Book Reader Looks Back at Season 1 of The Wheel of Time on Prime

What Friday would be complete without a Wheel of Time post?  I’m not quite ready to give up on writing about the show yet.  I recapped and reacted to each and every episode in basically real-time, but an episode-by-episode analysis and evaluation doesn’t necessarily line up with a whole-season analysis and evaluation.  Sometimes a season is greater than the sum of its parts, sometimes it is less.  I liked 6 of the 8 episodes in season 1, but I am sour on the season as a whole.  Worse, I don’t have faith in the show team for fix its issues in season 2.  Let’s break things down.

Photo Credit: Jan Thijs
Copyright: © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc.

Casting

Before talking about the episodes in chunks, I want to highlight the one big win: casting.  I’m not sure if there are any bad casting choices here.  The shows leans hard on Rosamund Pike (as Moiraine) and Daniel Henney (as Lan) and expects to.  They are more than adequate to the task.  Alvaro Morte (as Logain), Alexandre Willaume (as Thom), and Abdul Salis (as Eamon Valda) make minor characters pop.  Michael McElhatton (as Tam) gets way too little screentime, but he elevates every scene he appears in.  Actors like Josha Stradowski (as Rand) and Barney Harris (as Mat) are given too little to work with but still make their characters didn’t work.  Where their characters don’t work, I think the blame is with the writing, not with Madeleine Madden (as Egwene), Marcus Rutherford (as Perrin), or Sophie Okonedo (as Suian).

Episodes 1-3

In retrospect, these were the best episodes of the season.  Maybe not the best crafted, sure, but they benefit mightily from keeping mostly to the book.  The biggest mistake was rushing through so much story in just three episodes.  This is necessarily a critique of the balance of the season, taking screentime that should have gone to the plot here.  I am guessing that Rafe did not know that Prime was going to drop the first three episodes at once, otherwise he would have let episode 1 breathe a bit.  Needing more time with the Two Rivers Five will be a recurring them in this post, and you need to establish what is being lost.  You can’t afford to go full Fellowship of the Ring, but note that the extended release of the Peter Jackson movie adaptation benefits mightily from the extra time.  The best compromise would have been to end the episode with the beginning of the Winternight attack, not the departure from Emond’s Field.  Truncating Shadar Logoth was another big mistake.  Not only do you rob yourself of a marque set piece (after spending oodles of cash on the city and effective CGI-redesign of Mashadar), you undercut Mat’s story for the first three books, undercut Padan Fain as a character, and undercut certain elements later in the story.

Episode 4

This is probably actually the best episode of the season, especially if we are going to judge it standing alone rather than as an adaptation.  Episode 4 is proof that the show team can deliver quality original content.  The fight between Logain’s army and the Aes Sedai and Warders is the best set piece of the season and we get a Wham! moment with Nynaeve at the end.  But we can, in retrospect, take the episode with a grain of salt.  Time devoted to a minor character (Logain) is time not devoted to the actual main characters of the story, and the show is willing to play loose and fast with the rules of the world (whether set by the books or by the show itself), something that will later become a major problem.

Episodes 5 & 6

Here is where the real problems start.  Episode 5 is actually pretty good, original content and all, but it really shows that the show team doesn’t know how to allocate scarce screentime.  Episode 6 has the same problem, while ignoring the Law of Unintended Consequences in allowing Suian to take an oath of personal obedience and somehow making a major book weakness that much worse.  The show broke up directing duties into two-episode blocks, so these episodes shared the same director.  The directing (by Salli Richardson) is noticeably weaker than the rest of the season, with artificial-looking lighting and a Tar Valon that feels small, lacking the establishing shots from the wilderness scenes and Fal Dara. 

Episode 7

Episode 7 isn’t without its flaws.  Book changes here seem especially arbitrary, and the very real chemistry among the Two Rivers Five is marred by petty high school drama.  Unlike a lot of people, I thought the reveal of Rand as the Dragon Reborn worked just fine (albeit, just . . . fine).

Episode 8

More than anything, episode 8 broke my faith in the show.  Drastic changes from book canon, lazy storytelling, poor storytelling.  But the real sin is telling us how powerful the Dragon Reborn will be in episode 4 but not showing us in episode 8.  Even while the focus is drawn away from Rand, the remainder of the Two Rivers Five do nothing: Mat is absent entirely, the most relevant thing Perrin does is wander off at a key moment, and Nynaeve and Egwene serve as mere conduits for another channeler.

Photo Credit: Jan Thijs
Copyright: © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc.

A Note on Adaptations

My interest in the TV adaptation of The Wheel of Time comes almost entirely from how much I like the books.  I like (love) the books, so I want the book story told in a different medium.  Why would we act like that is weird?  Changes, of course, are necessary due to the demands of the medium.  But they should be in service of retelling the same story, not telling a different story.

There is another good reason to hew to the books as closely as reasonable.  The books are really damn good.  Why do you think Amazon bought the rights?  The book series has sold tens of millions of copies and each new book hit #1.  It isn’t just that there is a large built-in audience of fans looking for a favorite story told in a different medium, it is that there is an even larger potential audience of future fans who would the story because it’s a great story.

