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The Wheel of Time Review: You Don't Have to Know Robert Jordan's Fantasy World to Get Sucked Into The New Amazon Series

It could be massive in scope and popularity

Keith Phipps
Daniel Henney and Rosamund Pike, The Wheel of Time

Daniel Henney and Rosamund Pike, The Wheel of Time

Dan Thijs, Amazon

After eight seasons of Game of Thrones and its labyrinthine world of competing houses, internecine conflicts, religious clashes, and rich characters with complicated histories, Amazon Prime Video's new The Wheel of Time can, at first, feel a bit like a fantasy series determined to take the genre back to basics. The feeling doesn't last. While the first episode plays like a collection of familiar fantasy elements — it features a search for a chosen one, a land threatened by an overpowering darkness, and a band of horrifying sentient animal men called "trollocs" — subsequent installments reveal these are just cornerstones for a bigger, far more ornate structure. It might start small, but by the end of the six episodes provided to critics, The Wheel of Time begins to look massive.

Adapting a fifteen-book fantasy series written by Robert Jordan (with the final volumes completed by Brandon Sanderson after Jordan's 2007 death), The Wheel of Time certainly has plenty of material with which to build that world. It also doesn't waste any time establishing just how much jeopardy it's in, opening with the line "The world is broken." They're spoken by Moiraine (Rosamund Pike, who also serves as a series producer), a powerful member of the Aes Sedai, a group of all-female magic users. As the series opens she's several years into a search for the Dragon, a recurring historical figure destined either to save the world from the forces of darkness or ensure those forces win. It could go either way, really, but it's up to Moiraine to find the now-twentysomething Dragon wherever he or she might be.

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The good news: Moiraine and her warder (a kind of bodyguard/aide de camp with whom members of the Aes Sedai share a special connection) al'Lan Mandragoran (Daniel Henney) have narrowed their search for this reborn Dragon to the pastoral hinterlands of Two Rivers. The bad news: they're not sure exactly who it is. So, in the wake of a devastating trolloc attack they grab four possible candidates (with a fifth one destined to join them down the line) and hit the road for the White Tower, home to the other members of the Aes Sedai.

That sounds like a lot to take in even before getting into the would-be Dragons, but showrunner Rafe Judkins and the series' writers smartly ease viewers into Jordan's creation a little bit at a time and only rarely turn its dialogue into info dumps. Each episode reveals a little more than the last, whether providing more detail on players like the Children of the Light, a traveling group of white-clad, misogynistic religious extremists, or introducing new locations and characters. (One of the most intriguing, a sad-eyed traveling bard (or "gleeman") played by Alexandre Willaume doesn't show up until the third episode.) 

It helps, too, that the series puts a lot of emphasis on its characters. Pike plays Moiraine as a woman who never says more than she has to, makes hard choices without missing a beat, and who's learned to keep secrets as a survival tactic. But she also conveys deep reserves of anger, fear, and regret without saying a word. Pike's the biggest name in the cast (though Sophie Okonedo shows up in later episodes) but both the newcomers playing the potential Dragons and the TV and film veterans that make up the supporting cast have all been carefully chosen. (Don't get too attached to Barney Harris as Mat, one of the possible Dragons, however. His part has been recast for the already-announced second season.)

Characters alone don't make a fantasy series, of course, and The Wheel of Time doesn't skimp on the spectacle. The occasionally janky effects and underpopulated battle sequence aside, it plays like a few-expenses-spared effort. Even if it doesn't have Game of Thrones' continent-spanning reach, The Wheel of Time makes smart use of the countryside outside Prague and other Eastern European locations. (Bringing in Uta Briesewitz, a veteran of shows like Stranger Things and Westworld, to direct some episodes doesn't hurt.)

Most importantly, it works as a piece of storytelling, creating an elaborate fictional universe but also reasons for viewers to care about that universe's fate and intrigue about what happens next. Complications mount as subsequent episodes focus on, say, the palace intrigue and internal politics of the White Tower, or the religious beliefs of the Tinkers, the Romani-inspired wanderers who eschew violence no matter what the personal cost. But each addition feels essential, and not merely decorative. As much ground as these early episodes cover it still feels like there's much to discover in what's to come. However basic its beginnings, The Wheel of Time quickly reveals itself as an expansive world that demands return visits.

TV Guide rating: 4/5

The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time premiere Friday, Nov. 19 on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes will be released weekly, with the season finale airing on Dec. 24.