Header / Cover Image for 'Review: Wheel of Time (Season 1)'
Header / Cover Image for 'Review: Wheel of Time (Season 1)'

Review: Wheel of Time (Season 1)

The Wheel of Time is one of those book series you always plan to give a try but never do. I have one friend who has read them all several times and obviously recommends them, but with the caveat that it’s a lot of story and not all of it moves at a reasonable pace.

And so it was that I ended up breaking my usual habit of reading the books before watching any adaptation. I have not read more Wheel of Time than the prologue. And then I watched Season 1 of the TV show.

Below are my brief thoughts about it. The first bit has no spoilers; the part after the “Spoiler Barrier!” heading obviously will.

What’s the idea?

The Wheel of Time is a fantasy story set in a world with magic (the One Power), but only some can access it. In fact, only women can (the Aes Sedai), which is why they hold most of the power in this world. It is rare for a man to be able to Channel and it’s usually stamped out.

As always, there is an evil force (the Dark One). They are currently trapped and weakened, but threaten to break out and cast the world into chaos.

And the story starts with one Aes Sedai traveling to a village because she believes the next Dragon Reborn is among them: a prophecized human who is the only one with enough power to stop the Dark One.

That’s as much as I can say without spoilers. (It’s also not entirely correct, but it’s the general idea.)

What I liked

Okay, so, I do everything on a terrible old laptop. Which means my screen is small and bad. When I read comments online about the CGI being terrible, or things looking fake, I usually can’t see that. So it doesn’t matter to me.

It’s part of the reason why I focus nearly 100% on the storytelling and script of a show. Everything else mostly feels like a waste of money and energy to me, and it frustrates me that studios seem to spend infinitely more time on set design or special effects than, you know, the actual script. No amount of wooden dialogue and weird plot choices can be saved by pretty pictures ;)

Though the music was great, because I do have good headphones thanks to my work as a musician.

The first episode, and maybe the second, were good. They introduced the world, the central goal, the characters, at a reasonable pace and with enough mystery for me to keep watching.

I might also add the final episode as a good one, because we finally returned to that goal and actually made stuff happen.

Everything in between was very meh.

What I did not like

I feel like many writers think too much. Or, rather, they think about things that don’t matter and they think about things in the (far) future.

The choices of this show baffled me so much that I did more research. I listened to Brandon Sanderson—the one who finished the final three books and consulted on the show—explain some decisions and what he thought of them. I researched a lot of questions and whether things were the same in the book.

And I realized that most of the bad choices were likely because …

  • The writers planned ahead and wanted to “prepare” the viewer for tone or genre changes in later books.
  • The writers were too afraid that the original material would not be good enough, not enough to keep the kids with no attention span watching.
  • The writers wanted to add their own ideas and story threads, instead of just adapting what was there.

In the end, all that matters is that the current story is interesting. Once started, it has to flow from interesting scene to interesting scene, cool plot point to cool character moment, until done.

This show, like many, throws that idea overboard in order to “set up” elements for later. Maybe for next season(s). Maybe a “mystery box” that they happen sparks discourse.

But all of that is meaningless if the story itself, the thing actually happening for an hour, is at a standstill and feels irrelevant right now.

Episodes 3 to 7 just felt boring to me. I don’t care that you’re setting something up for later, give me interesting story. I don’t care that you are trying to make a point or slowly shift the show to a different genre, give me good story now.

The show clearly establishes itself as an adventure quest in the first episode or two. It gives a clear goal and a reason to keep moving.

Then it just … stops doing that. Instead of focusing on our main quest and characters, it starts focusing on other characters and other ideas. Instead of being a fantasy adventure, it becomes a political drama for a few episodes. Instead of advancing mysteries in interesting ways (such as “which of them is the Dragon Reborn?”), it just lets them remain a mystery by making no or meaningless progress. Until, at the end of the season, it suddenly realizes what it started in episode 1 and quickly tries to finish that.