Finally, the fact that a show is an adaptation does not immunize any specific choice in adaptation from critique.  If a show is an original work, you don’t say, “well, it’s an original work, so you have to understand that choices are made.”  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not complaining because the horses aren’t the right color.  Changes are necessary for an adaptation, but this adaptation is marked by too many changes, by changes that appear poorly thought out, by changes that flatly contradict the books, by unnecessary changes, and by changes that make the story weaker.

A few thoughts on some specific changes or categories of changes:

The Mystery

Playing hide the ball with the identity of the Dragon Reborn could have worked.  I think the reveal itself was fine.  We did get a couple good hints (the door at the Darkfriend’s inn and the channeling in the Ways), and the “hints” that were omitted would have flat out told us who it was.  But keeping the mystery up may have led the show to spend less time with the Two Rivers Five.  Whether it did or not, the limited screentime they get is a big problem with season 1.  The Wheel of Time has six main characters; the Two Rivers Five are five of the six.  Rand, in particular, seems to have had his character downplayed to artificially increase the impact of revealing him as the Dragon.  Some of the interest in the Dragon’s identity is sapped by lack of clues on the other side—that the Dragon was reborn outside of Two Rivers is a major plot element in the first book.  Opening up Egwene and Nynaeve isn’t bad by itself—five potentials to obsess and argue over is better than three—but it opens up all kinds of potential downstream complications.  The Dragon Reborn being a man is a big deal.  He will be (rightly) feared because men who channel go mad.  And he will inevitable butt up against and upend a female power establishment.

Gender Dynamics

The gender dynamics in book series are much maligned.  And I agree with some of the particulars of criticism of the execution.  But we’re talking about a core thematic element of the series.  Men and women are different, but complementary.  The world is worse for the imbalance and artificial separation created by the Taint on saidin, as symbolized by the ancient Aes Sedai symbol being split into a separate White Flame and Dragon’s Fang and even together missing the contrasting dots on the traditional Yin Yang symbol.

This is a major thematic element that is inextricably woven into the plot and, more importantly, the worldbuilding of the series.  When you start to strip it out, you not only very quickly create distance between your story and the original story, you start pulling on threads tied in a hundred different places.  You can’t strip the gender dynamics from The Wheel of Time and keep it The Wheel of Time, and even a well-intentioned, minor change can undermine the entire story.

It isn’t just suggesting Egwene or Nynaeve could be the Dragon Reborn.  The show has downplayed any difference between saidin and saidar.  It does a good job explaining the nature of saidar but have made saidin sound the same.  Moiraine implies she could teach Rand to channel.  And if she can, even the madness doesn’t justify refusing to teach him.  Discussion of Village Council/Women’s Circle type.  (Granted, a lot of this can still be introduced later.)  Even if you don’t like this stuff, stripping it out of the story leaves a more generic fantasy.  Bezos isn’t going to get his Game of Thrones selling a generic fantasy.

It is also fair to say, I think, that the show poorly serves the male characters from the book.  Tam gets less screentime in episode 1 than Suian’s father does in episode 6.  Thom’s role is greatly reduced.  Bran Al’Vere and Raen are room meat.  Agelmar is a jerk.  Elyas is elided.  Lan gets lots of screentime but is largely irrelevant.  Of the 3 of 6 main characters who are male, only Mat is effectively developed as a character (but, then, again, the two Two Rivers women weren’t well developed either).  Maybe this is driven by how the show approaches gender, maybe it isn’t, but it is a problem either way.  Heaps of strong characters of both sexes is a major selling point for the books.  An ensemble show can’t succeed if it bats under .500 (and it isn’t batting 1.000 with its female characters).

Photo Credit: Jan Thijs
Copyright: © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC and Sony Pictures Television Inc.

Don’t Fix It Unless You Fix It

One common defense is that The Wheel of Time books just aren’t that good.  One, me and a whole lot of other people beg to differ.  Two, a bad book series isn’t a very good base to work off of so why are you watching and defending it?  But, hey, I don’t think they’re perfect, and adaptation brings it challenges.  I can think of three ways the first book needs or would benefit from changes in adaptation to TV.  But the lesser-known cousin of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is “don’t fix it unless you fix it.”  The show made changes to those same three elements, but in each case managed to make it worse.

My biggest critique when I first picked up first book in middle school is that it tracks the plot of the first Lord of the Rings book too closely.  This may be an even bigger danger for the show given the Peter Jackson movies place in popular culture.  The additional focus on Aes Sedai and Aes Sedai politics and the early introduction of Tar Valon may be aimed at distinguishing the show from Lord of the Rings.  And it does, but it burns time that should have been spent on the main plot, and watering down the worldbuilding otherwise leads to a bigger problem—The Wheel of Time comes off as a very generic fantasy.

The decision to circumvent Tar Valon and take the Ways to Fal Dara to seek the Eye was plenty contrived in the books.  The show started from a hole by sending the fellowship to Tar Valon first.  The decision to seek the Eye in the show winds up even more half-baked than in the books, based entirely on a few dreams by Suian.

