After Years of Anticipation, ‘The Wheel of Time’ Falls Flat

FSR chief television critic Valerie Ettenhofer says it's hard to engage with Amazon's new high fantasy series thanks to its middling CGI and overstuffed mythology.
The Wheel Of Time

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, we review the Amazon series The Wheel of Time.

Amazon’s highly-anticipated show The Wheel of Time begins with an unwieldy exposition dump. Robert Jordan’s 14-volume high fantasy book series is complex, to say the least. It’s the type that may have once been called “unfilmable” before Game of Thrones came along and vanquished that term.

The adaptation opens with a magician named Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) trying to simplify the series’ expansive mythology. She speaks in fragmented, vague language. “The man who brought the breaking of the world,” she intones, “and him they named Dragon.”

She talks of a reincarnated leader who must be found. In typical prophecy fashion, it’s unclear whether this person will save the world or ruin it. As her voiceover trucks along, Moiraine decks herself out in rings, gloves, and a regal blue cloak. For fans of the novels, this may be a significant moment. For everyone else, it’s a tuneless, unpoetic start to a show that one would expect to make a big first impression.

The first season of The Wheel of Time is about Moiraine’s quest to find five young adults, each of whom could be the latest incarnation of the world’s most powerful magician. Mat (Barney Harris), Egwene (Madeleine Madden), Rand (Josha Stradowski), Perrin (Marcus Rutherford), and Nynaeve (Zoe Robins) are a group of protagonists who don’t get descriptors because they’re largely indistinguishable at this point. Some of them like each other. Some of them are more rascally than others. In typical hero fashion, most of them seem keen to roll with new, life-changing adventures without questioning much.

Based on the six episodes available for review, The Wheel of Time doesn’t seem inherently unfilmable. It simply could have been filmed better. The mythology is muddled, the pacing is off, and the CGI and practical effects are inconsistent. Filmmakers saddle Pike, the biggest star attached to the project, with the worst of everything. That clumsy opening isn’t her only explanatory monologue.

Moiraine’s magic involves the manipulation of energy, including the wind. On-screen, it looks like shoddy effects work, unalive and visually uninteresting. When a potential villain introduces tendrils of whispery dark magic later on, they’re much more arresting. Unfortunately, this newfound visual quality simply makes the less engaging effects stand out even more.

Much of The Wheel of Time is like this; bright spots of potential marred by creative choices that make it tough to fully engage with the show. There are extremely silly-looking beasts called Trollocs, but there’s also an endearing group of pacifist nomads called the Da’shain Aiel. The main characters are mostly dull, but some of the supporting characters, including Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Tinker and Alexandre Willaume’s Thom, are charismatic and mysterious.

The trouble is The Wheel of Time is overabundant in its mythology and presentation. It throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. For every engrossing element, there’s another that falls flat.

Ironically, there’s an ideological simplicity beneath the surface of The Wheel of Time that’s just as frustrating as its thicket-dense mythology. When opposing forces meet, one group wears white and another wears black, like something out of a Star Trek episode.

There are half-baked gender politics at play, too. The show portrays women as primary possessors of power, thanks to an all-female order of magical protectors called the Aes Sedai. Despite the world’s apparent matriarchy, characters still find time to drop generic comments about gender dynamics, then leave them unexamined. Women have one type of power, red magician Liandrin (Kate Fleetwood) claims at one point, but men still have much more.

There’s a strange lack of emphasis that runs through The Wheel of Time, beginning with the vacant opening monologue. In different hands, comments like Liandrin’s could have resonated with viewers despite the thinness of their underlying ideology. By Game of Thronessixth episode, there were at least a dozen majorly quotable moments. Yet no line in The Wheel of Time seems to be worth remembering, and only a few scenes are clear cinematic stand-outs. It’s as if the show is working with fewer dimensions than others of its kind.

Despite all this, The Wheel of Time shouldn’t be written off completely, if only because there’s so much more material to work with. We can view the series’ titular wheel as either a symbol of positive change or of inescapable redundancy. The show, an obvious work in progress, certainly needs more of one than the other.

The first three episodes of The Wheel of Time premiere on Amazon Prime Video on November 19th. 

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)