I am not saying the show should be “faster paced”. And I’m also not just disagreeing because they changed things from the books, because I did not read them. I don’t mind political intrigue (in fact, I like it), I don’t mind mysteries, I don’t mind a “slow burn” story (in fact, I prefer it). I don’t feel like I have any bias or wrong assumptions here.

It’s simply unsatisfying if you promise/start story A, then suddenly switch to story B (in which almost no progress is made), only to switch back to A in a panic in the final episode. Tell me an interesting story, not a setup for future seasons, or a cheap way to prolong a mystery.


As expected, I am not enthusiastic about this show.

The good parts, as I have learned, are the things that were almost 100% copied from the books. The world, the magic, some general ideas and plotlines, etcetera. Almost everything they changed or added feel like bad decisions to me, because they mean the story stops being a story. When no progress is made, when you establish a goal and simply don’t move towards it at all for multiple episodes, it just becomes a boring mess without purpose.

As I said in the beginning, this show should’ve spent its enormous budget on developing much better scripts. I can’t even see where all the money went anyway, because the series actually has very few big set pieces or action sequences for a fantasy/adventure show. It’s mostly stiff dialogue in static places, or people walking through a random hillside I could find in my backyard as well.

I am more tempted to read the books now than to watch season 2, even if they all say it is much better than season 1.

Anyway, those were my spoiler-free thoughts. Below, I’ll explain them with more specifics and examples, but that requires spoilers!

Spoiler Barrier!

Let’s start with the good

Despite some hiccups, I like episode 1. It does quite a good job at establishing a quaint village and some people traveling (or some things going on) “elsewhere”. When the Trollocs suddenly attack the village, it is a shock, but you also feel that the story now really kicks off and gains momentum at the right time. You know everyone enough to care about them and follow the action, and you know Moiraine and how she can defend them.

Even better, the action is creative. We get Moiraine creatively applying her powers, for example by drawing bricks from a home. We get an overhead shot of her working together with her Warden, which both looks cool and gives you a better sense of how that relationship works.

When I say hiccups, I mean …

  • The episode has multiple cold opens, all of which feel a bit irrelevant and like they focus on the wrong thing. (First we get people we don’t know chasing other people we don’t know, for reasons we don’t know, which doesn’t matter anyway. Then we get Egwene who we don’t know, doing a ritual we don’t understand, which doesn’t matter anyway too.)
  • It’s a bit too long and it might have been better to stop just as the Trollocs attack.
  • It’s a bit cliché, I guess. The way they introduce characters and settings feels like “super standard default fantasy stuff”, which made me check out a bit. Introducing characters while they’re sitting in an inn, drinking beer, talking with forced banter? Multiple times? Please, just show them individually doing interesting stuff that shows their character, then have them come together near the end. Which they were doing anyway, because they have a feast when the trollocs attack.

But when the episode is over, we have a goal and we have a cast of characters. They must travel with Moiraine, one of them is the Dragon Reborn, and bad stuff is happening if trollocs are attacking this far from home base.

Great. Clear. Momentum.

The show continues this somewhat in episode 2. Then it completely loses this plot.

Although, thanks to my bad screen, I completely missed the fact that Perrin killed his own wife in episode 1. My screen was so dark and it happened so fast, my brain just assumed it was a trolloc or something. Which made it impossible for me to understand him and why he was there at all, until it was mentioned again in episode 5.

The mystery pitfall

This is a mistake I’ve made several times before. It’s a hard one to sidestep, but it’s also crucial to do so.

When you write a story with a mystery, you have to actually advance the mystery and give one or two irrefutable hints.

Just being vague is not satisfying. Introducing something only halfway, then dropping it for four episodes, is not satisfying. Starting a mystery and then suddenly resolving it without anything that feels like a clear hint or action, is not satisfying.

I’ll give two (related) examples from this show.

First, we have the whole “who is the Dragon Reborn?” thing. The show doesn’t introduce any parameters, requirements, properties, or whatever for the Dragon Reborn. So no matter what happened in the episodes afterwards, the audience literally can’t know or figure out who it is. Even if a character casted some super powerful spell that destroyed a city, we would be like “is that a sure sign of the Dragon Reborn? We don’t know! We know nothing!”

