Wheel of Time, Episode 1 Analysis

Before I begin, let me say that my expectations for this show were low, simply because it is the year 2021, but also because the author of the source is now dead and the production is being funded by Amazon. I wouldn’t have bothered watching had my subscribers not specifically asked me to watch and review it, and were I not a fantasy author myself. I’ve read the Wheel of Time book series. It’s not my favorite, and I think some of the middle books are among the worst I’ve read, but I have a lot of affection for the world and consider a few of the books some of the best fantasy I’ve read.

With that out of the way, let me say that this first episode did not exceed my low expectations, but it didn’t fall drastically short either. It’s a mixed bag. There will be some spoilers, by the way, but for book fans, this ought not be a problem.

I’ll start with production, elements of which are very strong. The sets in the first episode, taking place primarily in the Two Rivers, were well-done. They had the right amount of detail, and represented the look and feel of a pre-modern isolated village with knowledge of basic technology and building techniques. The costumes were generally appropriate if a bit bland. There is some color, mostly blue. One thing I did appreciate is that they didn’t clothe everyone in rags, which has been the tendency for medieval-esque fantasy of late. Clothes look functional.

The overall visuals turned out much better than they looked in preview screens, which had made it seem washed out and desaturated, a popular visual approach of late. I found the colors to be vibrant at times, but there was definitely an abundance of color grading, which reduces the overall dynamic range of the picture and can make it seem washed out on anything other than a very bright modern screen. Of particular note is the use of the colors blue/teal with yellow/orange, which is how most of the interior shots are constructed, particularly at night. This makes the fires and candlelight seem very warm and gives the actors a glow, while the “dark” parts of the image actually aren’t dark at all, they are blue (which we perceive as dark or colorless). You get a detailed image with the perception of contrast without having to have big areas of black like in a noir film. It’s an effect that some could argue is over-used, but here I like it.

The music is quite bland and forgettable, a perfect example of a modern grey-goo “dissonance score” that exists only to reinforce the mood of particular moments. You get a folk instrument here, a loud brass chord there, but nothing that evokes anything other than a momentary reaction. The sound design is also poor, particularly the vocal mix. Or maybe it’s the actors’ delivery. Everyone other than Rosamund Pike seems to speak their lines barely above a whisper. The worse offender by far is Josha Stradowski, whose flaccid version of Rand seems reluctant to ever speak above a whisper. I actually had to turn on subtitles at one point because his vocal delivery was so soft and pliant he became incomprehensible, even at a high volume. Luckily, he wasn’t saying anything important (but nobody was – more on that later).

The biggest problem with the production is the approach to cinematography employed. Every single shot in the first half of the episode is fleetingly short, minus a few large-scale scenery moments. One character will speak, then there will be an instant cut to another character who will say his or her line, and so forth to another, with no continuity of the visual space during dialogue. It’s quite jarring, but it isn’t quite as nauseating as what is done with the trolloc attack scenes. In those, the director (Uta Briesewitz) resorts to shaky-cam antics to coincide with the chaos of the violence. It works on one level, but as a viewer, I thought the effect was too much.

That being said, the Trollocs were great. They looked big and monstrous, quite grotesque, and although the attack scene was violent to the point of absurdity, I found it effective.

This is definitely not a PG-13 version of Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World. The filmmakers go out of their way to make sure it isn’t PG-13, introducing sex and nudity into the mix that not only serves no purpose, it actively works against the story present in the original work.

This brings me to the problem most obvious to fans of the book: it is simply a bad adaptation. It isn’t faithful to the original and doesn’t seem to take the source seriously. Instead of looking to tell the story in a new medium, it appears as if they are trying to tell a different sort of story entirely. Core details that have big ramifications later in the books are altered, seemingly to no purpose other than to change what Jordan wrote.

Here is a short list (spoilers):

  • Everyone is older. They are adults, not teenagers.
  • Everyone is a different race from each other, despite being from an isolated backwater village. I talked about the problems with this in a separate video.
  • Perrin is a master smith and is married; his wife is also a smith and is very tough. Perrin accidentally kills her, though, so he’ll be free to get married later.
  • The red Ajah says that men make the power filthy, rather than Saidin (the male half of the One Power) being tainted, which makes men go mad. This is a core lore component!
  • Moraine is looking for 4 Ta-viren. Egwene is included.
  • Matt is a thief, not a jovial troublemaker. His mother is a drunk and his father is a philanderer, and both of them are negligent of their younger children.
  • Rand and Egwene are having sex with each other.
  • Moiraine and Lan have an explicitly intimate (probably sexual) relationship (they bathe together).