One thing about the first book that creates a challenge for adaptation is the sheer number of elements in the climax that don’t come up later in the books, don’t fit well with later worldbuilding, or both.  The show replaced it with something very underwhelming, though, and junked the one part that they really needed to keep, which was Rand’s role at Tarwin’s Gap.

Weak Storytelling

The ultimate downfall of Game of Thrones was an inability to create original content even close to as good as George R.R. Martin’s material.  Once they ran out of book runway things degraded pretty quickly.  Season 1 of The Wheel of Time has some quite good original content (mostly in episode 4), but lots of outright bad original content (Perrin’s wife, Perrin’s love triangle, etc.).  The show creators demonstrate little ability to tell a story properly over the course of a full season, which is going to become a very large problem as time constraints and earlier changes force them further and further from the books.

Rafe has said there are elements in season 1 intended to set things up several seasons down the road, but I have trouble crediting his statement when the show manages to mangle several setups within season 1.  Episode 5 makes a big deal out of what the warder bond means for a warder whose Aes Sedai dies, but then Moiraine leaves Lan behind when she thinks she will die at the Eye.  Moiraine makes a big deal about the danger of the Blight, but she entered it without her warder.  She says to not touch anything, but she and Rand freely touch things as they walk through the Blight.  Episode 3 makes a big deal out an Aiel not wearing a veil being no threat, then episode 7 shows us an unveiled Aiel kill several people.

The show doesn’t bother to properly set up other elements.  It sneaks the sa’angreal into the opening monologue, when it could have much more effectively introduced it by having Suian give it to Moiraine, giving her a much better reason to seek the Eye.  It pulls over Lan’s speech to Nynaeve basically verbatim from the books, but it lands with a thud because Lan courting death is never established in the show.  Combined with unnecessarily adding casual sex the night before, it makes Lan look like he is ghosting a one-night stand.

The show tends toward lazy storytelling.  You get cool moments like Nynaeve facing down Logain, Perrin and Egwene escaping Valda, or a pregnant Aiel Maiden killing several soldiers, but they lose something from fuzzy worldbuilding or poor setup or whatever.  The season finale sees several characters die, but it is pretty clear that there are multiple fake-outs.  Trying to convince the audience that a character died while refusing to accept the storytelling consequences of a character death is one of my pet peeves, because it is so lazy.  When the show does kill off characters, it tends to kill off the few characters it has bother giving some character development (see: Stepin, Kerene, Agelmar, and Amalisa).  Never developing a character until you are about to kill them off is one of the worst aspects of The Walking Dead show.  My greatest fear for The Wheel of Time show is that it will be like The Walking Dead, unable to die or get better as long as enough people tune in, no matter how bad it is.

Budget

The Wheel of Time is a big-budget fantasy.  The reported budget is along the lines of $10 million per episode.  This is a lot closer to the Game of Thrones season 8 budget than it is to the Game of Thrones season 1 budget.  But the production value of the show looks closer to the latter.  It doesn’t look bad (for the most part).  But it doesn’t look like a $10 million per episode show.  Outside of the CGI for channeling, I watch the show and I really have no idea where about half the money went.

I don’t have faith that the show will improve, but it isn’t implausible that it will improve.  Lots of shows get better over time, after all.  And that is what I want to happen.  Want and expect should frequently diverge, after all, being different things.  For now, at least, I plan on watching (and probably blogging) season 2.  I can’t imagine I will enjoy it like I am enjoying rereading The Gathering Storm.  Brandon Sanderson’s task was no less challenging than Rafe’s, and he succeeded wildly, if not wholly.

You can find two of my favorite episode-by-episode critiques of the show at Books and Bianca (YouTube) and Dusty Reviews.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction). https://everydayshouldbetuesday.wordpress.com/ https://hillbillyhighways.wordpress.com/
This entry was posted in Fantasy, Sundry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Book Reader Looks Back at Season 1 of The Wheel of Time on Prime

  1. Jim Cornelius says:

    Sorry this didn’t live up to your anticipation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Yep, definitely waiting until season 3 is finished before even thinking about watching this. Another generic fantasy show isn’t what I want to spend my precious time on….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. bormgans says:

    Thanks for this. Torough!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Fourth Quarter 2021 and 2021 Quarter-and-Year-in-Review | Every Day Should Be Tuesday

  5. Do you have two sites? Another focused on music maybe? I just realized I have not been consistently reading your reviews here which is a shame because these are all really well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      Yes: Hillbilly Highways and Every Day Should Be Tuesday. I believe Hillbilly Highways is set as my default or primary blog (even though I have been posting more here for a while), so you may have clicked follow and added that blog not this one.

      Like

      • I follow both. But I generally read the blogs I interact with. So when I was clicking your username “H.P.” link on comments on my page, I was being directed to the other site.

        Either way, both sites are great. I wish I had realized I was missing your WoT posts during Season 1 so I could have corrected that omission. Great job.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: The Great Hunt (1990) by Robert Jordan | In the Teahouse, a Wakizashi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s