Subsequently, the story does not introduce hints or foreshadowing. It shows each character, one or more times, touching the source or doing something slightly strange. So … like … they’re all equally suspicious? We are back where we started? And again, the fact that Rand can kick down a very heavy door, or Perrin has some connection with wolves, does not mean shit to us. Is that a sign of the Dragon Reborn? Are they all the Dragon Reborn? We don’t know! We know nothing!

The show should have established, very early one, one or two sure signs for finding the Dragon Reborn. But they are tough signs, hard to spot or verify. Then, as the season goes on, people can be suspicious and can have their moment of magic. But only if you pay attention and be creative with searching for those given signs, you can be certain that Rand is the only one who matches.

This is how you setup a mystery, advance it, and actually reward the audience for participating. This show just says vague stuff, does nothing, then suddenly reveals who it is.

Which is my second example! The sequence in which Rand realizes he has channeled a few times before, and then suddenly declares he’s the Dragon Reborn (and Moiraine just instantly believes him), is baffling to me. Half of them can channel, and more powerfully than Rand. The other half can do even weirder magical stuff. All this time, they have been unsure of themselves, and Moiraine has been equally unsure.

Why on earth would the realization that Rand also channeled in minor ways suddenly make him the Dragon Reborn with 100% certainty? What is the logic here? How could the audience ever predict or follow this?

Because the mystery wasn’t actually setup well, and didn’t advance smoothly over time, this is just a sudden revelation that comes out of nowhere. Not a satisfying end to a season-long mystery.

Progress is key

The middle episodes could be almost entirely cut out. (If you keep the only important parts and rewrite some bits, of course.)

Let’s look at what happens. After the group is split up,

  • Perrin and Egwene sit for a while, then walk for a while, then get captured very briefly, then walk some more.
  • Rand and Matt walk for a while, visit one town, flee when an enemy reveals itself, then walk some more.
  • Moiraine (and co) travel for a while, then suddenly switch to full-on politics once in the city, until the others basically fall into her lap.

Sure, you could technically explain “slowly moving to where you want to be” as progress. But when it’s that slow, and you never even know where they are now, and nothing else progresses … it’s basically a standstill.

They try to give Perrin an arc about learning “The Way of the Leaf”. But he hasn’t been violent at all—he actually felt barely alive, that’s how passive he was—so this is just a lot of talking for nothing. They could have just done the one scene where they showed this (the final one with them) and forego all the walking and talking.

They try to give Egwene an arc about learning that she does love Rand very much. But this has already been established multiple times—they love each other and also know they might have to go their own way. This is actually a very repetitive argument that goes nowhere, which happens several times between them.

They try to do the same for Rand, but as stated above, this is just repeating what was already established.

And Matt is just ill, angry and sleeping on a bed all the time. Great.

Moiraine keeps telling people nothing and doing nothing, just saying she has “eyes and ears all over the city”. Yeah, sure. Your very important kids might be dying in a forest a hundred miles away, but asking a few people to watch the city walls is the best you can do.

One entire episode is dedicated to people (very transparently) politicking her out of the tower, which is then turned on its head when she reveals a relationship with the Amberlyn Seat. So the show tries to make it dramatic, but everything that happens is entirely within her control and actually expected/what she wanted.

One entire episode is dedicated to introducing this made-up couple of Aes Sedai and warden. Then she dies, and the next episode is dedicated to the warden’s depression and his eventual suicide too. What have we accomplished? In two full episodes, we have introduced two characters that don’t mean anything to the plot, to show something that has already been shown repeatedly (bond between warden and Aes Sedai), for them to die immediately.

This part is 3–4 hours of absolutely nothing! I don’t want to watch people walk in vague places and talk about the same things repeatedly. Give me a good story that makes progress.

What could they have done?

