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‘Wheel of Time’ is an engaging but uneven fantasy epic

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Dark forces threaten the world, and it’s up to a band of unlikely companions, including the Chosen One, to save the day.That fantasy formula is old hat at this point, but to its credit, Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time attempts to tell it with some new twists. While the show doesn’t always succeed, the overall result is an exciting adventure that gets better as it goes along.Adapted from Robert Jordan’s influential (and lengthy) book series, The Wheel of Time has to cover a lot of ground to cover to get...

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Dark forces threaten the world, and it’s up to a band of unlikely companions, including the Chosen One, to save the day.

That fantasy formula is old hat at this point, but to its credit, Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time attempts to tell it with some new twists. While the show doesn’t always succeed, the overall result is an exciting adventure that gets better as it goes along.

Adapted from Robert Jordan’s influential (and lengthy) book series, The Wheel of Time has to cover a lot of ground to cover to get you up to speed with the story. Episode 1, “Leavetaking” jumps straight in with a voiceover chock-full of exposition: Long ago, men with access to great magical power broke the world, leaving the women with that same power to patch things up. Now, the one who brought about the Breaking of the World — known as the Dragon — has been reborn. A prophecy states that this reincarnation will either save the world or destroy it. So, it’s crucial that the powerful all-female Aes Sedai order find them before the Dark One does.

On the hunt for the Dragon Reborn are Aes Sedai Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) and her loyal Warder Lan (Daniel Henney). Arriving in the isolated community of the Two Rivers, they discover several young people, who could potentially be the Dragon: Egwene (Madeleine Madden), a strong-willed young woman who longs for adventure; Rand (Josha Stradowski), a stubborn sheepherder; Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), the Two Rivers’ gentle giant of a blacksmith; Mat (Barney Harris), somewhat of a wild card; and Nynaeve (Zoë Robins), the Two Rivers’ Wisdom. Soon enough, all seven of our leads find themselves on the run from the Dark One’s beastly servants.

Moiraine channels the One Power in Amazon's Wheel of Time.

Moiraine and the One Power in action. Credit: Amazon Studios

Don’t expect to get to know all the characters or understand the whole world right away. The Wheel of Time‘s first episode moves at a breakneck pace designed to get the main characters out of the Two Rivers as quickly as possible. It makes sense to move the story into the wider world early on. But we barely get to know the characters, let alone the lives that they’re forced to give up. So, their leaving feels more like a foregone conclusion than a painful choice.

Luckily, The Wheel of Time improves from there. Each episode is better than the last. Time on the road gives us a chance to understand who these people are and why we should care about them. An early separation splits the travelers up into smaller groups, allowing them to forge deeper connections with their companions and with the audience. By the time I reached the end of the six episodes sent to critics for screening (there will be eight episodes in total), I was fully invested.

Much of that investment also has to do with the world. Amazon spent a lot of money making this show. And for the most part, it pays off. Aside from some occasionally goofy-looking visual effects, The Wheel of Time is stunning, flaunting its budget with gorgeous costumes and detailed sets that appropriately establish the show’s epic scale.

Showrunner Rafe Judkins does an admirable job trimming the fat from Jordan’s novels. This is no small feat, considering that the first book in the series clocks in at over 800 pages long. He wisely condenses much of the characters’ travel time, so we don’t spend entire episodes slogging from inn to inn. Plus, he centers Moiraine and the Aes Sedai as much as possible to give us a wider sense of what’s at stake.

Aside from some occasionally goofy-looking visual effects, ‘The Wheel of Time’ is stunning, flaunting its budget with gorgeous costumes and detailed sets that appropriately establish the show’s epic scale.

As Moiraine, Pike mixes weary gravitas with undeniable cool. The scenes where she interacts with her fellow magical sisters are among The Wheel of Time‘s best, full of political machination and women who are strong, flawed, and fascinating. Pike and Henney also have excellent chemistry. It’s oh-so-easy to believe the intimacy of their bond. There’s a clear sense of shared history in even the smallest of their exchanged glances. 

The actors playing the Two Rivers citizens all give strong performances, nicely conveying the different ways in which people react when their world turns upside down. The Wheel of Time keeps you guessing as to the true identity of the Dragon Reborn, with each character getting a moment to shine (sometimes literally). If you’re totally unfamiliar with Jordan’s books, you’ll be pleasantly surprised not knowing who the Chosen One is right off the bat. (If you’ve already read the series, don’t spoil it for others!)

Despite everything it does well, The Wheel of Time isn’t without its missteps. The pace varies from lightning-fast to maddeningly slow, only hitting a happy medium towards the later end of the available episodes. Special effects — especially when it comes to the One Power — are either awesome or hilariously fake-looking.

Perhaps the worst offense is the dialogue that basically screams, “Listen to this important exposition!” Too often, clunky lines are slipped into conversation for the sole purpose of delivering as much background information as possible. This kind of dialogue is a trap that most fantasy and sci-fi shows fall into, because how else are you going to introduce your audience to your made-up world’s history and culture? The Wheel of Time certainly does its best to meet this challenge, but it doesn’t quite get it right.

Still, for all its faults, The Wheel of Time is a well-crafted fantasy adventure that will excite new audiences and appease fans of the book, even with its changes from the source material. If you enjoy the first episode, your experience will only get better from there. If you’re skeptical after watching, give it another chance: this series gains its footing slowly but surely, and with a second season already on its way, there’s a good chance it’ll hit its stride.

The Wheel of Time is now streaming on Amazon Prime, with new episodes every week.

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