Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Amazon Prime Video series, The Wheel of Time
As this mostly crappy year comes to an increasingly crappy close, one of the rare high points in these Omicron times was getting to watch the finale to the first season of The Wheel of Time. As a longtime fan of the books series, I was elated: seeing The Wheel of Time realized onscreen is something many of us have been awaiting for literal decades and thought would never actually happen. I am amazed and thrilled this thing even exists.
And it was beautiful, for the most part! The cast and set design were gorgeous (though I have to confess the White Tower was a little squat-looking for my tastes. Otherwise, lovely), and the effects were about a thousand times better than my growing-up-in-the-80s-and-90s self could have hoped for. Generally, there was a lot to love about The Wheel of Time adaptation —especially the pointed acknowledgement that not everyone in the world, even a fantasy world, is white, male and/or straight.
But there is also a lot not to love. Like many TV and film productions, The Wheel of Time was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes it difficult to determine which of the show’s flaws stem from that, or from within the show itself. Either way, it’s impossible to discuss the series’ issues without acknowledging the elephant in the room: the departure of Barney Harris, who played Mat Cauthon, and how that might have affected subsequent story decisions.
Here’s what worked in The Wheel of Time, what didn’t quite land and what we might expect in season 2.
The Wheel of Time‘s Mat Cauthon problem
Barney Harris was present to shoot the principal photography of the first six episodes of the season. But when COVID-19 struck, the production was shut down in March 2020. The show briefly resumed shooting for the last two episodes of the season in late 2020, before being shut down again. It finally wrapped production in May 2021. From the way episode 6 “The Flame of Tar Valon” ended, with the rest of the characters proceeding into the Ways while Mat stays behind, and his complete absence from episode 7 and 8 (except for one very brief shot which looks like it could have been cobbled together from earlier footage), it seems clear that Harris did not return to the production after the first shutdown.
The cast and crew have been impressively tight-lipped about the reasons for Harris’ departure, and naturally, as a result, speculation has run rampant among WOT fans both new and old as to why exactly he left. Personally, I feel like anything guarded that closely has to fall firmly in the realm of Not Our Business, so I will refrain from speculation on my own part. What I will note is that the sudden absence of such a central character for the climactic final episodes of the first season must have been a virtual body blow to the writers, in terms of making the story work.
It is nearly impossible, as a result, to tell which deviations from the source material of the books in the last two episodes were deliberate, and which were driven by a lack of Mat. Therefore I’m hesitant to criticize even the ones I feel were potentially catastrophic in their ripple effects on later plotlines, because it may be that the show had no choice in the matter. (Not to mention that detailing all the ways in which the show has so far altered the canon material would be an entire essay in itself.)
Look, you cannot promise a big climactic battle… and then not give me one
Yes, the bit with Nynaeve and Egwene and the other three channelers basically blowing up an entire army of Trollocs was very impressive—but it was also a letdown. I thought I was going to see a battle. I’m not demanding something on the order of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers, necessarily (which probably still stands as one of the most impressive battle scenes ever filmed), but something a little more than the Fal Darans shooting a few arrows out of a wall would have been nice. It felt like I got a huge build up and then hardly any payoff, which is disappointing, to say the least.
Don’t do death scenes if you can’t follow through
I also think that Nynaeve’s “death” scene was anticlimactic, mainly because there was no way her character was getting killed off so unceremoniously (more proof that this is definitely not Game of Thrones), so there was no real tension there, and also because it didn’t really make a lot of sense how she came back. It wasn’t even clear whether Egwene healed her or she healed herself, but either way it makes me worry about how the show is going to muddle the source material’s rules about how “burning out” or “stilling” (which is the term in the books for taking away a woman’s ability to channel; doing the same thing to a man is called “gentling”) works—which is hugely important to several key plotlines down the road.
This is also relevant to what happened to Moiraine at the Eye, when the alleged Dark One cuts her off from the One Power. (I don’t think that “alleged” even counts as a book spoiler, since it was apparent from what Moiraine said to Lan at the end of the episode, and the mere fact that the show has a second season, that Rand obviously did not kill the Dark One, no matter what he thinks.) It is unclear whether Alleged Dark One Guy has just shielded her from the Power (meaning she would be fine if she can break the shield), or if he has actually stilled her—i.e. taken away her ability to channel completely. If he actually stilled her, that is a huge departure from the books and I have no idea where they’re going with that.
Rand al’Thor may be an issue
Rand al’Thor himself, and the way he’s been deployed this season, is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, I can appreciate what the show was trying to do, in misdirecting fans to believe the Dragon Reborn was one of the other Two Riversians – and from what I’ve seen of reactions online, it was a very effective misdirect, so well done there. However, the perhaps unintended side effect is that Rand came across as the blandest character of the bunch, up until the arguably somewhat backhanded reveal that he is The One in episode 7, and it was an impression that was hard to recover from, even as a book fan who knows what’s coming for the character. The weirdly slow and clunky pace of his confrontation with Unknown Bearded Guy who may or may not be the Dark One (but isn’t) at the Eye of the World did not help. Josha Stradowski, therefore, while a physically perfect embodiment of the character in my opinion, has yet to prove that he can handle the weight of the acting job in front of him. Hopefully he will come through and shine once he actually has something to work with.
Bad flashbacks are bad
My other big criticism, and one I feel sure a lot of book fans are going to be complaining about, is the flashback to Lews Therin Telamon. I am not complaining that we were deprived of what came after Telamon’s conversation with Latra Posae (because there’s a strong likelihood we will see that later), but because the scene itself was stilted, talky (talky in subtitles, no less!), and so blatantly expositional that it was kind of embarrassing. I agree the information needed to be communicated, but surely there could have been a less awkward way to do it?
The good parts of The Wheel of Time
This is not to say there weren’t some good things about the season finale, though. Daniel Henney’s performance as Lan has been impeccable throughout the season, and his speech to Nynaeve in the finale (which was a near direct quote from the books) brought me to actual tears. He is definitely one of the best casting choices the show made.
The other is Rosamund Pike, who continues to deliver as Moiraine, and has truly carried the entire show thus far. Her oath-slash-declaration-of devotion to Siuan Sanche in epsiode 6 was genuinely moving, and one of the departures from the books I sincerely loved. Well done.
And I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the overall aesthetic of the show is fantastic. It is a treat for the eyes, and if they can elevate their writing to match, we could have something truly amazing in store.
What’s ahead for the next season, then?
Honestly? I have no idea. The deviations from the source material plot may have seemed small at first glance, but as I said, they will have ripple effects which will spread ever wider from their beginnings, and I cannot tell whether the show will simply ride the waves (so to speak), or if it will wrest the story back from the possibly unintended consequences of the changes they made (deliberately or because of the Mat situation) and bring it more back in line with the books.
The second book in the series is called The Great Hunt, and refers to the Hunt for the Horn of Valere, which we saw was stolen by the Darkfriend peddler Padan Fain at the end of episode 8. That’s something that actually happens in the books as well (though not at all in the way it happened on the show), so perhaps that points toward an effort to stay more or less on track with the events in the second book. We shall see.
And we shall see, because even with all my criticisms of the first season and especially the finale, I am still happy that it exists, and happy that I get to watch it, and hopeful that it will get better once we don’t have to deal with pandemic-related shutdowns and disappearing actors. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the Wheel of Time, but this pandemic better have an ending—even if “there’s important TV to create!” is far from the most critical reason we need it to go away, it’s definitely a reason.
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