After the three-episode premiere of Wheel of Time, I was looking for some immediate issues to get resolved over the rest of the first season. Guess what? They don’t get resolved! Wheel of Time instead turns into a frustrating series that is intermittently compelling, but much of the time is dead boring, with one of the most memorably unmemorable group of characters I’ve seen in a long time. Like, it became a little game with myself every episode, to see how many character names I remember, but I never learned more than a few names, because the vast majority of the characters simply don’t make much of an impression, up to and including big deal central characters (I am relying on IMDB to get me through this review). It’s a big red flag if, after eight hours of television, you can’t remember anyone’s name. But a few things do work, so let’s start with the good stuff before getting to the bad stuff.
The best part of WOT season one is simply Rosamund Pike, who is very cool and interesting as Moraine, the magic lady. She’s also such a good actor that she can make underwritten characterization and half-missing story beats work just by virtue of line delivery and screen presence. Similarly, Daniel Henney makes hay as her warder (read: bodyguard) Lan, and in general, the actors playing grown-up characters throughout season one do a spectacular job upholding some not great scripts. Of particular note are Alexandre Willaume as Thom the Gleeman, Hammed Animashaun acting through a ton of makeup and prosthetics as Loial, Sophie Okonedo as the head of the Aes Sedai, and Kate Fleetwood as Liandrin, Moraine’s rival. The actors playing the five potential Chosen Ones don’t fare so well, but at least there are some actors here who can make clunky material work in spite of itself.
Another strong element is the aesthetic of the show. It looks great, it sounds great, the music is solid. Art direction comes from Janek Hak, Connery Davoodian, Roman Illovsky, and Cloud Razali, with set decoration by Beatrice Brentnerova. The costumes are by Isis Mussenden and Sharon Gilham, sound design is by Luke Gentry, and the music is from Lorne Balfe. All these people are doing top-shelf work. If nothing else, WOT is a visually gorgeous world with STELLAR soundscapes. This is an expensive show, and all the money is on the screen. No, all the issues with WOT stem from the story, particularly how it’s structured and paced.
It’s not an issue that the story cuts between present, past, and far past, but it is an issue that the story has no space to breathe, that characters are making decisions based on no apparent motivation because there is so little time given to development. Feeding off that, the pacing is herky-jerky and episode to episode, there is no sense of sustained momentum. WOT is the rare show that actually needs more room—more episodes—to flesh out characters and build tension to the climax. This isn’t a problem the writers or showrunner bear, it’s a studio problem, as it would be Amazon’s call, ultimately, on how many episodes get made. They should have given showrunner Rafe Judkins more room to work.
Case in point: Lan and his love interest, Nynaeve (Zoe Robins). Their relationship makes no sense. (Book readers, I understand this is a major relationship, and I am sure it works much better in the books.) They meet, have one direct conversation, and are suddenly in love. The camerawork doesn’t back them up, as meaningful and/or longing looks are limited and the camera isn’t framing them in a way that tells a story about their attraction and building sexual and romantic tension. Plus, the actors don’t have strong chemistry, so it’s not even like what little interaction they do have is suggesting powerful attraction and interest. They go from first meeting to Lan vowing to hate the man Nynaeve will someday marry in what feels like five minutes. And this is an issue with more than just Lan and Nynaeve’s romantic subplot. Characters frequently leap from step one to step five in no time at all and often without clear motivation. WOT’s story structure looks like this:
Step 1: Character learns new information
Step 2-4: ????
Step 5: Character makes dramatic pronouncement
It makes for a frustrating watch. I WANT to like these characters, because the world they occupy seems interesting and complex. But it’s a challenge to get invested in anything, because it feels like so much information is missing, and not in a fun, “mysteries to unravel” way, but in a maddening, “I don’t understand why anyone is doing what they’re doing” way. I’d like to think some of this can be fixed in the next season, but some issues are locked in, like the lack of chemistry between Lan and Nynaeve. There’s no fixing that. And I don’t know if the stuff that works, which is mostly about the look of the show and not its actual story, is enough to keep me invested between seasons. I sort of don’t care what happens next to anyone, because I don’t know who most of these characters are. Wheel of Time had eight hours to hook me on this world and these characters, and it never quite did.
All episodes of Wheel of Time are now streaming on Amazon Prime.