The Wheel of Time will premiere on Amazon with three episodes on Nov. 19, then roll out one weekly each Friday thereafter. Below is a spoiler-free review of the first three episodes.
In 2017, then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ordered his fledgling streaming service and production company to produce the next Game of Thrones. While it may be impossible to actually replicate the cultural impact of HBO’s smash hit, Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s fantasy series The Wheel of Time is off to just as strong a start, delivering a remarkable mix of intrigue, spectacle, and magic.
Jordan’s 14-book series fuses the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with metaphysical concepts from multiple religions to create a world where change is inevitable and the forces of good must remain constantly vigilant against the influence of the Dark One. While it has aspects of the traditional hero’s journey and chosen one narratives, the sprawling epic completed posthumously by Brandon Sanderson delivers an enormous cast of characters spread across a complex world facing a mix of mystical and geopolitical struggles.
Amazon’s Wheel of Time Cast
This is a series that really could only be adapted by a studio with the ambitions and budget of Amazon, which is reportedly spending $10 million per episode to build and destroy elaborate sets and fuse CGI with practical effects to make its magic and monsters come to life. Every aspect of the production is lushly realized, from the intricate armors and costumes to the way Aes Sedai and their Warder guardians fight in concert with a beauty reminiscent of wuxia films.
But showrunner Rafe Judkins (Chuck, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and his team are delivering more than just peak-TV spectacle, showing a deep understanding of the source material without being afraid to change things to better suit the medium. Parts of the first three episodes are taken directly from Jordan’s first The Wheel of Time novel, The Eye of the World, but the writers have also scrambled segments of the plot and brought in characters that didn’t appear until much later in the series. When entirely new scenes and characters are introduced, they largely feel like they fit well into the world and help further develop it.
A brief voiceover explains that many years ago men led by a powerful magic user dubbed the Dragon tried to imprison the Dark One and failed, breaking the world and leaving women magic users — known as Aes Sedai — to pick up the pieces. The Aes Sedai Moiraine (Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl) believes that the Dragon has been reborn and is coming of age, and sets off on a quest to find him before agents of the Dark One can win him over to their side.
That quest leads her to the pastoral region of Two Rivers where she finds four 20-year-olds who potentially fit the bill of the Dragon Reborn. She takes them on a journey far from home to uncover their destinies and face the coming battle for the fate of the world. The writers of the show have fleshed out its protagonists a bit more, giving each one additional pathos and reason to adventure. These additions work well for the most part, though one unfortunately involves introducing a new character just to fridge her.
The show has an excellent ensemble bringing the heroes and villains to life. Pike brings a perfect stoic gravitas to Moiraine while Josha Stradowski is an amusingly earnest and mopey Rand al’Thor, pining after his childhood sweetheart Egwene al’Vere (Madeleine Madden) even as she makes it perfectly clear she’d rather have power than his love. Even relatively minor characters shine. Thom Merrilin (Alexandre Willaume) feels like an older and wiser version of The Witcher’s Jaskier as he soberly sings a ballad about the Dragon in a voice reminiscent of Chris Cornell or Eddie Vedder.
It’s no small task to introduce so many characters and explain all the factions, history, and magical rules of the setting in a way that won’t lose newcomers or bore fans of the books. The Wheel of Time manages to thread the needle by showing a group or power in action, allowing us to enjoy a bit of wonder or mystery, and then using the relatively sheltered denizens of Two Rivers as audience stand-ins who can be told what’s really going on.
That results in purposefully jarring shifts in action and tone as a beautiful celebration turns into a bloody battle or an intimate moment becomes something far more threatening. The young heroes, and through them the viewers, rarely understand just how dangerous this world is until they’re being faced with rampaging monsters, dark magic, or lurking traitors. This “action first, explanations later” approach works incredibly well as a way to maintain the momentum without a need to try to keep audiences entertained with Game of Thrones’ notorious sexposition.
Game of Thrones and The Witcher have brought big success to fantasy TV in part by subverting the genre’s tropes through an emphasis on sex and brutality. While both of those things are present in the first few episodes of The Wheel of Time, this is a show that really embraces the genre, refusing to wallow in moral relativism while also avoiding celebrating the preservation of the status quo. The series also has the advantage of having an ending that’s already been written and well received by fans. Bezos wanted a new Game of Thrones. If The Wheel of Time can find enough of an audience to justify its price tag, it might be even better.