when it leans on the strong performances of its cast and the unique elements of its world. I'm not sure if The Wheel of Time will reach the pop-culture heights of those other two series, but it should still be appointment viewing for any fantasy fan.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Wheel of Time premieres on Amazon Prime Video on November 19th.