The mega-success of HBO’s Game of Thrones meant that suddenly every network couldn’t wait to jump on the high fantasy bandwagon. From Netflix’s The Witcher and Shadow and Bone to Showtime’s rumored upcoming adaptation of The Kingkiller Chronicles, and HBO’s His Dark Materials (alongside the plethora of GoT spinoffs the network itself has already greenlit), it seems like every possible streamer, network, and niche service is reading some fantasy-based property for mass consumption.
Amazon has several on the air on in the works, including another season of steampunk fairy drama Carnival Row, a big-budget The Lord of the Rings prequel series, and The Wheel of Time, the highly anticipated adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy epic that spans fourteen books and several additional volumes of ancillary material.
Interestingly enough, however, Amazon’sThe Wheel of Time has clearly been made with an eye toward those who aren’t familiar with Jordan’s books – though to be clear, there are Easter eggs and page-accurate scene recreations that are sure to delight those who’ve read the series several times over. But the series itself is refreshingly free of the overly complicated exposition and lore deep dives that often made Thrones so inaccessible to non-ASOIAF readers. The result is a crisp, entertaining fantasy delight, one that – if there is any justice – may actually hand Amazon a genuine streaming hit.
The story is set in a world seemingly traditional medieval fantasy realm – except for the fact that this one is almost entirely matriarchal. A member of a group of women known as the Aes Sedai is on a quest to locate a Chosen One known as the Dragon Reborn who can successfully battle the villainous Dark One. (Plot twist: If said Chosen One is corrupted by the Dark One, he or she will doom the world rather than save it.)
Most of the story beats here will feel pretty familiar to those who are even passingly acquainted with fantasy tropes and themes, but Wheel of Time makes a few intriguing choices along the way that make this particular Chosen One saga feel more interesting than most. For one, there isn’t just a Chosen One – there are many. Well, okay, technically there is only one Dragon Reborn, but there are several individuals who could be this mythical person, and even Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), the powerful Aes Sedai attempting to locate this prophesied being doesn’t know which it is.
But the primary thing that makes this story feel so different is the effortless way it incorporates female characters and gives them the sort of impact and agency they are often denied in other fantasy epics. (As much as I love Eowyn in Lord of the Rings the fact that she is basically the series’ only significant female character stings.) The Aes Sedai are powerful and political, charged with protecting the world with their intelligence, vast resources, and their ability to “channel,” to create weaves of elemental energy that is oftentimes largely indistinguishable from magic. (But there’s a whole system at work here, so just go with it.)
PIke’s Moiraine is the grounding force of the series, calm, powerful, and capable. Her story – and the complexities of her special bond with her Warder,Lan (Daniel Henney) – is doled out in due course over series’ first seasaon, but she’s commanding from her first moments onscreen and an easy heroine to both root for an invest in.
Her search for the Dragon Reborn leads her and Lan to a small, bucolic village known as the Two Rivers, where she quickly realizes that any one of a group of young people might be the prophesied hero she seeks – there’s kind sheepherder Rand al’Thor (Josha Stradowski), blacksmith Perrin Aybara (Marcus Rutherford), gambler Mat Cauthorn (Barney Harris), innkeeper’s daughter Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) and village healer – or Wisdom, as they call her – Nynaeve al’Meara (Zoë Robins).
The relationships between and among the group are sweet and distinct – one of the best things about the series is the careful way it depicts the genuine depth and connection between Mat, Perrin and Rand, who genuinely feel as though they’ve been friends all their lives. (And honestly, it’s still far too rare on television period, but maybe especially in genre spaces that male friendship is depicted in this sort of open and emotionally honest way.)
Rand’s relationship with Egwene is equal parts sweet and complicated, and though she’s questioning whether a future as a wife and mother is something she truly wants for herself, neither Rand nor the show belittle her for wanting something more for herself and her future. As the group journies toward the Aes Sedai stronghold known as the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon, they’ll learn more about themselves -the point of all good quest stories – as viewers learn more about the rules and history of the world they live in.
The Wheel of Time is briskly paced and doesn’t bog itself down with too much exposition or explanation in its early episodes. Yet, it’s surprisingly easy not just to follow along but to become fully invested in these characters and their stories. Personally, I can’t wait to see where this adventure goes next.
The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time premiere on Friday, November 19, with weekly releases to follow thereafter.