There are probably many other things bigger fans will notice, but those are some of the big ones. Jordan’s books are complex but mostly internally consistent; these changes will make the consistency of the story difficult to maintain in the TV series, and ultimately you will be seeing different characters with the same names act out their parts. One must wonder why they bothered with an adaptation at all if they don’t respect the basic story decisions of the source (actually, I already answered that elsewhere). These aren’t changes to fit TV, like cutting internal thought dialogue. These are the building blocks of the story itself. It would be like if they made Lord of the Rings with Sam and Frodo as lovers, also the ring is only bad if you have a bad heart – totally safe for good guys.

All of these story alterations are also put in place for mysterious reasons. Rand doesn’t need to be in a love triangle setup with Egwene because he ends up in love quadrilateral later on anyway. The Two Rivers doesn’t need to look like a diverse first-world workplace for the sake of representation when the party travels to a dozen other countries, meeting characters of other ethnicities on the way (though perhaps there is the political demand that there must be diversity within the first and primary characters. I’ll grant that). Perrin doesn’t need to have a wife and kill her to be a mopey fellow, he’ll do plenty of killing on the way. Matt doesn’t need to come from a bad family—the point was that he was a black sheep. The characters don’t need to already be adults to start an adventure—the point of the adventure is to grow into adulthood and power.

Continuing the problems with the building blocks of the story, the execution in this first episode is abysmal, at least for the first 40 minutes. Instead of the amazing prologue from the book, we are treated to Red Ajah finding Logain and spouting incorrect things about the lore. From a storytelling perspective, this isn’t the worst way to begin (but it is worse than the book), and we get a tease of the nature of the world with some vine-covered high rise buildings, but I get the feeling it was added in because after that scene we are treated to 35 minutes of some of the worst exposition I’ve ever seen.

The writers clearly wanted to go full-in on indirect exposition, as that is the popular style these days, and so they wrote scene after scene of characters telling each other things they already know about the world for the sake of the audience (I call this “expositional dialogue” and I find it generally awkward). To show this “trick” as it really is, imagine that you and one of your friends are sitting down and you just happen to mention that the Navy SEALs are an elite military unit widely admired, or that the US government is split into three branches. That’s basically what the characters are doing when they talk about Aes Sedai.

Mixed with that is a small amount of character interaction, but it would have saved a solid 20 minutes of screen time had they done 1-2 minutes of direct exposition (like the prologue of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring) and then jumped right into showing the characters getting ready for the festival. Whatever their choices, the first 2/3 of the first episode are mind-numbing. Things only really get interesting when the trollocs show up, and at that point the show shifts from soap opera to gore porn or fantasy Aliens, which is a remarkable contrast.

I don’t know if I’ve called violence “gratuitous” before, but I feel compelled to now because the long action scenes are such a radical departure from what we see before that it’s hard to see the two things as part of the same show. And the action sequences, though effective, feel long. Rather than making the tension about stakes and uncertainty of outcomes, we just see monsters being stabbed or blown apart by CG magic, or random extras being eaten for 10 minutes or so. And it wasn’t particularly scary, either, because there was no patience to the sequence, no anticipation, just a series of bangs.

Overall, the first episode of The Wheel of Time is the let-down I expected. It has good parts to be sure, but the execution is poor and the story choices are bewildering at times, and always there’s a feeling, despite most shots lasting less than three seconds, that we should be just getting on with things already.

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  1. Thank you for validating my disinterest in this. I knew it would be a waste of time, but this is worse. It is as if they made a concerted effort to get it all wrong.

  2. This sounds even worse than I could have imagined. And I imagined it being really bad!

    I’m a long-time Wheel of Tome enjoyer. Jordan was a massive influence on me. To see his legacy so defiled is pretty sad. I can only imagine his wife and Brandon Sanderson pretending to like what they saw so they could take the money and run.

  3. I *am* one of those Wheel of Time superfans, and the announcement of this show a few years ago filled me with dread. What did it was the casting. Not that Rand and Mat looked kind of “pretty boy”; whatever. Not that Rosamund Pike didn’t really fit the bill for Moirraine. No, it was the race-swapping of Perrin, Egwene, and Nynaeve. And Lan too, I guess–Malkier was a quasi-Asian culture, but Malkieri weren’t really described as looking Asian.

    In any event, the reason the race-swapping gave me a bad feeling is this: if the showrunners refused to get this basic aspect of Robert Jordan’s work right, if they were willing to sacrifice this level of accuracy for woke pieties, then there’s no telling what else they’d foul up.

    I’m glad you watched this for me so I didn’t have to. I can only imagine Jordan’s wife Harriet and Brandon Sanderson, who finished the last three books after Jordan’s death, gritting their teeth and going along with Amazon–“Yeah, it’s GREAT, can’t wait!”–like they were in a hostage video so they can cash their gigantic checks.

    Some things should just never be filmed.

    • It’s the brown M&M test. David Lee Roth didn’t really care about brown candies, the band just wanted to make sure the venue read the contract. When they aren’t willing to get the simple things right, you can bet they’ll fail at the big stuff.

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