Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time is an expensive series that can count itself in the long list of shows that remind you of Game of Thrones with its fantasy-medieval setting, permeated with magic and adventure. But it is at times almost too expensive-looking (clocking in at approximately $10M per episode, a metric that GoT didn’t even hit until later seasons): the sets look too neat, the costumes just fitted, almost as if a giant glossy filter has been applied to the book series by Robert Jordan.
To be fair, Jordan’s epic 14-cycle fantasy series predated George R. R. Martin’s books, with his first, A Game of Thrones, published six years after the first Jordan novel, The Eye of the World in 1990. But what set HBO’s Thrones apart from every other series (and remains unsurpassed) was the gritty reality of the medieval world and the intimate focus on relations that made it both historically believable and emotionally engaging (except for that last season, I like to pretend that didn’t happen).
However, what works for The Wheel of Time is its consistent, confident tone, and it smoothly segues the story from episode to episode. It is flush with beautiful colors and lush scenery that draws you in, even if it skimps on some of the details that you would like to sink your teeth into. It can sometimes feel bland but has enough engaging performances and cinematography to always make it watchable. It’s almost like looking at a beautiful painting that you enjoy, even if it doesn’t evoke a strong emotional reaction. Engaging performances from Daniel Henney (Lan), Alvaro Morte (Logain), Marcus Rutherford (Perrin), Zoe Robins (Nynaeve), Peter Franzen (a fav from Vikings, here playing Stepin), Abdul Salis (Eamon Valda), and Kate Fleetwood (Liandrin) are standouts in the series.
Rosamund Pike, in the starring role of Moiraine, comports herself as cold and aloof. The problem is that this doesn’t make for captivating viewing. Pike is a terrific actress, here a member of the powerful all-woman Aes Sedai sect of witches, where her aloofness doesn’t add much to the story. The concept of the Aes Sedai—where only women are allowed to wield the One Power (magic) to maintain peace in the land—is utterly fascinating.
The fact that they are supported by only male warders is a novel take on the concepts of magical power and sex that adds a layer of intrigue to the series, much like it did in the books. What you would like to see is a bit more emotional characterization—which Pike is completely capable of—as she embarks on her secret quest to find the Dragon reincarnated who can either destroy the Dark One (who is rising) or destroy the world, a Messiah type who could be any of the young Chosen Ones from the small village of Two Rivers.
The first six episodes of The Wheel of Time were screened for this review. The first three episodes do the job of world-building and start as slow-burns towards the real meat of the story. The back half of the screened episodes (4-6) is where the narrative picks up in energy and heft, providing Pike’s Moiraine with much- wanted complexity that allows the audience to see more of her humanity. The Amazon series is worth sticking with to get to some of the much-needed drama as The Wheel of Time picks up speed in the middle of its first season. I felt that way about the books as well, which took their time to get to the heart of the story.
The Wheel of Time is pretty and very watchable, but you need some patience to invest in the series once it hits the gas pedal midway in. It’s worth the wait, though, and I’m glad it’s already been greenlit for a second season, where hopefully it will display even greater storytelling confidence. I’m also looking forward to where the wheel will take us after the sixth episode cliffhanger.
The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time’s first season are available now on Amazon Prime Video to stream, with weekly episodes dropping on Fridays starting with Episode 4 on November 26.