  • Perrin is shown to use violence, purposely or not, to get his ways from the start. Learning about the Way of the Leaf then actually means something and changes his future actions.
  • Egwene and Rand have a terrible fallout in which they basically tell each other that they hate each other and it’s all over. Then, meeting other men/women and discussing this actually allows them to realize how much they do love each other and change their future actions.
  • Matt can be ill (or under the influence of some dark dagger), but use it to make him do questionable or interesting stuff.
  • Moiraine actually endangers herself and her political standing because she keeps searching for these lost protagonists, leaving the tower and going off to do her own thing all the time, which then unexpectedly (and against her own wishes or plans) causes her banishment.

This way, you actually make progress, and the time spent traveling is also spent learning more about the characters and world, and shaping future events.

I just don’t understand how anyone, especially with such a budget and a 600-page book to condense, chooses to just ignore all the written events and replace it with four hours of no progress and meaningless side quests.

In the books, as I have learned, Rand and Matt visit multiple villages and are actually guided/taught by Thom. Instead of just … using that, perhaps leaving out one or two villages for time, the show decided that picking one village and doing busywork there until the end of the episode was the best approach?

Promise and Payoff are also key

I’ve been going on too long already, so I’ll make this the final part.

As stated, the show starts with a clear tone and goal. If you liked the first episode, you keep watching because you want more of that.

If the show then switches to something else entirely, even if that was good and well-written, it’s just a disappointment. There is no hint of politics in the first few episodes, so why on earth suddenly devote the next episode entirely to politics within the Aes Sedai? The main thread does not depend on the bond between warden and Aes Sedai, so why on earth spend two whole episodes (with made up characters that die) to show it again?

As mentioned before, the major mystery about the Dragon Reborn is not really paid off (in a satisfying way). It’s just “oh shit it’s episode 8—it’s Rand!”

The major mystery about the Dark One is only advanced in episode 8, and even then it’s left ambiguous and pretty cliché. The villain tries to sweet talk the good one, who seems to listen but then is clearly too smart to be fooled. They are imprisoned and try to break out. Yeah, yeah, seen that.

Their other major goal, of reaching the city and Aes Sedai, is also not really paid off. After a lot of nothing, they basically stumble into each other’s arms, and Moiraine just accepts that and rolls with it. The city (and White Tower) itself is also not as wonderful, magic or special as you would have hoped.

When the final battle comes, we have learned almost nothing about the magic, the world, the characters, Moiraine and her ever mysterious goals, etcetera! The people who die in the battle have only been introduced 45 minutes ago. The other side only has identical trollocs that die easily. Why should we care? Why is this happening? What is this paying off? When the good guys do win … why? Why does the magic work like that? Why didn’t they lead with that?

As explained at the start, I can only explain all these choices by imagining a writer who wanted to think ahead, prepare for future seasons, please everyone a little bit. Yes, later books of the Wheel of Time switch to almost full-on political drama. So the writer wanted to prepare the audience that this was also a part of the show. In my eyes, though, you do so gradually and in an interesting way. You do so when the time is right, just before we transition to that new “tone” if you want. You don’t do so by just forcefully inserting 4 episodes of other story threads into the main one.

When I start watching a fantasy show for magic, growth of a hero, defeating a dark villain … it feels strange to suddenly be watching the drama of a depressed warden and political maneouvering by some women sitting around in a tower doing shit all.

Seriously, can we stop with fantasy stories showing wise or magical people just sitting around and talking all day? Surely they have other daily activities! Surely you can write scenes where they’re practicing, or just enjoying themselves, or doing some other INTERESTING thing while you have a discussion or plan a heist or whatever.

Game of Thrones did this well with Prince Oberyn Martell. We only have a handful of scenes with him, but every time we see him, he’s doing something else in a different place. He’s writing poetry in the garden, he’s joking and lounging on the council, etcetera. This means we have a full picture of his personality and skills without wasting time, which is why many people loved him.

I’ve used this contrast between “adventure quest” and “political intrigue” now to make my point. The show, however, has many of such contrasts. First we focus on one thing, then we suddenly focus on an entirely different thing. First the story is told with style X, then it suddenly uses style Y to show everything.

If I had to summarize why this show felt so hollow, it would be: “most of it has literally no progress, and the progress it does make is focused on entirely the wrong things”

Those were my thoughts. A review of season 2 is unlikely.